The Development of Civil Society in Lebanon from the Ottoman Empire to the XXIst century: A driver of political changes?

by Geoffroy d’Aspremont

Project Manager at the MEDEA Institute

Civil Society (also called « third sector ») in Lebanon is certainly one of the most active in the Middle East. Alhtough the civil society. in Lebanon has its roots as far as the sixteenth century during the period of the Princedom of Mount Lebanon (Abou Assi, 2006) the real development of this phenomenon has started during the second part of the Nineteenth century (Karam, 2006, Bennett 1996). The development of Lebanese civil society can be divided into four phases, each marked with noteworthy characteristics: The first phase runs from the Ottoman Empire, through the French Mandate, the early years of Independence until 1958. During that period, associations were given a legal structure. The 1909 law was established to organise the rapidly increasing number of associations being established at the turn of the century. Most civil society organisations (CSO) had a religious basis and were inspired by religion to aid the needy and the poor. During The second period from 1958 and 1975, non-sectarian associations adopting non confessional and non-political agendas were established. Palestinians refugees and Palestinian Liberation Organisation also developed its own “civil society” during that period. The third one is the civil war (from 1975 to 1990). Governmental agencies were totally paralyzed and civil society became more active in order to compensate for the absence of a strong central government, but it did so in the presence of strong militias. This period also saw the emergence of more coordination among CSOs. The last period is the post war era. As military actions settled down, CSOs began to perceive their role as complementary to that of the government and experienced new changes increased awareness, self-consciousness. Moreover, globalization has also managed to introduce a set of principles, such as participatory democracy, sustainable development, good governance, transparency and accountability into Lebanon civil society.

Civil Society in Lebanon has always been flourishing and very active and its development in Lebanon must be understood through two characteristics of the country: the confessional diversity and the state weakness. Today, with the public’s general distrust of political parties and the weakness of state’s institutions, more is expected from civil society. With a move away from traditional structures and perceptions, towards a new vision of Lebanon and its place in the world along with an abolition of the present confessional system, there is thus an opportunity for civil society to lead the move towards the Lebanon of the future. The movement must be slow and the path will not be smooth.

From the XIX century to 1958: the supremacy of the community-based model.

The development of a civil society during the nineteen century and the first half of the twentieth century be understood during the nineteenth century within the political structures of the Lebanese society such as community organisations, administration, and integration‘s policies established by the Ottoman Empire (such as the Emirate[1], the Qa’imaqamiyya[2], the Mutasarraifiyya[3]) or foreign interventions. Moreover, at the time of the Industrial revolution in Europe, A renaissance movement in the Arab world – the “nahda” – was a time of intellectual, politic and ideological reborn.

The associative movement in Lebanon emerged in the mid-nineteenth century in that context. This new type of associative mobilisation was generated by new social and economic trends due to a willingness of modernisation and economic development but was firstly community and family based. Associations were therefore at the origin, a place to defend cultural, political or social interests. Each group tried to impose, through associative action, its own identity, synonymous with independence or allegiance, particularly in the context of the Ottoman Empire in its last decades.

The development of the associative sector during this period was high and characterized by the establishment of charitable associations created for the family or the community. This development is partly due to the different regimes that where established in Lebanon and especially during the Mutasarraifiyya, and to the lack of state social policy. Furthermore, the Mutasarraifiyya system had hallowed the community system by giving them more autonomy. European powers had also had an influence on the associations by claiming themselves the protectors of certain communities and by helping them to create their own associations (Corm 1992).

The only law ruling associations that Lebanon has ever known was elaborated during this period. This Law of 1909 issued by Ottoman authorities still regulates the formation of associations. This law defines an association as “A body composed of several people who unite their information and efforts in a permanent fashion and the goal of it is not to divide profit (Section 1). The creation of an association does not need permission, but under Article 6 of this law, it should inform the authorities (Article 2). Therefore, the law says that any “association” informs authorities of its existence and no permits or licenses are needed to form an association. However, Associations for the “promotion of Arab Nationalism” are illegal. Police are given the right to attend meetings of any association so long as they have an official order from the Ministry of Police in Istanbul (Elbayar 2005, 18). This law offered the legal framework for the creation of most confessional associations in Lebanon.

