As tensions escalate between Israel and Hezbollah, the specter of conflict looms large over Lebanon, where a potential war will play out against a complex mosaic of religious and ethnic divides. Lebanon is home to a number of ethnic and religious groups, including Maronite Christians, Sunni and Shia Muslims, and the Druze. Each has its own identity and political representation. Their historical relationships with Israel, allegiances within Lebanon’s fractured political landscape, and relationships with each other will influence the outcome of a potential war.
While about 95% of Lebanon’s population is Arab, there are also small groups of Armenians and Kurds. Approximately 68% of the population is Muslim, with 32% Sunni and 31% Shia. There are also smaller Islamic denominations like Alawites and Ismailis. Lebanon boasts the highest percentage of Christians among Middle Eastern countries, standing at 32%. Among these, the Maronites are the largest group, representing 20% of the population. Greek Orthodox account for 10% and Catholics 6%. Other Christians include Armenian Catholics, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholics, Assyrians, Chaldean Catholics, Copts, and Protestants.
While the Lebanese constitution guarantees representation for each of the 18 officially recognized religious sects in the government, military, and civil service, this principle primarily manifests in a unique sectarian power-sharing arrangement for the nation’s three top leadership positions. This arrangement mandates that the President must be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of Parliament a Shia Muslim.
Lebanon employs a confessional system of government wherein political power is allocated among the country’s religious and ethnic groups proportionate to share of population. The 128 seats in parliament as well as government positions are divided among these religious communities. Each community has autonomy to make decisions within its own realm, while decisions that affect all communities necessitate a coalition between community leaders. Moreover, there is mutual veto power, allowing a community that opposes a particular legislation to vote it down.
Chatham House, a leading geopolitics think tank, characterizes Lebanon’s political landscape as corrupt and sectarian, with constant interference from outside actors such as Israel, Syria, and Iran. In practice, Lebanon’s government and institutions form a weak, patronage-based system where powerful individuals secure loyalty by dispensing government jobs to their constituents.
The largest Christian parties in Lebanon are the Lebanese Forces (LF), holding 19 parliamentary seats; the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) with 17 seats, and the Kataeb Party with 3 seats.
The Lebanese Forces (LF)
The Lebanese Forces (LF), led by Samir Geagea, is the country’s largest Christian political party. Established in 1976 during the Lebanese Civil War by Bachir Gemayel, it initially served as an umbrella organization for right-wing Christian militias. In 1993, the LF disarmed its militia and underwent a transition to become solely a political party. Politically positioned as center-right, the LF advocates for a ‘strong republic’ based on principles of secularism, the rule of law, and free markets. Notably, the party opposes Hezbollah and its influence in Lebanon. Following the 2022 elections, the LF boycotted the government formation process, expressing concerns about corruption and a lack of reforms.
Free Patriotic Movement (FPM)
Lebanon’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) was founded by Michel Aoun, a former general who served as president from 2016 to 2022. Currently led by Aoun’s son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, the FPM is recognized for its commitment to Lebanese nationalism and its advocacy for a strong Christian presence in governance. The FPM’s recent engagement with Hezbollah has sparked controversy within the party.
Kataeb Party (Phalanges)
The Kataeb Party, also known as the Phalanges, was formidable during the Civil War, but its historical influence among Maronite Christians has declined in recent years. Notably, the Kataeb has undergone an ideological shift. Traditionally aligned with a right-wing stance and closely tied to Israel, the party has sought to moderate its image. In 2021, it adopted the name ‘Kataeb Party – Lebanese Social Democratic Party,’ emphasizing social democratic principles. The Kataeb Party strongly opposes Lebanon’s involvement in regional conflicts and warns against being dragged into the Israel-Hamas conflict.
The Muslim political parties include Shia parties Hezbollah with 13 seats and the Amal Movement with 14 seats. Sunni parties consist of the Future Movement with 7 seats, and Al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya with 0.
