For almost a century, the Lebanese have argued and fought, promoted and sacrificed, and killed and died over faith and land. Most developed a love of country although few perceived the nascent republic as a nation.

In fact, most knew it was not one, although a few envisaged core values around which a putative homeland could rise. Among these values was freedom and no one in the history of Lebanon confronted the need for it more than Riad Al Solh.

Al Solh, who signed the Covenant (Mithaq Al Watani) with Lebanon's first Maronite president in 1943, was the Sunni leader who assumed his responsibilities to secure independence and build a state.

As the fledgeling country's first prime minister, he represented the voice of consensus in Beirut and, between 1943 and 1948, championed the representative system.

At a time when Lebanon faced an internal power struggle that even shocked Bishara Al Khoury's brother-in-law, the constitutionalist Michel Chiha, especially after Al Khoury wished to alter the charter and seek a second term, Al Solh believed that a confessional Lebanon was compatible with his own adherence to Arabism.

Simultaneously, Beirut was challenged by the repercussion of the first Arab-Israeli war, as Israel expelled thousands of Palestinians who became refugees.

Al Solh perceived the refugee settlements as a burden on the nascent republic but welcomed the Palestinians out of Arab solidarity.

Restoring confidence

Al Khoury's ambitions were carefully muzzled although Lebanon was too fragile to handle simultaneous crises.

It was up to Al Solh to help restore confidence against significant odds that violently surfaced in 1949 when Beirut uncovered an attempted coup plot hatched by the SSNP (Syrian Social Nationalist Party) under Antun Sa'ada.

Sa'ada first fled to Damascus, whose authorities extradited him to Beirut, where he was tried and executed by orders of a military court.

As if this was not bad enough, an SSNP member tried to assassinate Al Solh in March 1950, which prompted a revealing exchange in parliament.

Kamal Junblatt, then a maverick opposition parliamentarian, offered congratulations to the prime minister for surviving, though he did not mince his words about justice to a compromised “politician''.

An angry Al Solh roared: “Get out, Lebanon has no more need of you!'' In hindsight, were such advice followed, chances were excellent that Lebanon would not have known its fate.

On March 16, 1977, SSNP operatives probably gunned Junblatt down although no culprit was ever discovered. Al Solh's outburst illustrated rare foresight, which was a sign of his inimitable character.

Political leadership

The son of Reda Al Solh, a reforming Qa'imaqam (sub-governor) in Nabatiyyah and in Saida and a prominent nationalist Arab leader who was tried by Ottoman forces in 1915 and exiled to Izmir, Riad Al Solh was elected head of the government of Saida after the defeat of the empire.

The French opposed his rise to prominence but the young Al Solh was already on his quest to secure freedom from the occupying power.

In fact, his quest for it started years earlier in Salonica, Greece, where he and his brother Ahmad lived after their father was named Ottoman governor of Salonica.

If 1908 was a carefree period in the life of the young boy, tragedy would soon shape him for good, as a mundane children's game turned morbid.

Recreating with Greek boys the famous battle between Greek freedom fighters and Turks, Al Solh reacted negatively to taunts when one of the Greek boys spurted: “My father told me that you Arabs are no rebels, no fighters, no heroes.

You serve under the people who have stolen your countries and your freedom.'' Needless to say, and while he may not have understood the Greek child's words, Al Solh took his younger brother's hand and jumped into the sea to submerge all the wooden weapons.

Beyond the disgrace he must have felt, the incident ended in a tragedy which was to become a turning and decisive moment in Al Solh's life, when Ahmad drowned.

According to family members, Al Solh revolted against his father but the governor explained to “his broken-hearted son that despite what the Greek boy said, for generations his forebears were Arab freedom fighters'', though fighting was “not always rewarded with freedom'' but was “often punished with more repression''. In the event, the 10-year-old was marked by this calamity and his father's eventual dismissal by Ottoman minions.

He rebellious nature surfaced when he threw a bomb on the Turkish Wali's carriage at the age of 13 and, at 16, was sentenced to death by hanging along with his father and other members of the Ottoman Parliament.