Associations that emerged under the Ottoman domination were actives in charity, education, and healthcare. They were initiated firstly by religious communities and, in less extend by foreign powers and the Ottoman Empire.  Besides these charitable associations, more political movements were also created. Indeed, the associative movement formed at this time a laboratory for ideas, for debate that will create the political parties and trade unions. It is worth noting that during this period, associations were created in urban areas.

Two political ideas were developed at this time regarding the integration to the Ottoman Empire: on the one hand, more devolution and recognition of Arabs ‘rights and on the other hand, independence and French protectorate. At the end of the Ottoman domination were also developing some non-religious associations that did not survive the independence because of their elitism and their independence vis-à-vis religious communities (Karam 2006).

After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, The French protectorate, which created the State of “Grand Lebanon” in 1920, offered the Maronite community the predomination on a larger territory than the Emirate of Mount Lebanon. France institutionalises community division. Registers of birth, marriage and deaths mention religious affiliation.

The 1926 constitution was based on the French constitution of 1875 (Corm, 2005). Article 9 guarantees that public job are divided proportionally among religious groups and article 10 guarantees the independence of education. A 1936 decree states that only the “historical religions”, 17 in total, are recognized by the state. The French Protectorate did not change the legal situation for associations in Lebanon. However, it is worth noting that during this period many political parties and trade unions were created.

The Independence and the national act of 1943 sanctified the religious community-based system by establishing a unique political system, known as “confessionalism”, a power-sharing mechanism based on religious communities (Corm, 2005). In the agreement, Christian’s communities accept to relinquish foreign protections and Muslims give up reattaching the country to Syria. The society is composed of 17 recognized religious groups, each with a certain autonomy regarding the personal status issues. The political system was designed to reflect the mosaic of the society, in such way that no single group can dominate the others but rather divide political power and public posts proportionally among these confessional groups. However, the national act establishes Maronites and Sunni domination on the political system. Article 13 of the National Constitution guarantees freedom of meeting and freedom of association within the framework of the law.

The 1909 Law on associations is maintained and new political parties are created, such as the National Block in 1943 or the Progress Socialist party in 1949. A census realized in 1958 demonstrates the development of the associative sector in Lebanon. While there were fifty actives associations at the end of the fourties, more than three hundreds were created between 45 and 1959 to reach the number 405 association registered, an increase of 41 percent (Bennett 1996).

In conclusion, during this period, a pattern of associations emerges and operates in a personalized way, clientelistic, in a community setting. These main objectives are to serve in the field of education and health while the state is absent or at least not prominent in those fields. According to Karam (2006, 51), even thought this can seem anachronistic, a kind of “civil society” emerges therefore in Lebanon in a context of state formation and foreign influences. Some large associations such as the YMCA, created in 1869 and the Makassed – Sunni associations created at the same period – are still active today.

From 1958 to 1975

In 1958, community tensions aroused and violence erupted. This crisis demonstrates the fragility of the 1943 national pact and the deep malfunctioning in the social and economical system. New progressive movements, mainly Arabs nationalist in favour of Nasser’s United Arab Republic, took arms against the policies of President Camille Chamoun. They were opposed to his proximity with the United States and his alignment to Eisenhower doctrine (Karam, 2006, 54) as well as his domestic policy that did not allocate wealth equally.

A new president, Fouad Chéhab was elected and started reforming the country. He carried out an administrative, social and economic reform that aimed to divert Lebanese allegiance from community to the state of Lebanon. On the economic sphere, He established a social development plan that would ensure a better redistribution of wealth. He also created schools of public administrations that would create a new generation of public servant that would serve the state instead of their own community.

