Many saw the Shi‘i revolt in west Beirut and its southern suburbs in February 1984 as the sudden and unexpected mass uprising of a rapidly expanding social group in the midst of a tumultuous religious revivalism. But the February uprising was a significant social movement, with roots in the profound social transformation of the Shi‘i community over the course of 30 years, from Lebanese independence at the end of World War II to the beginning of the civil war in 1975.

The Shi‘i movement first emerged in spectacular fashion under the leadership of the charismatic Imam Musa al-Sadr in the winter of 1974. From the outlying regions in the south and the northeast to the gates of Beirut, Imam al-Sadr’s movement signified the transformation of the Shi’a into a major new actor on the social and political scene. It represented the movement of the Shi‘a toward Beirut and toward the center of Lebanese political life. On February 6, 1984, the Shi‘a rose in revolt in the heart of the capital, affirming themselves as a force that would have to be included in any new arrangement of the Lebanese political system.

The Shift to Beirut

In the late 1940s, nearly 85 percent of the Lebanese Shi‘a were concentrated in two “heartlands,” one in the south, in the area known as Jebel Amel, and the other in the northeast region of Ba‘lbek-Hermel. They were a homogeneous and rural people. No more than 10 percent of the entire community lived in cities. The vast majority of the Shi‘i peasantry lived on meager plots with poor soil and very limited water resources. They practiced subsistence dry farming (primarily grains, olive trees and vineyards in the south, grains and some orchards in Ba‘lbek). Only tobacco production, well suited to the dry plateaus of southern Lebanon and grown as a cash crop, had expanded since the 1930s. But in 1948, tobacco was still a minor crop, planted in only three percent of the cultivated area of the south and involving some 3,000 to 4,000 farmers.

In the Hermel area, the main form of property ownership was collectively-owned (mushaa‘a) land, more often grazing area than a well-defined holding. In the Ba‘lbek area, very large private property existed alongside fields collectively owned by villages. The breakup of large tracts of land into smaller, private holdings had been under way since the 1930s, but peasant smallholdings were still insignificant except near the towns and larger villages of Jebel Amel. The peasants gradually increased their access to the land through contract planting and buying the property of bankrupt feudal lords with savings from wage labor in the countryside and towns, and as time went on, a prosperous middle peasantry emerged. But the distribution of property remained very unequal. Large estates still accounted for three-fourths of the best land in the Shi‘i countryside.

Although very few Shi‘a lived in the cities, a number of important small towns grew up in the Shi‘i areas during the period between the two world wars. This was due primarily to the caravan routes between northern Syria, southern Syria, Palestine and the Lebanese coast. Fairs and markets were held in such towns as Tyre, Bint Jbeil, Nabatiyyeh, Jwayya, Khiam and Ba‘lbek, where people concluded business deals and exchanged the various regional agricultural products. Related cottage industries developed in this commercial atmosphere—shoemaking in Bint Jbeil and pottery in Rashayyah al-Fakhar, for example.

In spite of these changes, the Shi‘i community had not yet experienced the social disruption, peasant revolts, or rapid expansion of export farming that had already transformed the Maronite area of Mount Lebanon as it was integrated into the world capitalist economy. In 1948, Shi‘a were only 3.5 percent of the population of Beirut. The Shi‘i community was socially, economically and even culturally peripheral (68.9 percent illiteracy as compared with 31.5 percent among Catholics in 1943). It was equally peripheral to the Lebanese political system that had developed under the French mandate and was consolidated with independence. The intercommunal National Pact of 1943 was essentially a division of power between the Maronite and Sunni political elites. From the 1920s to the mid-1950s, Shi‘i political representation was practically monopolized by six prominent landowning families—the Asads, the Zeins and the Ossirans in southern Lebanon, and the Hamadehs, the Haidars and the Husseinis in Ba‘lbek and Bint Jbeil. This elite was divided into quarreling rival factions. They were constantly shifting between alliance with and opposition to the central power in Beirut. The Shi‘i community, representing less than a fifth of the population, was an insignificant force in Lebanese society and politics at the end of the 1950s.

