Why the key to Lebanon’s future may lie in its past
As popular discontent grows with the current corrupt and sectarian political elite in Lebanon, I cannot but think of Fuad Chehab, who was president from 1958 until 1964. Chehab brought stability to the country and built its institutions. He would have been so happy to see the Lebanese reject sectarian leaders and the “Fromagistes,” or the cheese eaters, as he used to call corrupt politicians.
Chehab became commander of the Lebanese army in 1945, and twice refused requests for his forces to intervene in uprisings against President Bechara El-Khoury. In 1952, El-Khoury asked him to lead the country in a transitional period leading to the election of a new president by the parliament. Chehab did so for four days, until Camille Chamoun was elected to succeed El-Khoury.
What is most impressive about Chehab is that he was a military leader who rejected military coups at a time when they were the norm elsewhere. In Egypt and Iraq, military officers rose up and deposed royal regimes, but Chehab, more than any other general, was determined to preserve democracy, the constitution and the rule of law. In 1958, with protests again rocking the country, President Chamoun called for American help and US Marines landed in Beirut. Following this episode of high tension and foreign intervention, Chabab became president. His period in office was noted for prosperity, stability and security, which kept Lebanon shielded from foreign interference.
Saad Hariri’s resignation as prime minister last week did not prevent people from protesting. Some signalled that, as a goodwill gesture before the formation of a new government, the protesters should open the roads they had blocked. However, the issue is more than a change of government; it is about a change of reality, a change of a system that is built on corruption, clientelism and sectarianism.
Hariri has said he would be willing to return to office if he could form a government of technocrats, but a government of technocrats cannot carry out the necessary serious and drastic reforms as long as it is hostage to the corrupt political elites — the fromagistes, as Chehab called them. Lebanon’s “hirak,” the popular protest movement, has resulted in the emergence of different indigenous groups who gathered on regional, occupational and gender bases. They are putting forward demands for social and economic change, but their structure is very fluid. These small movements need maturity. If they are now put in the spotlight, they might clash. It is better to allow them the space to develop and to work on the maturity of their local and national agenda, and this is not possible when the fromagistes control power. Lebanon not only needs a person to take the country into a difficult transition, it also needs to revive the spirit of Chehabism. The new Chehabism will bind the different Lebanese across the different sects. Only a spirit that is based on the national identity and on institution building can take the country forward.
Saad Hariri’s resignation as prime minister last week did not prevent people from protesting.
Dania Koleilat Khatib
At the end of his period in office, Chehab had a very pessimistic view of Lebanon — indeed after only two years he had offered to resign. He believed Lebanon was not ready to get over sectarianism. He also predicted that the Lebanese would clash with each other. He knew Lebanon was a fertile land for foreign interference.
Chebab refused to permit a change in the constitution to allow him to serve a second consecutive term as president, and he was succeeded in 1964 by Charles Helou. The election of Suleiman Frangieh in 1970 marked the end of the Chehab era. He purged Chebab officers, dismantled the security services and made the country more vulnerable to foreign intelligence activities. Frangieh lost the balance Chehab had created and preserved between Lebanon’s sovereignty and its role as a member of the Arab family of nations. Later presidents could not restore this balance, nor could they retain the independence of state institutions from the different sectarian political parties. Chebab’s biographer Nicolas Nassif wrote that the former president burned all his papers; he did not want anything he had written to justify his rule, and preferred to leave that task for history.
Today’s Lebanese leaders are totally unaware of the metamorphosis the Lebanese people are undergoing. They think they still have a chance, when they don’t. They cannot see that their narrative is dead. They are making promises; to remove secrecy from their bank accounts; to bring to justice those who embezzled money; to decrease the fiscal deficit — promises, promises, promises that cannot be fulfilled, because to do so would be to expose their own corruption and vile sectarianism.
To mark the completion of the first half of his presidency, Michel Aoun made a speech last week in which he promised to change Lebanon into a civil state. But how can someone who campaigned on a sectarian agenda, and used as a narrative “Christian rights” versus the rights of other denominations, work toward a civil state? There is a huge disconnect here
Now there are talks about consultations among the different “political parties” to create a new government, but these political leaders don’t understand that they belong to a bygone era. Their audience is eroding. They no longer have any popular legitimacy. Lebanon wants a new national leadership that will build institutions and conduct serious economic social and political reforms. Today, the Lebanese are mature enough to embrace the spirit of Fuad Chehab and a new Chehabism.
- Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She holds a PhD in politics from the University of Exeter and is an affiliated scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.