The sentences were not carried out but were commuted to life imprisonment in Anatolia and as the Ottoman Empire collapsed, the family returned to Beirut in 1919.

Al Solh was a guest of French jails on and off throughout the 1930s and returned to Beirut from his last jail term in Rachayyah with other founding fathers on November 22, 1943, a free man in an independent country.

It was to his immense credit — a badge of honour — that he managed to collect from Turkish and French authorities “five death sentences, a dozen life terms and tremendous hardships, [including] hiding in forests and caves weeks on end, escaping in a fisherman's boat and on a cattle train''.

Political alliances

Long before the 1989 Ta'if Agreement, Al Solh entered into the mother of all alliances between Lebanon's Christian and Muslim populations.

Critics of the unwritten 1943 National Covenant mistakenly assumed that the quest for independence from France persuaded Al Solh to accept conditions that were contrary to Lebanon's best interests.

They further pointed out that the nascent republic faced several difficult hurdles, including a war with Israel and an armed confrontation in 1958, which necessitated foreign intervention.

Because the Covenant was “unfair'', they concluded and continue to argue to this day, a decades-long civil war was inevitable.

Such a reading of the 1943 Covenant and of the role played by Al Solh would miss its significance, for the founding fathers' goal went beyond independence.

In a warning on the eve of independence, Al Solh confided to one of his advisers who inquired about the day after: “Beware of the misbehaving freedom, it will either disintegrate into chaos or be dismantled by a dictator in the name of order.''

For the erudite politician, the Lebanese needed to “learn how to live with freedom'' just as they “learned how to die for it''. He was quoted as saying: “Remember Maysaloun [a 1920 anti-French battle west of Damascus]. We were all marching to our death for honour, for pride, for freedom.

"But no one ever bore in mind: for a better life, a happier life or a more productive use of Arab skills and intelligence.

"No it was all revenge on history and the brilliant past revisited. We were defeated at Maysaloun and we had to start all over again.

"But as of today we are free men in a free country. The time has come for us to dump that syndrome of defeated people in perpetual anger.

"This land is not only fit for angry heroes, there should be enough room for happy human beings, too. It should flow with contentment, serenity, joy and prosperity and justice, equality, dignity and culture.''

From 1943 to 1951, therefore, Al Solh persuaded the Lebanese to disentangle the concept of freedom as applied to a country from the concept of freedom as applied to people.

He firmly believed that “being a citizen of an independent country did not always make one a free man'', but that “only human rights and democracy'' ensured that awakened citizens deserved to enjoy the fruits of their labour. He confided to family members that such blessings did not materialise through government decrees only but “should be implemented by all shareholders'' — the people of Lebanon.
He contemplated a vision of Lebanon that was perhaps non-existent at the time but which exists today, as the country's 17 religious denominations enjoy the kind of freedoms that are unparalleled in the developing world.

Even in a largely paternalistic society such as Lebanon, Al Solh — who was blessed with five daughters — assumed that a society functioned and prospered best when its sons and daughters could aspire to a better future.

Indeed, Al Solh's dream was to ally himself and his community with others to transform Beirut into a centre of learning where culture and prosperity flourished, where democracy was practised by encouraging the spread of ideas and creativity.

His vision was to renovate Beirut into the Baghdad of yore or the America of the 19th century.

As numerous political crises erupted in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and many other Arab countries, Lebanon fulfilled Al Solh's farsightedness, as Beirut became one of the most sought-after shelters.

Freedom-orphaned Arabs sought a foster-country that would tolerate their presence and found solace among multi-ethnic and multireligious communities who knew that despite their shortcomings, they represented a beacon of hope.

In the words of a Syrian dissident who was ousted by the Hosni Al Zaïm coup d'état in April 1949: “I decided to stay in Lebanon waiting for better days in Syria. Besides, parliamentary life is so active in Lebanon with legislation always in the making, with might surrendering more and more to right. I attend most sessions of the Lebanese parliament and know that no ruler would be above sanctions, not even Riad Al Solh, the father of the nation.''

That was a true testimony to Al Solh's greatness.
In the end, while the 1943 Covenant was amended — in fact, it was codified and significantly strengthened — at Ta'if, Al Khoury and Al Solh were chiefly responsible for the political equality between Lebanon's Muslim and Christian communities.

