One of the youngest “founding fathers'' of independent Lebanon, Saeb Salam served as prime minister six times, criss-crossed the political spectrum during the turbulent 1950s and 1960s and creatively defended his “One Lebanon'' coexistence model during and after internal clashes tore the country apart.
Unlike many Lebanese leaders, he was not a za'im [chief] eager to guard a small turf, but thought of Lebanon as an entity that could survive and prosper. He perceived the country's multi-religious composition as a source of strength in a part of the world that tolerated little dissent. Saeb marked history by supporting Arab nationalism, was a stickler to constitutional authority and opposed attempts to use the military to create a police state.
Seldom seen in public without a white carnation on his jacket lapel, Saeb exuded optimism and infused hope among the people who cherished life even if they were trapped in tribal obligations.
A liberated businessman, Saeb loathed perpetual conflicts. His “La Ghalib, La Maghlub (No Winner, No Loser)'' motto defined Lebanon after the 1958 political crisis, which reflected reality, but which also confirmed that no single community could dominate the others.
Saeb was born in Beirut on January 17, 1905 to Salim 'Ali Salam, the scion of a prominent Sunni Muslim family and a prominent politician under Ottoman rule. Salam had become a successful merchant as well as an active public figure in Beirut at a time when both were suspect. Abu 'Ali, as he was known, worked hard to place Musaytbi, a small hill area where several Western schools were located, on the local map.
Always well-groomed and impeccably dressed, the devout Sunni Muslim rejected fanaticism and projected the sophisticated image of a quintessential moderniser. He befriended leading Christians, called on them informally, received them in his house, and taught his children self-confidence as well as the value of coexistence. He insisted that his son Saeb receive a thorough education, which the latter honoured by graduating from the American University of Beirut.
While his own efforts to keep Syria intact came to a naught — in the light of then secret 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement that redrew maps — the collapse of the Ottoman Empire meant that a new order was about to emerge, and Salam understood it better than most. He groomed his son Saeb to espouse the nascent independence movement and the latter took to it with a vengeance, as nationalism redefined the leaders influenced by it.
Saeb emulated his father by running for public office and participated in the national movement that was presided over by Mohammad 'Ali Bayhum, then a leading political figure. Under the French Mandate, he quickly joined opposition forces then mobilising against French and British occupation of the Levant. He aligned himself with 'Abdul Hamid Karami, a legislator from Tripoli.
The French authorities tolerated all those who welcomed an orderly transfer of power, but Saeb accurately assessed their dubious intentions. To help eliminate any schism between Christians and Muslims, he organised a significant parliamentary support group after his first election in 1943 to elect Bisharah Al Khoury as president of the republic.
When panicky French officials arrested Khoury and several other leading figures, Salam organised a popular insurrection.
Surrounded by French troops inside the parliament, and literally a hostage along with Henri Pharaon and others, Saeb helped design the Lebanese national flag in November 1943.
Saeb married Tamima Rida Mardam-Bayk in 1941. They had three sons — Tammam, Faysal (who was killed in an accident in 1996) and 'Amr (a businessman) — and two daughters — Thurayyah and Anbarah. Saeb died of a heart attack on January 21, 2000, in Beirut.
Saeb assumed his first cabinet position as Minister of the Interior in 1946, which built on his parliamentary successes and inaugurated several decades of national service.
On September 14, 1952, Saeb became the prime minister. However, this administration lasted a mere four days. Under pressure because of strikes and demonstrations in the country, Saeb handed his written resignation to president Al Khoury, who accepted the letter and was soon forced to follow suit.
However, it was not long before president Camille Chamoun (whose election Saeb had supported) entrusted him with the premiership in May 1953. This time around, the cabinet lasted 106 days in office, for its mandate was restricted to overlooking the general elections. The period between 1953 and 1956 witnessed significant changes in Saeb's political outlook, propelled by the rising influence of Nasserism, and the Suez Crisis that galvanised Arab public opinion.
An ideal compromiser, Saeb accepted the post of minister of state in charge of petroleum affairs, in the 1956 'Abdullah Yafi government. He negotiated special accords with Aramco to connect the Zahrani refinery with oilfields in Saudi Arabia.
These successes notwithstanding, Saeb resigned on November 18, 1956 to protest Chamoun's lenient policy towards the 1956 British, French, and Israeli invasion of Egypt.
To further voice his opprobrium, Saeb participated in the protests that followed, was wounded and, subsequently, placed under arrest while recovering in a hospital. He was released after a five-day hunger strike, but the die was cast as far as Saeb's opposition to Chamoun's policies was concerned.
Whether the 1957 parliamentary elections were free from state interference would never be revealed, but Saeb, along with 'Abdullah Yafi, Rashid Karami, Kamal Jumblatt, and several other deputies, lost his seat.
Allegations of rigging were rampant, with members of the opposition accusing the Chamoun government of electoral fraud. Saeb aligned himself with 'Abdullah Yafi, Rashid Karami and Kamal Jumblatt and welcomed Hamid Franjieh, Emile Khoury, Ahmad Al Asa'ad, 'Ali Bazzi, Husayn Al Uwaynih, Ma'ruf Sa'ad, Sabri Hamadeh, Nasim Majdalani, Philippe Taklah and Fouad 'Amoun in what turned out to be one of the most significant political alliances in contemporary Lebanese history.
Every leading religious community was represented in this opposition bloc that stood firmly against president Chamoun's plans to amend the constitution and run for a second term in 1958. In the event, Lebanon did not join the pro-Western Baghdad Pact, though American troops landed in Beirut to prop the Chamoun presidency up.
