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On Paths of Leadership in Lebanon

On Paths of Leadership in Lebanon

Sunday, 19 January, 2020 - 11:00

In the fifties, followers would come up with chants to salute their leaders on occasions, especially during electoral battles. Most of them rhymed and were signed, and they exuded masculinity. For example, the chant to a leader from Akkar, Suleiman al-Ali, said: “Suleiman bek, do not care– you have men who drink blood” - (expressing fearlessness). The chants to Ahmad al-Asaad in the south were even more extreme; he was likened to a large bull and his supporters likened themselves to flies, for if he moved his tail left or right he would smash them.

I myself saw Kamal Jumblatt at his palace in Mukhtara a month before the Two Years War (the first phase of the Lebanese Civil War). That day amazed me. He was a “socialist” and a “progressive”, and his arrogance was met by the hordes of his supporters with total submission. They passed through rows to shake his hand, and he pulled out a cold and relaxed hand and a look of disgust to greet them.

Jumblatt’s title, the title of all those who ruled Mukhtara, was “son of the pillar of the sky”. On the other hand, the notorious arrogance of Kamil al-Asaad, son of Ahmad, only rarely called out to the skies. His arrogance was very "worldly", interfering in the minute-by-minute details of the villages’ affairs from a very lofty balcony.

In any case, these kinds of leaders had a stronger presence in areas like the South, the Bekaa, and Akar or in mountainous areas like the southern parts of the Chouf, where large land ownership was maintained. In the northern town of Zgharta, capitalist relations were absent, and nuclear families failed to rid themselves of the large-land-owning families. Many of the town’s new born boys were named after a leader. For he delivered “services”, the most important of which is employing their sons in the army and the public sector. Given the absence of plans for development, providing basic infrastructure like a school here or a road there, also comes to fall under the category of “services” for these regions.

“Defending” the region and its “pride” against neighboring regions or regions with a different sectarian identity also falls under this category. In return, they gave him loyal support, which translated into votes, and they gather in large numbers chanting for him in order to prove his popularity. Some areas overdid it, going as far as collecting donations to fund his electoral campaign or one of his sons’ weddings. It is said that the late President Sleiman Frangieh’s supporters from Zgharta used to voluntarily provide food and drinks for the feasts in which he would host “foreigners”, i.e. leaders from outside the region.

In the centers of Beirut and the mountains, government agencies played the role that ownership of large swaths of agricultural land. However, the leadership there was embodied by the president and centralized in him, like his state. Two men shared this job between independence in 1943 and the start of the civil war, Camille Chamoun and Fuad Chehab. The former was helped by his charisma and what was called his defence of Christians in the face of the “1958 Revolution” and of Lebanon in the face of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Here, genealogical mythology played its role: Chamoun’s father was named Nemr (Arabic for tiger), and having the paternity of a tiger, with all the strength and ferocity associated with tigers, helped prop up the “manhood” and courage assigned to Chamoun. Thus, many newborns were named Camille or Nemr.

As for Chehab, his lack of charisma meant that the manufacture of his image was left to Military Second Bureau and the influence it had over a compliant media. Indeed, leaving the manufacture of his image to the men of intelligence agencies gave him a poorly developed title, “the saint”. However, raising the man’s stature to this divine degree did not prevent the name from having the source of its plight programmed into it. For the title made the Christian that had an extreme love for their saints hate Chehab, whom they considered to be biased in favour of Muslims, even more.

The war did not kill leadership. Instead it “democratized” it by producing an excessive supply of leaders. Thus, tens of Lebanese and Palestinians who led battles on the front were greeted with the chant: “Our blood, our souls- we sacrifice for you ….” After the Syrian Nationalists’ worship of Antoun Saadeh and his “infallible” leadership had been an anomalous exception, it became extremely widespread included leaders of all levels.

In this commotion, the sects chose grand figures of worship. For example, Moussa al-Sadr was chosen by Shiites and Bashir Gemayel by Maronites. Right after peace was reached, the patriarchal image of these figures prevailed over their images as warlords and leaders of the religion, which, in the case of Lebanon, is difficult to disassemble from the sect.

Rafic Hariri was described as “the poor man’s father” and, later on, Michel Aoun was given the title “everyone’s father”; what had been considered an outdated Ottoman practice, Sami el-Soloh was given the title "Papa Sami" for example, was restored. However, the war that continues during peacetime chose not to give in to a paternity with limited abilities, a paternity that could be killed, as with the case of Hariri, and a paternity that is demonstrably weak while it claims to be strong, as with the case of Aoun.

Indeed, what this relatively long period of time seemed to have been suppressed with urbanization came back with a bang, and it seems that the return to civilian life served it well. To Nabih Berri, his supports say: “Had it not been for the “h”, you would have been a prophet” taking that (Nabi is prophet in Arabic), while an aura of holiness has been created around Hassan Nasrallah and his actions.

With the collapse of the patron-client model of leadership in light of the general monetary and economic collapse the country is facing, youths came out to defy their leaders and refuse succession. They are going as far as preventing their leaders to leave their homes and show their faces in public.

Thus a new form of leadership is emerging. It is still too early to describe this new form, as it has not produced a new leader but Hassan Diab, whose name most Lebanese have difficulty remembering.

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