Le Carnet de France: A visit to Lebanon
By Martine P. Dulles and Frederick H. Dulles
France has had a long relationship with Lebanon. Since we were invited to attend an international congress on “Islam and Otherness” in Beirut in May, this month Le Carnet de France is a brief commentary about this special country on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean.
With an area of 4,096 square miles, Lebanon is about one-eighth the size of South Carolina. It is mostly mountainous and bounded by Syria and Israel. The population is about 5.3 million persons (CIA Factbook estimate 2022), slightly more than the 5.1 million population of S.C. (U.S. 2020 census). Given that the last formal census in Lebanon was done in 1932, all population numbers and percentages are estimates.
The population is mostly Arab. The religious makeup is estimated at 68 percent Muslim (Sunni 32 percent, Shia 31 percent) and 32 percent Christian. The UNHCR estimates there are 1.3 million refugees, most from Syria and about 250,000 Palestinians. The northern part of the country around Tripoli is mostly Sunni Muslim; the mountainous center of the country is mostly Maronite Christian, whereas the southern part of the country is occupied and controlled by Hezbollah, Shiite and linked to Iran.
Modern Lebanon’s history starts with the Phoenicians (3200-539 BCE), continuing with the Roman Empire (from 64 BCE), Christians, the Crusades, Arab Muslims, the Ottoman Empire (16th century until its breakup after World War I). France took a mandate to govern Lebanon after the war in 1920. The country regained its independence in 1943, with a new constitution.
The 1943 Constitution formally recognizes 18 religions — four Muslim (Sunni, Shia, Alawites, Ismailis), Christians (Maronite Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Protestantism, Armenian Apostolic Church), Druze and Jews. The political parties are aligned with the religious communities. Many functions and legal arrangements that would be part of the civil government in other countries are attributed to the institutions of the 18 recognized religious, such as schools, courts, marriage, divorce, property and succession after death. There is religious freedom: A person may adhere to whatever religion he or she wants. A Lebanese citizen’s religious affiliation is stated in his or her passport. Other religious groups not among the 18 may practice their faiths, but they may not carry out formal civic functions.
An implied but very important aspect of the 1943 National Pact provided for power sharing among the three large religious communities: The president of the country is to be Maronite, the prime minister to be Sunni and the speaker of the parliament to be Shiite. This arrangement remains in place today.
Education is also organized by the 18 religious groups. Although not required, most children attend a school of their family’s faith. However, some families put their children in the best local school regardless of its religion, but this tendency has decreased in recent years.
A civil war engulfed the country from 1975 to 1990, with a green line through Beirut running northwest-southeast along Damas Street separating Christians and Muslims. The civil war resulted in an estimated 120,000 deaths and the exile of one million Lebanese. This ended with the Taif Agreement in 1989, which rejuggled the political arrangements.
A turbulent interim period prevailed until October 2019, when there were large demonstrations in Beirut and the countryside. The real underlying causes were sectarian differences, the critical economic conditions, the high levels of corruption and the ineffectiveness of the political class.
You may recall that on Aug. 4, 2020, there was an enormous explosion of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate (used for fertilizer and explosive weapons) stored in the port of Beirut. Some say this was one of the largest non-nuclear, non-military explosions in history. It killed an estimated 218 persons, injured 7,000 others and caused an estimated U.S. $15 billion of property damage in the surrounding city, leaving some 300,000 persons homeless. There is still no definitive proof of the cause of the explosion.
Our group of international congress participants was received by the head of the Druze community, which constitutes about 4.5 percent of the population. He clearly stated the need for the different groups in Lebanon to get along with each other, while insisting on the Druze special identity.
We also met Sheikh Abdalahh of the Aycha Mosque (second largest in Saïda/Sidon) who is also the judge of the local Sunni Muslim domestic relations court. He explained (in fluent American English) that for a Muslim couple who marry in a mosque in Lebanon, then move to the U.S. and end up getting divorced under, say, South Carolina law, should they thereafter return to Lebanon, their divorce would have to be entirely reviewed and redecided by a Muslim judge in a Lebanese mosque to be effective in Lebanon.
Lebanon’s economic condition is disastrous. Since December 1997, the official Central Bank exchange rate is fixed at 1,507.50 Lebanese pounds to the U.S. dollar. The unofficial but accepted black market rate is currently about 29,000 LBP to the dollar. Gasoline is approximately $11 per gallon. Daily transactions are done in cash, because a charge on a dollar or euro credit card will be converted at the official exchange rate. For Lebanese residents, this results in huge domestic price inflation without compensating increases in revenue.
Four persons out of five are considered to be under the threshold of poverty. Many banks are closed. The salaries of workers and employees are paid into their bank accounts, and they may withdraw their salary amount but no more. They may not withdraw any savings or other funds deposited in a bank. Thus, even those who have resources cannot access their funds to pay for investments or expenses.
This country is filled with contrasts. In Beirut, the Maronite Cathedral and the Sunni Mosque (which stand beside each other) are exquisite, like most prime religious sites. Right next to them, one finds completely dilapidated buildings. Thousands of buildings were damaged during the 1975-1990 civil war, and they remain unrepaired and unrenovated. There are also hundreds of shells of buildings that investors started but have abandoned — simply because they ran out of money, or their other assets have lost value, or they are unable to access their funds. On the other hand, some recent high-rise buildings are of very innovative architecture.
Lebanon does not have any public transport (no trains, no city buses). Therefore, people use their cars, which contributes to a huge cloud of pollution over the city. There are no tourists. Restaurants are empty. Sections of Beirut have no electricity after 6:00 p.m., and the narrow streets are very dark.
In the mid-20th century, Lebanon was one of the richest countries in the Middle East. With its tripartite religious arrangements, it was called the “Switzerland of the Middle East.” The 1975-1990 civil war destroyed that, and many Lebanese went into exile in Europe and the U.S. The 2019 demonstrations and the 2020 explosion were straws on the donkey’s back.
In 1989, Pope John Paul II wrote that Lebanon represented “a message of liberty and an example of pluralism for the Orient and for the West.” Many persons proffered the need for the communities to work together, but one still senses a huge element of otherness. That being said, many people we met remarked about the strength of the Lebanese people and their capacity to revive, rebuild and reconstitute their lives.
Martine P. Dulles and Frederick H. Dulles live in Tours, in the Loire valley of France. Martine was a docent at the MET in New York and later a licensed tour guide in Charleston for many years. She now organizes bespoke tours in France and is a translator for cultural material. She may be reached at email@example.com. Frederick is an international business lawyer and an external lecturer at French graduate business schools; he may be reached at FHD@dullesdeleu.com.