One year on.

Events in Egypt are escalating so quickly that I’ve written about five different drafts of this blog post.

Q) As transformations in the country’s turbulent political sphere take centre stage in our global media, which issue has, yet again, been sidelined?

A) The most sickening, horrific abuse of human rights in Egypt: the use of sexual violence against women in Tahrir.

Morsi has been overthrown, and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has stepped in to help provide “transitional government”, promising new elections on an as yet unspecified future date. The last time SCAF stepped in after Mubarak’s deposition in 2011, its apparent persistent attempts to cling onto power, along with its defence of horrific violence used against protestors during the revolution, provoked fear and cynicism from the Egyptian people until Morsi was finally handed the baton in June 2012. Morsi’s presidency brought disappointment, disillusionment, and immense frustration with suspected power-grabbing measures and an all-round failure to deliver on the promises of the revolution. With SCAF now holding the reigns once again, I fear that a safe and secure Egypt remains a hazy, distant prospect.

Where are the women of Egypt in all of this? She lies on the ground in Tahrir Square, covered in bruises. She shields her naked body from the clutches of mobs of men. She shivers, she bleeds. She staggers away with the support of brave men and women who fight back against the attackers. Unlike me, she lives not only with the memories, but with the knowledge that this has been done to her in the city she calls home, in the country she loves. This has been done to her because she went to Tahrir and protested for her human rights – utmost among them, the right to walk freely in her city without being raped or sexually harassed.

In the evening of Sunday 30th June, Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault reported 46 cases of sexual assault on female protesters. In the four days of protest that followed, a total of at least 91 women were raped. One widely reported case is the rape of a 22-year-old Dutch girl by five men. Having undergone surgery for “severe” injuries sustained in the attack, she has, thankfully, returned home.

Unsurprisingly, her story hits a nerve. She was attacked almost exactly one year after I was, in the same place. I was making a student documentary; she was interning with an Egyptian news agency. We’re both 22. But her experience is more horrific than I can imagine, more damaging in so many ways than my own experience. It pains me to know that she’s just been through that. I’m trying to get in touch with her to give her the opportunity to contact me if she ever wants to.

More painful is the knowledge that while her story, like my story, has been told by news agencies around the world, scores of Egyptian women suffering these attacks see no reporters telling their stories. 

This is not a new phenomenon; Egyptian women have endured decades of systematic sexual violence. A UN Report published in May this year stated that 99.3% of Egyptian women have experienced some form of sexual violence. As regimes in Egypt have changed, sexual violence as a form of torture has not. Egypt endured the targeted tactics of Mubarak-era, government-paid “thugs” on women in public spaces. Egypt watched as women participating in the 2011 revolution, like Mona Eltahawy, were stripped and beaten in the streets, then detained and sexually abused. Egypt has been, and continues to be, riddled with men who verbally and physically harass women walking down the street – whether through catcalls, groping, or even gang rape. In 2012, the Ministry of the Interior reported 9,468 cases of harassment, 329 sexual assaults, and 112 cases of rape. The afore-mentioned UN Report found only 19% of women report attacks to the police. Nineteen percent – how many more thousands of cases are missing from the Ministry’s statistics?

And, finally, Egypt is now witnessing more sexual attacks on female protesters than ever before; the UN Report also notes that nearly 50% of women reported increased levels of harassment since the revolution.

One key question in all of this: why? Where does Egypt’s sexual harassment endemic really stem from? Many arguments circle the internet. Some blame Islam, some vaguely blame “Middle Eastern culture”. Click here to read a sharp and insightful critique of oversimplified interpretations of sexual violence in the Middle East.

The roots of Egypt’s sexual harassment endemic stretch deep into the fabric of Egyptian politics, history, and society, and are so tangled that it is difficult to find an easy solution. It stems from behaviours learned from fathers and brothers; historic abuses against women committed by members of authority – those figures children are taught to trust and respect; and from poor education that teaches impressionable young boys to grow into misogynistic young men. I have immense respect for men of Egypt who resist these pervasive cultural influences, and are instead supporting Egyptian women in their fight. All of this only scratches the surface of the roots and reasons for sexual harassment in Egypt.

