Fuad Chehab’s presidency set a precedent for his successors
On 17 October 2019, more than a million people took to the streets of Lebanon to express their discontent and dissatisfaction over their government’s mismanagement of the economy and its proposal to implement new taxes. In what had been termed as the ‘Tax Intifada’ or the ‘WhatsApp Revolution’ (pertaining to the government’s imposition of charges on Voice over Internet Protocol calls), the WhatsApp-tax proved to be the trigger which culminated in mass-demonstrations against the Lebanese government. Country-wide protests have persisted tirelessly for ten days, with methods such as demonstrations, internet activism, strikes, sit-ins and civil resistance employed. A country which has been embroiled in bloody sectarian and confessional politics since Lebanon’s independence from the French Mandate in 1943, anti-government demonstrations and protests are not exactly unfamiliar. However, the spontaneous, spirited and non-sectarian nature of these protests have caught the government, as well as the leaders of the Amal Movement and the powerful Shia-Islamist Hezbollah group off-guard.
With the impassioned slogan ‘All of them means all of them’ aptly capturing the sentiments of the protestors, calls for a “sweeping overhaul of Lebanon’s political system” have and continue to gain momentum. Amid animated chants for a revolution against what protestors singled out as rampant corruption, rising social inequality and an ensuing economic crisis, it is worth mentioning how demonstrators have ardently beckoned Lebanon’s army to “side with them, arrest politicians accused of corruption, and even steward a transitional period.” Considered one of the more transparent national institutions of the country which has managed to cut across sectarian lines, it was reported that the army had vowed to protect protestors especially after a video circulated showing Lebanese soldiers thwarting suspected Amal and Hezbollah supporters from attacking protestors in central Beirut.
Another video of a young Lebanese solider embracing his father who was among the protestors, as well as videos of soldiers overcome with emotion following moving interactions with protestors also went viral. The army’s careful balancing act with respect to these country-wide protests draw slight parallels to the 1958 Lebanese crisis. Kamal Salibi described the 1958 crisis as “a rebellion of Muslims, Druze and some Christians against the government of Camille Chamoun.”
Starting off as what history-scholar Maurice Labelle described as a “battle of political wills – not least a reaction against Chamoun’s excesses and pro-Western stance,” the crisis spiralled into a demonstration which saw pan-Arab nationalists (mostly Muslims) and Druze standing in opposition to Maronites who viewed pan-Arabism with antipathy. Dynamic Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s influence among the pan-Arab supporters in Lebanon was another contributing factor to this crisis. Nasser and his Lebanese supporters also opposed Chamoun’s proposed constitutional changes of allowing the Maronite president a second term in office.
Chamoun – who sought assistance from the United States to ‘quell’ the uprising – urged commander of the armed forces General Fuad Chehab (a Maronite Christian himself) to intervene. Unwilling to employ military force against the protestors, Chehab maintained that “his army was composed of Muslims and Druze, as well as Christians, and that its unity could not be counted on if it were to be committed on a political issue that was largely sectarian.” Salibi expands on this belief by stating that “General Chehab put himself in the position of an arbiter, and his army, maintaining its unity, remained the only body wielding authority throughout the country.”
Chehab’s refusal to allow the army to interfere in the country’s political developments and his decision to reject using military force against protestors won him support amongst Lebanon’s Muslims, Druze and even sections of the Christian community. Soon after, Chehab was chosen as the consensus candidate by the Chamber of Deputies to succeed Chamoun. With the aim of promoting a sense of national unity, along with a renewed focus on projects of regional interest, the Chehab administration sought to direct attention towards the neglected sections of Lebanon (predominantly Muslim neighbourhoods) and propagate social justice. Salibi describes the administration’s “sincere effort to secure a fairer distribution of national income, and to make the fruits of economic growth available to a large section of the population, and as many parts of the country as possible” among Chehab’s most significant achievements. His resolve towards remedying Lebanon’s sectarian and communal divisions, in addition to tackling the influence of feudalism in Lebanese politics bolstered his impartial and morally upright image.
Often described as one of the most distinguished (in addition to one of the most stable) times in Lebanon’s modern history, Fuad Chehab’s presidency set a precedent for his successors with respect to how the promotion of national unity could, indeed, triumph over communal and sectarian divisions.
Unfortunately, Chehab’s efforts could not be considered long-lasting. Once he stepped down as president in 1964, his successors Charles Helou and later on Suleiman Frangieh allowed feudalism to re-enter the political domain. Engulfed in a multi-faceted civil-war in 1975 (till 1990), sectarianism and communalism appeared to surface yet again, taking a much more violent turn.
However, the road to the ‘social revolution’ (as described by Lina Khatib) in present-day Lebanon can be seen as another profound demonstration of how national unity may still transcend all sectarian, communal, class and ethnic divisions. With protests also taking place in ‘Hezbollah’s heartland,’ it is pertinent to mention how Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrullah’s televised speech on Friday (which warned that government resignation would precipitate a ‘political vacuum’) was pointedly disregarded by protestors as they vowed to persist until their objectives were met. President Michel Aoun’s calls for initiating dialogue with the protestors, in addition to hinting at a government reshuffle (a move backed by Prime Minister Saad Hariri) was also ignored.
Will the profound banner of national unity triumph over the scars of sectarianism, feudalism and communalism that have characterised Lebanon’s modern history? Is Lebanon on the road to another revolution, despite Nasrullah’s warnings? Is a complete political overhaul in the midst? Will the Lebanese Army’s role with regard to the protests deepen incrementally? There are questions that remain lingering amid developing circumstances. One thing is for sure, “All of them means All of them” is a culmination of years of sheer frustration, agitation and economic deterioration. This could just be the tip of the iceberg.
Ana Tawfiq Husain is a student at Habib University.
Salibi, Kamal, “Lebanon under Fuad Chehab 1958 – 1964,” Middle Eastern Studies 2 (1966): 213-226.