“A nation is a guarantee for confessions but confessions are not a guarantee to the nation.” Michel Chiha
Lebanese politics are very complex. Lebanon is a country that, despite its small size, displays many of the problems apparent in Middle Eastern politics: sectarian divisions, religious fundamentalism, nationalism, and the clash of secularism and religiosity. While there is a plethora of questions one can ask about Lebanon, I will limit my analysis to the topic of Lebanese sectarianism, and more specifically to confessionalism, a system of consociational government which distributes political and institutional power proportionally among religious subcommunities.
Some scholars define Lebanese confessionalism as the “system of checks and balances”
while others say “confessionalism is what makes Lebanon, for better or worse, what it is” I will argue that along with the civil war and the corruption of internal and external political actors, confessionalism is what hurts Lebanon more than anything else. To that end, I will address first the history of confessionalism and then the
History of Confessionalism in Lebanon
Though the official foundation of confessionalism is dated to the 1943 National Pact, most scholars and historians of Lebanon trace it back to the millet system of the Ottoman Empire, and more specifically to the declaration of the qa’im maqamiya in 1843 dividing Mount Lebanon into two administrative regions ruled by the Druze and the Christians. The declaration required that a Druze be appointed qa’im maqam (governor of a certain district in the Ottoman Empire) of the mixed southern district and a Christian be appointed as the qa’im maqam of the predominantly northern district. In 1845, both the Maronites and the Druze protested this new regulation, and the Ottoman Sultan sent Shekib Effendi to establish order, confirm Ottoman occupation of Lebanon, and disarm its inhabitants. “The reorganization of the qa’im maqamiya, known as the reglament of Shekib Effendi, should be remembered as the legalization of sectarian political representation [emphasis added] in Mount Lebanon”
The reglament endowed each qa’im maqamiya with a representative council composed of 12 members, a councilor and a judge for each of the six religious communities: Maronite, Druze, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Sunni Muslim and Shi’i Muslim. However, because all Muslims living in the Ottoman Empire were subject to Sunni jurisdiction, Shi’i Muslims did not have the right to be represented by a judge in the council. Thus, the empty seat of the Shi’ite judge was assigned for the vice-qa’im maqam who was to be a Maronite in the North and a Druze in the South.
Rather than soothing the sectarian tension,
These events not only fueled animosities between the sects, but also provided France with an excuse to invade in order to restore peace, contribute to the reconstruction of Lebanon, and help create an autonomous Christian enclave in Mount Lebanon.
Eager to deport the French from Lebanon, the Ottomans founded the Mutasarrifiya in 1861 to replace qa’im maqamiya. Under this new regulation (also known as Reglament Organique), Lebanon became an autonomous Ottoman province with an Ottoman Christian governor and a central administrative council of twelve members, each representative of the population ratio of the various religious sects. The reglament organique stayed in effect until November 1914 when the Ottomans entered the war and annulled the special status granted to Mount Lebanon, which was reincorporated into the Ottoman Empire and governed by a Muslim Turk. Though breeding sectarianism, this period between 1861 and 1914 was also to witness the birth of ideas of independence, Lebanese nationalism and reformism, however weak these ideas were.
Following World War I and the end of the Ottoman Empire, the Middle East was more or less divided between England and France. In September 1920, the French officially declared the creation of Greater Lebanon under French mandate. Neither the Muslim population nor the non-Maronite Christians were happy with the French mandate and the majority of the population opted for annexation to Syria.
Though most of the Maronites were in favor of the French mandate they were divided among themselves as well. There were even independentists who imagined Greater Lebanon as an independent, democratic and multi-sectarian republic where Christians would coexist with Muslims. However, this was not to happen.