This period changed the Lebanese society and the associative landscape. While existing associations continued to grow, the reforms caused upheaval of traditional structures of associations. New associations were created thanks to the social development plan. These reforms have resulted in the way some associations worked. They broke with charity to focus on projects whose objectives focused on social justice, citizen participation, development and administrative decentralization for rural areas. The example of the Lebanese Social Movement (LSM) demonstrates the cooperation between associations and public administrations (Karam 2006, 56). The development of civil society during that period was linked to the apparition of a middle class in Lebanon (Karam, 2006, 57), a consequence of the reforms and a better access to education. At this time were for instance created student associations and socio-cultural centers in different regions of the country (Karam, 2006, 58).

The Law of 1909 on legal status of associations and political parties in Lebanon was questioned during that period. The government proposed a reform of the law in 1971 which was opposed by certain parties such as the Democratic Party or the Progressive Socialist Party. Eventually, no proposal was adopted by the government regarding the 1909 law.

This second period was thus characterized by a new scheme of associative action where associations were associated with public authority for project development and by a new kind of associations that can be classified as trans-community associations. Good examples are given by the Mouvement Social or the Secours Populaire Libanais that were created in the sixties and seventies and worked for social development outside community structures.


The PLO arrival in Lebanon and Palestinian civil society.

In 1969, The Cairo Agreement signed between the Lebanese government and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) enabled Palestinians to establish for the first time separate and independent political, social, economic, educational, cultural and legal institutions. Initially growth was limited, but after Black September in Jordan and the establishment of PLO in Beirut, There was a rapid growth of Palestinian institution-building that became quickly a state within the state (Suleiman, 1997).

The growth of the Palestinian institutions peaked just before the PLO left. Lebanon in 1982, and had relied throughout on its protection. Most of the institutions established after 1969 had either been directly affiliated to the PLO or had been sponsored and supported by it. After the departure of the PLO from Lebanon and the abrogation of the Cairo Agreement by the Lebanese government, most PLO institutions closed, and the services of those which remain, such as the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS), have been greatly reduced.

However, due to the dynamism of the Palestinian community in Lebanon and its experience in developing its survival mechanisms independently, a few Palestinian NGOs which had been registered as NGOs under Lebanese legislation before 1982 have adapted to the new circumstances and in some cases regained or even enhanced their role. New NGOs have also emerged, especially since the 1986-87 war of the camps (Suleimann, 1997)

There are two main types of NGOs active in the Palestinian community in Lebanon, each requiring a special license: NGOs licensed by means of an attestation and declaration granted by the Ministry of the Interior, and foreign NGOs operating in Lebanon which obtain a license by means of a presidential decree. A third type, comprising religious organizations affiliated to the Muslim Waqf[4], need not be licensed by the Ministry of Interior, but may work by means of a ‘legal deed’ given by a Muslim court directly under the Prime Minister’s office.

‘Palestinian NGOs’ receive no aid from the Lebanese Government, and 20 per cent or less of their funding from local resources. They are thus heavily dependent on foreign sources. Their projects are supported by a wide range of NGOs in Europe, Canada, the Middle East and the Far East.

The war period (1975-1990): new role for civil society

The fifteen years civil-war in Lebanon has wreaked havoc competencies, nature and the field of action of associations. Because of new urgent imperatives, associations converted their activities, taking over the state on a local or community base. New Trans community associations occurred at that time as well as associations operating nationally or regionally. First international NGOs also entered in the arena.

The war added to the community division a geographical that made any transnational or transcommunity action impossible. Because of the community withdrawal and the ineffectiveness of the state, and beside militias, some associations were created to overcome shortcomings of the state. They developed their activities in the vacuum left by the state and received considerable financial means from Western Countries (Slaiby 1994).