Surely the key to ending an endless cycle of “like father like son” behaviour towards women is: EDUCATION. How can we educate in the modern world? We’re no longer confined by educational institutions or family influences; thanks to the internet, social media, and mobile technologies, we can learn, share, educate, and support each other on a global scale. This is exactly what groups like Sexual Harassment Action Group, Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault, Harassmap, the Whistlestop campaign, and so many more, are doing. Men and women are taking grassroots action to inspire people in Egypt and around the world to change life for women in Egypt. From protest marches to male metro patrols, these brave volunteers are often risking their safety to stand up for their sisters.

On a separate note, I am still going to make my documentary. The producer I have been working with is in Cairo now, filming, and I fear for her safety daily. She has taken this documentary down a slightly different route than I envisaged, and as a result, I have decided to push on and create my own, separate, documentary. But one thing I’ve come to appreciate is how much time this is likely to take.

In the past year, I’ve become far more experienced working in factual television, and it’s made me realise how inexperienced I was before and how much I still have to learn. I was a student last year, not a fully-fledged journalist. In order to do justice to this subject, and make a real impact, I need to make a quality documentary. Quality demands expertise, and funding. Securing funding and getting the documentary commissioned will require a high level of skill and a killer pitch, which will take time to develop. And, crucially, I can only return to Egypt to make this documentary with far greater security measures in place, and a stronger team so I am not going it alone.

So I am now committed to this project on a longer-term basis. That may sound like a cop-out, but it is not; my attitude is simply that if I’m going to do this, I must get it right.

I, along with so many others, feel global news agencies are failing to provide sufficient coverage on women of Egypt. So the responsibility to voice these women’s stories has fallen to volunteers running charitable groups. Please support these groups – links provided above – and search for more. And stay tuned as I develop the documentary, in which my aim is to actually help change the situation, not just to comment on it.

We live in a world where billions of women are subjugated through rape and sexual abuse. Women of Egypt cannot enjoy the simple right to walk down the streets and board public transport without facing harassment. Women of Egypt cannot protest without fearing for their lives. How can we claim to be making progress in this world when these most basic of human rights are continually violated?

This battle will be won by persistence and determination over time. The support of men of Egypt is critical. Backward, misogynistic attitudes must be undermined, the roots of sexual harassment and sexual violence ripped from the ground. Men and women of Egypt are already fighting bravely on the frontline; let us form their cavalry.

Is this Egypt?

Here’s a link to my published article on the sexual harassment of women in Egypt.

Thank you so much to everyone who shared their stories with me. This really is only the beginning!

🙂

http://www.fairobserver.com/article/natasha-smith-is-this-egypt

New beginnings

Things are starting to look brighter. After a month of recuperation and reorganisation of my plans, I’m feeling more optimistic about taking on new challenges and reaching different goals.

Until this summer, I’d been hurtling through life, always feeling I needed to work harder, be stronger, and push myself to the limit with bigger and bigger challenges. My mind never stopped fretting and stressing about whether I was good enough, clever enough, strong enough; whether I could really make my big ambitions a reality. I was overambitious. I was also cursed with ‘Invincibility of Youth’ syndrome, with symptoms including naivety, impulsiveness, recklessness, carelessness, idealism and underestimating danger and difficulty.

Since the attack, I’ve calmed down. I’ve slowed my mind down. I have a different perspective on life, and am rebuilding my life from the ground up. I live in the present, not the past or the future. I see things much more simply, and am enjoying a level of inner peace that I had never experienced until now. I’m much more content just to be alive. I am becoming a happier, healthier, and better person.

I have a lot to organise. I feel passionately about helping to combat the abuse of women both in Egypt and across the world – including the UK – and am trying to find ways to channel that passion into a workable strategy. This project will take time, and a great deal of planning, and I’m not sure exactly what form it will take. Only time will tell.

In September, I am due to undertake a 2-week placement with Unreported World. Undertaking this placement is a really big step for me, having struggled with symptoms of PTSD. But this is a step in the right direction. I’ll gain an insight into what it really takes to become a documentary filmmaker and to work on professional documentaries, from pre- to post-production. I’m very excited, if a little nervous.