Nevertheless, the popular uprising ushered in the election of General Fouad Shihab, who promised to govern in an impartial fashion. Saeb called off the rebellion with what became his trademark slogan, “No winner, no loser'', though a clear winner emerged in a much stronger Lebanon that upheld its constitution.
The relationship with Shihab was a double-edged sword as Saeb assumed the premiership in 1960 and again in 1961. The main political difference that widened the gulf separating heretofore allies was Shihab's reliance on the 2e Bureau, which granted the police excessive powers. This was one of Saeb's main complaints throughout the 1960s, as Shihab and his successor, the erudite Charles Helou, relied on military intelligence to subdue anyone they feared.
In 1968, Saeb launched a public anti-Shihab indictment campaign, which was a rare phenomenon in Lebanon. And in 1969, he formed a triumvirate with Sulayman Franjieh and Kamal Al Asa'ad to protect democratic institutions against the 2e Bureau's officers.
Inasmuch as he opposed the formation of a “police state'', to protect members of the opposition, Saeb perceived the long-term consequences of discriminatory policies as being detrimental to all Lebanese and more importantly to the country's fledgling independent traditions. It was primarily for this reason that he assembled a unique parliamentary coalition against the Shihabist candidate, Elias Sarkis, in 1970 when Sulayman Franjieh was elected president under extreme duress — by a single majority vote.
Franjieh appointed Saeb prime minister for the fifth time on October 13, 1970 to govern a so-called technocratic cabinet with fresh faces. While the president did not dismantle the 2e Bureau, the prime minister quickly abolished irritating, even if routine, surveillance methods (telephone taps and other excesses), to fulfil a campaign pledge.
This administration, which lasted until April 25, 1973, was his longest and actually the one that accomplished most. Among its many milestones was the adoption of a social security system that withstood the test of time and established a unique safety net for the less privileged.
Saeb fell out with Franjieh and resigned as prime minister on April 13, 1973 in the wake of an Israeli raid that killed three Palestinian leaders in the heart of Beirut. Though Saeb supported a strong military, he rejected Franjieh's blatant backing of army commander General Iskandar Ganem, arguing that everyone must be accountable. As Franjieh's open warfare against Palestinian camps was worse still, Saeb announced that he could no longer accept to serve as premier under such rule.
At the start of the 1975 civil war, Saeb lamented the rapid escalation in fighting, rejected partisan involvements and advocated Muslim-Christian coexistence under the motto: “One Lebanon, not Two Lebanons''.
Along with Rashid Karami and Raymond Edde, he organised the “National Dialogue Committee'', which disallowed sectarian divisions. Throughout the war years he made repeated attempts to end the conflict, visiting Christian areas to meet colleagues and engaging them in political dialogue.
Out of office, Saeb remained influential, and in the wake of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, stayed in Beirut when the Israeli army occupied the city. He mediated between the United States envoy, Philip Habib, and the PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, to help evacuate Palestinian forces in an orderly fashion.
Though he opposed the election of Bashir Gemayel, he acquiesced to the tour de force, which resulted in the president-elect's assassination. Saeb supported the fallen leader's brother, Amine, and swayed most Muslim National Assembly members to vote for him to unite the country in a moment of uncertainty. Even in this most troubled of times, Saeb was a stickler to the constitution, always insisting that its provisions be met under all circumstances.
Whether these positions led his enemies to revisit previous assassination attempts (for a total of seven times), we will never know, but Saeb quietly left Beirut for Geneva, Switzerland in 1983. Despite his close associations with Syria (including marrying into one of the leading Damascus families), he angered the Syrian government as well as hardline Muslim groups with several conciliatory positions at peace conferences starting in 1983.
In fact, between 1983 and 1985 — even while he was in exile — Saeb played a key role in influencing various roundtables in Geneva and Lausanne to reach national consensus.
These efforts culminated in the 1989 discussions in Ta'if, Saudi Arabia, which eventually brought the civil war to an end. At Ta'if, Saeb warned that “failure was not allowed'', though he passed the baton to a new generation of leaders. On September 20, 1994 he returned to Beirut after a ten-year absence from his native land, when Prime Minister Rafik Hariri managed to secure a relaxation of the Syrian veto on his presence.
A devoted member of the Jam'iyyat Al Maqasid Al Khayriyyah Al Islamiyyah, Saeb was best known for his philanthropy. He was elected president of the educational and healthcare charity in 1957 and stayed in that position until 1982 when his son, Tammam, succeeded him. For Tammam, this was his true legacy and he emulated his father's charitable work.
Though Saeb is remembered for his “No Winner, No Loser'' motto, his far more important contributions were his insistence on a respect for the constitution and his placing the unity of Lebanon above everything else.
Among his many business endeavours was the Middle East Airlines (MEA), which he founded in 1945. MEA started out modestly and weathered much.
Yet, and perhaps because of his MEA business, Saeb imagined Lebanon as a single ship, insisting that “Lebanon cannot fly on a Christian wing and it cannot fly on a Muslim wing''. “It needs both,'' he always insisted, to reach new heights.
Saeb's genius lay in breaking political impasses. Although he espoused Arab nationalism, he never neglected intrinsic responsibilities and was keenly aware of priorities.
Like his father, who transformed Musaytbi, the son built on this foundation, as he remained close with everyone in the neighbourhood. Saeb loved Lebanon. Yet he knew that what made his country unique and worth defending were its critical institutions.
Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is an author, most recently of Power and Succession in Arab Monarchies, Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder, Colorado, 2008.
This article is the second in a series, which will appear on the second Friday of each month, on Arab leaders who greatly influenced political affairs in the Middle East.