Lebanon: peasants and the emergence of communal politics

The Ottoman central government did not concern itself with the internal social structure and local customs of Mount Lebanon. It regarded Mount Lebanon as state-administered land and the local notables as tax farmers. The northern part of the mountain was subject to the pasha of Tripoli; the southern part to the pasha of Sidon (whose actual seat was Acre after 1750). Christian historians have usually argued that Mount Lebanon was a single unit with a self-conscious identity and an autonomous and locally legitimized political regime and that the land was private property (Holt & Lewis 1962; Salibi 1988: 108

The mountain was divided into muqataat where hereditary Druze and Maronite muqataajis were responsible for collection of taxes and the administration of justice. Whereas most Ottoman tax farmers lived in cities, Lebanese muqataajis lived in their rural districts and held large plots of land (uhdas) in their own names. Though not juridically tied to the land, peasants were required to perform labor service and buy marriage licenses and baptismal oil from their muqataajis and to offer them holiday gifts. From 1711 to 1841 the Shihabs were the leading muqataaji family. The Maronite muqataajis concurred that Mount Lebanon was a hereditary principality (imara) and that a member of the Shihab family was the legitimate paramount ruler (amir or hakim); the Druze muqataajis accepted the Shihabs as tax farmers and did not seek to set up an alternative regime. Maronites were originally concentrated in Kisrawan and northern Mount Lebanon and the Druze in the Shuf and southern districts. From the late seventeenth century, Maronite peasants began to migrate southward, where they became subject to Druze muqataajis, the most powerful of whom were the Junblats. The Maronite population increased more rapidly than the Druze and constituted the majority in Mount Lebanon by the nineteenth century. Reforms in the administration of the church initiated by the Council of Luwayza in 1736 led to expanding the network of church schools, and Maronite peasants began to be educated. Consequently, Maronites became the dominant force in the administration of Mount Lebanon. One expression of the increasing power of the Maronites in the late eighteenth century was the secret conversion of a branch of the Shihab family, including the amirs Yusuf (1770–88) and Bashir II (1788–1840), to the Maronite faith. The principal agricultural product of Mount Lebanon was raw silk produced from cocoons spun by worms who fed on the leaves of mulberry trees. Since the time of Fakhr al-Din Maan II (1593–1633) the amirs encouraged silk production in the religiously mixed Junblati muqataa of the Shuf and in the Maronite district of Kisrawan, controlled by the Khazin family. Cultivation of mulberry trees and the export of raw silk from Sidon and later Beirut, primarily to France, was dominated by Maronites. The Junblats encouraged Maronite peasants to settle on their lands and even donated lands to Maronite monasteries to promote production of silk (Salibi 1988: 104–05). Until the late 1830s itinerant, seasonal peasant-laborers reeled raw silk into thread by hand (Polk 1963: 172). Some peasants in Mount Lebanon owned small plots of land. But as they were usually too small to sustain a family, sharecropping (musharaka) arrangements with monasteries or aristocratic families who held most of the land were common. In the eighteenth century peasant holdings expanded, primarily through the use of cultivation contracts (mugharasa) agreements stipulating that a landowner supply the land, tools, and materials for a peasant to terrace and plant trees and tend them for three to twelve years, depending on the type of tree. During this period the peasant planted suitable food crops between the trees. When the trees were fully mature, a quarter to half of the land, or sometimes only the trees, became the property of the peasant (Ferro 1990: 158; Debar & Knars 1976: 29; Chevalier 1971: 138–39). Mulberry, fig, almond, and olive trees as well as grape vines were planted under this system. Muqataajis maintained their rights to peasant labor and other forms of economic and social dominance if they expanded the area of cultivation in this way or sold parcels of land to peasants when they needed cash. The reinvigoration of the Marinate church following the Council of Luwayza contributed to expanding agricultural production. The Lebanese Order of Monks, primarily comprising men from peasant backgrounds, began to enlarge their originally meager holdings through cultivation contracts, efficient organization of their collective labor, and pooling their savings and donations from the faithful. They acquired new properties from the muqataajis, who were pleased by the monks’ productive activities and the educational and other services they provided. By the mid nineteenth century the Lebanese Order owned fifty monasteries with large plots of land (Harik 1968: 112–14). Most peasants were poor and socially and economically subordinated to the muqataajis. During the early years of Bashir II’s rule, the governor of Sidon (Acre), Cezzar Ahmed Pasha (1775–1804), pressed the amir for increased tribute payments. To meet these demands, Bashir II increased the levies on the muqataajis and the peasants, confiscated the lands of rival muqataajis, and removed some of them altogether, consolidating their former holdings under his personal control. Ahmed Pasha’s successor, Abd Allah Pasha (1818–32), also demanded higher tribute, forcing Bashir II to attempt to collect additional taxes to pay the pasha. Due to these repeated demands for extra-legal taxes, peasants lost much of their lands. By the first half of the nineteenth century about 10 percent, a high proportion by local standards of the peasantry owned no land at all and supported themselves by sharecropping or as agricultural day laborers (Dubar & Nasr 1976: 28).

