The Levantine Community

The Levantine Community

In the late 1980s, reportedly 60,000 to 120,000 Lebanese and Syrians lived in Côte d'Ivoire, although some observers gave a figure as high as 300,000. Many descended from families that had been established in Côte d'Ivoire for more than a century. Along with the French, they were the most easily identifiable foreign group. They generally resided in enclaves, married within their community, and resisted integration. At the same time, many held Ivoirian citizenship. Although they were concentrated in Abidjan, there was a Lebanese or Syrian family or two in virtually every community of more than 5,000 people. Some members of the Levantine community were Christian; of the Muslims, most were Shia. Significantly, the waves of Lebanese émigrés who arrived in Côte d'Ivoire after the Lebanese civil war began in 1975 brought with them the same political beliefs that divided groups in Lebanon. As of the mid-1980s, violence among Lebanese had not erupted in Côte d'Ivoire; nevertheless, the government considered sectarian violence a distinct possibility.

The Arab community was known for its entrepreneurial skills and had long played a leading role in certain intermediate sectors of the economy, especially commerce. The Arabs dominated in areas such as textiles, shoes, petroleum distribution, and coffee and cocoa brokering. The Lebanese had also invested heavily in urban real estate and were among the first to develop hotels and restaurants in previously less accessible areas of the interior. For the most part, Houphouët-Boigny ardently defended the presence of the Lebanese community, citing its contributions to the Ivoirian economy. The Lebanese community, in turn, sought to assure the Ivoirian leadership of its loyalty and its commitment to national goals by public declarations and by charitable contributions in support of cultural and sporting events.

The jump in the Levantine population since 1975, coupled with its growing domination of commerce, made it a target of increasing protest. In the mid-1980s, Houphouët-Boigny began issuing warnings to merchants--unmistakably Lebanese--who were allegedly guilty of customs fraud and monopolistic practices. Thus, the unconditional welcome that the Lebanese community had enjoyed appeared to be wearing out.

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