During the following quarter of a century, this situation changed radically. Export agriculture expanded rapidly. Banking and commercial networks based in Beirut, Sidon and Zahle spread throughout the Shi‘i rural areas. This completely restructured traditional social and productive relations. Sharecropping practically disappeared (down to only five percent of agricultural workers by 1970). Food production greatly diminished (only 15 percent of food consumed was locally grown by 1970-1975). Farmers increasingly specialized in two branches of export agriculture: nearly two-thirds of the value of agricultural production was concentrated in the cultivation of fruit trees and poultry farming. The number of agricultural wage earners increased and included non-Lebanese labor. Above all, the peasantry was in a state of permanent and deepening crisis, indebted to and exploited by the merchants, the moneylenders and small local banks, and the suppliers of machinery, fertilizer and pesticides. The development of certain industrial crops such as tobacco and sugar beets was blocked by powerful commercial cartels like the cigarette and sugar importers who had great influence on government policy. Thousands of sharecroppers and poor Shi‘i peasant families were uprooted by indebtedness and bankruptcy, and forced to sell their property and move to the miserable suburbs of Beirut in search of work and better living conditions. More than 40 percent of the rural population had migrated by 1975. In the south, migration was more than 60 percent.

A second process was the gradual integration of the outlying Shi‘i regions under the control of the Lebanese state administration and the dominant Beirut-based commercial and financial interests. This began with independence, but accelerated during the 1960s.

A third process was also at work: migration to other countries. Under the French mandate, the migration went mainly to West Africa, and primarily affected villages and market towns like Nabatiyyeh, Bint Jbeil, Tyre and Jwayya. During the 1950s and 1960s, emigration was increasingly oriented to the Arab oil-producing countries (especially Kuwait and Libya) and affected many more villages. The social effects of emigration on the Shi‘i community were considerable. Local power relations in the villages shifted. Traditional notables and religious families lost ground in favor of the wealthy returning migrants who purchased land and orchards, established new commercial networks and carved out their own spheres of social influence. A new Shi‘i bourgeoisie emerged. As a newcomer, it could not compete directly with the Sunni and Christian bourgeoisies, so had to seek its fortune in the relatively secondary sectors: real estate development, citrus crop cultivation, leisure activities, and trade with Africa. In the early 1970s, this Shi‘i bourgeoisie began to expand its activities. Shi‘i overseas capital now entered the banks, industries and large business concerns. Finally, a new Shi‘i elite emerged, including religious figures, politicians and financiers.

Eve of the Civil War

By 1974, the Shi‘a had ceased to be a largely rural community, situated on poor lands in marginal areas; now they were nearly two-thirds (63 percent) urban, and more than 45 percent of these urban-dwellers were concentrated in Beirut and its suburbs. The Shi‘a were now split into two groups, one at the center and the other at the periphery of the Lebanese system, though the ties between them remained very close.

A high birth rate and an improvement in sanitary conditions in the countryside speeded up the Shi‘i exodus to the metropolis. In 1948, the Shi‘a numbered 225,000, or 18.2 percent of the population. They were the third largest community after the Maronites and the Sunni. By 1975 they had grown to an estimated 750,000, representing nearly 30 percent of the population, perhaps the largest community in the country. Not long before, they had been largely illiterate, confined to a declining agriculture and dominated by a small traditional elite of large landowners and a reactionary clergy. Now, their class structure had changed significantly, with a new migrant bourgeoisie, a layer of middle-level salaried workers in the cities, an industrial proletariat in the suburbs of Beirut and a community of migrant workers in the Arab oil-producing countries.

The Shi‘a now had an active and radicalized intelligentsia, an ambitious and enterprising counter-elite, and other new strata with new demands. They began to challenge the rules of the game and to question the distribution of power and resources in the Lebanese system. In this context, the movement of Imam al-Sadr was born in the early 1970s, an expression of the demographic and socioeconomic shift of the Shi‘a from the periphery toward the city-state of Beirut.

