The Mandate of Émile Lahood, the former President of Lebanon
Garnet Publishing, 2012, ISBN: 9781859643075
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INTRODUCTION: THE STORY OF A BOOK
From June 1999 to November 2007 (i.e. throughout his mandate), I had an audience every Friday with the president of the Lebanese republic, Émile Lahood. At first, the meetings took place at the Automobile Towing Club Lebanon (ATCL) near Jounieh; then, following the assassination in February 2005 of the prime minister, Rafic Hariri, they were held at the presidential palace situated on a hill in the mountain town of Baabda, overlooking Beirut.
A wellestablished ritual reigned over these meetings in Jounieh. In the early afternoon, the presidential aide would call me and convey the following message: ‘We are on our way to the meeting place.’ Without any delay, I would myself head towards the ATCL. Once there, I would find the members of the presidential guard deployed (in civilian clothes) at the entrances of the club. Some of them would search the room where we were going to converse to make sure it was secure. I would then go into that room, which was furnished with two têteàtête settees separated by a small coffee table. The walls were adorned with three plain paintings and from its bay window, hidden behind curtains turned yellow by the sun, one could have a bird’seye view of the sea. Somewhere in the room there was an old polished wooden table ready to be used by bridge players. In winter and in summer, a noisy air conditioner regulated the room temperature.
As soon as I settled down in the room, the presidential aide would offer me a cup of coffee, which I always declined. He would not insist, knowing I would have one with the president. Carrying a wireless, he would station himself at the entrance of the room and later turn towards me, thus letting me know that His Excellency had arrived. The president always travelled in an unmarked car and would generally make the most of his car trips to go through the last reports handed to him or to take a nap. He was so fastpaced that his bodyguards could barely catch up with him as he headed towards me. His face beaming with a
broad smile, he would take off his sunglasses and hold me in a warm embrace, as he did with all his visitors.
Very mindful of his appearance, Émile Lahood saw to it to that he remained elegant and eyecatching, especially when receiving women. Outside official meetings, in summer he liked to wear trousers and a black closefitting sports shirt, to which he would add a black leather jacket in winter. However, once indoors, he would hasten to remove this jacket, as if he couldn’t wait to get rid of it. He explained that he only wore it to appear ‘normal’ and shared the following anecdote with me: once, on a crisp winter day, while he was swimming laps in an outdoor pool, an old classmate – huddled in his coat and with a woollen scarf around his neck and ears – hurled at him: ‘You must have been headbutted when you were a child!’ Ever since, in winter time, Lahood wears a jacket to avoid being called ‘crazy’, but in reality he is seldom cold.
No sooner had we sat down than his cook would bring two cups of cappuccino. Sometimes the president would take some light icecream instead of coffee. In fact, Émile Lahood kept to a quite unusual diet: he would have just a banana for breakfast and icecream for lunch rather than a full meal. Not until dinner did he allow himself a square meal.
After the first sip of his coffee, he would comment on an event or initiate one of his discussions. During our first meetings, he was selfrestrained, never giving out too many details or naming anyone. Not until later, when he was reassured I would not reveal anything he had confided to me or mention our meetings to a living soul – even if, in reality, everybody knew about them – did he start unveiling the numerous secrets of his mandate.
Sometimes he would record certain facts on a small tape recorder he always carried, to remind him to elaborate on a given subject during the next meeting.
Émile Lahood’s natural courteousness prevented him from being uncouth towards any of his opponents. He only ever used strong language among friends, but then, occasionally, he would allow great bitterness to surface.
The exchanges we had during our weekly meetings constitute the main material of this book. Having painstakingly taken note of our conversations, I transcribe them here, keeping objectivity in mind and editing out any ideological or emotional commentary.
It still remained to find a title, which, for such a piece of work, was not necessarily easy. I admit to having struggled to find one that pleases me. The journalist Maguy Farah, when she welcomed me on her talk show, suggested ‘The Impact of Power’. I liked it but felt an essential element was missing: the Resistance. Casting my mind back to that period, and of course to Hezbollah’s victory, and considering Émile Lahood’s personality, I realized that what stood out from all those years was the president’s ability to stand firm in the face of adversity (whether Israeli aggression or internal opposition, not to mention, later, the pressure put on him by the international community eager to see him leave power before his prorogated mandate expired).
True to his principles, President Émile Lahood held his tenure until the last minute of his mandate, in spite of the above difficulties. For this reason the title ‘The Years of Resistance’, suggested by the journalist Scarlett Haddad, seemed to me the most appropriate one.
In the following pages, I endeavour to assess Émile Lahood’s role in various events – mainly at the beginning of his mandate – but also to document the injustice done to him during the prorogation of his mandate, that is to say in the last three years of his presidency between 2004 and 2007.
Being a keen observer of the evolution of Émile Lahood’s mandate, it seems to me that it can be summarized in three periods or sequences. The first extends from the beginning of his mandate in 1998 to 2001. At that time, he seemed to be a strong president, committed to an ambitious reform programme. He was also the ‘resisting president’, protective of Hezbollah, which compelled Israel to withdraw from most of the Lebanese territory in 2000. Strangely, however, the legislative elections held a few months later were crowned by the victory of Rafic Hariri, thus preventing Émile Lahood from reaping the fruit of his winning strategic choice. That was his setback while in power. There were others.
The second period was from 2001 to 2004. Marked by a certain stability in terms of security but by a tempestuous cohabitation with Rafic Hariri, it ended with the latter’s reluctant approval of the prorogation of Lahood’s mandate. Throughout this period, the president
faced permanent confrontation with the Lebanese authorities. It is worth noting that events over this time took place against the backdrop of 9/11, which shook the United States and the rest of the world.