Prior to this, I’ll be participating in the ‘Run for Congo Women’ 10K event organised by Women for Women International, who help Congo women survivors of rape to rebuild their lives. This will be my first fundraising event, and I’m so proud and excited to be taking part. Women and children in the Congo are in desperate need of such support, with thousands of women being raped every week; 2011 statistics showed 48 Congo women were being raped every hour. So again, this is a step in the right direction, a chance for me to do something to support women plagued with sexual violence on a daily basis.

This is only the beginning, but it’s a good start. After watching my world come crashing down 6 weeks ago, I’m now feeling better about what I can achieve if I set my mind to it. I have a new direction, a new sense of purpose, and a commitment to furthering the cause of women’s rights and freedom from violence and discrimination across the world.

As the old saying goes: when life gives you lemons…

“Please God. Please make it stop.”

I have been forced to leave Cairo prematurely following a horrific sexual and physical attack in Tahrir Square.

The atmosphere was one of jubilation, excitement, and happiness as I walked, accompanied by two male companions for safety along Kasr El Nil bridge. I had had an awful day, caused by problems in personal relationships, so I was so happy to be in such a wonderful environment, getting such amazing footage. Women, children and fathers smiled, waved, and cheered happily at the camera, calling out the widely used phrase “welcome to Egypt! Welcome!”. Fireworks lit up the sky. It was a moving and captivating experience.

Just as I realised I had reached the end of the bridge, I noticed the crowd became thicker, and decided immediately to turn around to avoid Tahrir Square. My friends and I tried to leave. I tried to put my camera back in my rucksack.

But in a split second, everything changed. Men had been groping me for a while, but suddenly, something shifted. I found myself being dragged from my male friend, groped all over, with increasing force and aggression. I screamed. I could see what was happening and I saw that I was powerless to stop it. I couldn’t believe I had got into this situation.

My friend did everything he could to hold onto me. But hundreds of men were dragging me away, kicking and screaming. I was pushed onto a small platform as the crowd surged, where I was hunched over, determined to protect my camera. But it was no use. My camera was snatched from my grasp. My rucksack was torn from my back – it was so crowded that I didn’t even feel it. The mob stumbled off the platform – I twisted my ankle.

Men began to rip off my clothes. I was stripped naked. Their insatiable appetite to hurt me heightened. These men, hundreds of them, had turned from humans to animals.

Hundreds of men pulled my limbs apart and threw me around. They were scratching and clenching my breasts and forcing their fingers inside me in every possible way. So many men. All I could see was leering faces, more and more faces sneering and jeering as I was tossed around like fresh meat among starving lions.

I shouted “salam! Salam! Allah! Allah!”. In my desperate state I also shouted “ma’is salaama!” which actually means “goodbye” – just about the worst possible thing to say to a horde of men trying to ruin me. I might as well have yelled “goodbye cruel world! Down I go!”

A small minority of men, just a couple at first, tried to protect me and guide me to a tent. The tent was crushed, its contents scattered into shards all over the ground. I was barefoot as they stole my nice new shoes. I was tossed around once more, being violated every second. I was dragged naked across the dirty ground. Men pulled my blonde hair.

The men trying to protect me tried to guide me into another tent. I was able to scramble onto the ground.I sat with my back against a chair and surveyed the surging mob. Although a few men tried to form a human shield around me, offering me rags to cover my bruised body, men were still able to touch me. There were just too many.

I felt surprisingly calm. I understood what was happening and just transcended into a detached state of mind. I gazed around at the bared teeth and raging eyes. The tent began to collapse and I was cloaked in a huge sheet. I was struggling to breathe. One man lifted a tent pole and attempted to strike me with it.

At this point, I said aloud to myself, calmly, over and over, “please God. Please make it stop. Please God. Please make it stop.”

I’m not religious. But at times of desperation, we all feel compelled to appeal to some higher power to save us. It’s human nature. The need to feel safe and loved is what compels many to reach for religion in the first place.

An ambulance forced its way through the crowd. It opened its doors, and was invaded by tens of men. It closed up and drove away.