The movement was called different names: the Movement of Imam Musa al-Sadr, the Movement of the Dispossessed (Harakat al-Mahrumin), the Movement for the Rights of the Shi‘a, or, more simply, “the Shi‘a Movement.” Whatever the name, it was a mass movement in the Lebanese Shi‘a community, guided and inspired by its spiritual head and charismatic leader, Imam Musa al-Sadr.

During the years before the outbreak of civil war in 1975, the movement attempted to satisfy its social and political demands through various forms of mobilization, pressure and action. This had a powerful effect on the sectarian balance and the functioning of the political system and the state administration. It was a popular movement with a strong rural base in the major outlying towns, and among the clans of Ba’lbek and the uprooted migrants in the suburbs of Beirut. Stimulated by the sermons and the energetic personal action of Imam al-Sadr himself, it was essentially a spontaneous popular upsurge defined by religion and by its social base. Its main constituents were the dispossessed urban migrants, the poverty-ridden peasantry, the growing petty bourgeoisie whose advancement was blocked, and the new bourgeoisie which was excluded from the political system.

The movement used moral and religious language and themes based on the Shi‘i tradition of protest. As a movement of “moral” rebirth and community reorganization, it was clearly a reaction to the breakdown of rural Lebanon and the crisis of the new migrants in the cities. It was also a political movement of self-defense against the increasing Israeli attacks, and a means of pressuring the state to take action.

The movement was largely autonomous, beginning to develop its own character in the summer of 1973. Yet it was also part of the general mobilization and the intercommunal conflict in Lebanon during the 1970s. As such, it often took part in larger actions with the Lebanese left and the Palestinian resistance movement. Links with the Palestinian resistance were initially quite strong. In 1975, the Palestinians began to provide training bases, instructors and arms to the movement’s military organization, Amal. There was also a strong political and religious affinity between the Lebanese movement and the Iranian opposition to the shah led by Ayatollah Khomeini.

The movement grew at a fairly steady pace over several years. Occasionally there were periods of intense activity such as mass rallies, religious celebrations, political actions, sit-ins, strikes, and the observation of national solidarity days. Such major events occurred practically every month during 1974 and 1975.

It is difficult to pinpoint the birth of the movement, but two dates in particular stand out. On May 22, 1969, Imam Musa al-Sadr was elected to head the Supreme Shi‘i Council (SSC) which had been created by the Lebanese parliament and charged with administering the religious affairs of the Shi‘i community. The second date, June 6, 1973, was that of the special joint session of the shari‘a committee and the executive committee of the SSC, which drafted a memorandum to the Lebanese government presenting a list of 16 demands and setting a deadline of four months. Thirteen Shi‘i ministers and members of parliament threatened to resign or call for a vote of no confidence if their demands were not met. The first date marks the emergence of a new political initiative and the beginning of mobilization within the Shi‘i community. This was followed by a period of incubation, during which strategy was formulated and the movement was strengthened internally. The second date marks the real takeoff point for the movement, which now entered a period of expanded organizing and intensified collective action that went on throughout 1973, 1974 and 1975.

Goals and Opponents

The name of the movement was stabilized as Harakat al-Mahrumin (Movement of the Dispossessed) in 1974. The leaders did not want to come out right away as an explicitly sectarian group within the Lebanese system. They deliberately left the constituency of the movement ambiguous: at times it was the Shi‘a, at other times it was all the dispossessed or citizens deprived of their rights. There was a strong consciousness of belonging to the Shi‘i community, with its history, traditions and culture, its historical oppression and its secular struggle. But the movement laid claim to a wider mission: to save Lebanon from social crisis, from the incompetence of the government and from the “monopolists” who were enemies of the country.

