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Assessment for Sunnis in Lebanon

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Sunnis in Lebanon, 31 December 2003, available at: [accessed 22 October 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
Lebanon Facts
Area:    10,400 sq. km.
Capital:    Beirut
Total Population:    3,506,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

As with other Lebanese ethnopolitical groups, the future of Sunnis depends on a variety of factors. The day-to-day operation of Lebanon's fledgling power-sharing system requires constant compromise and negotiations between all rival groups. As aforementioned, reforming Lebanon's once relatively vibrant trade economy will also add to political stability and security. The future of Syria's continued military and political presence in Lebanon will also likely shape the prospects for all of Lebanon's population, with the beginning of Syrian withdrawal in 2005 a hopeful sign. And lastly, although the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon has reduced tensions, a potential peace agreement between Syria and Israel, and the Palestinian Authority's quest for full sovereignty are prerequisites for an entirely stable Lebanese political system which can incorporate Sunnis and all other groups.

Analytic Summary

Lebanon's Sunni community is its third largest ethnopolitical group and comprises one-fifth of the total population. Sunnis are widely dispersed in Lebanon with the majority of Lebanese Sunnis residing in urban centers (more than two-thirds living in Beirut, Sidon, and Baalbek), and rural Sunnis living in the Akkar region, the western Bekka Valley, and in the Shuf Mountains (GROUPCON = 0). They share other Lebanese groups' ethnic Arab background (CULDIFX1 = 0) and Arabic language (CULDIFX2 = 0; LANG = 0), but they have distinct religious beliefs from Shi'a Muslims and Maronite Christians (CULDIFX4 = 2; BELIEF = 3). The major division between Lebanon's Sunni and Shi'a faiths derives from a dispute dating back to the 7th century over who were the true successors to Muhammad, Islam's original and primary prophet. Sunni Muslims believe that Abu Bakr was the proper person to succeed the Prophet Muhammad as he was elected by the tribal elders to do so, while Shi'a believe that Muhammad's cousin/son-in-law, Ali, should have succeeded Muhammad as a member of his family.

With the Lebanese civil war ending in 1990, and parliamentary elections being held throughout the 1990s and into 2000, most of the previously warring factions were satisfied with the reforms to the electoral system and took part in the political process. Since resolved, Lebanon's fragile peace is dependent on a sectarian governmental structure, where the President is a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies a Shi'a Muslim. Lebanon's re-emergent sectarian structure allows for little cultural, economic, or political discrimination against the Sunni population (ECDIS03 = 0; POLDIS03 = 0). Some Sunnis in particular have embraced the political system, due to not being as militarily powerful as they were in the past (e.g., the Sunni militia "Mouabioun" suffered a number of humiliating defeats in Beirut during the 1980s, and the rise of Shi'a organizations such as Amal and Hizbollah decreased Sunni militancy). As mentioned above, the Prime Minister is to be of Sunni origin, and this post has seen increased influence as part of Maronite-Sunni negotiations. The Prime Minister is specifically in charge of domestic economic reform, and after decades of civil war Lebanon is finally beginning to rebuild its cities and get its economy back in order. If reforms continue to be successful, Sunni leaders will continue to receive support from the population in general.

However, despite decreased Sunni militancy, smaller pockets of Sunni youth continue violence against churches. In December 1999, Sunni extremists killed four LAF soldiers in an ambush in the northern region of Dinniyeh after the soldiers attempted to arrest two Sunni Muslims allegedly involved in a series of church bombings (REB99 = 2). On December 31, 1999, the LAF retaliated by launching a massive military operation against Sunni extremists in the north (REP599 = 1). Five civilians, 7 LAF soldiers, and 15 insurgents were killed in the operation. Amnesty International reported in 2003 that the Dinniyeh detainees have been subject to unfair trial and torture (REP0501-03 = 1). Beyond the reports of torture and a few arrests of Sunni militants by the Lebanese Army (REP0101-03 = 1), there have been no other reports of government repression since 2001. Perhaps for this reason there have been few public protests by Sunnis against the Lebanese government, an exception being a pro-Syria rally in 2001, which was more a reaction to anti-Syrian Christian protests than a protest directly against any overt Lebanese government action, since there were no substantial governmental efforts to end Syrian influence (PROT01 = 3).