I began to think, “maybe this is just it. Maybe this is how I go, how I die. I’ve had a good life. Whether I live or die, this will all be over soon. Maybe this is my punishment for some of the emotional pain I’ve caused others through some foolish mistakes and poor judgement recently. I hope it’s quick. I hope I die before they rape me.”

I looked up and saw a couple of women in burkas scattered around. They looked at me blankly, then looked away.

After 5-10 minutes, my friend managed to convince people inside a medical tent to form a pathway through the crowd to guide me into the tent. During transit I was mauled and invaded.

I reached the tent and saw my friend Callum. Muslim women surrounded me and frantically tried to cover my naked body. I fell to the ground and apparently temporarily lost consciousness.

The women told me the attack was motivated by rumours spread by trouble-making thugs that I was a foreign spy, following a national advertising campaign warning of the dangers of foreigners. But if that was the cause, it was only really used as a pretext, an excuse.

The men outside remained thirsty for blood; their prey had been cruelly snatched from their grasp. They peered in, so I had to duck down and hide. They attempted to attack the tent, and those inside began making a barricade out of chairs. They wanted my blood.

Women were crying and telling me “this is not Egypt! This is not Islam! Please, please do not think this is what Egypt is!” I reassured her that I knew that was the case, that I loved Egypt and its culture and people, and the innate peacefulness of moderate Islam. She appeared stunned. But I’m not really a vengeful person and I could see through the situation. This vicious act was not representative of the place I had come to know and love.

After much heated debate, it was decided that Callum and I would leave separately to avoid attracting attention. I was disguised in a burka and men’s clothes and ordered to hold the hand of an Egyptian stranger who would pretend to be my husband. I was terrified but I could see it was the only way out, and had to decide to trust him.

He pulled me through the crowds out of the back of the tent. He told me: “don’t cry. Do not cry. Look normal.”

I was barefoot, dodging broken glass and debris, trawling through mud and dirt. My inner reserves of strength kicked in, and I stopped crying and just thought “keep calm and carry on.”

My trousers had clearly belonged to someone much fatter, and were falling down.

I thought I was being led to an ambulance, or to hospital. The man sat me down by the side of the road, still ordering me not to cry. Eventually, his friends turned up, with Callum. They explained that they couldn’t take us to hospital since they might be arrested if they were seen with us.

One man helpfully suggested: “you want to go to McDonalds? Get some food?” I declined this generous offer of culinary compensation for the evening’s events. Surprisingly, I wasn’t really in the mood for a Big Mac.

Callum and I went on our way. We eventually hailed a taxi. Upon reaching a government hospital downtown, we tried to explain the situation. People stared at us blankly, sloping around the corridors. We were turned away and told to go to a nearby hospital instead. Nobody would take us; we just had to walk there.

Upon arrival, I was eventually ushered into a small cubicle. Two men asked “are you pregnant? Married? A virgin?” They seemed displeased by my response of “no”.

They led me back outside to sit with Callum. I was refused examination and treatment. Eventually I decided I’d just have to check for damage myself. I went to the bathroom and couldn’t believe the reflection. I was dirty, wounded, with hair like a tramp and eyes wide with shock.

For 2-3 hours, people strolled past us, a couple of them making vague attempts at phonecalls to the embassy. At every stage, Callum did everything in his power to speed up the process and talk sense into everyone. It was thanks to him that the people in the medical tent saved me. He effectively saved my life.

Somehow, we ended up with the embassy thinking we were at the police station, the hospital staff not realising we were still at the hospital, and the police thinking we were…god knows where.

I was sat in a room full of men. One of them seemed to be taking a photo of me. I’m not sure why, as I wasn’t exactly looking glamorous. It all made my heart race.

It was Callum’s phonecalls (he had to use other people’s phones as both of ours had been stolen) that bore fruit. Finally our friends turned up with a lady from the embassy. I was taken to a private hospital where a doctor’s first question was “are you married?”, which is of course the most important question to be asking a victim of mass sexual abuse.