As a movement for the emancipation of oppressed people, how did it perceive its adversaries? The internal enemy was defined in general terms: the monopolists, the exploiters, the privileged few or the “modern tyrants,” the “government of despots,” the “complacent and incompetent officials,” the “government that exploits the people.” Nowhere, neither in speeches and publications nor in slogans, banners and chants at demonstrations, was there a clear and precise social definition of the adversary, even when there was a very specific class conflict at issue, such as the movement of the tobacco growers or that of the fishermen of Sidon and the coast. There were strong moral overtones in the picture of the enemy, seen as the “money lover,” “sucking the blood of the people,” and using “infernal methods, such as war, fanaticism and racial discrimination” to maintain domination. The external enemy, Israel, was identified as evil, criminal, coveting the land of the south and the water of Lebanon, and likened to Yezid, the caliph who murdered Hussein, one of the most venerated of the Shi‘i imams.

The movement most often defined the enemy as a group, very rarely as a system. When it spoke of a system, this was always the Lebanese confessional system, guilty of discriminating against its citizens and standing in the way of their development. There was virtually never any reference to class relations. The relationship to the adversary was above all one of domination and exploitation. The favorite targets of attack were the political centers, primarily the Lebanese political class, secondarily the state of Israel. There were no attacks against the centers of economic power as such. The adversary was almost always defined by conduct, rarely by interests.

The main purpose of the movement was to defend a community in crisis—the crisis of breakdown in rural Lebanon, of Israeli attacks, of mass rural exodus, and of proletarianization. The movement also sought to achieve “equality” with other communities within the Lebanese confessional system, including a share in the administration, the national budget and the economy.

Two themes of the movement’s discourse stand out. First is the relationship of the community with the state and the resulting distribution of wealth. This was often discussed in terms of the unfair allocation of government posts and civil service jobs, as well as discriminatory economic and social policies (not enough development projects or irrigation schemes, limits on tobacco production, and so forth). There was also the extreme backwardness and poverty of most Shi‘i areas and the monopoly of a minority over political power. The second main theme of the movement was the relationship of the Shi‘i community to the Arab-Israeli war. There were constant references to the Israeli attacks which concentrated on south Lebanon, the need for a national defense, and the right and duty of popular self-defense.

The movement saw change as working to the detriment of the Shi‘a, contributing to their social marginalization, their exclusion from power, and the historical backwardness of the Shi‘i hinterland. The goal was to remove the barriers, particularly at the level of state employment, development policy and the confessional and regional allocation of funds. The Lebanese ruling class and the confessional system stood in the way of advancement for the Shi‘i community—and the dispossessed in general—and jeopardized the future of the country itself.

The movement emphasized economic development as a means of bringing south Lebanon and the Ba‘lbek region up to the level of the rest of the country. Detailed lists of projects were proposed, stressing irrigation schemes (dams, irrigation networks, reservoirs) and infrastructure (schools, hospitals, roads). The movement’s view of economic development was narrowly conceived. It was short-term and regionally limited. Furthermore, the movement saw economic development in terms of distribution, not production. It demanded a truly proportionate share, seeing the state alone as responsible for economic development and backwardness.

The movement’s political program included:

  • A gradual reform of the confessional system, to begin by eliminating the confessional distribution of civil service posts except at the highest executive and legislative levels.
  • A chamber of religions to be created alongside the chamber of deputies (parliament). This body would strike a balance between the sects and arbitrate among them. It would meet for one month each year to take up cases of discrimination and “correct the unequal opportunities” available to citizens in their “democratic competition.”
  • A change in the electoral law to “allow for a better representation of the political aspirations of the Lebanese public.” The proposed system was a proportional one, which would clearly give the Shi‘a a greater voice.
  • Overall improvement in the quality and morality of political life. As Imam al-Sadr said in late 1974, “the movement was not established to take power or win portfolios or seats in parliament. Our purpose is to reform the political climate, not to elect politicians. We are struggling against corruption and voter intimidation, but it is not our role to influence the voter’s choice.”

Social goals seem to have been most important for the movement: to challenge the monopoly of privilege, to achieve a fairer distribution of wealth, to struggle against confessional and regional inequality. Next came the political goals: to increase the national role of the Shi‘a and their political and religious leadership and to force the state to adopt a serious national defense policy. Economic and cultural goals seem to have been less important.

