Greater Lebanon: A Failed Experiment

Firas Modad
9 min readAug 9, 2020


It is time to admit the obvious. France’s Greater Lebanon experiment was never workable. Until providence provides an empire that can impose order, a localised alternative needs to emerge.

“You who dwell on Lebanon, who nest in the cedars, How you shall groan when pains come upon you, like the pangs of a woman in travail!” Jeremiah 22:23

Flanked by the Mufti of the Sunnis and the Patriarch of the Maronite Church, and armed with a Mandate from the League of Nations, France’s General Henri Gouraud declared the state of Greater Lebanon on 1 September 1920. Out of seventeen competing sects, who shared at most a cuisine and local belonging, but no overarching identity, France attempted to manufacture a modern people and state. France granted Christians the upper hand in this new polity, which expanded mainly Christian and Druse Mount Lebanon to include Muslim majority areas in Jebel Amel (South Lebanon), the Bekaa and Tripoli. The new state’s population was split evenly between the two rival faiths.

Lebanon formally gained independence from France in 1943, when the United Kingdom took advantage of French weakness to expel France from its main bastion in the Levant. Independence-era President, a Maronite named Beshara al-Khoury, and his partner in Lebanon’s independence, Sunni Prime Minister Riyad al-Solh, went on to forge the National Covenant, an agreement recognising Lebanon’s divided Christian — Muslim identity, enshrining power sharing between the two faiths, and a sectarian quota system first started by the Ottomans. The national covenant aimed to maintain a state that recognises its citizens’ mixed loyalties through the studied application of neutrality between Arabs and the West.

Lebanon’s first post-independence elections in 1948 were rigged by President Khoury. He then forced a ‘one-time only’ constitutional amendment through Parliament, allowing him to remain in power for another term. His brother, Salim, earned the nickname “Sultan”, in reference to his extensive corruption. Little did those who mocked him such know of the malfeasance that was to come.

Khoury was ousted by street protests in 1952 and was replaced in a new election. In the following presidential election of 1958, his successor also attempted a ‘one-time only’ extension to his term, leading to a brief but ominous dress rehearsal for the 1975 civil war. Despite the crises and the corruption, the unitary power of the executive, in the hands of the Christian president, did allow some competence in the administration and some economic prosperity resulted, aided by the migration of capital from Arab states.

In 1969, Lebanon signed an agreement with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), allowing the PLO to conduct operations out of Lebanese territory against Israel. Weapons in the hands of thousands of indefinitely stranded Palestinian refugees stoked Christian fears of Muslim domination. Justified fears, considering the Druse Muslims had massacred thousands of Chritians in 1860. Justified fears, considering that the Ottomans had imposed a blockade on Mount Lebanon from 1915 to 1918, causing a famine which killed a third of the population. Justified fears, considering Muslim Lebanese support for Arab countries dabbling in totalitarian socialist governments that expropriated private property and brutally crushed dissent. Christians began forming their own militias with support from the Christian-led Lebanese army. In 1970, King Hussain of Jordan smashed the PLO in his country, forcing their fighters out. They traversed Syria and settled in Lebanon, consequently increasing Muslims’ influence and confidence in their armed capabilities.

“Open your doors, O Lebanon, that the fire may devour your cedars! Wail, you cypress trees, for the cedars are fallen, the mighty have been despoiled. Wail, you oaks of Bashan, for the impenetrable forest is cut down!” Zechariah 11:1–2

The division in loyalties grew starker. Largely informed by religious loyalty, most Muslims supported the right of Palestinian militias to conduct attacks against another country out of Lebanese territory. They demanded that Lebanon’s political system be redesigned to give Muslims greater say, that is, to reduce Christian influence and turn the Lebanese state away from the West. This led to the civil war of 1975–1990. The Muslims, consisting of Sunni, Shia and Druse factions, in alliance with Christian leftists, rallied together in opposition to Christians who saw Lebanon as the only state in the Middle East in which they had sovereignty. To these Christians, that had been the point of creating Greater Lebanon.

Israel invaded Lebanon in 1978, and more fully in 1982, to expel the PLO and support Lebanon’s Christians. It succeeded in the first objective, failed in the second, and accidentally helped strengthen Hizbullah. The Lebanese civil wars raged on until 1990. After Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, the USA acknowledged Syrian President Hafez al-Assad’s dominance over Lebanon in exchange for his support for the expulsion of the Iraqi Army from Kuwait. Muslims had won the Lebanese civil war. The Christian leadership was imprisoned or exiled. Lebanon fragmented further into a sectarian participatory democracy and the sectarian quota system became more deeply enshrined. More than ever, officials were selected for loyalty instead of competence. Accountability, already weak, became entirely alien. Nothing could be done without consensus between the leaders of the Sunni, Druse and Shia communities and the Christian president found himself reduced to a rubber stamp role. The Alawi regime in Syria were the only ones with the muscle to force consensus on their allies, and they benefited greatly.

The crises continued. In 2000, Israel withdrew, defeated, but Hizbullah insisted that the withdrawal was not complete, and retained its arms. Iranian influence in Lebanon expanded. In 2005, either Hizbullah, the Syrian government, or both, murdered Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. Hariri had supported a UN Security Council Resolution that called for the dissolution of militias in Lebanon — that is, Hizbullah — and the withdrawal of all foreign armies — that is, Syria. In 2006, Hizbullah initiated a war against Israel. Hizbullah cast this war as a victory — justifiably, as the insurgent group had achieved its main goal of surviving, regardless of the destruction of Lebanon. In 2008, Hizbullah turned its guns against its Sunni and Druse rivals to stop a cabinet decision to take control of its telecommunications network. The USA, which had encouraged the cabinet at the time to make that decision, stood by. In 2011, the persistently imbalanced economy, which depended on banking but not productive sectors, began to fall apart due to the Syrian civil war and the influx of refugees from there. Throughout, the public debt ballooned, reaching 171% of GDP, with a chronic balance of payments problem and double digit fiscal deficits.

