The lack of official statistics makes a demographic analysis of Lebanese society a difficult task. Because of the precarious and delicate sectarian arrangement in the body politic, the government has deliberately avoided conducting a comprehensive update of the 1932 census. Christian communities, primarily the Maronites, fear that the numerical preponderance of Muslims would eventually strip them of their privileges by changing the foundations of political representation. When the French Mandate government conducted the 1932 census, it enumerated 861,399 Lebanese, including those living abroad, most of whom were identified as Christians. The distribution of parliamentary seats among the confessions was based on the findings of the 1932 census; the ratio of six Christians to five Muslims, including Druzes, has been retained.
The government has published only rough estimates of the population since 1932. The estimate for 1956, for example, showed that in a total population of 1,411,416, Christians accounted for 54 percent and Muslims, 44 percent. The estimate was seriously contested because it was based on figures derived from a government welfare program that tended not to include Muslims in areas distant from Beirut. After the 1950s, the government statistical bureau published only total population estimates that were not subdivided according to sect. Consequently, the census became a highly charged political issue in Lebanon, because it constituted the ostensible basis for communal representation.
Conducting a census during the 1970s and 1980s was clearly impossible because of the war. The United States Department of State 1983 estimate for the population of Lebanon was 2.6 million. The figures included Lebanese nationals living abroad and excluded Palestinian refugees, of whom there were nearly 400,000. A 1986 estimate by the United States Central Intelligence Agency of the confessional distribution of the population showed 27 percent Sunnis, 41 percent Shias, 7 percent Druzes, 16 percent Maronites, 5 percent Greek Orthodox, and 3 percent Greek Catholics. However, these data were, at best, informed estimates subject to revision.
In the absence of a reliable country-wide population census, the most useful data on population was a 1984 survey conducted in the Greater Beirut region by a team of specialists from the American University of Beirut. An examination of the age composition of the resident population of Beirut in the 1983-84 period revealed a relatively young population with 41.5 percent less than twenty years of age. There appeared to be a decline in fertility over the last decade for the resident population of Beirut.
The sex distribution of the 1983-84 Beirut resident population indicated an overall sex ratio of 95.5 males per 100 females. The extreme deficiency observed for males in the age group twenty through forty-nine may be the result of two factors: the large emigration of men in these ages, mostly to Persian Gulf countries, and a high rate of war-related mortality.
A 1983 World Bank study contained some statistics on the demographic characteristics of Lebanon for the period 1960 through 1981, the last year for which figures were available in 1987. Although the reliability of the figures could not be established, the figures revealed some interesting trends (see table _, Demographic Data, 1960-81, Appendix A). During this period, the crude birth rate declined perceptibly as did the crude death rate. Surprisingly, life expectancy rose despite the war. The fertility rate continued to decline during the war, but there was little change in the age structure of the population. Total population increased, although at a slower rate than in the prewar period, and there was a dramatic increase in urban population because of the continued influx to the cities. The rate of increase of population density slowed, however, as a result of the war and the consequent emigration of large numbers of Lebanese.
Although accurate figures of Beirut's population in the mid1980s were lacking, the city's dominant demographic position was unquestioned. Beirut has featured prominently in Lebanese society as a port city throughout its history and as the major population center of the country since at least the beginning of the Mandate period in 1920. Its role in maritime trade brought prosperity to its inhabitants. The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 benefited Beirut, which replaced the port of Haifa as a center for Arab trade with the West. Until the 1950s, Beirut was inhabited primarily by non-Maronite Christians and Sunni Muslims. In the 1950s a wave of immigrants from all parts of Lebanon and from all sects sought the lure of economic prosperity and the readily available government services of Beirut. The civil strife that began the 1970s has reinforced the sectarian demographic divisions in the city.
Other major cities in Lebanon include Tripoli, Sidon, Tyre, Baalbek, and Zahlah. Tripoli, the capital of Ash Shamal Province, has a majority Sunni population and a Christian minority. Sidon, in Al Janub Province, also has a Sunni majority, with a sizable Christian community. Tyre, in Al Janub Province, has a diverse sectarian composition. Although the majority of its inhabitants are Shias, the city has always included Christians of various sects. Baalbek, in Al Biqa Province, has a Shia majority and a Christian minority. Zahlah, also in Al Biqa Province, has a predominantly Christian population.
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