This is an ambitious book which strives to explain the political, social and sectarian complexities of Lebanon in this century on the assumption that the reader knows little or nothing at the outset. In this the author deserves our congratulations, writing as he does with clarity, accuracy and a balanced perspective. Harris is a New Zealander who lectures at Otago University but who has a Lebanese connection through his Shia wife and her family, which one gathers leans towards a secular rather than a religious identification. Although he has friends and contacts within all the major religious communities, he tends to view things from the vantage point of someone living in Beirut's southern suburbs rather than the traditional non-Muslim heartland of Mount Lebanon. Nevertheless, he has no axe to grind nor does he come across as biased in any way, with the one exception of his view of Syria's role in contemporary Lebanese politics. He saves this for the conclusion, where he blasts the post-Taif status quo.
The book is divided, like Gaul, into three parts: "Elements of Lebanon" containing three chapters, "Greater Lebanon 1920-1989:' also with three chapters, and "Lebanon after the Cold War" with two chapters and the Conclusion. The 23 maps are clearly drawn and very useful, as are the two tables. Map 5, which shows the sectarian majority areas at mid-twentieth century is particularly commendable for its simplicity and accuracy - no easy task. The single minor error apparent to me is that the extreme northeast comer of the country- the eastern Akkar district - is Sunni, not a Shia extension of Hermel. And despite the fifteen years of Civil War 1975-90 with the massive population upheavals that resulted, the map is still largely accurate today. The only important exception being that the coastal area between Beirut and Sidon and its Shufhinterland shown as Christian in majority are no longer so.
The first part examines Lebanon in its geopolitical setting, the various sectarian groupings and the major political families of each. The figures he cites for today's population are those released by the Hariri Foundation in 1990, which from my own perspective tend to exaggerate the Shia share of the population and slightly underestimate the Christian numbers. The author thus gives the Muslims 59 percent of the total (Shia 35 percent and Sunni 24 percent), the Christians 35 percent (Maronites 21 percent, Others 14 percent) and only 5 percent for the Druze. My own sources would place the Christians at 40-plus percent (with the Maronites at close to 25 percent), the Muslims at SO-plus percent (Sunnis 22 percent, Shia a little more than 28 percent), and the Druzes with 8-9 percent. The real question is, who emigrated permanently after 1975? Since 1990 many Christians have returned, and very few Druze left in the first place, whereas large numbers of Muslims left for Africa and the Gulf regions during the war, especially Shia from the South of the country who were displaced by Israeli occupation. Also the Christians tend to exaggerate their loss of numbers and power, especially the Maronites, who frequently speak in very pessimistic, even apocalyptic terms that would have one believe massive numbers fled and the few who are left are waiting to leave on the next boat. The huge crowds that appeared in Beirut for the Pope's visit in 1997 numbered high in the hundreds of thousands, the vast majority of them Christian and Catholic. Even if they represented half of the Christian population of the country, that would still put the total at something in the neighborhood of 1.5 million out of a total population of 3.5 million, or over 40 percent.
An effect of the Civil War which Harris does not stress is that the religious groups have tended to mass together in their traditional areas of strength since 1975, so that very few regions have a mixed sectarian population, a major change from before the War. Most areas of Lebanon, apart from some parts of the Beirut metropolitan district, are now exclusively one group or another. Also an important development is one which Harris does point out. The increased Shia population, which has surpassed their fellow Muslim Sunnis (traditionally the source of Muslim leadership dating from Ottoman times), "has sharpened the Shii-Sunni friction," while the Christian contraction has caused Maronites and other Christians to gravitate into a more cohesive communal block" (p. 86). When the Pope landed in Lebanon in May, 1997, the bells of all the churches in the country rang - not just the Catholic ones - something I doubt would have happened 20 years before. Moreover, in addition to the very deep rift between Sunni and Shia which has increased in recent years, both Muslim communities are deeply divided within themselves between political groupings as well as between those leaning towards secular and religious views particularly on such issues as civil law.
