A History Lesson for the Revolutionaries

"A government of unknowns", retrieved from Annahar 1970 microfilms of Jafet Library archives

Between the many patriotic movements to have marked our history, the revolt of October 17 – ongoing today – is unprecedented in terms of size and influence. Lebanese citizens from all backgrounds dared to go against the grain and fight the corruption that has been paralyzing our country for years. This explosive movement even spread out to over fifty other countries where Lebanese internationals protested in front of embassies, singing the national anthem, shouting killon yaaneh killon which essentially means that all politicians are corrupt and must resign with no exception. While a few people inevitably modified that phrase to exclude a certain “leader” of theirs, we have a lot to be proud of and a lot left to do. In this article, however, I won’t be discussing the future of this revolution.

Protestors in 1975 in Beirut chanting against sectarianism.

What we observe in this video is eerily similar to, albeit smaller than, what we have been witnessing on the streets for over two weeks now. This 1975 protest was unfortunately soon followed by the detrimental Civil War which tore our country to shreds. This leads us to question where we are headed now. Going back to 1970 Beirut may give us a decent indication of the situation we are facing now and hopefully we can learn from the shortcomings of our predecessors. 

As it has been for years, the period preceding presidential elections in 1970 was politically unstable. After the parliament was elected in 1968, the presidential campaigns were fierce between the different political parties. Fouad Shehab, a former president at the time, was projected to win the most votes. He garnered popularity over the years and his agenda involved uniting Lebanese citizens and bridging the gap between the Christians and the Muslims. Some Christians deemed his plans to be threatening to their political power which resulted in the establishment of an opposing political party determined to overrule the “Shehabian” government, namely the Tripartite Alliance consisting of Pierre Gemayel, Camille Chamoun, and Reymond Edde. The elections, divided between people who were already regarded as national leaders and emerging candidates, resulted in the unexpected win of a last-minute independent candidate from 1964: Suleiman Frangieh. 

“The presidency battle is over… What do you know about it?”
(Retrieved from Annahar 1970 microfilms of Jafet Library archives)

The win actually occurred over a one-vote difference and came after the sudden resignation of Fouad Shehab two weeks prior to the election date due to pressure from the opposing party which refused his plans and evoked threats. National instability was already heightened due to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the interrelations between Lebanon and other Arab countries. The election of Frangieh as president only increased the tension between Muslims and Christians which would eventually result in the Civil War of 1975-1990. 

The Prime Minister appointed in 1970, Saeb Salam, faced quite a few obstacles in carrying out his duties, but eventually formed the first technocrat government in Lebanese history. It consisted of relatively younger individuals and was supposed to be a good cornerstone for development. However, due to Frangieh’s opposition on most of their plans they were unable to accomplish what they should have been able to. Eventually Prime Minister Saeb Salam resigned in 1973, due to Frangieh’s antagonization, and retracted himself from what he considered to be disruptive policies. The augmented polarization of Lebanese citizens is what eventually resulted in the breakout of the Civil War. Only a small fraction of Lebanese citizens tried to neutralize the situation by calling for the termination of sectarian politics. Those people are the ones we see in the video above. 

But are we headed for a war? Hopefully not.

Millions of Lebanese citizens are protesting in 2019, as compared to the miniscule number in 1975, and we all know of the power of numbers. Other factors come into play as well: the battleground consists of 18 different players now as opposed to the one-on-one war between Christians and Muslims and so the internal political situation has changed with the emergence of political parties which have been housing those 18 sects and rallying citizens against one another to achieve power. It is not in the benefit of any of these now smaller parties to spark a Civil War. One would also consider the involvement of those political parties with foreign powers such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United States, Syria and so on, the emergence of terrorist groups such as ISIS and the controversial role of Hezbollah in dealing with those groups as well as the Arab-Israeli conflict. This last point is crucial to mention as some neighboring Arab countries have signed peace treaties with Israel since the 70s, and only a few remain committed to the Palestinian cause. This changes the scheme of things as the weight of the Palestinian cause now rests heavily on the Lebanese resistance and their foreign aid. Not all Lebanese citizens are with the Resistance, though, and not all Lebanese citizens want to risk waging a war against Israel. This complicates the situation and makes it harder to figure out than it was before. Despite these obstacles, we can at least rest assured that it is unlikely for a war to break out in these conditions. The situation is sensitive, but we are educated now, more than ever. The proof is the significant progress we have done these few weeks alone. We are on the rise, and we actually have a chance of fixing things.

What can we learn from 1975? 

For starters, we cannot let the intrinsic animosity we have towards each other defeat our common goal. This is exactly what fueled the Civil War and it’s time we grow out of it. On Sunday the 3rd, the supporters of Al Tayyar al Watani el Horr (Free Patriotic Movement) raised their orange flags in support of the President and went against the national movement of reforming the entire political and socio-economic system. Just before that, saboteurs from Amal dented the peaceful protests with violence and chaos – these things must not derail the course of the revolution. We must also understand that there is power to the people: just like Prime Minister Saeb Salam of 1975 was pressured into establishing a technocrat government, we pressured Prime Minister Saad el Hariri of 2019 to resign, and hopefully that same pressure will result in the appointment of secular ministers. Our current challenge is remaining consistent with our pressure on the authorities in the light of resumption to normalcy. We cannot let this revolution die out, but we must also be patient to maintain the wellbeing of our people. With a bit of luck, and a 1975 history lesson, we can probably figure out the best course of action. Long live Lebanon. 

Source: Meir Zamir (1980) The Lebanese presidential elections of 1970 and their impact on the civil war of 1975—1976, Middle Eastern Studies, 16: 1 , 49-70, DOI: 10.1080/00263208008700424

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