Lebanon News

Triumphant return of an illustrious founding father

BEIRUT: On a rainy day, one day short of Lebanon's 62nd Independence Day, an unpretentious but elegant and buoyant celebration was hosted to reinstall the statue of Bechara al-Khoury, the first president and one of the illustrious founding fathers of the republic of Lebanon. The original statue, erected at the Sodeco intersection of the avenue bearing his name, was ravaged during Lebanon's 15-year Civil War. This once boisterous intersection had degenerated into the ominous and dreaded "Green Line," which fractured the city into East and West Beirut; a site which conjured up images of demarcation, distance and the bounded territoriality of warring factions. The statue could not have possibly survived the treacherous rounds of artillery crossfire emanating from both belligerent parts of the divide.

Like other restored monuments and architectural icons of the postwar era, the new statue is much more compelling and expressive than its decimated original. In this sense it is more of a monument than a memorial.

Memorials tend to recall past tragic and ruinous events. They provide places to mourn and to recall moments of grief or national disaster.

Monuments, on the other hand, involve elements of triumphalism. They are essentially celebratory markers of triumphs and heroic individuals.

The massive bronze statue (3.6 meters in height and weighing almost 3,200 kilograms), the work of Tony Birbari a gifted Lebanese sculptor, evokes precisely such exultant spirits.

Credit to reinstalling the new monument goes to a man himself worthy of the national honor he was so keen to bestow on another luminary forbear: former Premier Rafik Hariri.

Always one with an eye for public reverence and historic moments, he commissioned the statue in 1998.

Since he was himself embroiled in the struggle to secure Lebanon's "Second Independence," he wished to commemorate the enlightened first generation of our national heroes who were armed with courage, resilience and historic foresight to fight for and safeguard the sublime virtues of autonomy, independence, prosperous and peaceful co-existence without undermining the plural legacies of their Lebanese and Arab identities.

Though the statue was completed in 2000, it is reported that Sheikh Michel, Bechara al-Khoury's son, opted to delay the inauguration until Lebanon had truly liberated itself from Syria's repressive tutelage.

Birbari must be commended for capturing, with some aesthetic overstatements, the distinctive features of "Sheikh Bechara": a portly and overbearing physique, sporting a sharp, keen and trenchant face.

His left hand carries a copy of Ad-Dastour while his oversized right arm stretches out as if to beckon the enthralled onlooker. Altogether it is a befitting monument to celebrate one of the formidable architects of Lebanon's independence.

He and Riad al-Solh, whose restored statue now adorns the embellished square bearing his name, stand out as the heroic duo who nurtured Lebanon's contested national identity during the heady and formative years of the struggle for independence.

Lebanon's troubled political history was always in need of sagacious, often wily, leaders bolstered by resolute pacts and charters to police its testy and fretful communities and keep them at bay.

Of all such national pacts - from the ill-fated partition scheme (Reglement Shakib Efendi of 1843), which ushered in the so-called double qaimmaqamiyyah of Mount Lebanon to the Taif Accord of 1991 - the National Convent of 1943, which had consolidated Khoury and Solh into such a daunting political partnership, has been the most viable.

This was, doubtless, the first and last providential political alliance between two compelling national heroes who exuded confidence and mutual respect, let alone the common unifying vision they shared in upholding Lebanon's sovereignty and collective wellbeing.

The assassination of Solh in 1951 dealt the accord and the precarious political balance in the new republic a fatal blow.

The pact (Al-Mithaq al-Watani), with all its pitfalls, was largely successful in reconciling forces of internal discord without exacerbating regional and global sources of instability.

What is remarkable about this unwritten accord was that it was no more than a gentleman's agreement, a sort of solemn pact between the two leading spokesmen of their respective communities. It not only secured the country's independence from France. It evolved into a pragmatic political strategy to alleviate the tensions engendered by the two nagging issues in Lebanon's political history: national identity and confessional harmony.

Indeed, for nearly three decades, and thanks to the states-craftsmanship of Khoury and Solh, it managed to contain communal enmity and ensure more than a modicum of prosperity and political stability. Indeed, the "success story" of Lebanon, often mistakenly dubbed a merchant republic, is all the more remarkable at a time when adjacent Arab regimes were riven with ideological rivalries and violent episodes of political succession.

More significant perhaps, this blissful post-independence interlude helped in converting Muslim adherents to the Lebanese state. Though symptoms of ideological and socio-economic differences were visible they did not erupt into belligerent confrontations.

When Khoury's tenure in office (1943-52), an otherwise stable and successful term, started to show growing signs of corruption and nepotism, it ended with the so-called "Rosewater Revolution." A coalition of sectarian leaders and a national strike mobilized by a "Committee of National Liberation" compelled him to step down.

This is, incidentally, a far cry from the mindless and stubborn insistence of the current incumbent to stay in office despite the grievous charges leveled against him; both the illegitimate extension of his term and the possible involvement of four of his closest security officers in Hariri's assassination. Khoury's blemished record seems benign and spotless in comparison. Yet, he had the presence of mind to retire with dignity.

Indeed, a score of recent reassessments of his term has reconfirmed its overall auspicious heritage; particularly with regard to the impact of its open and de-regulated economy on nation-building and political stability.

At the very least, Lebanon's political outward-looking economy managed to institutionalize an order which sustained a strong currency, mobilized domestic private capital, attracted foreign investment and promoted a growing variety of exports.

Altogether these accomplishments, doubtless a testimony to the ingenuity of Michel Chiha's liberal visions and the close circle of "New Phoenicians" and other associates of Khoury, managed to reinforce the cosmopolitan and international confidence the new republic was beginning to inspire.

All three speakers at the ceremony - Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, Beirut Mayor A.M. al-Ariss and Sheikh Michel, President's Khoury's son - aware of the momentous touchstone they were celebrating, particularly at this defining watershed in Lebanon's history, rose admirably to the occasion.

Arresting characters always invite arresting performances. Premier Siniora, who has been dazzling his audiences since he assumed office, delivered a riveting speech almost akin to an emergent political agenda. Sheikh Michel, a worthy scion of his father, was equally eloquent and touching.

He chose to end his speech by highlighting two poignant precepts from his father's legacy: How he had united the Lebanese around their newly-won independence and how he averted their disunity by his timely resignation.

President Lahhoud's misguided and unyielding devotion to the residual and vacuous tokens of office is in stark contrast to such noble and selfless virtues. Alas, he is bereft it seems of all the requisite sensibilities to heed such edifying precepts.

Samir Khalaf is professor of Sociology at the American University of Beirut and director of the Center for Behavioral Research.

 

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