Mobilization and Political Action

All observers agree that the Movement of Imam al-Sadr mobilized very broad social support within the Shi‘i community. He formed a multi-class bloc whose goal was to bring together all parts of Shi‘i society. The movement gradually effected a social and political realignment within the Shi‘i community itself. As of early 1975, before the movement gained hegemony, the community was structured politically into three main components:

  • Followers of the traditional leaders, including large landowners, heads of clans, traditional clergy, tenant farmers, part of the small peasantry, minor officials, and the subproletariat.
  • Followers of the Movement of the Dispossessed (al-Sadr), including the new agrarian and commercial “emigrant” bourgeoisie, small artisans and merchants, the crisis-wracked small peasantry, the new intellectual elite (professionals and civil servants), young office workers, teachers, and new migrants to the cities (working class and low-level salaried workers in the administration and the service sector).
  • Followers of the Marxist and Ba‘thist left, including some of the new intelligentsia (professors, lawyers, journalists, teachers), pauperized peasants, agricultural and industrial workers.

The movement of Imam al-Sadr gained predominance only gradually. It continued to have groups to its right and left, whose supporters were drawn from different social strata and who only recognized its primacy toward the spring of 1975. Demonstrations and rallies are one indicator of the relative strength of the three groups. The movement regularly drew between 70,000 and 100,000 people to mass rallies in 1974. These were enormous and unprecedented for Lebanon. The left could draw between 20,000 and 30,000 (nearly half of whom were Shi’a), while the traditional Shi‘i notable Kamal As&lsquolad was able to bring out between 5,000 and 10,000.

There was only one by-election during this period, held in December 1974 in the southern town of Nabatiyyeh, but it served as an important test of strength. The candidate backed by Imam al-Sadr received 20,000 votes, compared with 7,000 for the one backed by As‘ad and 5,000 for the two candidates fielded by the left.

A third indicator is perhaps the most telling. The executive committee of the Supreme Shi‘i Council was chosen, by an electorate of 1,200 council members, most of whom were politicians, high-ranking officials, members of the liberal professions, academics, union presidents and the like. In the May 1975 elections for 12 seats on the committee, the leftwing parties won five seats, al-Sadr’s candidates won five, and the two remaining were on the left but personally very close to the Imam. By 1975, then, the movement of Imam al-Sadr was the most significant grouping at the base, with a level of mass support higher than 80 percent. It also held a clear majority of the Shi‘i “electorate,” but it was only the equal of the various leftwing parties among the intelligentsia, the bureaucracy and the newer Shi‘i middle class.

The leftist Shi‘i intelligentsia, activists in the progressive parties, adopted restraint towards the movement of the Imam during 1973 and 1974. Meanwhile, al-Sadr fought an open struggle against the traditional Shi‘i leadership, led by Kamal As‘ad. As‘ad was then speaker of parliament and leader of a bloc of nine Shi‘i deputies. Eventually, in early 1975, the growing popularity of the movement forced As‘ad’s resignation. The movement also won the allegiance of the secondary traditional notables, and a more cooperative stance on the part of the Shi‘i left, whose willingness to “work from within” led to the successful election of seven of their candidates in May 1975 to the Supreme Shi‘i Council. Five or six years after its emergence, the movement of Imam al-Sadr had finally succeeded in giving the Shi‘i community a strong and united political leadership.

Religious Symbolism

The movement mobilized the Shi‘i community in the midst of a general ideological crisis. The values of the old feudal and tribal world were breaking down. The traditional authority of the state and the za‘ims was collapsing with the spread of Ba‘thism, communism and Nasserism. The traditional concept of religion was losing ground to the liberal ideology of the urban marketplace.

On the symbolic level, the movement was a struggle against many old ways. It was against the alienation of the Shi‘i masses and against traditional ideas about the relationship between the peasants and rural leaders. It was also against the relationship between the masses and the central government, against the traditional concept of the status of the Shi‘a and their place in the history of Lebanon, against traditional religion as instilled by the dominant ideology, and against the image of the movement itself, as created by government propaganda.