Rafic Hariri’s assassination on 14 February 2005 ushered in the third period of Émile Lahood’s mandate. This earthquake was followed by the withdrawal of Syrian troops a few weeks later, and subsequently by various attempted assassinations – some failed, others successful. For Lebanon it was a time of misfortune and for Émile Lahood one of seclusion. Only Hezbollah – thanks to its August 2006 victory in the thirtythreeday war over the reputedly invincible Israeli army – seems to have bucked the trend.
On 23 November 2007, Émile Lahood left the presidential palace of Baabda upon expiration of his prorogated term of office. The Lebanese remained without a president for a sixmonth period. Not until 25 May 2008 was General Michel Sleiman elected head of state after the main Lebanese leaders reached an agreement in Doha, in the Emirate of Qatar, in order to put an end to the ongoing crisis.
Before digging deeper into the crises that characterized the ‘Lahood years’, let us not forget that in 1998, when he took office, a huge part of the country was occupied by Israel, and Syrian forces were deployed in the remaining territory. When he left the palace of Baabda, Israel occupied only the enclave known as the Shibaa Farms, and Syrian forces had completely withdrawn from Lebanon.
Developments in the Lebanese political scene during Lahood’s presidential tenure witnessed the emergence of two key characters: Michel Aoun and Hassan Nasrallah. The star of Bechir Gemayel shone under the mandate of Élias Sarkis, and the leadership of Walid Jumblatt and Nabih Berry flourished under the mandate of Amine Gemayel. Rafic Hariri was the most noteworthy figure of Élias Hraoui’s term. To each presidential office its kingpin.
PART 1 THE RISE OF A PRESIDENT
aving scaled the ranks of the army, Émile Lahood became the first commanderinchief to stem from the navy and the second president of the republic with a military career behind him.
His ascent to power started on 28 November 1989, when upon his designation as commanderinchief of the army, he undertook to rebuild it on a national basis, away from any kind of populism and political or financial consideration. He backed the Resistance, thus throwing the door of liberation wide open.
Émile Lahood was elected president of the republic on 15 November 1998. He reached this highest office in a maelstrom of regional geopolitics: bearing aloft the Lebanese dream of reform, he could not afford the neverending antagonism that opposed him to Rafic Hariri. What’s more, superpowers would not adopt a waitandsee policy: the French president Jacques Chirac sided with Hariri and the American administration clearly and openly adopted a proIsraeli policy in every way.
Despite this unfavourable context, by the end of 1999 Émile Lahood had won the battle of Denniyeh against terrorism and managed to get the Israelis to withdraw from the greater part of Lebanese territory.
THE TIME OF CONFLICTS
Shortly before Émile Lahood was designated commanderinchief of the army, the president of the republic Élias Hraoui summoned him to Fort Ablah, his Bekaa residence (he was still denied access to the Baabda palace). However, on the eve of the meeting, taken by surprise by an unexpected power cut, Émile Lahood bumped his head against the elevator door of the building where he lived in Raoucheh. Suffering from a black eye, he thought: ‘I cannot meet the head of state like this.’ Andrée, his wife, and General Édouard Mansour, his neighbour and lifetime friend, took care of his injury by applying ice cubes to his face to reduce the swelling and advised him to wear large sunglasses in order to hide the bruise. Which he did, but in vain, for no sooner had he set foot in the president’s study than the latter shouted out: ‘Who hit you?’ Lahood replied, joking: ‘General Michel Aoun.’
Next to President Hraoui stood Johnny Adbo, known for being very close to Rafic Hariri. Former head of the Bureau of the Lebanese Intelligence, he played a key role under the term of President Élias Sarkis from 1976 to 1982. Everybody knew that his capacity to play difficult roles and carry out critical missions was firmly based.
As soon as General Lahood sat down, Johnny Abdo stepped up to him and offered him a case full of US$500,000 in hundreddollar bills. This sum, which had been sent for years, on a monthly basis, by Rafic Hariri, was theoretically meant to help the army, but in fact it was nothing but an underthetable payment.
Lahood hastened to decline the offer, and said: ‘It is the republic of Lebanon that should be helping its army and not anyone else. This money is an offence and an insult.’ The incident might seem trivial, but it clearly shows Lahood’s honesty and integrity.
a. The army kept out of politics
In the 1980s, the Lebanese currency began depreciating and the exchange rate collapsed against the American dollar – in 1982, the rate was 4 LBP to the dollar, whereas in 1992 it was 2,500 LBP. This decline incited the General Labourers’ Confederation in Lebanon (CGTL) to decree a strike and stage massive protests, often marked by acts of violence. Amid growing pressure, Omar Karameh, the prime minister at that time, found himself – along with his government – bound to resign, despite being convinced that various banks had purposely speculated on the Lebanese currency exchange rate to worsen the economic crisis, thus furthering the advancement of Rafic Hariri. The latter, claiming to have the solution to the economic crisis, was designated head of government in November 1992 after the summer legislative elections had been boycotted by most Christian and some Muslim figures. Hariri subsequently headed the biggest cabinet in the history of the country, with thirty ministers; members of parties that had opposed or boycotted the elections were excluded.
Hariri’s government gained the confidence of the Parliament a few days before Independence Day, 22 November. No sooner was the ceremony over than the new prime minister called General Lahood, who was resting at his family residence in Baabdat, and asked him to meet him at his home in Beirut, where he welcomed him in the presence of the minister of defence, Mohsen Dalloul.
After the usual meet and greet, Hariri said bluntly to Lahood: ‘Hear me out: General Edouard Mansour must, without delay, be replaced – I don’t like his brother Albert – as must Yehya Raad, from the north. The former should be replaced with Fawzi Maalouf and the latter with Adnane Khatib, from Sidon’ (Hariri’s native town). Edouard Mansour held the position of General Inspector within the army, and Yehya Raad – considered one of Omar Karameh’s and Syria’s most trusted men – was SecretaryGeneral of the High Council of Defence.
