The legacy of the French mandate is a curse for Lebanon


 FEB 17, 2022 –

Illustration by Shutterstock - edited by Büşra Öztürk.

Illustration by Shutterstock – edited by Büşra Öztürk.

The French colonial record is precisely what’s behind the separation of the Arab states in the Levant region


The shadow of a member of the Israeli forces is reflected on a metal door as he takes position facing Palestinian demonstrators during confrontations following Friday prayers, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank town of Hebron, Palestine, Feb. 18, 2022. (AFP Photo)

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There is a difference of opinion over identity in Lebanon. While many people identify themselves as Lebanese Arabs, identifying oneself as just Lebanese is common too. Some people even introduce themselves as Phoenicians and reject the Arab identity. One of the biggest reasons for this identity crisis in Lebanon is the absence of accepted common history.

The idea of “Descendants of Phoenicians” is relatively new. Many people want to separate themselves from the rest of the region, which is culturally different. Indeed, there are cultural differences between Lebanese and Saudi cities. But is it enough to split the whole identity? Is there a more cultural difference between a Lebanese and an Omani compared to a Lebanese and a Phoenician?

Being an Arab, a Turk or a Persian relates to culture, language and shared experiences rather than having similar DNA. Ethnicity refers to belonging to a group with a common language, similar culture, shared history and experiences. In other words, there is almost nothing in common between Phoenicians and today’s Lebanese people.

Mandates and the beginning of divergency

But what is the reason for seeking this new identity? This identity complexity is rooted in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. There was no Lebanon as a political entity until the 1920s. The State of Greater Lebanon was established as a state soon after the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920 under French rule and became the Lebanese Republic in 1926 as a French mandate.

Lebanon gained its full independence in 1946 from France, which is the date of France’s withdrawal. Syria became independent in the same year, and Palestine and Jordan followed these countries.

Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Jordan have a lot in common – in terms of dialect, culture and history. However, the pencil-drawn borders created a distance between them and hence search for their own national myths like descendants of Phoenicians began.

Colonialism enforced by France and Britain created significant problems which Lebanon still has to deal with. They introduced modernism to these countries, improved the efficiency of agriculture, provided better health care systems and brought modern education. But at what cost?

The confessional power-sharing system was the highest cost for Lebanon. The French Mandate left a government system that allocates all the power to religious communities with predetermined quotas.

Leaving a big knot behind

Was it really necessary to divide everything between religious/ethnic minorities for governing the country? This system was not sustainable because predetermined quotas cannot respond to demographic changes and tend to create political immobility and deadlocks. As it is expected, the confessional system worked only for a limited period of time.

The Christian community was relatively more powerful than the Muslim communities. The seats in parliament were allocated to Christians and Muslims with a 6:5 ratio. Also, the presidency belonged to the Maronite Christian community and it was more potent than other positions like prime ministry or the speakership.

By starting the establishment of Israel in 1948, Lebanon became a popular destination for Palestinian Muslim immigrants. The increasing Muslim population in Lebanon until the early 1970s changed the demographics and shifted the power balance in favor of the Muslim communities. Consequently, the shift in balance brought along the demand for more power by Muslims.

Since the power-sharing system is closed for any change, conflicts were inevitable. The old system could not respond to the demands for a new power allocation and eventually resulted in the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990).

After the bloody civil war, a new accord, Ta’if, changed the proportion of parliament seats to 50:50 and reallocated the power between the presidency and the prime ministry on behalf of the prime minister, who should be chosen among the Sunni Muslim community.

The confessional system created by the French Mandate resulted in 120,000-150,000 deaths, including civilians, numerous injuries, mass population displacement and national traumas.

Ruins of colonialism

Still, there is a confessional model in Lebanon. Since it protects itself and it is almost impossible to change it, the country suffers from the system. The simplest example is the government formation crisis between August 2020 to September 2021, which took more than a year.

It is not hard to say that Lebanon suffers from its confessional system in every aspect of governing. The biggest reason for today’s economic crisis in Lebanon is its sectarian-based power-sharing model.

Colonialism left economic and political problems behind. However, the French and British mandates were also notorious for their cultural imperialism policies. By controlling newspapers, schools, higher education and cultural institutions, they started the divergence between Arab states of the Levant region.

The colonial mindset promoted ideas and institutions that have not been historically developed, which paved the way for current problems. Today, the separation between Arab states of the Levant region is the achievement of French and British mandates. Instead of excluding each other, Levant Arabs should rebuild the bridge between them. “Being a Phoenician” is a desired result of the colonial mindset.


International Affairs Graduate Student, Lebanese American University


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