To be sure, the Covenant provided that the Muslim community would not press for unification with other Arab states and that Christians would recognise the Arab dimension of Lebanon and not ally themselves with any Western power. In this way Lebanon sought to assure its sovereignty in the Arab world and to reconcile its two basic orientations — to the Christian West and the Muslim East.

Though a tolerant Al Solh was inspired by the Imam Al Ouza'i, a prominent Sunni scholar who lived in the 8th century and who gave his name to a portion of southern Beirut (near the international airport), few remembered the source of the inspiration. Al Ouza'i, who lived during the Abbasid era (AD750-1258), protected Lebanon's Christians against ill treatment in the name of Islam.

Al Solh empathised with the Imam and, remarkably, his daughters did as well.

They saw to it that their slain father was buried in a small white grave by the sea near his “friend'' the Imam, after whom the neighbourhood mosque was named.

Impact on Lebanon

It may be accurate to conclude that Al Solh saw Lebanon as a beacon of freedom in the Arab world, even if the country was weak and non-homogeneous. Despite immense hardships, he correctly understood the power of freedom that, over a very short period, transformed Lebanon into a freedom oasis where all Arab dissidents found refuge.

This was, more than any other of his numerous contributions, his real impact on the Lebanese, having bestowed on the people a free country, which was truly the “freedom country''.
In the late Aliah Al Solh's own recollection of her father's inspiring words: “Multiple ethnic and religious groups should always keep in mind that fraternity without equality will remain an empty word.''

For the compassionate prime minister, the glue of democracy was “the ballot box [which] will remain our best friend''.

“We would be free to choose, free to change,'' he confided, and it would be a “far better way to soothe our anger than the officer's tank.''

In words of warning, which echoed the post-1975 civil war that almost destroyed Lebanon, Al Solh concluded: “Ultimately a popular uprising will always be safer than a takeover by a few. … Believe me there is no such thing as pawning your freedom and your rights for safety, order or stability. It will take bloodshed to take them back.''

Prophetic in tone and substance, these words echoed Al Solh's true impact on the Lebanese, whose quest for freedom was still unfulfilled in 2009 because some were under the illusion of domination.

Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is an author, most recently of Power and Succession in Arab Monarchies, Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2008.

This article is the 15th 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.

A leader who promoted social harmony

Riad Al Solh (1898-1951) was born in Saida to an established Sunni family and died on July 17, 1951, in Amman, Jordan, when he fell to the bullets of an assassin.

His murderer was a member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. Independent Lebanon's first prime minister (1943 to 1945), who served a second time between December 14, 1946, and February 14, 1951, Al Solh was a quintessential nationalist who loved the ideas of freedom and democracy, which he saw as Lebanon's twin pillars.

Along with Bishara Al Khoury, Al Solh was known as one of the most important personalities in Lebanon's struggle for independence, who was able to unify various religious groups in the struggle for independence.

Al Solh married Fayzah Al Jaberi, who gave him five daughters and a son, Reda, who died as an infant. Their eldest, Aliah, was born in 1935 and became a prominent columnist and political activist.

Known as “the daughter of independence'', she was heir to the towering legacy of her father, as she embarked on a long career of advocacy as a student at the American University of Beirut in the early 1950s.

A distinguished advocate of women's rights, Aliah passed away after suffering a heart attack in Paris on April 27, 2007.

Al Solh's four surviving daughters include Princess Lamia Al Solh, who was married to Mulay Abdullah, a brother of the late King Hassan II of Morocco; Princess Mona Al Solh, married to Prince Talal Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud (and the mother of Prince Walid Bin Talal Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud); minister Laila Al Solh Hamade, whose late husband Majid Hamade served as minister of industry.

She is now the vice-president of the Walid Bin Talal Bin Foundation in Lebanon; and Bahijah Al Solh Assad, who married Sa'id Al Assad, a former Lebanese ambassador to Switzerland and a former member of parliament.

A devout Sunni, Al Solh became a Shiite just before he died, so that his daughters could inherit his fortune in full.