To Hariri’s surprise, Lahood snapped back that he could not meet such a request. ‘In this institution,’ he said, explaining his refusal, ‘there are rules I cannot overlook. One of them being that a military man who has not committed any infraction can in no way be penalized, just as a soldier or an officer cannot be promoted unless he has succeeded in his mission. What you are asking of me is against such rules and against everything I have ever learned since I took up a military career. If each one of us wants to promote the officer he likes and punish the one he doesn’t like, we will never have an army.’ Hariri, pretending not to understand, insisted: ‘If you are afraid Yehya would hold it against you, I will talk about it with Abou Jamal (Abdel Halim Khaddam) and we’ll see how to name Raad commanderinchief of the ISF. It will be a promotion for him . . .’.
Lahood reacted somewhat sharply: ‘It’s not a matter of people; it’s a matter of principles. Even if Yehya accepts, I say no and will not accept that military designations be carried out this way.’
However, Hariri would not give in and reaffirmed that Abou Jamal could settle that matter. This time, Lahood, angry, burst out: ‘What does Abou Jamal have to do with all this?’ With that, he got up; making sure Hariri understood that as far as he was concerned, the meeting was over. So the latter changed his tone and, in an attempt to calm things down, said: ‘What are you doing? We’re just chatting. Stay.’
Continuing a conversation that had got off to a bad start, the prime minister switched the subject to army equipment and confided to Lahood that he had met the Syrian army commander. He submitted to Lahood a list of used equipment coming from the Soviet bloc, among which there were tanks, artillery cannons and troop carriers, and asked him to make his choice.
The general responded by asking if these weapons were donations and Hariri answered negatively. So Lahood enquired about the prices. The only response he got from Hariri was: ‘Don’t you worry about the costs.’ ‘I worry a lot about the cost,’ snapped Lahood, ‘because a year ago I purchased from the US excess material coming from Germany for a nominal price; a Jeep for $100, an M13 armed vehicle for $5,000 and helicopters for $50,000 each. Unless I’m given the price, I refuse to purchase any material from exSoviet countries. The army’s reputation is at stake. We wouldn’t want anyone to think the army is concluding illegal deals, would we?’ Hariri then advised him to discuss the matter directly with Syria, but Lahood refused: ‘You started the discussions with Syria; you go on with them.’ Annoyed that Lahood would clearly not act at his behest, Hariri ended the conversation with the terse but premonitory statement: ‘We will not get along.’
Throughout his military career, Lahood was considered a model of integrity and discipline in all the functions he had carried out, whether at the Ministry of Defence or within the army. He was determined to live by the fundamental values inculcated in him by his father Jamil Lahood: opposing Israel and cooperating with Syria on a national level; implementing integrity and justice on a political level.
When he was named commanderinchief, the army was merely a group of ‘confessional miniarmies’, each taking orders from its confessional leader. The only national thing about the army was its name. At that time, the country had a dual government and state institutions were totally dismantled. The splitting up of the country meant that the president of the republic could not gain access to the palace of Baabda and the commanderinchief of the army could not reach the army headquarters in Yarzeh. In the grip of an economic crisis, the country was at the mercy of militias fighting for power or to strengthen their leadership.
When accepting the demanding role of commanderinchief of the army, Lahood had known that his mission would be very difficult, but he remained convinced that it was not impossible. Lahood rebuilt the military institution, according to his own convictions. Lebanese, patriotic and secular, he first undertook to remove all confessional colour from the brigades and other units, thus inaugurating the biggest single reform in the army’s history: it affected 7,000 men, largely noncommissioned officers and officers. Appalled at the fact that Muslim soldiers refused, from that moment on, to give the military salute to Christian officers and vice versa, he took the decision to sanction any soldier or officer who would not present the military salute to a hierarchical superior.
During the nine years he spent as chief of the army, Lahood did everything possible to impose a new simple and clear military doctrine: Israel is the enemy and Syria the ally. This strategic alliance with Damascus led him to retighten links between the Lebanese and Syrian armies in an atmosphere of trust, cooperation and coordination. He also integrated former militiamen, from militias that had been dissolved, into the ranks of the army – an undertaking that was not without risk for the cohesion of the institution.
Following the same logic, to put an end to politicians’ interference in military matters, Lahood drew a demarcation line between politics and the army. Within the latter, aiming again at reinforcing the cohesion of the military institution, he applied a firm but equitable policy.
Also, on a national and civil level, he reestablished compulsory military service, better known under the name of ‘flag service’, in order to strengthen cooperation between Christians and Muslims, as well as to reduce army expenses.
On a security level, Lahood adhered to the idea that in preparation for a longlasting civil peace, security was the basis for the normalization of society and must therefore be the same for all.
Lahood was proud of being the first commanderinchief to apply the principles of fusion and rotation. Since the country gained independence in 1943, military brigades had previously been formed on a confessional basis. Muslimmajority brigades were deployed in Muslimmajority regions and vice versa for the Christian regions. To dupe the public into believing that the army was national, military leaders habitually placed a Muslim commander in command of a Christian brigade and vice versa. In fact, all they were doing was throwing sand in people’s eyes: the army was far from being national.
These confessional divisions within the army, hidden in times of peace and order, insidiously reappeared the minute the country underwent a crisis. To avoid the breakup of the army, commandersinchief had had no choice but to shield it from such risk by confining it in its barracks. Lahood wanted to quickly remedy this situation. To begin with, he applied the principle of merging Christians and Muslims in all the brigades of the army. Then, he adopted a system of rotation that would allow all the units and brigades to serve for a period of six to nine months in all regions of the country. Thus, each soldier would get to know the whole of Lebanon and the Lebanese in all regions would become familiar with all the units and brigades of the army.