Hezbollah is a powerful political party and armed group considered “a state within a state,” while also labeled a terrorist organization by many countries. Founded during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), they champion resistance against Israel and maintain strong ties to Iran. Hezbollah is the only political party that retained its weapons after the civil war ended.
The Amal Movement, established by Nabih Berri, the Speaker of Parliament, experienced a surge in influence following Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1978 and the Iranian Revolution of 1978–79. Throughout its history, Amal has maintained an anti-Israel stance and forged a strong alliance with Iran, positioning itself as Hezbollah’s closest ally.
Al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya, established in 1964, represents the Lebanese branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Islamist organization. Rooted in the advocacy for the implementation of Islamic sharia law in Lebanon’s legal system, the organization has played a notable role in the Lebanese Civil War from 1975 to 1990. Initially aligning with the Lebanese National Movement in opposition to Christian Maronite forces, it later shifted its focus to resisting the Israeli occupation. The groups’ armed faction, the al-Fajr Forces, fired missiles into Israel during the 2023 Israel-Hamas war. Al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya currently holds limited political power but maintains influence in some Muslim communities.
The Progressive Socialist Party holds 9 seats. It is a secular, socialist party with a mixed Muslim and Druze base, led by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. The PSP’s stance on Hezbollah’s weapons has shifted back and forth over time, while its current emphasis is on addressing what it perceives as Iran’s unwarranted influence.
In addition to religious and ethnic parties, Lebanon has a number of secular and civil society movements which do not follow a particular ethnic or religious ideology.
The Shia community is likely to exert pressure on Parliament to support Hezbollah’s actions. Conversely, groups opposing Hezbollah currently hold 37 seats. Secular and civil society movements, which also wield influence in the parliament, will advocate for non-sectarian policies, prioritizing peace over ideological or religious allegiances. In the event of a conflict with Israel or any other expansion of the current conflict, these groups may advocate for de-escalation and humanitarian solutions.
Another factor contributing to the country’s political-ethnic-religious divide is foreign influence. The Sunni Muslim Kingdom of Saudi Arabia supports the Future Movement, while Hezbollah receives backing from Shia Muslim allies in Iraq and notably Iran, as part of its strategy to spread the Shia Islamic revolution begun in Iran.
The Sunni and Druze communities historically have complex relations with both Hezbollah and Israel. While some elements within these communities might sympathize with Hezbollah’s resistance against Israel, others may prioritize neutrality or even call for a cease fire.
Christian parties could be divided in the event of a war between Israel and Hezbollah. Some, especially Maronites who have suffered from Hezbollah’s activities, might favor neutrality or even support Israel. Others, influenced by historical alliances or their own political agendas, might align with Hezbollah or Amal.
A further complication in assessing Lebanon’s political climate is that the country’s political parties don’t always strictly adhere to Sunni/Shia lines, with alliances and coalitions shifting based on current political dynamics. Religious ideology isn’t the sole influence on these parties; factors like regionalism, family ties, and political pragmatism also play significant roles.
A noteworthy feature of Lebanon’s political landscape is the presence of alliances, both formal and informal, that transcend religious affiliations. Following Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, Lebanese politics has been characterized by the competition between two opposing political alliances. The March 8 Alliance consists of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) which is largely Christian, alongside Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, both Shia. This coalition is Anti-Zionist and advocates for strong alliances with Syria and Iran. On the other hand, the March 14 Alliance, also called the Opposition, brings together Maronite Christian, Druze, and Sunni Muslim leaders, as the coalition comprises the Future Movement, along with the Lebanese Forces, and Kataeb. March 14 is anti-Syria and anti-Hezbollah, while it supports closer ties with Saudi Arabia, France, and the United States.
Hezbollah’s escalation against Israel risks igniting sectarian fissures, while regional powers jockey for influence. Over the past five years, Lebanon’s economy has almost completely collapsed, pushing 80% of the population into poverty. In the event of a war with Israel, Lebanon’s delicate balance of faiths and factions could come apart, plunging the country into chaos.