The movement drew heavily on Shi‘i religious heritage, with its symbolism, its rituals, its values and its heroes. Shi‘i ideology had always been the principal Islamic ideology of social protest. The movement attempted to reinterpret these symbols, to give a contemporary meaning to the rituals and to draw out their implications for the current struggle. It used religious symbolism to legitimize political action. As al-Sadr said at the time of the SSC elections in early 1975, “we began our movement in this way because we believe in God and we know that the believer who is unconcerned with the fate of the dispossessed is an unbeliever and a liar.”

Religious symbolism provided a direct translation of social struggles into a religious code, giving them a frame of reference. “I invite all southerners to demand their rights because anyone who doesn’t speak up for his rights is a mute devil,” said the Imam in late 1984. “The price of tobacco hasn’t risen in 12 years. Everything else has gone up while the price of tobacco remains the same, as though it were alms distributed to the poor. They ask us to pay our taxes, and the money goes to the monopolists and their accomplices. We’ve paid our dues, but do we have security? Is the state concerned?”

The movement used religious symbolism to evoke the collective memory of the community—the Shi‘i history of repeated revolts against the Umayyads, the Abbasids, the Mamluks, the Ottomans and the French. This history is symbolized by the life of Imam Hussein, hero of the Shi‘i community, whose tragic story is reenacted every year during the festival of ‘Ashura. There are frequent commemorations of other important historical figures as well. The movement usually held mass rallies on such occasions, and al-Sadr always began by recalling the event and the person being commemorated and drawing a lesson for the current struggle.

Imam al-Sadr often invoked the thoughts and actions of the Shi‘i founders to underline the fundamental virtues of the movement. As al-Sadr said in an ‘Ashura sermon in early 1974, “Imam Hussein explained the motivation for his action in two sentences: justice does not prevail and injustice is not forbidden. I ask you, if he were among us today and saw not only that justice does not prevail, but that justice is scorned, what would he do?” A month later he called on Shi‘i traditions again in a defense against his critics: “Ali, the prince of believers, was called an atheist and condemned from the pulpit for 80 years. The judge of Kufa accused Hussein, son of Ali, of having gone too far. Now they accuse me of going too far, saying my duty is to be content to defend the faith. Faith is not what props up your thrones, O rulers!”

The use of religious symbolism implied a cult of the charismatic leader. There were many signs of this during the critical years 1974-75. Al-Sadr’s portrait was pasted on walls of towns and villages or carried by demonstrators. One of the slogans most often repeated at mass rallies was, “Our blood and our souls are yours, Imam.” Al-Sadr sought to create a feeling of oneness between himself and the masses, walking barefooted among the crowd and letting himself be touched and kissed. Reportedly, during a mass meeting in Tyre, his robe was torn and his turban was completely blackened from having been touched by so many hands. In all his speeches he sought to identify himself with the ideal Imam, the spiritual guide, the just man, the perfect Muslim. He often compared himself to the Shi‘i founding fathers, the Prophet’s cousin Imam Ali and his son Imam Hussein.

Al-Sadr presided over reconciliation ceremonies between feuding Shi‘i clans and extended families, encouraging them to overcome traditional local conflicts for the sake of larger group solidarity. He spent numerous religious and civil holidays in southern border villages presiding over religious ceremonies, while the local hierarchy usually traveled to the capital to celebrate. He also engaged in symbolic resistance. In February 1975 he prayed in the mosque of Kfar Shuba, a border village that had been half destroyed by Israeli artillery and bombs and abandoned by its inhabitants. Through the media, he called to the villagers, and to all southerners, to return and defend themselves. In late June 1975, he began a hunger strike in a Beirut mosque to protest the civil war. His action triggered a series of protests thoughout the Shi‘i regions, including dozens of local demonstrations and strikes and the occupation of a number of government offices.

The ideology of the movement was clearly controlled by the leadership, and in particular by Imam al-Sadr himself. His themes, slogans, images and even his style were easily recognizable in the pamphlets and communiques of the Supreme Shi‘i Council and the Movement of the Dispossessed, on banners, wall posters and in the conversation of movement participants.