After decades of chaos the first signs of hope are now visible in Lebanon. Parliamentary elections were held in 1992, 1996, and 2000, and most of the warring factions were satisfied with the reforms to the electoral system and took part. Several militias have disbanded and/or disarmed. However, the relationships between the many diverse religious and ethnic groups remain tense, and there have been some scattered instances of violence between Sunnis and Maronite Christians. For example, in 2001, Christians ravaged a Druze village and the Sunnis and Druze in the area retaliated by doing the same to a Christian one. Nonetheless, for the first time in decades, this tension does not constitute the greatest threat to Lebanese stability. The greatest threat to Lebanon's stability is the ongoing Israeli-Syrian conflict and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the first case, as long at Israel and Syria remain in an official state of war, Lebanon's strategic value will remain quite high. Israel and Syria have supported one group or another since the civil war in 1976 in an attempt to control Lebanon and with it a territorial corridor to their enemy in case of invasion. As long as the conflict continues, Israel and Syria will both likely continue to play disruptive roles in Lebanese politics. However, Israel's pullout in 2000 and the beginning of a Syrian pullout in 2005 may signal an era of less interference in Lebanese politics.

List of Ethnic Parties and Militias in Lebanon


Progressive Socialist Party (PSP)


National Liberal Party

Phalangist Party

Tiger Militia

Lebanese Forces (LF)

Kornet Shehwan Gathering

National Bloc

Free National Current (FNC) (Al-Tayyar al-Watani al-Hurr)

Waad Party

Maronite League

World Maronite Unions

American Maronite Union

World Lebanese Organization


PLO / Fatah: (formerly led by Yasser Arafat until his death in 2004)

Progressive Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command

(PFLP-GC): Headed by Ahmad Jibril. Headquartered in Damascus but has

bases within Lebanon

Fatah Revolutionary Council (FRC): Headed by Abu Nidal

Fatah-Intifada: Pro-Syrian group headed by Colonel Abu Moussa

Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP): pro-Syrian

group, opposed to the PLO

Usbat al-Ansar (League of Followers/Partisan League): An armed gang that aims to incite violence among Muslims within Lebanon, headed by Abu Mahjan (AFP,

February 15)

Al-Nur group (since 1994) a split off faction from Usbat al-Ansar, led surrently by Abdallah al-Shuraydi, son of founder Hisham al-Shuraydi.

Palestinian Armed Struggle (since 1969; linked to former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction, and is responsible for security inside the Lebanese camps)


Amal (supported by Syria)

Hizbollah (Party of God) (supported by Iran)

Higher Islamic Shiite Council (in Lebanon since 1969) is a conventional lobbying force for the Shiite community.

Muslims Without Borders is a nonviolent group since 2003. Its mission is to promote solidarity and cooperation between the Islamic parties, movements, and organizations in Lebanon.


Mouabioun Militia

al-Ahbash: A non-violent, pro-Syrian, ultra religious, Sunni Islamic,

philanthropic organization (also known as the Islamic Charitable

Projects Association)

Jama al-Islamiya: A Sunni Islamic organization

People's Lebanese Congress: A Sunni opposition group, hostile to Syria's

military presence in Lebanon

Lebanese Movement for Islamic Unity (LMIU): A fundamentalist Islamist

movement with close ties to both Syria and Iran, headed by Sheikh Saeed

Shaabane (until June 1998)

There seems to be no official Sunni party but all of its

delegates in Parliament seem to act together.

Islamic Unification Movement (MUI)

Muslims Without Borders is a nonviolent group since 2003. Its mission is to promote solidarity and cooperation between the Islamic parties, movements, and organizations in Lebanon.

Redemption of Islam (also known as Redemption and Dawn of Islam) is militant group active within and outside of Lebanon.

Al-Dinniyeh is a militant organization around since 1995. It is union between a fundamentalist group in the town of Al-Qar'un and a militant group based in Al- Dinniyeh in Lebanon. It is headed by Bassam Kanj.

Hizb al-Tahrir ([Islamic] Liberation Party) is a Sunni Islamist group around since 1953. It is both militant and conventional.


Southern Lebanese Army (SLA): A 3,000 man force in southern Lebanon

allied with Israel. The force is made up of local residents including

Christians, Sunni and Shi'i Moslems, and Druze.


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