Editor’s note: Ahead of the 2014 presidential election, this is the fifth in a series of articles examining the circumstances and conditions that shaped the elections of Lebanon’s 12 presidents since 1943.
BEIRUT: Elected with a margin of one vote in 1970 on the back of a growing wave of anti-Chehabism sentiment, former President Sleiman Frangieh was saddled with the unenviable task of preventing Lebanon from sliding into a brutal 15-year civil war that would break out before the end of his term.
Known for his bad temper, Frangieh was nevertheless popular as a strong Maronite leader. Hailing from the northern Christian mountain town of Zghorta, he was “routinely drawn by cartoonists in peasant costume, with a hunting rifle slung over his shoulder,” according to historian Samir Kassir in his tome “Beirut.”
He was largely elected to bring an end to the all-pervasive grip of the Second Bureau, the Army intelligence body that had become closely associated with President Fouad Chehab and his successor Charles Helou – something Frangieh succeeded in doing.
But it was his brother Hamid who was trained to take the presidential seat, particularly after Frangieh was accused of being behind a notorious incident in 1957 that saw at least 20 members of the rival Doueihy clan shot dead in a church in the Zghorta village of Miziara.
He fled to Latakia in Syria, where he made two fateful acquaintances: future Syrian President Hafez Assad and his brother Rifaat.
Less than a year later, however, Frangieh was called back to take up the family mantle after his brother passed away. He was elected to Hamid’s seat in Parliament in 1960.
By mid-1970, he mounted a presidential election campaign against the backdrop of the divisive presence of a large and increasingly militarized Palestinian population, most of whom were led by Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization.
The 1970 election was initially seen as two-horse race between Camille Chamoun – part of the Al-Hilf al-Thulathi or Tripartite Alliance – and Chehab.
But, neither made it to the final of three election rounds. After a second round that saw 101 votes cast by a 99-member Parliament, the third session finally saw the Hilf-backed Frangieh defeat Chehabist candidate Elias Sarkis by a margin of one vote. That winning vote was rumored to have been provided by Progressive Socialist Party leader Kamal Jumblatt.
The vote was the first to be broadcast on television in “an epic session of Parliament,” according to Kassir.
“Joyous gunfire greeted his election in the Mountain [Mount Lebanon] and in the Christian neighborhoods of Beirut, where it was interpreted as marking the end of the dictatorship of the state intelligence services, but also as heralding a strong presidency that would restore Maronite preeminence after the demolition the previous year,” he added.
Frangieh’s first – very popular – act was to initiate a purge of the Chehabist intelligence officers. Local folklore says that at his inauguration ceremony, the new president announced that “all Lebanese can now sleep with their doors open,” something that years later, in the grip of war, was turned into a dark joke that citizens no longer even had doors to sleep behind.
The first government under Frangieh was assembled by Prime Minister Saeb Salam and was known as the “youth Cabinet” for consisting of men in their 40s. With social unrest, Palestinian militancy, trade union strikes, student activism and political divisions on the rise, the idea, according to Salam, was to “carry out a revolution from above” to prevent “one from below.”
But within two years, that government had collapsed and “the reformist pretensions of the first two years of Frangieh’s mandate [had] ended in fiasco,” according to historian Fawwaz Traboulsi in his “A History of Modern Lebanon.”
After this, Frangieh “restored clientelism and nepotism to their former places of honor” and “rapidly showed himself to be incapable of grasping the new dynamics that were reshaping Lebanese society,” Kassir wrote.
In 1973, there were significant clashes between the increasingly bold PLO – who had attracted the support of a burgeoning, largely Muslim leftist and Arab nationalist movement – and the Lebanese Army. It was the continuation of a downward spiral into war that would lead to the outbreak of full-blown fighting in April 1975, pitting the Lebanese Front comprising Frangieh, Chamoun and Kataeb Party leader Pierre Gemayel against the Lebanese National Movement, a coalition of Lebanese leftist groups allied with the PLO.
A Syrian-brokered attempt in February 1976 to end fighting in Lebanon by creating a constitutional document to ensure a fairer sharing of power between Muslims and Christians failed.
By June 1976, Syrian troops entered Lebanon on the request of the Lebanese Front and stopped the advance of National Movement forces toward Christian-held territories.
The Zghorta scion was forced to leave Baabda Palace after it was bombarded by National Movement artillery and spent the remaining months of his term in Christian areas.