Fifty Years after Lebanon’s Last State-builder

Fifty years ago, Fouad Chehab tried to create a state out of Lebanon and failed. Today Lebanon is no closer to his vision of real statehood but needs it more than ever

Fifty Years after Lebanon’s Last State-builder
A Lebanese flag fluttering next to the landmark Martyrs Statue in Martyrs square in central Beirut at the occasion of the 100 years since the hanging in public of several Lebanese nationalists who opposed the Ottoman rule during World War I/ Joseph Eid/ AFP via Getty Images

On Aug. 4, 1970, the man who had served from 1958 to 1964 as the third president of the independent Lebanese Republic, Gen. Fouad Chehab, issued a written statement declining to stand for the presidency again. Chehab noted that “Lebanese political institutions and the traditional customs of public life no longer constitute, in my view, a tool suited to the imperatives of the Lebanese recovery required by the 1970s in all fields, for our institutions are, in many respects, lagging behind the modern political regimes that try to ensure the efficiency of the State.” This was Chehab’s polite way of saying that the presidency of an ersatz state was essentially worthless.

Fifty years later – to the day – a massive explosion nearly vaporized Beirut’s port, inflicting widespread death, injury, and wreckage throughout Lebanon’s capital. Lebanon’s so-called government had, with breathtaking negligence, permitted nearly 3,000 tons of extremely volatile ammonium nitrate to be stored in a warehouse; it had done so with barely a thought for public safety. Chehab’s understated rendering of fact in August 1970 – that Lebanon was not a state, thus making the presidency itself irrelevant – manifested itself exactly 50 years later as the deadly indictment of a ravenous, incompetent, and terminally useless political class.

The Greater Lebanon established by France after World War I was, in fact, a continuation of Ottoman governance under a new, European-imposed sultan, with Maronites replacing Sunni Muslims as the politically favored sect of the new ruler. Personal law was left in the hands of religious authorities, and the new government, like its Istanbul-based predecessor, relied on a patchwork of locally powerful, often feudal, sect-based families to ensure public order and obedience. The Lebanese government and associated bureaucracy created by France was an order-taking afterthought – an empty bow to the symbols of modern statehood.

The new sultan, with a powerful boot to the derriere applied by British military forces, departed Lebanon during World War II. Stateless notables left leaderless inside a fake country with artificial borders conjured something they ironically called a “National Pact,” a verbal agreement aimed at preserving consensual political sectarianism without creating a new sultan or a real state. Key posts in a Potemkin government were allocated by sect. Sunni Muslim political leaders agreed to forgo union with Syria. Maronite notables pledged to remain independent of France. Otherwise, things remained as they had been under Istanbul and Paris, with the powerful local families ruling their own turf and with personal law in the hands of clerics. Only now there was no sultan.

Lebanon’s first two presidents, Bishara al-Khoury and Camille Chamoun, tried and failed to become Lebanon’s new sultans. They fell short by seeking to accumulate personal power instead of building state-like institutions. Only the Lebanese army seemed to represent the cedar flag in terms of values and service, and even its individual brigades were largely single-sect, based on where they were permanently stationed. When Chamoun’s lust for power collided with the enormous popularity of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser among Lebanon’s non-Christian communities, a low-level civil war broke out in 1958.

The Lebanese army, led by Gen. Chehab, stood up for the ideal of Lebanese unity by remaining aloof from the fighting. Chehab and his officers justifiably feared that the army would splinter along sectarian lines if it were to put itself at the service of either the president or his enemies. When American forces landed (supposedly to save Lebanon from being absorbed into the Egyptian-Syrian United Arab Republic), Chehab made it clear – without ordering armed resistance – that the armed intervention was unwarranted. When U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower dispatched diplomat Robert Murphy to Lebanon to unscramble the mess created by a panicked, ill-informed American military move, Chehab emerged as the person most likely able to pull Lebanon back from the brink of ruin. Before 1958 was out, he was Lebanon’s third president of the republic.

Chehab, a man of noble lineage who had served as the commander-in-chief of the Lebanese Armed Forces since 1945, calmed the country and did his best to build governmental administrative capabilities independent of local feudalists and consistent with modern statehood. He enjoyed some success and earned the respect of all – even his sectarianized feudal rivals – through his modesty, integrity, and devotion to duty. To the amazement of all who did not know him, Chehab did not use his office to enrich himself, his family, or his friends. His critics accused him of over-reliance on the army’s intelligence apparatus to push the cause of modern statehood. For better or worse, Chehab used the tools at his disposal, especially when constant threats of political violence threatened to derail his reform agenda.

By 1962, however, the powerful political clans – united only in their opposition to Chehab’s modernizing reforms (which they correctly saw as coming at their expense) – had effectively slowed and frustrated the General’s efforts. He would serve into 1964, pointedly declining to seek a constitutional amendment authorizing a second term. He would be replaced by an ally, Charles Helou.

But Chehabism – the idea of One Lebanon reflecting a liberal economy, an effective national government, and an engaged citizenry able to transcend sectarianism and feudalism – was on life support in the 1960s. It was all but killed in 1970 when Chehab himself declined to stand for the presidency and Lebanon’s feudal political class united in parliament to defeat by a single vote the person (Elias Sarkis) he recommended. The presidency fell instead into the hands of a feudal figure known for gunplay, Suleiman Frangieh, a person who would help propel the country into a 15-year civil war. Chehab’s central idea – replace the missing sultanate with a modern nation-state and a government guided by the consent of the governed – remained fixed in the minds of his most fervent supporters, yet they found themselves either exiled or politically marginalized within Lebanon.