He and a female nurse (who only reluctantly kept me covered up) looked briefly at the damage and just wandered off, saying that because I didn’t have internal bleeding, they couldn’t do anything. A useful trip, that was.

Finally, I was taken home by my friends, and put to bed. I didn’t want to tell my family right away, as I knew it would destroy them.

Yesterday, I had a proper examination and darted around sorting things out, spending an eternity giving a police report. People with me were reduced to tears, but I didn’t real feel like crying. People kept telling me “you’re being so brave”, but I just felt like getting on with it. Maybe it’ll catch up with me in a few days, I don’t know.

A few things yesterday made me realise the impact this has had on me. During the examination, which was carried out by a woman, I was crying and shaking. To have someone touch me so soon after the event was terrifying.

Later, I couldn’t bear to be around groups of Egyptian men. And when it got dark, I panicked, and couldn’t bear to look any man in the eye. I clung to Callum all day. As we drove around Cairo, I couldn’t help but think “of all the people we’ve driven past today, one of them must have been in that crowd of hundreds last night. Just one.”

I am determined to continue with my documentary at some point. I have no equipment, (not even any of my photos) am nervous about the possibility of not getting my insurance to cover all the equipment and everything taken from me, and no money to resume the process. But I’ll get there. I have to find a silver lining to this experience. I have to spread awareness; it is my duty to do so. I have to do this; I will not be driven into submission. I will overcome this and come back stronger and wiser. My documentary will be fuelled by my passion to help make people aware of just how serious this issue is, and that it’s not just a passing news story that briefly gets people’s attention then is forgotten. This is a consistent trend and it has to stop. Arab women, western women – there are so many sufferers.

I am determined to return to this wonderful country and city that I love, and meet its people once again. I am determined to challenge the stereotypes and preconceptions that people have of Arab women back in the UK and the US. I have so much to say, and I will say it, in time.

So, to anyone taking risks, whether in the UK or worldwide, please, take care, and don’t make the same mistakes. Don’t be swept up in a wave of euphoria. Don’t let anything cloud your judgement. I was not focused enough because I was distracted by the wonderful atmosphere which was cheering me up after a difficult day.

But don’t let yourself become a victim. Don’t let bad experiences ruin your life and determine your future. One of the worst things two nights ago was that I had never felt so powerless. I had no control and I was violated. But now I can take control and rebuild my confidence, and learn from my experience.

Nothing, and nobody, will hold me back. When I’m ready, I’ll finish this. The show must go on.

Thank you very much for reading.

Refugee Week

My latest Fair Observer article: an insight into the plight of victims of war as refugee week commences on June 18.

Background

The United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) defines Palestinian refugees as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, [and] who lost their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict,” including both Arabs and Jews. Combined, the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and Israel’s invasion and occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip during the 1967 six-day-war prompted over 1 million Palestinian refugees to flee to neighbouring states.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) have since offered aid both to displaced Palestinians and their descendants. As of 2012, there are an estimated 5 million registered Palestinian refugees, many of whom struggle as second-class citizens in Arab states.

Following its liberation from a seven-month Iraqi occupation in March 1991, Kuwait expelled 450,000 Palestinian Arabs. The expulsion was in retaliation to the decision of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to align himself with Saddam Hussein, who had invaded Kuwait in August 1990. These refugees sought shelter in Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and other Gulf states. The majority have not returned to Kuwait and have struggled to settle elsewhere.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq triggered widespread outbreaks of violence. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 4.7 million Iraqis have since been displaced or have fled to Jordan, Syria and other Middle Eastern states to escape continued bloodshed. The volatile security situation prevents millions of expatriates and those internally displaced from returning home.

The Rwandan Civil War of 1990-1993 reflected decades of ethnic tension between the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority. After government-backed militias carried out the genocide of the Tutsi population in 1994, Tutsi rebels fought back and defeated the Hutu regime. This drove around two million Hutu refugees to flee to neighbouring Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda and Congo in what is commonly known as the Great Lakes Refugee Crisis.

The international community responded with one of the largest ever humanitarian relief efforts. However, when Hutu troops infiltrated and militarised the camps to attack the Tutsi-led Rwandan Popular Front government, many aid organisations withdrew their support.