Another interesting slant to Lebanon's confessional make-up which the author points out is the tacit, seemingly unlikely, alliance of Maronites, Druze and Shia, who make up 61 percent of the resident population in both my and Harris's calculations, and who are brought together on many issues by their "common position as sectarian minorities in the wider Sunni Arab environment, probably ensur[ing] the permanence of the Greater Lebanon created by the French to gratify [only, at the time] the Maronites" (p. 75).
Part two deals with the history of Lebanon in this century since the imposition of the French Mandate in 1930, through the agreement at Taif in 1989. Much of this information can be found in many other studies, but Harris presents it in a very cogent and readable fashion and in such a way that any aspect of this complicated period is touched upon and brought into perspective with parallel developments in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Part three takes Lebanon from the agreement of the Taif accords through their implementation and the brief but bloody resistance to them by General Michel Aoun and his largely, though by no means exclusively, right-wing Christian following. What became clear, says the author, is that it was the Syrians, whom Aoun and his followers deeply resented, who made the Taif agreement work, for reasons which he explains in chapter I in his discussion of Syria's regional interests (pp. 51-52). "In the shadow of the Iraqi-American confrontation" of 1990-91, he writes, "adroitly exploited by Damascus, the Taif Agreement was both pushed ahead and completely Syrianized" (p. 278). Few observers, inside Lebanon or abroad, would disagree with that succinct summary.
In chapter 8 and his Conclusion the author presents his own personal views of the current political situation in the post-war years since 1991 in very strong and in no uncertain terms. The subtitle of chapter 8, "The Carpetbagger Years," says it all. For Harris, the ''troika" arrangement of President Hrawi (Maronite from Zahlah), Prime Minister Hariri (Sunni from Sidon) and Parliament Speaker Nabi Birri (Shia from Nabatiya) is an unholy alliance that has worked for its own corrupt interests and those of its very few and very influential friends, the 450 individuals whom the author cites earlier in the book as controlling 55 percent of the country's assets in its banking system in 1992 (p. 64). He recounts with no little satisfaction how all three have had to grovel at the feet of Hafiz al-Asad in Damascus (p. 291), noting that only Droze leader Walid Junblat has managed to escape humiliation by virtue of his not being a part of this toadying threesome.
In his conclusion Harris goes even further, stating that the "Taif regime," as he calls it, has "behaved arrogantly towards the Lebanese population" (p. 325) and asserting that "the path Lebanon took after 1990 was one that need not have been taken." Here he takes up the refrain of so many Lebanese, disappointingly for me, that everything which is wrong with Lebanon is the fault of someone else, chiefly the United States, to whom they attribute amazing diplomatic powers in the region. "With the end of the Cold War," the author boldly claims, "the U.S. could have bundled both Syria and Israel out of Lebanon, giving appropriate assurances for the strategic interests of both countries" (pp. 325-26). Would that this were so. Those who believe that America had sufficient leverage to force either Syria or Israel to make what appears to us to be the logical move has, I am afraid, a rather naive appreciation of either its ability or its determination to do so. And since Harris makes no effort to explain why he thinks the United States did not do as he thinks they should have done - "Michel Aoun and Salim Al-Huss could have been brought together in a far more distinguished constitutional settlement than the Taif arrangement" (p. 326) - it is clear that he does not have a particularly profound understanding of how American foreign policy works, or more to the point, does not work.
Apart from this weak conclusion and his strong anti-Syrian Baathist bias, Harris has given us a very fine study, the product of extensive research, keen insight and no little - and how welcome this is - humor in a number of anecdotal recountings of his experiences in Lebanon and the region. Alas, a sequel needs to be written showing precisely why the Lebanese should not rely on the United States to do anything positive now or in the future on their behalf, even if it has the will and the way. As American priorities in the region go, Lebanon, for the moment at least, is very near the bottom of the list of problems to be solved.