Michel Chiha helped to create a sound legislative framework for Lebanon.
Along with his contemporaries Petro Trad and Omar Daouk, Michel Chiha (1891-1954) set out to imagine a constitution for Lebanon, a country endowed with a mosaic of 18 ethno-religious communities.
His vision shaped the nascent republic and it may be safe to argue that Chiha invented what eventually became, and remains to this day, the only Arab democracy.
Although Christian and Muslim leaders settled on the 1943 National Pact to distribute power, Chiha's contributions endured through laws, some of which were amended in 1989 at the Ta'if Conference that ended the 1975-1990 civil war.
Above all else, this Greek Catholic son of Mount Lebanon wished for his country to rely on laws to govern its affairs, rather than resort to perpetual power brokerage that seldom served citizens.
At the Paris Peace Conference on January 18, 1919, Chiha observed significant debates then under way to determine - and settle - the aftermath of the collapsing Ottoman Empire.
Chiha, then an adviser to three Lebanese delegations, was dispatched to the conference to prepare for a semi-autonomous Lebanon under French mandate.
By November 21 the same year, the French High Commissioner and Commander in Chief of French military forces in the Levant, General Henri Gouraud, arrived in Beirut along with a large retinue that included Robert de Caix.
This key political agent befriended the worldly Chiha who, in turn, charmed the Frenchman. Remarkably, the Lebanese understood that his country would need to accommodate occupying powers' interests but shrewdly manoeuvred his long-term plans by gaining insights into De Caix's perceptions.
For example, in several conversations between the two men, Chiha evaluated what De Caix expected from various Lebanese communities, including their putative relationships with Syria.
What would it take to establish a Greater Lebanon (Grand-Liban in French sources), delineate borders, adopt a constitution and establish its first institutions, were all worked out by De Caix and Chiha.
By the summer of 1920, Gouraud applied the San Remo Conference decisions that placed Lebanon and Syria under French mandate, while Iraq, Trans-Jordan and Palestine fell under British control.
This was the time - mid-July 1920 - when Gouraud defeated Faysal I, occupied Damascus and formally proclaimed a separate Lebanon with Beirut as its capital. Earlier, Faysal contested Lebanon's redrawn borders and proclaimed himself king of Lebanon and Syria.
From that day on and until independence in 1943, Chiha reminded his countrymen that it was imperative for them to learn how to "love" their country and, after 1943, instilled in them a sense of service.
It must be emphasised that Chiha, more than any other Middle Easterner, appreciated the consequences of the 1916 secret Sykes-Picot agreement that proposed to carve up the region after the First World War.
Towards that end, he mobilised leading personalities in Cairo - where he was in exile for much of the First World War - to oppose Turkish military rule but was clever enough to anticipate an eventual collapse of the empire.
Simply stated, he wished to salvage from the decaying empire's ashes an independent entity for his long-dominated people, even if he needed to contend with French occupation.
Chiha represented religious minorities in the 1924-1929 parliament from a seat in Beirut. These years were difficult to say the least. And though Chiha learnt the intricacies of parliamentary life - as he authored the 1927 and 1929 budgets - the region was mired in several crises: a Druze revolt in Syria and a full-fledged insurrection in Damascus.
To his credit, Chiha wasted little time, as he painstakingly worked with his close friends Daouk and Omar Beyhoum on the draft for a constitution that envisaged post-independence responsibilities.
Never hungry for power, he did not run for office again, even if he would be tasked for special missions by several presidents.
After 1929 Chiha devoted most of his time to journalism, writing profound editorials for the daily Le Jour that educated his readers on the many repercussions of political reality.
After independence in 1943 and until his death in 1954, Chiha published several thousand articles in Le Jour, which reflected his sharp mind and incisive analysis.
The creation of contemporary Lebanon necessitated that a constitution be devised that would address the type of government envisaged for the nascent republic.
The real fathers of the republic were confronted with such dilemmas as how best to define the responsibilities of the head of state and those of the government.
Given Lebanon's rich religious makeup, constitutionalists struggled with the confessional allocation of parliamentary seats and the sacrosanct universal electoral mechanisms. Nothing proved as difficult as the parameters of the powers allocated to the head of state.
And if Trad, Daouk and Chiha relied on an 1875 French blueprint, their 102 articles adopted major differences, including the authority of the president to appoint and revoke his ministers and to dissolve parliament.
Chiha pushed for a strong president of the republic but added a key provision that limited the presidency to a single six-year term.
That, he believed, would attract leaders who would serve rather than those who wished to rule. Although the 1989 Ta'if Accord amended the Lebanese constitution, it did not tinker with this key provision, which faced its first challenge in 1948.
An extension of an incumbent's term was last amended by parliamentary decree in 2005 with disastrous consequences until 2008. This was and remains one of the most serious breaches of constitutional law.
In fact, amending any constitution requires political stability, which Lebanon sadly lacked and it may be worth noting that Chiha opposed the amendment of Article 49 to benefit Bishara Al Khoury who, ironically, was his brother-in-law.
Chiha grasped the gravity of the situation better than most, believing that everyone should obey the laws of the land and that no one should pretend to look after its interests more than any other citizen.
He pleaded with the president not to accept such a modification and convinced him that the precedent would be disastrous for the country, as subsequent events confirmed.
Chiha's prescience feared that future leaders would bargain with each other, rather than obey and apply legitimately adopted laws, as he wished to prevent catastrophes from taking permanent root.
In one of his most brilliant editorials, Chiha evaluated the 1948 constitutional amendment in terms that are classic, rejecting the partial appeasement that the change would be a one-time affair.
He lamented that 40 deputies favoured the amendment and perceived in very negative terms the fact that most expressed their views confidentially, not in parliament.