Thanks to the services offered (for instance, the treatment of wounded, help given to displaced persons, rebuilding of destroyed houses,…) and their direct contact with the population, associations were given credibility and legitimacy.  Trans community associations such as the LSM had difficulty to maintain their activities in a system dominated by militias. Cultural activities, social and economic development were mainly given up in order to meet the most urgent needs of the population while militias always tried to hamper their work and action.

In this context, coordination between associations started to emerge. In the mid eighties The LSM started participating to the establishment of a national coordination of projects. This coordination became in the late eighties the Lebanese NGO Network that gathered really different associations such as the LSM, the Makassed, Amel Association, Caritas, Terre des homes, le Secours Populaire Libanais,… Its aim was to promote development associations as main actors in the post war period.

In 1988, another umbrella association was created: The Lebanese NGO Forum (LNF) that was funded and supported by international organizations and gathered ten Lebanese associations and organizations such as the YMCA, the Lebanese Federation of Health Care, and organizations from the different religious communities (Bennett, 1996). Many new associations were also created during war. a joint Lebanses government and UNICEF studies show that 1587 were registered in 1980, though it is not clear how many of these were active (Bennett, 1996) and a report of the World Bank calculated that 550 new associations were registered from 1980 to 1990 (Traboulsi 2001).

Post war period

On 23 October 1989, under the auspices of the Arab League, the Taef Agreement was signed in Saudi Arabia. The agreement put an end to 17 years of civil war in Lebanon. Lebanon was in ruins. A quarter of the population has been displaced and one fifth of the population, often the most educated and dynamics fled the country. Maronite community loses its predomination for Chia and Sunni communities.

At the beginning of the nineties, According to Bennett (1996) civil society’s organizations presents in Lebanon could be classified into five categories:

Religious charitable welfare institutions are often long-established (pre-independence) organizations. They often hold considerable influence within their community and may have institutions throughout the country? Their political outreach may also be considerable and their welfare activities mainly concentrate on education, orphans, medical services,…

Confessionals organizations emerged during the war in absence of central services. They provided assistance in the form of relief, medical care, school and shelter to distressed and displaced families.

Local and Specialized NGOs those activities usually involve one or two programmes within a defined geographical area. Their activities concentrate on development, education, elderly…

Major National NGOs deal with health, disability, relief, vocational training, and child welfare. These organizations emerged during the war and the decline of public social services thanks to foreign sources of fund. Some of these organizations are still well established, backed by support committees and state funding; other with the decline of foreign funding, have collapsed.

Finally International NGOs, particularly during the war, established offices in Lebanon and either became operational themselves or served as funding channels to indigenous NGOs. In some cases the agency became ostensibly ‘localised’, i.e. run entirely by national staff and occasionally registered as a national entity.

Nevertheless, new kind of NGOs and civil society organizations with different aims started to emerge in the post war period. The causes defended by these new associations are more related to human rights, public liberties, political rights or ecology. Unlike confessional organizations, they are more based on the notion of citizenship and defend common goods and collective national interest. These new “civil organizations” are made up of young educated and urban people who have an interest in politics.

These organizations can be defined at civil movement for two reasons. First, these organizations were able to create a common network through the organization of collective campaigns. For Instance, during the Israeli operation “grapes of wrath” in 1996, thanks to the initiative of the APAC (Association pour une action civile) and the Al-Mouwatin (“The Citizen”) Association, they  played a key role in the Mass gathering supporting Lebanon survival (Karam 2007) by promoting the role of civil society to demonstrate national unity and resistance to Israeli aggression”[5]. Their capacity to act was demonstrated through their campaign for the organisation of municipal election in 2005, or through the movement for the adoption of a law on civil servant (Karam 2007). Second, this movement can be considered as “civilian” because it contributes to the emergence of a political identity that distances itself from religious or militia involvement.

The developments in 2005 and their aftermath have led to additional complications. The assassination of former Prime Minister Hariri, the eruption of the ‘Upheaval for Independence’ and the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon promise changes in all spheres and at all levels within the country. With an increase in the level of citizens’ participation and engagement, civil society was actually quite active during these events. Public actions were to a large extent spontaneous, but civil society actors were still able to mobilize quite a large number of people. Even some social welfare CSOs were drawn into this political mobilization.