The Rwandan government continues to push for a UN-backed programme to repatriate Rwandan refugees.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo became embroiled in the Tutsi-Hutu conflict after thousands of Rwandan Hutu refugees escaped to Congo following the genocide, allied themselves with Mobutu’s government, and began attacking Congo’s Tutsi population. Rwandan-sponsored Tutsi rebels then instigated attacks against the Congolese government and the Hutu population in the east. Recent reports indicate that several thousand Congolese refugees have crossed over to Rwanda and Uganda in the past two months alone to escape sustained conflict.

Why is Refugee Week Relevant?

Refugee Week is an annual celebration of the continued cultural, academic, and artistic contributions of refugees to the United Kingdom. It was established in 1998 to counter increasing hostility towards refugees and asylum seekers in Britain. Though a national event, the integration and treatment of refugees is of international relevance.

The 2011 Libyan civil war drove approximately 750,000 thousand refugees to Chad, Egypt, Tunisia, and Mediterranean countries – often to a hostile reception. Many have since returned willingly to Libya, despite continuing violence.

The ongoing conflict in Syria, meanwhile, drives tens of thousands of civilians each month into refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. The International Committee of the Red Cross warns that 1.5 million displaced Syrians are still in desperate need of extensive humanitarian aid as thousands more stream across the border.

The commonality of the hostile reception received by refugees in host countries highlights the global need for greater understanding of the mutual benefits – cultural and economic – that integrating refugees can have for host countries.

Forever sidelined?

Tensions in Egypt are reaching boiling point. Egyptians are understandably outraged by the verdict in the trial of Mubarak and his government associates, which has absolved members of his government of blame over the killing of around 850 protestors. Although Mubarak has been sentenced to life imprisonment, many Egyptians feel he should have been given a death sentence.

This takes place against the backdrop of continuing civil unrest over the election results. Many Egyptians feel cheated, as they are now forced to choose the lesser of two apparent evils: either take the risk of returning to Mubarak-style government under former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, or gamble on theocracy from the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate Mohammed Mursi. By the time I arrive on June 15, I anticipate widespread protest (which is more than likely to turn violent) and a very tense atmosphere as the election run-off takes place on June 16-17.

Mursi has assured that, if he is elected president, the MB will retry Mubarak and his associates – a potential vote-winner that may distract people from apprehensions over the possibility of repressive theocracy under an Islamist government. Moreover, incentives for those Egyptians seeking change to vote for Shafiq are rapidly dwindling as he maintains his support for the Mubarak verdict and dismisses calls for his removal from the race on grounds of his ties to the old regime.

The battle for justice and for a political settlement that satisfies all Egyptian citizens is unifying men and women of various ages in protest. However, as noble as this defiance may appear, it concerns me that the social, cultural, personal and political rights of women in Egypt are once again being sidelined as the above controversies take centre stage.

Questions like ‘will there be more women in parliament under a MB government?’ and ‘will the MB condone or even support a resurgence of female genital mutilation if they come into power?’ are no longer attracting the same amount of attention now that more pressing questions, such as ‘how serious will Egypt’s civil unrest get?’ and ‘will young revolutionaries boycott the elections?’ take priority. This is understandable. Yet women are central to every political development taking place. As Mariz Tadros notes: “the political battles over who reigns over Egypt are not only being fought over presidential and parliamentarian seats, but also over who can claim more control over a woman’s body.”

I fear recent history looks set to repeat itself:

1) Egyptian women will protest alongside Egyptian men.

2) When the heat dies down, men will wrench control away from women, turning their hopes for equality to dust.

Despite feeling nervous about embarking on my documentary, as events unfold, I become evermore confident that I am taking part in something critical to Egypt’s future: the fight for gender equality after decades of discrimination and various forms of abuse, and the battle to make women’s voices heard as the struggles between men take centre stage. Moving commentaries like this one from Lorna, a belly dancer who will feature in my documentary, on the situation for Egyptian women from different social classes fuel my determination to do justice to this very pressing issue.