Indeed, the defeat of Chehabism by Lebanon’s political class gave other actors opportunities to claim the sultanate for themselves. Yasser Arafat, heading the Palestinian Resistance Movement, wielded impressive political power in parts of Lebanon for a decade. Syria’s Assad family, intervening militarily in Lebanon to keep Arafat and his Lebanese allies from dragging Syria into war with Israel, exercised the role of sultan from 1990 to 2005. Today the person most closely exercising the power of Lebanon’s sultan is Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, working primarily through his loyal Lebanese subordinate, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.

But a leadership cadre deep into assassination, drug running, and money laundering has, over the years, become part of the political class that has brought Lebanon to ruin

Although the Iranian sultanate – facilitated greatly by Syria’s Bashar al-Assad – represents a geopolitical achievement of the highest order for Iran, it is not now riding high in the minds of many Lebanese. Hezbollah once cultivated an image of austere self-sacrifice when it resisted Israeli occupation from 1982 to 2000 and when it fought Israel to a draw in 2006. But a leadership cadre deep into assassination, drug running, and money laundering has, over the years, become part of the political class that has brought Lebanon to ruin. Hezbollah, along with its allies and adversaries in Lebanon’s political class, has succeeded only in persuading some of Lebanon’s best and brightest to seek an early exit from a country being feasted upon ravenously by corrupt and endlessly incompetent politicos.

Lebanon needs, at long last, to graduate from statelessness. Lebanese of all sects – not least the Shiite Muslims, whose powerlessness and poverty opened the door to Iran and its Lebanese lieutenants in the first place – must unite in a political movement reviving and even transcending Chehabism. But how?

Lebanon’s young people fully grasp some grim realities. They know the political class ruling them is uninterested in and incapable of reform. They know they have no future in Lebanon while this class hangs on, using what is left of governmental administrative bodies as sources of personal income and patronage. They know that Nasrallah – who considers himself to be a key cog in Iran’s Islamic Revolution – will, unlike most (though not all) of his colleagues in the political class, use murder and other forms of violence to keep his seat. Sadly, they fear that Lebanese law enforcement bodies, led by the Lebanese Armed Forces, are powerless to protect them.

Indeed, in recent decades it has become customary to look to the Lebanese army’s Maronite commander-in-chief as the default leading candidate for president of the republic. The current president, Michel Aoun, served as commander-in-chief in the 1980s. Although he did not assume the presidency until 2016, his 1988 last-minute elevation to acting prime minister by outgoing President Amin Gemayel made him, in effect, a temporary de facto president in part of civil war-torn Lebanon. Emile Lahoud – commander-in-chief of the armed forces from 1989 to 1998 – served as president from 1998 to 2007. And Michel Suleiman – commander-in-chief from 1998 to 2008 – served as president from 2008 to 2014. Then the office was vacant until parliament elected Aoun to the presidency in 2016.

Even though these generals came up through the officer ranks of an institution that has retained much of the One Lebanon ideology inculcated by Chehab, none of them either articulated or embarked on a state-building effort.

Chehab would take no joy in being remembered as the prophet of Lebanon’s doom. He wanted Lebanon to graduate from its Ottoman-French past. He wanted a state capable of serving all Lebanese fairly and competently. Young Lebanese – whether they remember the name Fouad Chehab or not – want today what he wanted a half-century ago.

For Lebanon’s youths to get what they want, however, they must somehow organize politically across sectarian and geographical divisions. Ideally, they would receive a measure of protection from an army still claiming to adhere to Chehab’s One Lebanon philosophy. Perhaps they could receive some assistance in political organizing from external non-governmental organizations. Sadly, however, there appear to be no shortcuts. If today there is a Chehab-like figure ready to emerge, as the original did, from a distinguished background in public service, she or he is invisible. Those whose incompetence and corruption have laid Lebanon low show no readiness to step aside in favor of their betters. Quite the contrary. And now this discredited political class enjoys the support of Iran and its ruthlessly violent Lebanese militia.

Chehab believed fervently that a Lebanese state featuring competent institutions could address poverty in those parts of Lebanon far removed from the glitter of Beirut and deliver services reliably to all Lebanese, thereby substituting Lebanon itself for sectarianism and feudalism as the objects of identification and loyalty for all Lebanese. Although his methodology was cautiously evolutionary, his strengthening of the civil service, his focus on planning for economic and social development, his creation of a social security system, and his vesting of increased powers in governors and mayors all threatened the feudal and sectarian political inheritors of Ottomanism. By joining forces to stop Chehabism and block the development of a state, these elites rendered Lebanon defenseless in a turbulent region – a defenselessness that gave rise to civil war and today’s economic and political ruin.

Chehab’s approach to rescuing Lebanon from the perils of its Ottoman inheritance was straightforward: “First provide them [Lebanese] with a strong and fair State, and in time they would naturally bond in a unified national identity.” Political incompetence and corruption spawning deadly consequences seem to have bonded many Lebanese in a sense of unified national outrage and revulsion. Translating this anger into the revival and completion of Chehab’s mission will be the very definition of the word “difficult.” But nothing less will save Lebanon and its people from continued political, economic, and social deterioration.

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