However, the president of the republic, Élias Hraoui, was not in favour of this plan. Considering such a step to be premature, he feared that this confessional merger would lead to friction within the brigades. More than once, he sent officers as emissaries to General Lahood, in an attempt to convince him of the soundness of his viewpoint. But every time anybody even tried to raise the subject, Lahood refused outright to listen, saying: ‘If this plan is not applied now, it will never be.’
Convinced that his commanderinchief was going too fast, Hraoui decided to proceed otherwise and asked for the help of the Syrians to bring pressure on Émile Lahood and make him come round to his point of view. He invited the commanderinchief of the Syrian army over and asked Lahood to meet him. Upon his arrival, the commander of the Syrian army took Lahood aside to tell him: ‘The president, who is the commanderinchief of the army, does not approve of your plan. Perhaps you could delay its execution until an agreement can be reached
on the matter.’ Lahood replied: ‘I know Lebanon. Either we build a national army today, or we will never have one.’ While admitting Lahood had a justified point of view, the Syrian commanderinchief asked: ‘Very well then, and what are we going to say to President Hraoui?’ ‘Well, tell him you talked to me,’ retorted Lahood.
Back in his office, Lahood demanded that the plan of merger and rotation be applied urgently. By acting in this way, he gave President Hraoui the impression that he was backed up by the Syrians. Later, he confided to me: ‘Had it not been for this move, Lebanon would not have had a national army.’
There still remained the sensitive matter of the renewal of the army equipment. General Lahood adapted the latter to the nature of the mission of the Lebanese army. On the one hand he requisitioned some weapons from the militias and on the other he sought help from the Syrian army, which provided him with light machine guns, ammunitions, T52 tanks and some troop carriers. Lastly, taking advantage of the American decision to reduce its armed presence in Europe and to sell off certain weapon stocks, further to the collapse of the Soviet Union and German reunification, he purchased American weapons at derisory prices.
He followed the same procedure for the purchase of medicines and consumable supplies. In the long run, such reduced expenditures allowed him to rehabilitate the Bain Militaire, to launch the construction of an officers’ club at Kaslik, and to replace a similar club at Zeytouni with one at the Monroe Hotel, while guaranteeing the rule of indemnities for retired officers.
On a military scale, he deployed the army all over the country to maintain peace, and extended its presence up to the Israeli border to face the enemy. He called for the adoption of a defence strategy that was, at the same time, flexible and firm, aimed at inflicting maximum losses on the enemy in case of conflict.
However, given the blatant imbalance in military power between Israel and Lebanon, Lahood quickly understood that popular resistance against Israeli occupation was key to Lebanon’s future. He was convinced that the Resistance was a projection of the national army in the occupied territory of Lebanon and that its presence would make Israel extremely reluctant to conduct any offensive against the country. Thus, he carefully avoided any clash between the army and the Resistance, and undertook to protect the latter as a red line until all Lebanese territory was liberated and Israeli aggression stopped.
b. The Resistance, a red line
On 25 July 1993, Israel launched its biggest operation against Lebanon since the invasion of 1982, a sevenday war during which Israel carried out its heaviest artillery and air attacks on southern Lebanese towns and villages, resulting in 130 dead and 500 injured among the civilian population. The intensity of the fighting led to the flight of nearly half a million people and the destruction of thousands of houses.
The operation, baptized by the Israelis ‘Operation Accountability’, began on a Sunday. Lahood was at his residence in Baabdat when he received a message on his walkietalkie (mobile phones did not exist yet) from the head of military operations, who informed him that an Israeli tank had fired on a house in the south and that an elderly lady had been killed. Lahood then asked if there was a Lebanese tank in the area within easy reach of the Israeli tank. When the officer answered in the affirmative, Lahood gave the order to fire. Then, he went to see President Hraoui, who had temporarily moved to Hazmieh (until the end of the rehabilitation works of the Baabda palace, after the attack that forced General Michel Aoun to evacuate the premises in 1990). The president convened an emergency meeting: Berry and Hariri came at once and the three presidents were only waiting for the Armed Forces Commander. No sooner had he arrived, than Hariri took him aside on the living room balcony and asked him, straight to the point, if he had really given the order to fire on the Israeli tank. Realizing that his conversation with the commissioned officer had been picked up, Lahood confirmed. Hariri wanted to know if he had taken that decision in coordination with the Syrians. ‘No, I gave the order because a Lebanese woman was killed and I think that the army’s duty is to retaliate against such aggression,’ replied Lahood. Hariri turned around and informed Hraoui and Berry: ‘He gave the order on his own. Wrath will descend upon Lebanon.’ Shortly afterwards, Lahood withdrew from the meeting and headed towards the south, where he remained the whole week. As for Hariri, he went to Damascus for security reasons.
The Lebanese Army retaliation brought about a real change in Arab and international positions. Israel ended its attack on 1 August 1993. In a speech marking this occasion, Lahood was insistent: ‘Lebanon is within its rights. Henceforth, it shall counter all aggressions targeted against it. Despite the obvious imbalance between the forces, Lebanon will emerge as the winner as it has right on its side.’