No authentic, unifying national identity was forged in Lebanon after the civil war. Indeed, if there is a lesson to extract from the modern history of the Middle East, it is that even if a national identity could emerge in a tribal society, it cannot do so without at least a shared religion. Lebanon’s internal conflicts have morphed into a competition between former sectarian warlords over who could loot more of state’s resources and channel them to their allies. Lebanon’s new Syrian and Iranian overlords were satisfied — they got what they wanted no matter who the winner was in these petty fights over corruption. Christians who remained in this looting game were the usurers who owned the banks. In partnership primarily with the Hariri family, their interests were secured by lending to the now Muslim dominated state at exorbitant rates.

Rather than just having a Christian President whose brother engaged in corruption, Lebanon is now faced with a reality of every sect having a mini-president with a mafia-like network of oligarchs and bankers surrounding them, in control of every sector, including banking, tourism, construction contracts, medical imports, food imports and fuel imports.

Michel Aoun, the man Hafez al-Assad had bombed out of the Lebanese Presidential Palace, who, with Saddam Hussein’s money and support, had launched a ‘War of Liberation’ to expel Syrian forces from Lebanon in 1990, is now Lebanon’s president. He is also now an ally of Hizbullah and Assad’s son, Syria’s current president, Bashar. President Aoun consistently promised his supporters to restore “Christians’ rights”. As it turns out, he meant to ensure that Christians would again participate in more petty corruption more fully. In exchange, he would surrender Lebanese Christians’ leadership role and allow the country to slip into the role of an Iranian satrapy. His choice is somewhat understandable: after the civil war, Sunnis in Lebanon had usurped the Christians’ position more than any other group; Sunnis of the region showed what to Lebanese Christians were terrifying radical tendencies after the 2011 Arab uprisings, especially in Iraq and Syria; and Iran, for all its faults, allows churches to exist, unlike Saudi Arabia, and does not convert cathedrals to mosques, as Turkey has just done with long-evident public support. Absent support from a now non-existent Christendom, Aoun chose what he probably believes is the lesser of two evils: an alliance of non-Sunni minorities — Christian, Alawi and Shia — that would allow Christians to reclaim some of their role in the state. With that, Aoun is close to concluding his career, accepting that corruption in Lebanon cannot be dealt with, opting instead for a bigger slice of the pie for himself and realising that Christian demographics in Greater Lebanon do not allow Christians to again lead this artificial country.

The conclusion of Lebanon’s experiments in diversity, participation, quotas and democracy is dismal. This was most starkly displayed in the 4 August explosion in Beirut’s port. Due to staggering incompetence and negligence, 2750 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in the heart of Beirut, killing at least 154 people, injuring 8,000 and making up to 300,000 homeless. Early investigations show that port authorities and security services, as well as the cabinet and the president, long knew that improper storage could cause a colossal disaster — and it did. That the authorities stored fireworks near the ammonium nitrates can only be described as criminal disregard for human well being. The authorities had priorities informed by Lebanon’s internal ‘rules of the game’, and protecting Lebanese lives was not one of them.

The Lebanese peoples are adapting to this latest tragedy. It may well be that the key lesson from it cannot be learned nor acted upon without even more tragedies. This will continue until we admit the obvious: the Greater Lebanon experiment in diversity, democracy and power sharing has failed. The ‘rules of the game’ in Lebanon are that every sect gets to participate in corruption through sectarian quotas. And so the system selects for loyalty, not competence. Every sect is a fiefdom, a statelet within the state, and so accountability is impossible. There is no shared identity, and so there is no shared definition of the common good. Greater Lebanon’s diversity and identity politics mean that no national interest can be agreed upon, let alone acted upon.

Tragically, some Lebanese leaders realised very early where the Greater Lebanon experiment would end. Throughout his political career, President Khoury’s main rival was a Francophile called Emile Edde. He had assisted in the creation of Greater Lebanon during the 1919 Peace Conference. By 1926, he had seen his errors. He attempted an correct the course, by having the future state of Israel take Jebel Amel (South Lebanon) and giving Tripoli and its environs to Syria, knowing that power sharing between rival religions with rival loyalties was an exercise in futility. The Syrians were too weak to accept the gift and the Israelis were clever enough to reject it.

Those who wish to help the Lebanese peoples ought to remember history. The state of Lebanon cannot be helped. It is an artifice without a people, an accident of history and a futile experiment in idealism. Absent an imperial power that can impose order, the different peoples of Lebanon need to be allowed to go their own way and manage their own affairs. Those who call the state of Lebanon home can be and should be treated distinctly from one another based on their wider loyalties. If Hizbullah wishes to wage war against Israel on Iran’s behalf, let them, but do not allow them to use other communities as human shields, as they do their own. If the Sunnis wish to ally and merge with the Muslim Brotherhood in Turkey, or subjugate themselves to the deprivations and depravations of Wahhabism, let them, but permit them no power over Christians or Shia. And if the West wishes to respect its civilisational heritage and build on it, help the Christians of the Holy Land rebuild Mount Lebanon as a Christian homeland. Alas, until the West returns to the wellspring of its civilisation, that part at least is a pipedream.

“Is it not yet a very little while until Lebanon shall be turned into a fruitful field, and the fruitful field shall be regarded as a forest?” Isaiah 29:17