The enlarged Lebanon once again presented a problem for which a confessional solution was adopted. France enlarged the boundaries to include the areas around the coastal cities of Saida, Sour and Tripoli as well as the Bekaa Valley. Philip Hitti claims that “the addition…almost doubled the area of the country and increased its population by about one-half, over 200,000, predominantly Muslims…What the country gained in area it lost in cohesion. It lost its internal equilibrium”
Under the mandate the distinction between Christian and Muslim grew more important and the distinction among various kinds of Christians and Muslims less important. As put by Enver Koury, “even so, a sense of community was in the making and the basic Lebanese problem, which is still with us, was not simply Christians against Muslims but the reshaping of the balance of power among all the subcommunes
With the promulgation of the first Lebanese constitution greater Lebanon was renamed the Lebanese Republic on May 23,1926. The Representative Council was renamed the Chamber of Deputies and a senate was set up to represent the sects and regions. Article 95 of the Constitution provided for the fair distribution of government and administrative posts among the various sects. According to Article 9, the state relinquished to the religious communities its legislative rights and rulings on personal affairs such as marriage, divorce, and adoption. From 1929 onwards, the Chamber of Deputies was elected on a sectarian basis.
It was, however, the unwritten National Pact of 1943 that truly shaped the structure of the confessional political system in Lebanon. Because the Christian commune was the majority in 1943 the Pact provided a fixed ratio of six Christians for every five Muslims and set up a parliament of 55 seats
30 for Christians and 25 for Muslims. The president of Lebanon would be a Maronite Christian while the prime minister would be Sunni and the speaker of Chamber of Deputies a Shi’ite.
The intention of the pact was to promote an equitable balance among the various sects according to the proportions of the communal population in 1943. Problems arose, however, when the fixed ratio did not change as the ratio of the Christians to Muslims in the population decreased. This was so problematic that according to Enver Koury
: “the fixed ratio is one variable that is responsible for the 1975-1976 crises in Lebanon” which were to last until 1990 in the form of civil war.
The ratio of 6/5 remained the guideline for Christian-Muslim sectarian quotas until 1989, when it was replaced by parity according to the Ta’if Agreement. Even though one of the main articles of the agreement stated: “the abolition of political communalism is an essential national priority” the Ta’if agreement only diminished confessionalism to the extent that it produced a different, more complex type of confessionalism in the form of consociationalism:
parity between the Christians and Muslims replaced the previous 6:5 ratio, giving Muslims an equal right to representation. Sectarian quotas were abolished in civil service posts, the judiciary, the army and the police with the exception of Degree One posts (general directories of ministries) where parity and rotation were to be applied. More importantly, the prerogatives of the president of the republic were severely curtailed in favor of the prime minister, the cabinet, the parliament and its speaker, which meant the loss of Maronite dominance. However, as claimed by Hanna Ziadeh, “within this participatory consociationalism, there developed the Orwellian phenomenon of those who are more equal than others. Ta’if replaced the hierarchy of communal rights and privileges of the three major communities with the troika of the three Presidents” . Because Taif assigned the presidency to a Maronite, prime ministry to a Sunni and the speakership of the cabinet to a Shi’ite, the remaining sects, especially the Druze, felt excluded. Even the Shi’ites felt they were being undermined as they only got the speakership of the cabinet even though they are supposedly as big as the Sunni community.
Ziad Rihbani provides a satire of the Taif equation for intercommunal representation that aptly summarizes the situation: “One Lebanese nation divided into two equal parts, which in turn are divided into three, more or less, equal parts, supplemented by a row of equally un-subtractable parts of the One Lebanese People, who in turn are divided equally on un-relinquishable regions of the One Lebanese Land”
This arrangement created another system of discord, one of the most unstable power relations imaginable that in turn became an excuse for Syrian intervention, by Hafez al-Assad, in Lebanese politics. After the Ta’if, Syria also established the headquarters of its Army Military Intelligence in Anjar, Lebanon, near the Syrian border. The headquarters were the true seat of Lebanese political power until 2005 when the UN Security Council decision requiring Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon was put into practice.
Confessionalism and Lebanese Nationalism: Mutually Exclusive?
