Editor’s note: Ahead of the 2014 presidential election, this is the second in a series of articles examining the circumstances and conditions that shaped the elections of Lebanon’s 12 presidents since 1943.
BEIRUT: Charismatic politician Camille Chamoun came to power in 1952 thanks to backing he enjoyed from Lebanon’s powerful opposition and a strong network of regional and international ties.
Soon after his election, Chamoun – a lawyer from the Chouf village of Deir al-Qamar – turned against his local allies and agreed to sign controversial military pacts with western powers. Observers argue that such pacts significantly compromised Lebanon’s neutrality and implicated it in the regional tensions going on at the time.
Although the start of his mandate brought unparalleled prosperity to Lebanon and was often described as the “golden age,” the final years of Chamoun’s tenure were mired by crisis and turbulence which culminated into what came to be known as the 1958 crisis, Lebanon’s first ever civil conflict in the post-independence era.
The miniature civil war pitted Chamoun against the Lebanese supporters of the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, when Chamoun refused to break ties with Western powers in the aftermath of the 1956 Suez Crisis. The grudge against Chamoun grew after his opponents accused him of siding with the Western-backed Baghdad Pact established to confront Soviet Union influence in the Middle East.
Chamoun, who was a lawmaker since 1934 and who occupied several ministerial posts since, rose to fame as part of the Patriotic Socialist Front, a bloc of lawmakers and politicians which comprised figures such as Progressive Socialist Party leader Kamal Jumblatt and National Bloc leader Raymond Eddeh.
The PSF had constituted the main nucleus of opposition against the rule of President Bechara al-Khoury, whose second term was characterized by corruption, financial scandals and nepotism.
Eventually, Khoury yielded to the pressures of the opposition, which had declared an open general political strike, and submitted his resignation on Sept. 18, 1952, three years ahead of the end of his second term.
Some analysts – such as Farid al-Khazen, writing in an article submitted to a 2011 conference on Lebanese presidential elections organized by the Issam Fares Center for Lebanon – argue that at the time of Chamoun’s election, foreign intervention was minimal compared to the level of blatant intervention in the post-Taif Agreement era. But others disagree.
According to historian Fawwaz Traboulsi, a key external factor – Lebanon’s membership in Western military pacts – played a main role in Khoury’s downfall and Chamoun’s rise to power. Khoury and his Prime Minister Riad al-Solh had refused to join the so-called Pact for Collective Defense of the Mediterranean against communism shepherded by the United States and Britain in addition to France and Turkey.
In fact, Chamoun’s main contender in the presidential election of 1952 Hamid Frangieh, himself a prominent member of the PSF, was in favor or Lebanon’s neutrality. Contrary to PSF principles, Chamoun agreed to engage Lebanon in Western pacts and kept his promise after his election on Sept. 23, 1952.
In “A History of Modern Lebanon,” Traboulsi wrote that the PSF charter that Chamoun had committed himself to stipulated achieving Lebanese neutrality in international affairs, administrative reform and curb abuses of power.
“The extent to which the new president did exactly the opposite of what he has committed himself to do is quite amazing,” Traboulsi argued.
Chamoun’s election also set a precedent in Lebanese politics, whereby the shrewd politician sought the support of Lebanon’s biggest neighbor Syria in the race to the presidency.
Khazen wrote that Damascus has called on Lebanon’s Muslim leaders to back Chamoun against Frangieh.
In his book, “Lebanon’s Presidents: How they made it?” journalist Ahmad Zeineddine maintained that prior to his election Chamoun went on a hunting trip to Syria, where he met with President Adib Shishakli.
“Chamoun quickly realized that Shishakli could help him win the support of Lebanese groups over which Syria has influence,” Zeineddine wrote.
“Soon after, Beirut lawmakers and a considerable number of north Lebanon lawmakers vowed allegiance to Chamoun thanks to pressure exerted by the Syrian administration and the British ambassador to Beirut.”