Editor’s note: Ahead of the 2014 presidential election, this is the fourth in a series of articles examining the circumstances and conditions that shaped the elections of Lebanon’s 12 presidents since 1943.
BEIRUT: The 1964 election of Charles Helou to the presidency was viewed as a continuation of the Chehabist era amid the absence of any change in the balance of power at a local and regional level.
The presidential race kicked off in the summer of that year when President Fouad Chehab announced his opposition to a proposal to amend the Constitution and renew his term, even though it was backed by a majority in Parliament.
Chehab chose Helou to be his successor, believing that the lawyer and journalist would carry on with the policies of reform he had begun during his term and keep the officials appointed during his mandate in their positions.
Chehabists, those who supported the president’s path of reform and his unwillingness to side against the policies of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, enjoyed a majority in Parliament. They believed his attitude had helped to stabilize Lebanon during his term from 1958-64.
In his book, “The Republic of Fouad Chehab,” journalist Nicholas Nassif wrote that Fouad Butros and Philip Taqla, both close to Chehab during his term, proposed Helou as an acceptable candidate.
Hailing from the town of Baabda, Helou was a knowledgeable and moderate figure who held several ministerial posts during the terms of presidents Beshara al-Khoury, Camille Chamoun and Chehab.
“What often drew the attention of the president was Charles Helou’s use of elegant phrases during and outside Cabinet sessions, which stirred interest and appreciation. He also paid attention to the fact that the minister uses terms and phrases which the president himself has mentioned during meetings, creating a positive impression of Charles Helou,” Nassif wrote.
“This made him [Chehab] feel that that his [Helou’s] nomination for presidency would facilitate the continuation of Chehabist reform plans and at the same time protect the Chehabist political school and the Army along with defending and justifying its role in preserving stability and security,” Nassif added.
While Chehabists were both Christian and Muslim, most Christian leaders – including former President Chamoun, Kataeb Party leader Pierre Gemayel, National Bloc leader Raymond Eddeh and Suleiman Franjieh – were in the opposition by 1964.
They expressed their irritation with the rising interference of the Army Intelligence, better known as the “Second Bureau,” in Lebanese politics during Chehab’s term, particularly after a failed coup d’etat staged by the Syrian Social Nationalist Party at the end of 1961.
Opponents of Chehab launched a campaign led by Maronite Patriarch Bulos Meouche to incite public opinion and foreign embassies against Chehab in a bid to prevent the election of a successor who would pursue his policies, Nassif wrote.
Nassif said the U.S. sought to bring either Franjieh or Eddeh to the presidency. In his book he included a translated copy of a letter sent by U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Armin Meyer on July 8, 1964, to Philip Talbot, then the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs.
In the letter, Meyer noted that efforts to create a favorable situation for Franjieh and Eddeh to win elections were facing serious obstacles. He also thanked Talbot for increasing funds available to the embassy to be “appropriately” used during the presidential campaign.
With other candidates including MP Abdel-Aziz Chehab and Minister Fouad Ammoun standing no chance of victory, Speaker Kamel Asaad and Progressive Socialist Party leader Kamal Jumblatt voiced their backing for Helou.
Nassif said Taqla discussed Helou’s candidacy with Meyer. Later, the U.S. envoy visited Butros and hinted that his country would support Helou.
On Aug. 15, 1964, Chehab informed Abdel-Nasser – his regional backer – that he had chosen Helou to succeed him. Abdel-Nasser did not know Helou, but trusted Chehab’s decision, according to Nassif.
On the same day, politicians, leaders and Chehabist MPs gathered at the Beirut house of Egyptian Ambassador to Lebanon Abdel-Hamid Ghaleb, where they were informed about the identity of the upcoming president.
Helou was elected on Aug. 18, 1964, with 92 votes out of 99. Although he had little hope of success, Kataeb leader Gemayel insisted on running anyway. He got five votes.
But although Helou’s election was viewed as an extension of Chehabism, his term actually marked the beginning of the end for Chehab’s reformist steps.
Chehabists received a major blow with the defeat of Abdel-Nasser in the 1967 war against Israel. One year later, the tripartite alliance – which brought together Eddeh, Gemayel and Chamoun – achieved a significant victory in parliamentary polls.
The presidential election of 1970 proved a coup de grace for Chehabism, as it brought bitter rival Franjieh to power.
Helou’s term witnessed the early warning signs of Lebanon’s Civil War manifested in the form of clashes between the Lebanese Army and Palestinian armed groups that started moving to Lebanon in the wake of the 1967 war.
The militant groups began attacking Israel and in a bid to contain the crisis, which sharply polarized the country, Lebanon signed the famous Cairo Accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization in Nov. 1969. The agreement granted PLO forces the right to run refugee camps in Lebanon and launch military operations against Israel from southern parts of the country.