LAST month Lebanon held its first parliamentary election since 1972. Christian citizens boycotted the election, however, to protest the continued presence of Syrian troops and foreign interference in the electoral process. The revolt marks a milestone in Lebanese politics; it suggests the Lebanese are getting fed-up with foreigners meddling in the country's domestic affairs.
It's especially noteworthy that Lebanese Christians, once dependent on outside intervention, are now demanding the withdrawal of all foreign forces.
Unlike most Middle Eastern nations, Lebanon is characterized by religious diversity. The 1943 National Pact set the guidelines for political representation. Religious sects were allocated parliamentary seats based on a 1932 census, in which the ratio of Christians to Muslims was 6 to 5. Christians were therefore awarded the presidency. The prime minister was to be Sunni Muslim and the assembly speaker a Shiite Muslim.
Higher birthrates among Muslims and a huge influx of Palestinian refugees after 1948 led to challenges of the 1932-census formula in determining electoral apportionments. It was generally accepted that a new census would have yielded a Muslim majority, with the Shiites the largest denomination followed by the Sunnis and the Christians.
But successive Lebanese presidents used their power to block another census. The Lebanese government's inability to implement constitutional reform led to a rebellion in 1958 that ended with the deployment of 10,000 United States marines in Beirut.
With America able and willing to maintain order by military means, the Lebanese saw no need to strengthen their own national defense. They believed the West would always be there for them. Because of this gross miscalculation, Lebanon is perhaps the most vulnerable country in the Middle East today.
The 1958 invasion also made the next civil war inevitable. It proved that the government was incapable of reforming the Constitution. America's intervention deepened Christian-Muslim rivalry and made a consensus on equitable power-sharing more difficult. Muslims resented the nation's military alliance with the West and responded by closing ranks behind the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and other militant organizations.
The 1958 American intervention established an annoying precedent of having outside powers directly involve themselves in Lebanon's domestic affairs. Over the years, this has aggravated religious factionalism within the country.
Syria dispatched thousands of troops to neighboring Lebanon in 1976 in an effort to restore order. Damascus has maintained 40,000 troops there since that time. Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 and has kept military units inside a "security zone" in southern Lebanon since 1983.
OTHER changes helped breed conflict too. In the 1960s, growth in the services sector produced economic distinctions between Christian and Muslims. Certain parts of the economy were monopolized by certain religious groups: the banking, media, and tourist industries, which comprised the bulk of the nation's economy, came under Christian control. Shipping and wholesale went to the Sunnis. The Shiites were confined largely to agriculture and physical labor.
By the 1970s OPEC's clout reached its pinnacle, and Lebanese banks became a petrodollar link between the West and the Arab world. Lebanon prospered as a center for finance and trade.
But the economic prosperity was not evenly enjoyed. Growth in the services sectors benefited primarily Christians and too few Muslims. Urban growth was not met with expenditures in public infrastructures. Many parts of the country, in particular the Muslim areas, lacked modern roads, electricity and irrigation.
Because the Christian-dominated government represented powerful business interests, spending on public welfare was limited. Conservatives feared that universal welfare might send the wrong message to the 400,000 Palestinian "sojourners" and encourage even higher birth rates among the nation's Shiites.
The government effectively left Lebanon's complex social problems to the free market. It was hoped and honestly believed that the country's burgeoning entrepreneurial spirit would sustain national cohesion.
Unfortunately the economic boom never filtered down to the Muslims. While Lebanon's Christians rode on a seemingly never-ending wave of prosperity, the status of Muslims worsened. On the eve of the second civil war, less than 4 percent of Lebanon's population controlled over one third of the national income; civil war was inescapable.
But this time Western protection was nowhere to be found. America's enthusiasm for military intervention had been blunted by Vietnam. Moreover, military intervention by the West in 1975 would have jeopardized the forthcoming SALT-II negotiations and provoked another venomous outburst from OPEC. Without an ultimate arbitrator to maintain order, Lebanon unraveled. Fighting between religious militias, outside forces, and the government lasted 15 years and claimed more than 50,000 lives.
Today, the prospects for peace and unity in Lebanon are improving. The rigid constitutional system is being dismantled, the Lebanese Army is gaining control over the nation, armed insurrection has mostly subsided, hostages have been released, and the government is spending more on social welfare. But the electoral boycott is perhaps the most promising development; for it suggests there is a recognition, particularly among the country's Christian community, that lasting reconciliation can be peacefully ac hieved from within.