Editor’s note: Ahead of the 2014 presidential election, this is the sixth in a series of articles examining the circumstances and conditions that shaped the elections of Lebanon’s 12 presidents since 1943.
BEIRUT: In 1976, to the sound of gunfire and mortar bombs, Elias Sarkis became Lebanon’s first wartime president in a controversial, violence-wracked election that marked the beginning of Syria’s open involvement in its neighbor’s political system.
An experienced lawyer and economist who narrowly lost to former President Sleiman Frangieh in the 1970 election, Sarkis returned to the stage six years later to bring an end to the fighting that had begun in 1975 – then known as the Two Year War. He ultimately failed in the face of a growing standoff between Israel and Syria and the shifting allegiances of the Christian Kataeb Party.
Unlike his predecessors, Sarkis was not from a prominent Maronite family. Born in July 1924 in the village of Shbaniyeh, Mount Lebanon, his father was a shopkeeper and he worked as a railroad office clerk to save money for university.
Like so many other Lebanese politicians, he studied law at Universite Saint Joseph and went on to become head of the president’s office for Fouad Chehab and his successor Charles Helou, until he was asked to assume the Central Bank governor’s role following a financial crisis in 1968, a position he held until his election as president.
As a result, the quiet, solemn man was known as a Chehabist, but according to Fawwaz Traboulsi in his book “A History of Modern Lebanon,” he was “practically the opposite of his mentor.”
Rather than initiate the various reforms Chehab had begun, Sarkis concentrated on improving the banking sector and putting “security before bread,” wrote Traboulsi.
The runup to the election was marked heavy clashes between the Christian Lebanese Front – comprising Pierre Gemayel’s Kataeb Party, Frangieh and former President Camille Chamoun – and the Muslim Lebanese National Movement, a coalition of leftist groups headed by Progressive Socialist Party chief Kamal Jumblatt and allied to the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The LNM, chasing reform and the abolition of the confessional political system, asked Damascus to retire Frangieh before the end of his term and support changes in the governmental makeup. Hafez Assad, then-president of Syria, agreed to an early vote, prompting Parliament to pass an amendment allowing an election six months before the president’s term officially expired in September 1976.
The second part of the request relating to reforms, however, did not go as smoothly. The Constitutional Document proposed by Syria did not go far enough for Jumblatt and his followers, and instead of leading to greater unity in Lebanon, the country remained as divided as ever.
Regardless, Syria and the Lebanese Front pressed on with the election, which saw their candidate, Sarkis, pitched against the increasingly isolated Raymond Eddeh – much to chagrin of Jumblatt and other leftists. The final nail in the coffin for Eddeh was the U.S. decision to back his opponent.
In his book “The Demise of a Republic,” then-MP Albert Mansour wrote that U.S. Envoy to Lebanon Deen Brown told Eddeh that America was supporting Sarkis because he would bring Syria’s troops into Lebanon, a move that was at the time thought to be the only way to restore peace in the country.
Initially scheduled for late April, 60 of Parliament’s 99 MPs voted to postpone the election to May 8 after intense opposition from Jumblatt over Syrian interference, according to A.J. Abraham’s “The Lebanon War.”
“The announced postponement ... became a signal for renewed violence,” Abraham wrote.
In the event, leftist leaders boycotted the vote and called on their followers to use all available methods to prevent a quorum being reached. On the day of the election, pro-Sarkis politicians were forced to dodge snipers, burning road blocks and mortar bombs to get to Mansour Palace, a luxurious private residence in Mathaf – right on the Green Line dividing the Muslims and Christians of west and east Beirut – that was used by Parliament during the war.
“House Speaker Kamel Assad and seven other deputies drove up to the villa in a convoy of limousines packed with bodyguards who stuck their guns out the windows,” a UPI story at the time reported.
“Phalangist [Kataeb] party chief Pierre Gemayel and three right-wing deputies followed minutes later in a battle-scarred landrover bristling with gunmen.”
Half an hour after the beginning of the session at 11 a.m., just 31 MPs had arrived, according to the UPI report, far from the two-thirds needed to make the quorum.
Eventually 69 MPs managed to get past the leftist blockade, with the 29 others – including Eddeh and Jumblatt – notable by their absence. Sixty-six of those present voted for Sarkis, so that even though he failed to get the two-thirds majority needed for election on the first ballot, he achieved the absolute majority needed in the second ballot. Three MPs cast blank votes.
Despite the palace itself being under attack, Prime Minister Rachid Karami pronounced Sarkis’ victory an act of reconciliation, telling the MPs gathered, “All of Lebanon has become one family,” according to a New York Times News Service report.
Sarkis oversaw a new, heightened phase of the Civil War that would culminate in Israel’s invasion in 1982 and the fateful rise to power of an alliance between Lebanon’s southern neighbor and the Lebanese right.