These conditions formed the context for peasant uprisings (ammiyyas, or movements of the ommon people) in 1820 and 1821 The revolts were directed against both Amir Bashir II and his most important ally, Bashir Junblat. The Maronite bishop, Yusuf Istfan (1759–1823), played a leading role in the first revolt. He organized the peasants into village communes and had them choose a representative (wakil) to lead and represent each village. The Druze muqataajis blocked the collection of additional levies from Druze peasants or paid them themselves. The taxes were collected only from the Maronite peasants of Maronite muqataajis in the northern districts, who Bashir II thought lacked a leadership capable of opposing him. Therefore, although some Druze peasants and one muqataaji family participated in the revolts, they primarily involved Maronite peasants in districts with Maronite muqataajis. This gave the movements a sectarian character, which was enhanced by the active participation of Maronite clergymen (Harik 1968: 208–22; Khalaf 1987: 33–35).  The 1820 and 1821 revolts challenged the muqataaji monopoly on political leadership and expressed both peasant class and Maronite communal consciousness, which were sometimes mutually contradictory. The Maronite Khazin and Abillama muqataajis opposed the revolts, but peasants in their districts participated nonetheless. The pact between the people of Bashala and their representative made during the second revolt is a rare expression of peasants ’political voice and their capacity to articulate some surprisingly new ideas.

 "We the undersigned, all the natives of Bashala ...have freely accepted and entrusted ourselves and our expenses to our cousin, Tannus al-Shidyaq Nasr, and whatever is required of us . . . with respect to the ammiyya. His word will be final with us in all [matters] of expenses and losses . . . [W]e shall obey him in the recruitment of men . . .  This is what has been agreed upon between us and him, and he shall act according to his conscience, not favoring anyone over the other . . . Whatever he arranges as the tax, we shall accept; and if he relents in pursuing our interests, we shall hold him accountable." (Harik 1968: 213–14)

This radical departure from the previously prevailing political culture of Mount Lebanon led Ilya Harik to view the revolts as the first Lebanese expressions of the modern ideas of nationalism, the public interest, and individual rights. Harik acknowledges that some Maronite peasants understood their revolt to be directed against the privileges of the Druze muqataajis (Harik 1968: 220–21). This communal aspect of the movements makes the dichotomy of “tradition” and “modernity” inadequate for the understanding of the 1820–21 uprisings. They were limited revolts against increased taxes, not revolutions against the social structure of Mount Lebanon. The deployment of ideas and institutions derived from the French republican tradition coexisted with communalism and sharpened tensions between Maronites and Druze (and Muslims).This under-mined Lebanese national identity as much as it promoted it. Bashir II fled Mount Lebanon in 1822 but resumed his demands for increased taxes when he returned in 1823. This led to a military clash with the Junblat family and its supporters in 1825 in which the Junblat partisans were decisively defeated and their lands distributed to supporters of Bashir II. Bashir Junblat was strangled to death by Abd Allah Pasha at the request of Amir Bashir II, and his sons and other Druze notables went into exile. Bashir II’s attacks on the muqataajis and his repeated demands for additional revenues undermined the cohesion of the ruling class of Mount Lebanon and intensified conflict between Druze and Maronites that had been building since the mid-eighteenth century. Bashir II’s alliance with the 1831–40 Egyptian occupation further diminished his popularity. The Egyptians imposed a new head tax (farda), and despite its generally favorable attitude towards non-Muslims, the need for revenue to finance the army led it to insist on collecting the poll tax (jizya) from Christians and Jews, which Christians in Mount Lebanon had not previously been required to pay. In May 1840 Ibrahim Pasha ordered the Druze and Christians of Dayr al-Qamar to surrender their arms, widely understood as a precursor to conscription. Christians, Druze, sunnis and shiia met at Intilyas on June 8, 1840, drew up a covenant expressing their grievances, and resolved “to fight to restore their independence or die”(Khalaf 1987: 37). The revolt and the withdrawal of Ibrahim Pasha after Ottoman troops landed in Beirut with European naval support in September 1840 allowed the sons of Bashir Junblat and other Druze notables to return to Mount Lebanon and forced Bashir II into exile. To recover lands they had lost and over which they claimed ownership, the Druze muqataajis rallied Druze peasants to their banner, provoking widespread sectarian conflict that allowed the Ottoman central government to end the rule of the Shihab family in 1841.


Workers and Peasants in The Modern Middle East

Joel Beinin

Stanford University

Cambridge University Press

Pages 27-32