Twenty-one years after the Ta’if Agreement Lebanese society is still not happy with confessionalism. A January 2010 poll conducted by the Lebanese polling and research firm Information International displays that 58% of those surveyed are in favor of abolishing confessionalism. 75% of all Muslims are in favor of the abolition of the confessional system while only 35% of the Christians support it. The majority of Christians in favor are Catholic (54% of all Catholics support confessionalism) while among all the Muslims, Shi’ites have the greatest number of supporters (89% of the Shi’ites surveyed expressed approval for abolition).
With the continuing Palestinian-refugee problem, the growing influence of Hizb’allah (and its Iranian connections), continuing tensions with Israel and the shadow of Syria, the Lebanese political arena is persistently bleak. In such an atmosphere, scholars and politicians express concern about the persistence of confessionalism and its damage on Lebanese unity and Lebanese nationalism.
When asked why the positive atmosphere following the withdrawal of the Syrian army disappeared so quickly and why Lebanese society went into despair only five years after the withdrawal, Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab, a Lebanese philosophy professor responded: “confessionalism sucks up all the positive and optimist energy in the Lebanese society”
According to A.J. Abraham, who is a professor of History and Middle Eastern Studies at John Jay College, “Lebanon’s communal organization had produced an identity problem in the tiny republic. (…) Thus, they [the sub-communities] act as independent mini-nations within a larger national entity called Lebanon making it very difficult for a citizen to be ‘just Lebanese’” This concern is voiced also by Traboulsi, when talking about how, as early as 1917, America and Europe used a policy in Lebanon based on religious and ethnic differences:“… Arabs were negatively defined by their non-Jewishness and reduced to the status of religious communities (Muslim and Christian) whose only rights were civil and religious, that is, neither national nor political” As such, Lebanon was seen as “merely a plurality of peoples having little, or nothing, in common to warrant the establishment and maintenance of a viable state ”
Others are more optimistic and believe a distinct Lebanese nationalism is possible and flourishing despite sectarian dispute. Kamal Salibi, a Lebanese Professor of History, claims “the recurring internal and regional crises which, on the surface, have so frequently made the Lebanese system seem precarious and its continued existence questionable, have, at a deeper level, served to sharpen the sense of Lebanese nationality by forcing the Lebanese to redefine their internal and external relationships”
It might be claimed that Salibi‘s perspective is outdated because he is writing before the civil war. However, the same argument is embraced by Hanna Ziadeh, writing thirty-six years after Salibi, in 2007: “The catharsis of the Hariri assassination and the subsequent enormous Christian-Sunni-Druze popular mobilization during the Independence Uprising…gave a new lease of life among the Christians to the idea of a Christian-Muslim consensus…a consensus on a supra-communal national identity, which encompasses communal affiliations and allegiances and rejects non-Lebanese ones” History has shown Lebanon to be an amazingly resilient country and, while Lebanese nationalism seems like a distant utopia it is not impossible. In order for this distant utopia to become a reality, the impact of confessionalism needs to be diminished drastically, if not abolished totally.
A Much Closer Look at Confessionalism
History sometimes repeats itself. As Traboulsi explains: “For the contemporary Lebanese who have lived through the wars of 1975-90, a chronicle of the events of 1860 would be an occasion to review scenes that seem quite familiar”
To understand the recurrence of history in Lebanon and the persistence of confessionalism one needs to ask the following question: If confessionalism has been hurting Lebanon since the 19th century, if most scholars believe that confessionalism is an obstacle for the formation of a distinct Lebanese nationalism and that it sharpens the divisions in the country and if 68% of the Lebanese are in favor of abolishing confessionalism now or in the near future, why does confessionalism still survive?