The Israeli invasion of 2006 created a new form of “civilian resistance” (Karam 2007) in a country where the notion “of citizenship” or “civic spirit” is always questioned. Indeed, new forms of national collective and non violent actions took place besides the armed resistance of the Hezbollah. However, this mobilization against the invasion was not homogeneous: alongside confessional organizations and political parties, youth “civilian” associations that were created during the last years of the war or during the nineties were also part of the mobilization.

In recent years, Lebanese civil society has experienced even more changes. These changes were partly spurred by changes witnessed in the international economic, social, cultural and political arenas. The increased awareness, self-consciousness and knowledge, resulting from an international environment that deems the individual civic, political, human, economic, social and cultural rights to be irrefutable and indivisible universal rights, could be cited as proof of such a transformation. This was also the result of a more proactive civil society.

Along with the changes, globalization has also managed to introduce a set of principles, such as participatory democracy, sustainable development, good governance, transparency and accountability into Lebanon.

Today, Civil Society organisations are mainly funded by international donors (37%), Private Donors (33%) and through membership fees (15%) while the State contributes to less than 5% in their funding in Lebanon. Too many of them rely therefore too much on international donors and some only exist in order to receive international funds without having any development program or precise objectives. Finally, apart from large confessional CSOs or international NGOs, many CSOs lack professionalism and structuration, employing too many volunteers.

In such a context, the expectations of civil society have led to the resurgence of civil society and its vigorous role as an active catalyst for change, through the promotion of democracy, human rights, rule of law and social justice. CSOs are counted on to be the forces of sound modernization and change in society and are expected to monitor the work and performance of the public and private sectors. These organizations are actually the nodal points of democracy in Lebanon. As a result of the activities and consciousness of this sector, the state has frequently been forced to withdraw regulations and practices that hinder the freedom and democratic rights of citizens and that place restrictions on civil society.


The building of a civil society in Lebanon had always been linked to the confessional diversity and the weakness of the state. Many civil society organization are still sectarian in nature, reflecting Lebanon‘s division into recognized religious communities.  The six or seven major Christian, Druze, Muslim communities offered many of the material resources for organizing Lebanon’s rich associational life. Each sect in a sense created its own civil society. Nevertheless, many professional associations and environmental, advocacy, women’s group that cross confessional lines and favor the integration of a national Lebanese civil society also exist.

The outbreak of the civil war was the turning point in the Lebanese civil society cycle and in the country’s history. However the end of the civil war proclaimed a new era for civil society to which civil society is still striving to adapt.

The last events since 2005 demonstrate the emergence of new circles of political power within the country and revealed changes within the civil society arena. With the public’s general distrust of political parties, more is expected from civil society. There is an opportunity for civil society to lead the move towards the Lebanon of the future.  Divisions in the country need to be fully addressed, and the abrogation of political confessionalism will need thorough planning and extensive national dialogue.


[1] The Lebanese Emirate was first established under the Ottoman Empire by the Maan dynasty of Druze. This dynasty was replaced in 1669 by the Chéhab one, Muslims converted to Maronite Catholic until interconfessional massacres of 1841

[2] The Qa-imaqamiyya system (1841-1861) was established after the 1841 massacres and divided the Mount Lebanon in a Maronite and a Druze prefecture. A confessional structure replaced the old feudal one.

[3] After new interconfessionals massacres in 1860, This new system gave more local autonomy to communities and prefigure the national pact of 1943.

[4] Muslim Walf, known as Wakf-alal-aulad is an inalienable religious endowment in Islamic law, typically denoting a building or plot of land for Muslim religious or charitable purposes.

[5] slogans chanted by the militants during the day gathering organized for peace April 18, 1996 (Karam, 2006)


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