This position was not new to General Lahood. Ever since his appointment as Armed Forces Commander, he had never made a mystery of his beliefs, let alone his opinions: the army was bound to retaliate against Israeli aggression, for the same reasons that Lebanon was bound to uphold Resolution 425, which called for the unconditional withdrawal of Israeli forces from all occupied Lebanese territory. As part of the same strategic outlook, Lahood was convinced that deploying the army along the demarcation line with Israel would turn it into a border guard for the Israelis. According to him, the equation could be summarized as follows: where the army and the Resistance cohabited, security would be the army’s responsibility. Where the army could not deploy, the Resistance would assume responsibility. Lahood was, on the one hand, giving the army a real national and resistance nature and, on the other, legalizing the Resistance by setting up complementarities between the latter and the army for the defence and security of the Lebanese territory.
Shortly after ‘Operation Accountability’ ceased, Hraoui convened an emergency meeting of the Supreme Defence Council at the Baabda palace, where he had just moved in.
According to the minutes of the meeting, Hraoui spoke first and asked how some armed forces members were able to move freely within the southern areas of Lebanon without being caught by the army. Reminding those in attendance of a decision taken by the Council of Ministers on 2 January 1991, according to which the army was bound to prevent any military deployment in the regions under its control, he accused the army commander of unjustified laxity towards the said armed units and concluded: ‘We are in support of the Resistance. However, we do not accept a Resistance that leads the country into traps and fails to coordinate with its actions.’
Addressing the meeting in his turn, the prime minister strongly supported the president’s statement: ‘We are nationalists. We respect the role and the importance of the army. However, it should execute instructions and can in no way be lax towards anybody.’ Hariri specified that certain videos in his possession showed, beyond doubt, that the
Resistance had deployed in the zone controlled by the army. He underlined that many had complained about the matter, including Nabih Berry, Speaker of the Parliament. ‘We are going through a critical period. If the army does not preserve its credibility by making sure its tasks are being executed to the letter, it will fall and the state with it. This is why we should close all the gaps, even if it means having to reinforce the means of the army.’
Fares Boueiz, minister of foreign affairs, underlined, in his turn, that the only reason resistance operations had been launched from sectors controlled by the army was to highlight that ‘the state supports the Resistance,’ continuing, ‘it doesn’t mean that it grants it carte blanche’.
Caught in the crossfire of these comments, the army representative, Colonel Ibrahim Abbas, showed the position of the troops and specified that there were gaps in the army’s control. Nevertheless, every time a Resistance force member was spotted within the area controlled by the army, he was brought before the military court. Israel was responsible for the abovementioned gaps, he concluded.
The prime minister Rafic Hariri took the floor again to explain that his government was ready to provide the army with equipment in order to reinforce its capacities as much as it was ready to trigger the necessary diplomatic contacts to close the geographical gaps. ‘We are ready to take responsibility for the Resistance, but we cannot do it if this latter does not coordinate its actions with us . . . the mere fact that Hezbollah asks the army to refrain from putting pressure on it in the future means that the army is giving in at the moment’, he added. Then, weighing each of his words, he noted that: ‘More and more people are voicing their discontent with the Resistance and popular restlessness is becoming quite conspicuous. The Resistance should not prevent us from keeping good relationships with our friends worldwide.’
The head of state cut the debate short and said: ‘I would like it if the head of the army were attending this meeting. But he is currently attending a coordination meeting with UNIFIL.’ Then he addressed himself to Colonel Ibrahim Abbas and told him that it was important to strive for the implementation of the Council of Ministers without the slightest leniency. At that point, Hraoui shifted to other subjects, mainly insisting that permits to carry weapons be suspended.
This meeting conveyed the general state of mind. Hraoui and Hariri believed that the army had not obeyed orders and that General
Lahood was solely responsible for the situation on site. They accused him of leniency towards Hezbollah and suspected him of secret coordination with Damascus.
Informed of the content of the meeting, Lahood sent a very clear message to the participants, in which he advised them that he wasn’t ready to confront Hezbollah in a military intervention: a battle that would mean playing into Israel’s hands and sparking off a new civil war. He added that he’d rather submit his resignation than give an order that would result in a confrontation between the army and the Resistance. He also reminded them that the army imposed its authority on the territory that was under its control and that where the army was not present the Resistance would act like a liberation movement.
Hariri called Lahood and, at a meeting between the two, declared: ‘I’ve just come back from Damascus and I’m telling you your future is ahead of you. You can become president of the republic if you can settle the problem of the Resistance’s weapons. In any case, I have provided you with an international, Arab and local support to fulfil this mission. Even Syria is OK with it and Jumblatt as well. Furthermore, I have had a discussion with Boutros BoutrosGhali (back then, SecretaryGeneral of the UN) so that the Security Council will pass a resolution to that effect. You will be informed of it tomorrow and they will help you in the implementation of the resolution. We must act quickly lest things turn nasty.’ Lahood’s reply was brief and simple: ‘I advise you to forget about it,’ but Hariri insisted: ‘I’m the one asking this from you.’ ‘And I refuse to execute this order’, blazed Lahood. Hariri could not conceal his utter amazement: ‘Am I to understand that you are not even considering the presidency?’ At that point, Lahood reminded him: ‘I became Armed Forces Commander without ever having sought it.’ ‘OK,’ replied Hariri, ‘I’ve got the picture. Take some time to think about it and I’ll call you in the evening.’ At midnight, Hariri called Lahood and announced the visit of the Chief of Staff of UNIFIL, who had been sent by Boutros BoutrosGhali that same morning.
The following day, in the course of the morning, the Chief of Staff of the UNIFIL and his delegation arrived at the army command HQ accompanied by the Head of Army Intelligence, Michel Rahbani, and his deputy, Jamil Sayyed. Lahood reiterated that he had no intention of sending the army to the south, despite the growing pressures he was facing. Meanwhile, he received a phone call from the minister of
foreign affairs, Fares Boueiz, telling him that the Council of Ministers had decided to send the troops to the Lebanese border. Lahood snapped back: ‘You are not entitled to give orders to the army. In any case, let there be no mistake about it, I will not execute these orders.’ Clearly irritated, he then hung up and started gathering his papers. Jamil Sayyed, who had not yet become close to Lahood, asked him what was happening and Lahood answered firmly: ‘I’m going home to Baabdat! Find yourselves another Armed Forces Commander.’