To answer this question, one needs to look at the immediate aftermath of the Ta’if Agreement and its effect on the Lebanese politics. Ta’if was considered an important agreement in that it put an end to a 15-year-long civil war and “if properly handled, would have provided an appropriate agenda for constitutional alteration”
,increased the influence of Damascus in Lebanon, giving Syria the opportunity to manipulate Lebanese politics. With growing restlessness against Syrian ‘protection’ and Hezbollah’s increasing influence, the country was already in a state of turmoil when, in February 2005, Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated. The assassination resulted not only in the retreat of Syrian forces from Lebanon but also in the formation of inter-bloc alliances, in turn leading to a new ‘internal balance’ in the Lebanese political structure that created a more strained atmosphere and increased political tensions. As Asad Abu Khalil, Professor of Political Science at California State University, puts it, “no more [was] the classic Christian-Muslim divide relevant, nor the narrow Sunni-Maronite divide which dominated the squabbles of Lebanese pre-war political elite”
The pro and anti-Syrian demonstrations held after the Hariri assassination divided Lebanese confessional groups into a two-party alliance system. On March 14, 2005, those who marched against Syrian dominance: the Sunnis, Druzes and Maronites, became known as the “March 14 Alliance” while those who were pro-Syrian: Hezbollah, Amal and the Free Patriotic Movement formed the “March 8 Alliance”. These alliances were not homogenous by any means, and parties changed sides and positions Groups who had supported Syrian presence in the 1990s, such as the Sunni Future Movement and the Druze Progressive Socialist Party, now marched against it. Free Patriotic Movement was part of the March 14 Alliance to begin with and then it signed a Memorandum with Hezbollah and thus started to be considered as part of the March 8 Alliance.
This turbulent re-structuring of the political scene lead to a growing conflict between the two alliances. Despite all attempts at easing the situation, the ‘talks’ between two fronts had already come to a dead end before the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. Hezbollah’s victory against Israeli forces led to its solidification as the ‘sole protector’ of the Lebanese people, again complicating and shaking the fragile ‘political equilibrium’ of the country. Hezbollah and its allies demanded an early legislative election and the formation of a representative national unity government, However Pierre Amin Jemayel, an active member of the anti-Syrian March 14 Alliance and the Minister of Industry at the time, was assassinated on November 2006, and this caused some turbulence in Lebanese politics again. The Members of March 14 Alliance accused Syria for the killing and the rift between March 8 and March 14 Alliances deepened. On May 2008, after having protested for 17 months Siniora government’s alliance with the U.S. (and hence with Israel), Hezbollah and Amal militiamen launched an armed uprising in Beirut and overtook the Sunni parts of the capital. Fearing another civil war, the Arab League intervened and Lebanese political leaders signed the Doha Agreement on May 21, 2008 in Doha, Qatar.
The Doha Agreement called for the election of a consensus president, General Michel Sulaiman, revised the country’s electoral formula, revived its parliament and other state institutions and gave Hezbollah veto power over the new national government. Even though Doha created an ephemeral state of optimism, only a year after Doha, in the summer of 2009, Michelle Orange would write that “it’s a stalemate in the parliament, with none of the parties able to agree on a national unity government, each group stubbornly holding to their bids for prevalence, for power, while the people pay the price in the streets…the cabinet is unwilling, in other words, to stay together for the kids. They won’t even share custody”
This idea of groups refusing to cede any power and not letting go of their positions is one of the most difficult problems in Lebanese politics. Apart from causing inter-sect conflicts, this attitude results in intra-sect conflicts and power struggles as well.
Why Not Abolish Confessionalism?
As can be seen, even though both Ta’if and Doha tried to ameliorate the situation the strength of sectarian conflicts still plagues Lebanese politics. Lebanon’s Christians (especially the Maronites) are well aware of the decrease in their population and do not want to give up their privileges by approving the abolishment of confessionalism. In addition, Muslim opposition to confessionalism does not necessarily mean they will sectarian conflict will disappear once confessionalism is officially abolished. The idea of belonging to a sect or confession has shaped the identities of Lebanese people for hundreds of years, be they Muslim or Christian, and the more entrenched they are in a confessional society the more solidified these prejudices become. In this context, the problem of abolition should be seen as much deeper than Maronites’ disapproval: confessionalism is linked to how people define themselves, the way they situate and form their identities in relation to other groups: “Even during periods of relative stability, confessional allegiances have almost always operated, touching virtually all dimensions of everyday life. All the momentous events in a person’s life cycle continue to be shaped by sectarian affiliation. It is a reality one cannot renounce”
Moreover, allegiances have undergone drastic transformation since the Hariri Assassination, and the conflict is not only between Muslim sects and Christian sects.
