issue 183 - May 1988
To many Westerners, Lebanon seems an impossible tangle of endless factions and militias locked in an intractable tussle. The past 15 years of civil war, Sunni vs Shiite, Maronite vs Druze, Christian vs Muslim, you name it we've got it, has left outsiders punch-drunk, only able to register the sensationalism of the latest hostage-taking or a particularly savage attack.
The strife has obscured qualities which once made Lebanon the most favoured country in the Arab world. Its beauty and cosmopolitan character attracted visitors especially to Beirut's elegant hotels, handily placed only minutes from fine Mediterranean beaches and not too far from the ski slopes of Mount Lebanon.
Restaurants, casinos and night clubs brought a spice to Lebanese life which was a stark contrast to the austerity of much of the Arab world. By the 1950s and 1960s, Lebanon - the banking and service centre for the Middle East - was synonymous with style and good living.
But this, too, masked deep contradictions in Lebanese society. While Beirut prospered and many businessmen (mainly Maronite Christians) became millionaires, agriculture stagnated and the gulf between rich and poor rapidly widened. The political system established in the 1930s by colonial France, based on the size of the religious groups then, had placed the Maronites in a dominant position - one they refused to surrender.
When the armed Palestinian movement won support in the refugee camps and allied itself with largely Muslim Lebanese leftists, the scene was set for a bloody confrontation. The civil war of 1975-76 destroyed the old society: Beirut was reduced to ruin, the economy collapsed, and religious and sectarian loyalties divided the population into hostile groups.
The neighbouring states of Syria and Israel, fearful of the implications of instability in Lebanon, were quick to intervene. Each armed its favoured sectarian militias and within three years each had invaded, establishing its own zones of influence. As a sovereign state, Lebanon ceased to exist.
Today the country is a complex of rival militias, each seeking to widen its area of control. The major groups are still backed by neighbouring states: Israel arming and financing Maronite Christian groups (named after Maro, a Syrian monk); Syria supporting some Muslim and Druze militias (named after the sect's founder, Ismail al-Darazi). A complicating factor is Iran's aggressive backing for the influential Shiite militia of Hezbollah.
There is little prospect of an end to Lebanon's agony. Its cultural diversity, colonial history and strategic importance seem certain to condemn the country to further economic decline and military conflict. Lebanese used to regard their country as the jewel of the Middle East; today it has become the region's killing fields: 'Never say things cannot get worse in Lebanon because they usually do.'
Leader: President Amin Gemayel
Economy: GNP per capita US$1,070 (1974*) * Last year for which data available.
People: 3.5 million (1984 estimate)
Health: Infant mortality 41 per 1,000 live births (US 10 per 1.000)
Culture: For many Christians the country is seen as specifically 'Lebanese', with the implication that its large Christian component makes it distinct from the rest of the Arab world For Muslims, it is unquestionably 'Arab'.
Language: Its colonial history has left an indelible mark on Lebanese life. Much education is still conducted in French, especially among Maronite Christian elite. Majority speaks Arabic.
Religion: Christian Maronites, Muslim Sunnis and Muslim Shiites, with Shiites the largest group
Source: State of the World's Children 1988