Violence and Social Change

The movement had two policies on the use of violence as a means to bring about change. It officially rejected violence directed toward the internal adversary, while advocating all kinds of pressure tactics and non-violent actions, including mass rallies, strikes and demonstrations. On the other hand, the movement encouraged and actively planned violence against the external adversary (Israel). Faced with what it considered to be an abdication by the state, and paralysis of the army by the political class, the movement called for popular self-defense and created its own military organization, training camps, and cadres.

In fact, the followers of the movement did use certain forms of violence against local adversaries, including armed demonstrations and roadblocks. Armed men occupied and sometimes sacked police stations, as in Marjayoun in February 1975 to protest the lack of defense for the border villages, and in Ba‘lbek in June 1975 in support of Imam al-Sadr’s hunger strike. Many movement followers, as well as cadre, probably participated in the first clashes of the civil war in late May 1975 in the southern Beirut suburb of Shiyah.

The movement’s attitude towards Israel was basically defensive, while its attitude toward the internal adversary and social change was clearly offensive. “They will never bring the south to its knees,” said al-Sadr at ‘Ashura in 1975. “They cannot humiliate Hussein’s people, who would have been proud to stand with him a thousand years ago…. No one can kill a people. If we stand up to them, even if it means suicide, there will be others after us who will stand up. The reign of Israel will disappear like the reign of the Umayyads…” Earlier, at a mass rally in Tyre in 1974, he said, “It is our duty to form a Lebanese resistance before we’re expelled from our land…. Even if the government fails to perform its duty, it is still the people’s duty to defend themselves…. Anyone who doesn’t know how to handle a weapon is straying from the teaching of our Imams Ali and Hussein.”

The offensive nature of the movement’s internal strategy is suggested in the text of the Pact of the Movement of the Dispossessed (1975): “Our movement is the movement of all the dispossessed. It lives their sufferings and shares their grievances. It studies the solutions and sets to work immediately to put them into effect…. Our movement is the movement of every Lebanese who is deprived in the present and worried about the future. It is the Lebanese movement toward a better future.” “If the ruling class won’t discharge its duty, we will build the future by ourselves. We want to save the country from those who are plundering it and leading it to its destruction.”

There were several stages in the movement’s use of action, and a gradual shift away from political pressure tactics to the creation of a military organization. From June 1973 to February 1974, there were street demonstrations, letters, petitions and institutional pressures. Between February and November 1974, negotiations were broken off and there were armed mass rallies, strikes and threats of civil disobedience. December 1974 saw the first participation of the movement in the legislative by-elections. From January to May 1975 there was a return to petitions, demonstrations and institutional pressures. From May to July 1975 there were general strikes and hunger strikes, roadblocks and the official birth of the movement’s military arm, Amal. Within this crescendo of action, tactical flexibility and the needs of the moment resulted in a variety of forms and combinations of political action.

The movement alternated between periods when the emphasis was on the spontaneity of the mass movement and the charisma of its leader, and periods when it tried to consolidate its gains by developing the organization and training cadres. Mass activities had a highly charged atmosphere: thousands of voices chanting slogans, the shrill cries of women, the jostling to touch Imam al-Sadr and receive his baraka, extended ovations, shooting in the air to welcome the imam or merely to punctuate his speech. Sometimes there were deliberate attempts to heighten the emotional level, for al-Sadr was capable of inflaming the crowds by his speech. “Collective vows” were taken by tens of thousands of people repeating after the Imam. For big events like general strikes or the Imam’s hunger strike, the muezzins called out the people (similar to sounding the tocsin in Christian villages). Yet the primary characteristic of the movement remained the spontaneity of the mass actions, which often went far beyond the plans of the organizers.