Having understood how serious the matter was, Sayyed soon left for Damascus to inform the advisor of the General Administration of Syrian Intelligence, General Muhammad Nassif, better known as Abu Wael, of Lahood’s decision. On account of the importance of these developments, Nassif contacted President Hafez Assad who, flabbergasted by the stand of the Armed Forces Commander, decided to meet him. An invitation was soon sent to General Lahood.
This first meeting between the two men is typified by the affability of President Assad, who said to his guest: ‘I wanted to meet you to ask why you refused to enter into conflict with the Resistance, despite the written order given to you by the Lebanese authorities and in spite of the position of the UN, Syria and all Lebanese parties.’
Lahood was expecting such a question. He explained that in his early childhood he was brought up to act according to his conscience. He related how, when he was eight, he came back home with his school uniform torn because of a fight with a classmate. His father, Jamil, asked him right away: ‘Is your conscience clear?’ ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘In that case,’ his father went on, ‘it’s no big deal. I will have you made another school uniform.’
Hafez Assad burst into laughter when he heard this story, showing his interlocutor that the message was well received. Nevertheless, to remove any possibility of ambiguity, Lahood went on: ‘My conscience does not allow me to strike the Resistance that confronts Israel when all I want is to put together a national army capable of taking up this role. Thus, I preferred going back home . . .’.
Assad was very pleased to hear these words, tinted with pure nationalism. In his turn, he evoked personal memories, among which was the memory of a book he had read while he was still an officer in the army, written by a Syrian whose last name was Adm. In this book the author related an encounter with a Lebanese officer born in Mount
Lebanon, into a very good Maronite family, by the name of Jamil Lahood. This officer was hostile to the French Mandate and would come out against the French officers every time they criticized the Arabs and Syria. Assad fixed his gaze on his interlocutor and confided to him: ‘The memory of your father is quite vivid. When you enrolled in the army, we kept track of your record, concerned to find out whether you were as nationalistic as him. One cannot but recognize that you are a real chip off the old block. Your refusal to send troops to the south is an undeniable proof of that.’
Lahood understood the importance of the point made and decided not to tell a living soul about it. Indeed, when asked what President Assad had told him he always answered: ‘Why don’t you ask him?’
Lahood liked to reminisce about his father’s doings. When he was merely a captain, Jamil convened a meeting of Lebanese officers in Zouk Mikael on 26 May 1941. During this meeting, the officers decided not to execute the orders given them by the French command and pledged to serve only under the Lebanese flag. They drew up a historical document stating the following: ‘The only government we are willing to deal with is the national one and we will endeavour to achieve this objective. Anyone who does not follow suit will be deemed a traitor.’
Lahood also pointed out that his father was the first Lebanese officer to hoist the national flag in his unit’s headquarters, at Ain Soha in 1941, thus defying the mandatory French authorities.
However, Jamil Lahood died with two unfulfilled wishes on his heart: he did not become Armed Forces Commander, nor was he ever elected president. Émile Lahood is happy to have fulfilled his father’s double dream, but is left with one regret: his father did not live long enough to witness it.
c. The indisputable choice
During the summer of 1998, as the presidential election deadline drew nearer, Élias Hraoui was well aware that the possibility of a second prorogation of his term was practically nonexistent. He was all the same curious about the identity of his successor and had called his Syrian counterpart twice to know more about it. But it was vain. Finally, at the third telephone call, it was agreed that he would go to Damascus
on 5 October 1998. At least, that was how he related it in his memoirs written by Camille Menassa.
On that day, after the usual meet and greet, Élias Hraoui mentioned to Hafez Assad the tension on the Syrian–Turkish border and put the Lebanese army at the disposal of the Syrian president. Assad seized that occasion to talk about Lebanon: ‘By the way, since we are talking of the army, I was surprised to read that the Lebanese media – in particular, the daily An Nahar – published public polls showing that the majority of the Lebanese would like to see General Émile Lahood become president.’ And without waiting for a reply, he went on: ‘We have to respect the will of the Lebanese . . .’.
In fact, by this time, Hraoui had learned of Assad’s views concerning the succession from Nabih Berry, who had recently visited Damascus, but he was nonetheless surprised by the directness of the Syrian president, who generally preferred to allude to his wishes rather than spell them out.
Hraoui tried to talk Assad into changing his mind, reminding him that it was he who had initially adopted paragraph 3 of Article 49 of the Constitution, barring grade one civil servants from running for presidency, in order to prevent such ambition from influencing their decisions while in office.
Assad listened carefully but stood his ground. Indeed, he made his position crystal clear by announcing it before the pillars of his regime, including Abdel Halim Khaddam and Hekmat Chehabeh, during a lunch held in Hraoui’s honour. That done, as far as he was concerned the matter was closed.
On his way back, Hraoui called the presidential palace, where some friends were awaiting him, but instead of pointing out that the Syrian president had read the polls published in the daily Al Nahar, showing that the majority of the Lebanese would like to see Lahood as president and that he intended to respect the people’s will, he misled them into believing that Lahood’s designation was merely a Syrian choice. He also warned the Speaker of the House and convened the Council of Ministers for an extraordinary meeting on 8 October. This meeting was destined to send a bill amending Article 49 of the Constitution to the Parliament, in order to allow a military man to be elected President of the Republic as was the case in 1958 when General Shehab was elected.