First of all, one’s sect is almost equivalent to one’s nation. Every sect has the right to regulate its own rituals (wedding, divorce, baptism) according to respective religious beliefs, and this ‘autonomy’ makes the formation of a broad national identity much harder. The stratified structure of the current education system also helps perpetuate sectarian autonomy as a primary tool in shaping people’s identities and feeding prejudices towards other sects. Because inter-sectarian trust is so rare everyone is suspicious of ‘the other’. As P. Salem says: “The Christians are afraid because they live in a Muslim Middle East. The Shiites are afraid of the Sunnis and vice versa. And the Druzes are afraid of everyone. Everyone is afraid, everyone perceives himself as a victim”
Secondly, there is a general disagreement among the Lebanese people regarding who is representing whom, to what extent, with what power and the legitimacy of that representation. The fact that Maronites denied Muslims equal representation till the Ta’if Agreement is a good example of this. Moreover, Lebanon is governed by a power elite unwilling to share power with the rest of society. Even though they are deemed to be the representatives of their respective sects, the up-down structure of many regulations and legislations do not generally reflect public will or public consensus but instead reflect an ‘elite will’. Politicians are not trusted by the Lebanese people and are usually associated with corruption and selfishness. Even if the ruling elite agrees on a resolution, it is doomed to fail without public support. Under current conditions, it is not likely that the gap between the public and the rulers will be bridged easily.
In addition to internal hindrances, Lebanon is also prone to regional conflicts. With a small population of four million people, Lebanon is a miniature model of the Middle East region as a whole in that conflicts that occur in Middle East can be found in Lebanon on a smaller scale. Located between Israel and Syria and home to thousands of Palestinian refugees, Lebanon is subject to conflicts related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while at the same time having constant troubles with Syrian power in the region. Furthermore, b
ecause Lebanon is home to members of almost every single ethnic and religious group in the region, Middle Eastern countries see justification to intervene in Lebanese internal politics. As put by Salem: “every group in Lebanon has at some point committed the sin of relying on extensive outside support: the Maronites allied with Israel and the Sunnis with the PLO and everyone used -and was used by- the Syrians”
No Lebanese internal conflict has come to an end as a result of direct and unmediated negotiations by the parties concerned but instead with strong third party intervention. The two most important agreements in recent Lebanese history, Ta’if and Doha, were signed in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, respectively. The fact that a peace agreement cannot be signed on Lebanese soil but in other Middle Eastern countries shows not only the intensity of the animosity between the internal parties involved but also the connectedness of the third parties to the whole process. In such an environment, it is not up to the Lebanese themselves to abolish confessionalism, as numerous Middle Eastern countries involved in the Lebanese puzzle try to manipulate the situation to their own benefit.
Conclusion: What Can Be Done?
As should be clear by now, confessionalism is a very big part of the Lebanese puzzle
.. More specifically, peace in Lebanon is to a great extent dependent on the abolishment of confessionalism. On the other hand, keeping in mind all the aforementioned problems, defining the confessionalist system as the sole reason for Lebanon’s suffering is too naïve. Confessionalism is linked to larger internal and regional problems. However, even if abolishing confessionalism would not resolve the conflict in Lebanon entirely, it would at least prevent the deterioration of other political problems and make possible the formation of a more stable atmosphere.