Back to Beirut

The end of the first phase of the Lebanese civil war (December 1975) was also the end of the first phase of the movement. 1976 brought the direct and open involvement of the Palestinians and the Syrian army and the collapse of the Lebanese army and state. Henceforth the nature of the Lebanese conflict would be quite different. The new phase saw the disappearance or the transformation of the communal movements of the early 1970s. The Shi‘i movement would reemerge in different form, beginning in 1977-78, to play a major role in the struggle. Behind the success of the movement of Imam al-Sadr through this first phase were several important principles:

  • To form the broadest possible front including Shi‘a of all classes and all manner of political opinion, excluding only those who exclude themselves or who play the game of the ruling political power (e.g., Kamal al-As‘ad).
  • To present a minimal platform, with specific demands that can be met in the short or medium term and vague general principles for the long term.
  • To alternate between mobilization and negotiation, drawing on the change in the balance of power brought on by the mobilization.
  • To mollify the Christian sectarian movements by maintaining a commitment to Lebanon as a political entity, and by appearing as a division within the Muslim ranks.
  • To mollify the Sunni sectarian movements by appearing to reinforce the position of Lebanese political Islam vis-à-vis a state, which they see as representing the historical hegemony of the Maronite upper class.

The guiding principle for the movement’s tactics can be very clearly defined: always concentrate on the main enemy and the main contradiction. Never completely burn your bridges and always retain the possibility of reopening negotiations at any time. Take part in all efforts at mediation in order to expose the fundamentally bad faith of the adversary. Always make the distinction between the Lebanese army (ready to defend the country) and the authority responsible for the lack of adequate national defense. Never directly or explicitly attack individuals, even if they are adversaries, so as to leave open the possibility of dissociating them from the anonymous group designated as the adversary. Never take irreversible positions except on a few basic questions, such as the defense of southern Lebanon and the rights of the community. Never make the first move in attacking or explicitly criticizing either the left or the right, and rarely respond to criticism by these forces.

The movement seemed to turn its back on Beirut. It held tumultuous meetings and armed demonstrations in the provinces far from the capital, in traditional Shi‘i strongholds such as Tyre and Ba‘lbek. Given the monopoly of the capital in Lebanese political life, the movement deliberately looked to the areas excluded by the growth of the Beirut city-state. Threats and plans to hold an armed rally in the capital were never carried out. The movement in Beirut in this first phase limited itself to sermons delivered behind closed doors, meetings of intellectuals and students, political negotiations and contacts with other groups.

The movement’s attitude toward the city was ambiguous—threatening it from without, appeasing it from within. Only once did the movement demonstrate its power to affect the center, when Imam al-Sadr held a three-day hunger strike in June 1975 to protest the fighting in Beirut. His strike took place in the heart of the city, inside the mosque of Amiliyyeh College, one of the oldest institutions in one of the oldest Shi‘i neighborhoods. His strike sparked off a series of actions, some of them violent, in the provinces; support groups and delegations from Shi‘i areas all over the country converged peacefully to a central location in the capital.

The movement was transitional, en route toward the city, present in the city, but not of the city. Its top leadership reflected this. It consisted of 17 men, evenly distributed in terms of their place of residence and relatively varied in terms of their profession: six from Beirut (three lawyers, two high officials, one police officer), six from the suburbs (three clergy, two professors, one journalist), and five from the provinces (two bank employees, one clergyman, one professor and one clan chieftain). More than two-thirds of the leadership lived in greater Beirut, yet none of the old Shi‘i families long resident in the capital were represented. Ten years later, in 1984, this new leadership would gain access to the government when Nabih Birri became minister of justice and Hussein Husseini became speaker of parliament.

The urban question had only a minor place in the original program of the movement. Of the 17 points included in the final demands of February 1974, only two dealt with the city. The movement saw its role as pressuring the city to do justice to the countryside and redress “unequal development.” By 1984, the “question of the southern suburbs,” along with the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, had become one of the major focuses of the movement’s program. The Shi‘i movement had fully arrived in Beirut and on the national scene.


Translated by Diane James


Editor’s Note: This text originally appeared as a chapter in Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches sur le Moyen-Orient Contemporain, Mouvements communautaires et espaces urbains au Machreq (Paris: Editions Sinbad, 1985).

How to cite this article:

Salim Nasr "Roots of the Shi’i Movement," Middle East Report 133 (June 1985).

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