The way Émile Lahood’s candidacy was presented did him more harm than good. He appeared as Syria’s candidate, which turned the
Christians against him. Nonetheless, he was elected on 15 October 1998 with 118 of 128 deputy votes, in the presence of two hundred guests, among whom were members of international and Arab diplomatic corps. In accordance with tradition, the Speaker of the House then accompanied the newly elected president to the presidential palace in Baabda, where the outgoing president awaited him.
Once the formal ceremony was over, Lahood set off to Baabdat to spend some moments in silence at his father’s graveside, returning afterwards to his family residence, which was swamped by a large crowd that had gathered to congratulate him. He did not stay there very long. In a hurry to start work, he asked his brother Nasri to take over and welcome, on his behalf, the numerous wellwishers. His first press release as president revealed his determination to get down to work without delay. Thanking the deputies for putting their confidence in him, and declining any further congratulations, he concluded: ‘I have few promises to make but a lot of work to carry out. I’ll try to set the example for all.’
If Assad backed Lahood’s election, it was because he believed Lahood would prove a powerful president able to safeguard Lebanon and protect the Resistance at a time when Syria felt menaced by an alliance between Turkey and Israel, both of which bordered Syria.
However, Lahood’s election did not have unanimous support within the Lebanese political elite. Walid Jumblatt, Raymond Eddeh and Michel Aoun opposed it, while Maronite bishops expressed reservations about the process, though not the person. On the other hand, Lahood enjoyed widespread popular support, most Lebanese seeing in him the possibility of establishing a state worthy of the name. Although the Christians were rather uncomfortable with the way he was elected, the majority were relieved and hoped that the new president would restore to the Maronite presidency a status and lustre that had been lost. However, their expectations did not stop there: the fight against corruption, urgent administrative reform, and the cessation of dubious transactions . . . such were the hopes that Émile Lahood’s advent to power generated.
On the international and Arab level, Lahood’s election was welcomed. Numerous telegrams of congratulations, among which was one sent by the Iranian president, Muhammad Khatami, bore witness to that. French president Jacques Chirac was the first to congratulate him over the phone, while the spokesman of the American Department paid homage to Lahood’s success in rebuilding the army. Finally, Bachar
Assad came in person to Baabda, on behalf of his father, to congratulate Lahood.
Before Émile Lahood’s election, I met Rafic Hariri twice in his summer residence in Faqra. Both meetings concerned the coming presidential elections. At the first meeting, Hariri had been convinced that potential candidates were limited to the two Lahoods, namely Émile and Nassib, but he favoured the latter. During the second meeting, he acknowledged that Émile was more likely to be elected, subsequently ordering his advisors and closest aides to remain vigilant in order to forestall any attempt to cause trouble between the newly elected president and himself.
As soon as the result was made public, Hariri headed towards the Bain Militaire in Beirut, place of residence of the elected president. Several meeting were held between the two men during that period. Four matters were on the agenda: relations between the president of the republic and the prime minister; the social and economic situation of the country; administrative, military, diplomatic and judicial designations; and the formation of the first government of Lahood’s mandate. This last point was the most important, since it constituted a key test of the future relationship between the two men.
Lahood enquired about the functioning of the state’s institutions. He made it clear that the president of the republic was to be fully informed about all decisionmaking processes and to fully participate in the exercise of power. He emphasised, also, his intention of making a fresh start with all parties, thus ensuring that a unmistakable distinction between his past as commanderinchief of the army and his current function as president would be firmly rooted in the public’s mind. Hariri, meanwhile, until he got to know the new president better, confined his discussions with Lahood to military issues. Hraoui, on the other hand, was unhappy that his successor had failed to respect the tradition of the newly elected president meeting with the outgoing president rather than the prime minister, even though Lahood’s meetings with the latter had yielded little of significance.
Whereas Lahood appeared to want little for himself, Hariri was behaving like someone who had it all and intended to keep it, perhaps because he recognised that, unlike his predecessors, Lahood intended to be a full partner in government, defending the prerogatives of the president of the republic and prevent the prime minister from stealing the whole show.
During that transitional stage, predictions regarding future relations between the two men proliferated. Some believed that ‘necessary agreement’ would have the upper hand over ‘personality conflict’. Others were convinced that the conflicting personalities of the two – each coming from a totally different world – would make it impossible for them ever to see eye to eye. Such pessimists explained that peaceful coexistence between them was not viable because of their opposing styles: on the one hand, Lahood with a military background, impregnated from boyhood with a sense of civil service, and, on the other, Hariri as a private entrepreneur who had set out to seize control of the civil service after having achieved brilliant success in business.
On 24 November 1998, the Speaker of the House, Nabih Berry, opened the session intended for the elected president’s first speech with a minute’s silence in memory of Georges Saadeh, head of the Kataeb Party, who had died of cancer a week earlier, at the age of sixtyeight.
Born in Chebtine on 21 November 1930, Georges Saadeh had entered the Kataeb Party at the age of fifteen and progressed slowly through the ranks until he was finally elected head of the party in 1986, an office he held until his death. As party leader, he adopted the slogan: ‘To pass from the founder’s party to the party of institutions.’
During the Taef conference, Georges Saadeh’s star had shone. Though moderate, he was capable of making compromises, some of which were unpopular among the Christians, such as defending the principle of opening up towards the Muslims of the Arab world, particularly Syria. Known for his quickwittedness and liking for jokes, he had the knack of lightening the atmosphere while working hard and promoting dialogue, leaving an indelible mark on his region and the Kataeb Party. Married to Leila Keserwan Khazen, he left three children: Samer, Mira and Rami.