At the very heart of the discussion lies a crucial question: What would confessionalism be replaced with? What would happen to Lebanese politics if confessionalism was no more? When asked whether they support the abolition of confessionalism 24% of the participants surveyed in the Information International poll said that they did not know what ‘abolishing confessionalism’ even means. This summarizes very well the complexity of the issue at hand. In the same vein, as much as scholars of Lebanon agree that confessionalism is a big obstacle for political stability, they also agree that it would be more dangerous to abolish it without an alternative system. In a 2007 article, after warning us that the inter-confessional differences can completely destabilize a Lebanon already bordering on the critical, historian
P. Rassadin goes on to say that “even more dangerous seems to be the changing nature of the political conflict inside the country, the falling apart of peaceful coexistence mechanisms and possible demolition of the confessional representation system without offering an alternative that can be to the liking of both sides”
While the Lebanese public is not very clear about what would replace confessionalism, researchers have come up with some alternatives. Emphasizing the increasing power of Hezbollah and the Shiite community Paul Salem puts the options for Lebanon as ‘a united and independent Lebanon’ and a ‘two-state solution’ (2006: 21) and goes on to add that because the latter option would lead to further violence and unrest in the region the former option must be made viable. The solution, according to him, is a bicameral legislature, with a lower house free of confessional quotas, allowing Shiites better representation. This idea is seconded by Maurice Obeid, albeit in a different structure. Obeid suggests that a bicameral transition government be established, “one chamber based on the current confessional framework, the other elected without confessional quotas and that they work jointly –- and serve as a check and balance for each other – on a strategy for national reconciliation to reaffirm the Lebanese identity. They would then present proposals for a sustainable, secular framework that upholds meritocracy and purges religious discrimination”
. Another possibility voiced by Enver Koury as early as 1976, is a communal federal system and a cantonal government. Claiming that “Lebanon is not yet ready for secularization” Koury argues that a cantonal government would be an ideal solution in between secularism and partition. However, this suggestion raises the question of when Lebanon will be ready for secularization, whether it will ever be ready, and how the right time will be determined.
A transitional bicameral government would be hard to put into practice, not only because confessionalism is a structure at the heart of the Lebanese society that would persist even after legal abolishment, but also because politicians would not be willing to share power that easily. No matter how much one talks about this issue, no matter how much time one spends on coming up with new ways of governance, the fact that no census has been held since 1932 displays very clearly how reluctant politicians or the power elite are to resolve this issue. In the absence of an up-to-date census tensions between sects keep exacerbating as everyone has their own assumptions about the size of their particular sect and about the number of seats they need to be assigned in the Parliament.Thus, I believe that the solution to the whole problem lies first in an updated census. A census would put an end to unending speculations about the current make-up of the population and would clarify how to change the Taif articles allocating certain seats in the Parliament to certain sects. Then the politicians must be persuaded to prioritize Lebanon’s well being rather than their own well being and to persuade sect leaders to prioritize every citizen of Lebanon rather than only members of their own sects. Regional actors, the countries that keep intervening in Lebanese politics, need to be convinced that leaving Lebanon alone rather than ‘protecting it’ is a better approach to assure the well-being of it.
Peace is possible in Lebanon but the road to peace is long and demanding. Confessionalism is a major obstacle blocking that road and therefore must be abolished. Even though the odds of this happening in the recent future seem as low, if Lebanon is freed from regional interventions, if comprehensive regulations transforming education –which in turn would transform sectarian identities- could be made, if inter-sectarian dialogue could be buttressed and if inter and intra-sectarian trust secured, then confessionalism could be discarded and a big step towards a secular democratic country taken.
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The survey was conducted by phone. A total of 500 people were surveyed. The full text of the publication resulting from the survey may be accessed at http://qifanabki.files.wordpress.com/2010/02/abolishing-confessionalism- poll.pdf. The findings were also published in the Lebanese daily Al-Safir. Even though some people express concern about the representativeness of the sample, for lack of a better source this poll has been used in most of the recent articles on the subject.