The mystery that surrounded those secret negotiations, Chiha bemoaned, was unbecoming of a democracy and he wrote about his revulsion at such machinations to circumvent the will of the people.
On matters of principle, Chiha opined, state interests necessitated and served priority, something that few Lebanese at the time, and some may add ever since, aspired to.
He called on parliamentarians not to compromise and to never expose the country to putative foreign interventions. "Lebanon is a country where citizens think," he wrote, adding that "judicial experts and awakened citizens are abundant & and where the representative must pay homage to, and respect, the electorate".
In what must be a most memorable line in this prophetic editorial, Chiha called on the Lebanese to "watch out for political manoeuvres, to control politicians and prevent the latter from forcing the country to commit errors".
Even if parliamentary life would prove to be a difficult enterprise, he intoned time and again, there was no reason for anyone to emasculate the laws of the land.
The government carried heavy burdens, he believed, but so did citizens. He warned his readers to anticipate the kind of country they would hand over to successive generations. He concluded with a Latin dictum: dura lex, sed lex, the law is hard but it is the law, which required civic vigilance, he said.
Between 1946 and 1953, Chiha spoke on several occasions at the "Cenacle Libanais" (Lebanese Gathering), which acted as a literary and a political forum for members of the intelligentsia.
Its founder, Michel Asmar, wished to transform it into "Lebanon's conscience", an institution where every voice could be heard on Monday evenings (Thursday sessions were added during winter months). Chiha spoke there often on various topics, including presentations on "values", "the world today", "Lebanon in the world" and "the role of Lebanon in the world".
His assessments echoed through successive audiences, especially when he declared in 1961: "Lebanon is a small country, perhaps too small; it may even be a small nation but the Lebanese are not a small people." Such was his vision that, regrettably, was lost in the aftermath of an unending struggle for power.
Though the fate of his country preoccupied Chiha most, he devoted considerable attention to Palestine, as he offered severe but correct conclusions.
In several editorials starting in 1945, he insisted: "No political preoccupation should turn our attention from Palestine. In our backyard is developing one of the most anguishing questions of this world," which he perceived as one with grave consequences for Lebanon and the entire region.
For the erudite thinker, the proposed partition of Palestine represented a debacle. He pleaded as early as 1947 that "creating the Jewish State [would be] one of the most serious mistakes of world politics".
He clarified that "the most surprising consequences are going to result from an apparently small thing. Nor is it offensive to reason to state that this small thing will have its part to play in shaking the world to its foundations."
"The mistake [of creating Israel in 1948] is enormous," he wrote, lest "we forget & that the State of Israel is a racist and confessional issue" because "there is no other country that recruits its population this way, by giving to strangers, wherever they came from and only because they're Jewish, the right to be citizens."
He correctly feared that before too long, cohabitation in Palestine would become impossible, perhaps "forever", as "a permanent danger, a hatred without end" is planted in the Middle East.
Ever the clairvoyant analyst, Chiha opined that "a mistake of this size committed in the middle of this century", will leave its impact on "our grandchildren [who] will re-encounter it in the middle of the next one".
Dr Joseph A. Kéchichian is an author, most recently of Faysal: Saudi Arabia's King for All Seasons, Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida, 2008.
Published on the second Friday of each month, this article is part of a series on Arab leaders who greatly influenced political affairs in the Middle East.
Michel Chiha: Banker, politician and a writer
Michel Chiha was born in 1891 in Mekkine, in the district of Aley, Mount Lebanon governorate. A Greek Catholic (Melkite), he benefited from the Chiha and Pharaon (through his mother) clans who founded in 1876 the Banque Pharaon and Chiha in Beirut. A serious student, Chiha attended the famed Université Saint-Joseph but opted to join the family business in 1907.
At the beginning of the First World War and the ongoing Ottoman occupation of the autonomous Mount Lebanon, Chiha settled in Cairo, where he attended law school. It was in Egypt where he first met a group of remarkable Lebanese living in exile, who awakened his nationalism. He developed some of his political acumen in Cairo as he witnessed the rise of Egyptian nationalism.
Chiha returned to Lebanon in 1918 to lead the bank, though he quickly saw an opportunity with the French Mandate, which propelled him towards political service. In August 1920 the state of Lebanon was created out of Ottoman Syria and on September 1, 1920, the French High Commissioner proclaimed Greater Lebanon. Chiha played an important role in this proclamation, especially concerning the setting up of its borders and the establishment of its first institutions. Chiha was elected the representative of religious minorities from Beirut in the 1925 parliament. During his single four-year mandate he was instrumental in the establishment of the Lebanese constitution and the nascent country's monetary and fiscal systems, which remain to this day the envy of the capitalist world.
In 1926, Chiha married his cousin Marguerite Pharaon, the sister of future minister of foreign affairs Henri Pharaon, and fathered three daughters: Micheline, Madeleine and Marie-Claire. Chiha left all his political responsibilities in 1929 to concentrate on his banking affairs.
In 1937, however, along with a group of friends, he acquired the French language newspaper 'Le Jour' that would remain until his death the love of his life. He published critical editorials that developed his vision for Lebanon.
He was also a prolific writer of poetry and penned hundreds of essays and lectures, mostly in French. In 1940, he participated in the foundation of the Beirut Stock Exchange and founded a newspaper in English, 'The Eastern Times', which was not a commercial success.
When his brother-in-law, Bishara Al Khoury, became president of the newly independent republic in 1943, Chiha became an adviser but clashed with the head of state in 1948-1949 when Al Khoury amended the constitution to extend his term in office. Chiha died in Beirut on December 29, 1954.