On the day of the Inaugural Ceremony, the Speaker of the House paid tribute to Georges Saadeh’s virtues. Then the elected president made his speech. Visibly moved and affected, Émile Lahood grasped the Constitution with his left hand and held out his right hand to take the oath. He was so solemn that he looked like a young officer, top of his class, receiving the congratulations of his superiors. He then made what was later called the Inaugural Speech, broadcast live on TV, this being the first time the Lebanese heard him speak publicly (Lahood had previously merely published press releases, in line with military tradition).
Lahood was not at his best in such situations. He seemed somewhat embarrassed, reading the speech quickly as if he wanted to get such formalities over with as fast as possible. However, any apprehension he may have felt faded rapidly as the deputies warmly welcomed him with repeated rounds of applause and cries of approval, their cheers at times making it difficult for him to make himself heard and forcing him to reiterate parts of his speech.
The speech was very different from those the Lebanese were used to hearing. Free of political cant, its straightforward tone spoke to them in a language they could relate to and that reflected their ambitions.
‘I’ll start by the oath that I took before you a few minutes ago and in which I undertook to respect the Constitution, the state and the laws,’ proclaimed the president. ‘The head of state is the only one who can take such an oath. One might wonder what is the rationale behind such a provision. My answer is: because the legislator wanted the summit of the state to be under the law, and under the law I will be, and no one shall ever be above the law . . .’.
A round of applause burst out in the room (as of the next morning, this passage was transmitted and published by all the media). After that, Lahood enumerated the principles that would constitute the pillars of his term: a righteous and independent judiciary; an administration based on competence and integrity and subject to strict control; a transparent financial and economic policy, including the controlling of expenses; and a specific interest in all matters relating to education and development.
Lahood also underlined the social and cultural grounds of his term to come: ‘It is inconceivable that poverty should deprive the Lebanese of access to education, healthcare and work. It is inconceivable that crime against the environment should go on. It is inconceivable that the displaced should remain far from their land, that the emigrant should forget his country of origin and that politics should be conditioned by Confessionalism . . .’.
Broaching relations with Syria, he emphasized that relations between the two countries were based on a common destiny defined by land, geography and history: ‘There can be neither submissiveness nor compromise. There must be a destiny and a choice.’
Then, turning to the sensitive matter of peace negotiations, he noted that Israel still wanted to conclude separate agreements with each Arab country. ‘These agreements are a semipeace that only serves
Israel’s interests and contributes to the division of Arabs. We refuse to give guarantees to Israel. These guarantees will only be provided by global peace. The stable and permanent Lebanese national interest lies in the concomitance of the Lebanese and Syrian sections on the basis of a total Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon, the Bekaa, and the Syrian Golan, in compliance with the UN resolutions.’
The slogan of ‘concomitance’ of the two Lebanese and Syrian sections was thus launched. It was to structure Lahood’s policy, to which he would remain faithful until the end of his office.
Lahood deliberately avoided mentioning the previous presidency, his silence implying that his own would not be continuous with it. He did, however, launch a violent diatribe against corruption, promising to ‘cut off the hand of the thief, the squanderer, the profiteer and the corrupt, whoever he is . . .’. The target was clear, no need to name it. From that point forward, Hariri knew exactly what to expect.
Lahood ended: ‘I do not pretend to have a magic wand, but I’ve got the will and the determination. Yes, I’ve got the will and the determination. And my hand, held out to you all, is held out for the good, the just and the true.’
This Inaugural Speech had a positive impact among all sections of the population. The young, in particular, saw Émile Lahood’s mandate as ushering in longawaited change, a mandate where the law would be applied and institutions respected. Such an outlook spread as much inside the country as abroad.
After his Inaugural Speech, Lahood headed toward the palace of Baabda for the ceremonial transfer of power. Having refused any military escort, he became stuck in a traffic jam in the area of Galerie Semaan, finally reaching Baabda half an hour behind schedule. The waiting Élias Hraoui – who must, no doubt, have recalled his frequent advice to Lahood about the importance of always being escorted – improvised a small speech in which he stated: ‘What you have promised the Lebanese this morning is heartwarming. It is true that you don’t have a magic wand, but you’ve got the will . . .’. Then, trying to mask his emotion, he officially handed the presidency over to his successor: ‘I hand over to you the reins of power and bestow on you the Lebanese Order of Merit, Extraordinary Grade. It is the right of every newly elected president. However, it was not awarded to me . . .’.
Once more, Émile Lahood distanced himself from established political tradition. Being a man of few words, and having already said what he wanted in his speech, he failed to pay homage to his predecessor, thus, in the space of a few hours, twice wounding Hariri, having previously omitted to mention him in his speech to Parliament. Hraoui rushed the remaining formalities of the power transfer and hastened to leave the premises as it dawned on him that there was no longer a place for him in this palace that he had rebuilt. Suddenly he looked older and completely worn out. On his way out, he avoided his customary banter with reporters. Depressed and disillusioned, he got into his private car and set off without once looking back. After having held the reins of power for nine years, he was, from then on, nothing more than a former president.
The transfer of power is a typically Lebanese feature in comparison to other Arab regimes, where there is generally no former president. The head of state, unless forced to leave power, remains in office until his death.
Despite Lahood’s being formally and legitimately made president, some saw his accession to power as a sort of ‘blank coup d’état’ – one that demonstrated the inability of the political class to administer the country’s affairs. Everyone, however, praised Lahood’s integrity and his commitment to institutions and nationalism. Christians felt better represented and Muslims saw in him a president hostile to Israel who would never treat the Lebanese on a confessional basis. Syria, for its part, saw a reliable ally in Lahood, who had already proved himself during the difficult periods of Lebanon’s recent history, confronted mainly by Israel.
If Lahood’s nomination as president had been somewhat easy, his mandate was going to be one of the hardest in decades.