Lebanon: caught between a rock and a hard place since 1967

Here’s my latest article for Fair Observer: a context piece on the complexities of Lebanon’s modern history from independence to present day. From the Israel-Palestine conflict to Syria’s civil war, Lebanon has found itself embroiled in politico-religious tensions between other Middle Eastern nations for decades.

A background summary of Lebanese domestic and foreign affairs since the end of French colonial rule.

Background

Lebanon has been the battleground for some of the Middle East’s most bitter conflicts. Yet, it has also enjoyed periods of prosperity. Over the past four decades, animosity between the country’s Christian and Muslim populations and influxes of Palestinian refugees has embroiled the country in major internal and external clashes involving Israel, Palestine, and Syria.

Lebanon declared its independence in 1941 following 21 years under the French mandate. In 1943, an unwritten National Covenant laying out the structure of the state distributed parliamentary seats on a six-to-five ratio in favour of Christians. This distribution was based on a 1932 census, when the country had a Christian majority. No census has since been taken, prompting repeated calls from Lebanese Muslims for a new census to bring proportionate parliamentary representation for the increased Muslim population. In 1989, a Charter of National Reconciliation finally redressed the balance of Christians and Muslims in the National Assembly, abolishing the six-to-five ratio.

The 1967 six-day war marked the onset of major conflict in Lebanon. Although Lebanon played no active role in the war, it became entangled in the conflict after Palestinian fighters began using the country as a base for anti-Israeli attacks.

Violent exchanges between Lebanese Phalangist militia and Palestinian guerrillas in 1975, dragged Lebanon into a protracted civil war. Syrian troops invaded in 1976 to restore peace and curb Palestinian groups, resulting in the killing of thousands of Palestinians.

In response to Palestinian assaults, Israel invaded southern Lebanon in 1978, but withdrew under UN pressure. However, the assassination of Shlomo Argov, Israel’s ambassador to Britain, by a Palestinian splinter group provoked a full-scale invasion in June 1982. The same year saw the Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinian civilians by the Lebanese Phalangist militia under the watch of Ariel Sharon, Israeli defence minister at the time.

The civil war ended in 1990 after many years of death and destruction.

Why is Lebanon relevant?

Domestic politics appeared promising in 1990, as Omar Karami forged a government of national reconciliation. The Lebanese government has since become increasingly unstable, with consistent power wrangling between a small cluster of politicians, along with religiously and territorially motivated assassinations.

The National Assembly ordered the dissolution of all militias in 1991, although Hezbollah was permitted to remain active and the South Lebanon Army refused to disband.

Israel has remained determined to end the threat from Hezbollah. This has involved the bombing of Hezbollah bases in southern Lebanon and an attack on a UN base that killed over 100 displaced Lebanese civilians sheltering there.

Meanwhile, Israel withdrew its troops from southern Lebanon in May 2000.

In February 2005, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed in a car bombing, provoking anti-Syrian protests and increased demands for the withdrawal of Syrian forces. The assassination led to a protracted trial, first by the UN and later at The Hague, which indicted four Hezbollah members in 2011; Hezbollah claims the trial was manipulated by Israel.

As a result of anti-Syrian sentiment, Syria initiated the withdrawal of soldiers from Lebanon in accordance with a UN resolution in 2005.

Furthermore, the seizure of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah led to the 2006 Lebanon war between the armed militant group and Israel. The war caused over 1,000 deaths, mostly civilians, and major infrastructural damage, displacing thousands. After 34 days of fighting, a ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah was put in force on August 14.

Meanwhile, as Hezbollah and pro-government skirmishes in 2008 sparked fears of civil war, parliament elected army chief Michel Suleiman as president, ending protracted political deadlock. Politicians then set to work establishing a national unity government – a task successfully completed by newly elected PM Saad Hariri in 2009.

However, this unity was short-lived; the government collapsed in January 2011 after Hezbollah ministers and their allies resigned. A fresh government, led by PM Najib Mikati, awarded a majority of seats to Hezbollah and its allies.

More recently, the ongoing Syrian conflict spilled over into Lebanon earlier this year as several people have been killed in Tripoli in Sunni-Alawite clashes.