Elections, Lebanon, Syria

The Last Za’im

marada-frangiehThe Lebanese MP and former minister Suleiman Franjieh gave a long interview to LBC’s Marcel Ghanem last week on Kalam Ennas. Topics covered included the situation in Syria, the disputed extension of the Lebanese Parliament’s mandate, and the upcoming Lebanese presidential elections. Franjieh, who is the scion of an established political family and the grandson and namesake of a former president, is perennially mooted as a presidential candidate by his followers and allies, but because of his family’s longstanding ties to the Assad regime, it is highly unlikely that he will ever see the inside of Baabda.

What I’ve always found interesting about Suleiman Franjieh is his representation of a certain old-fashioned party boss discourse, which has mostly disappeared from the rhetoric of Lebanon’s modern elites. The country’s other communal leaders — from Nabih Berri to Saad al-Hariri to Walid Jumblatt — apparently feel the need to keep up a pretense of cloaking the true sources of their popular standing in the language of democracy and institutionalism. Franjieh rarely bothers with this charade. He knows what he is and he’s proud of it: a traditional Zgharta seigneur who is not above rolling up his sleeves and disciplining the serfs himself, if it comes to that.

These qualities, coupled with his plainspokenness, make for good television, and in this case, the most undisguised defense of the Lebanese zu’amocracy as you’re likely to see today. I’d like to believe that the mentality Frangieh embodies is endangered, but he seems fairly confident. Here are some of the choice bits:

1:18:35: He defends his son Tony’s candidacy for Parliament, despite the fact that Bashar al-Assad apparently wanted Franjieh to nominate himself again. The two men are very close; Franjieh referes to Bashar as “a brother” and he in fact named his second son, Bassel, after Bashar’s older brother. When Marcel asks him why he nominated Tony to his seat in Zgharta, Franjieh says that he is very proud of his son’s political instincts, and if Tony ends up winning more seats than his father did, this would be a source of pride and a fulfillment of his hope that he is going to “succeed me one day in the future.”

1:16:20: Franjieh tells Marcel that he speaks to Bashar perhaps two or three times every week, and that the Syrian president is very confident. Marcel asks him about a controversial statement that he made the previous week, when Franjieh reportedly told the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar: “Bashar al-Assad is here to stay, and Hafiz Bashar al-Assad is here to stay.” In other words, just like Tony Franjieh, Bashar’s twelve year-old son is going to inherit the throne. Amazing…

1:21:56: He discusses his vision of the Lebanese presidency, saying that he doesn’t respect the chair; he respects the person who sits in the chair. And that person does not derive his strength from the “poetic language” of constitutional powers but rather from his stature in Lebanon and within his own community. When the President is the za’im of his confession, then official powers don’t matter.

“Today, what is it that has made the Shiites strong in Lebanon?” he asks. “Is it that Nabih Berri has constitutional powers? Or is it because he’s a big ol’ Shiite za’im? […] Any President has to be strong in his community so that he can say what’s what. Our problem [i.e. the Christians] is that we elect someone and he stands there with his five pages from the Constitution in front of Nabih Berri and says I’ve got these five pages, etc. What strengthens you is your strength on the ground, here in Lebanon, not what is written down in [the Constitution].”

مضبوط ولا لا؟

**

Update: One of QN’s smart readers, Charles (a pioneer of the Lebanese blogosphere, way back when), makes the following intervention in the comment section:

Franjieh speaks crudely, but reveals a relevant truth. The only thing that gives a leader strength is the system he leads. Lebanese idealists love to point to rules and constitutions and assume ideals uphold the systems in the West. In reality, only once one has the authority to project violence over terrain does one actually control it. Nasrallah and Berri have that. Jumblatt does, too. Only Rafiq Hariri was able to get the “authorities” and thugs to go only with him without having means to project violence over terrain.

The Lebanese system is weak. The institutions are fragmented. The zuama system allows leaders to dominate limited terrain, but their unwillingness to cooperate with each other corrupts the whole system. From the founding of the country, the modern Lebanese parliament empowered zuama and perpetuated limited monopolies in every sphere. However, no dominant authority could be called in to finally settle disputes. Even the Army and Fouad Chehab could hardly broker a settlement. “No victor, no vanquished” also means no one with enough power to settle the petty squabbles.

Bashir Gemayel understood this: get the other grandees to stand with you, or annihilate them. Unify authority and use it to project power outward. It’s not about Christian influence versus Muslim influence: Bashir killed a significant number of Christians. It’s about building one Lebanese state powerful enough to crush those that oppose the decisions of the executive, but also with checks on executive power. Rafiq Hariri followed the Louis XIV model: lure all of the feudal lords to the capital and tempt them into a luxurious life of effete courtly competition while you slowly erode their bases of support without them realizing it. Hezbollah followed the Wallenstein model: if no one is paying attention to you, but you have resources, build an army so powerful you can bring empires to their knees.

Discussion

24 thoughts on “The Last Za’im

  1. And there’s that lovely mentality that’s made Lebanon a failed state…

    Posted by Bad Vilbel | June 21, 2013, 12:40 pm
  2. Is that what used to be referred to as feudalism 🙂 A rose by any other name would smell as sweet!!!

    Posted by gkaram | June 21, 2013, 12:50 pm
  3. Yup. Feudalism ended in Europe around the 1500s….Alive and well in Lebanon in 2013.

    Posted by Bad Vilbel | June 21, 2013, 2:26 pm
  4. His handling of the Hariri crime scene speaks for itself.

    He was brought up by the Assad’s in Syria after his father sent him there during his childhood … And he will end up wherever Bashar will.

    And that might include his Northern enclave into a possible restructured Levant.

    Good riddance!

    Posted by JY | June 21, 2013, 2:56 pm
  5. It will be interesting to see how the minorities in the Levant, such as the Alawites and Sh’ites, will continue to dictate their policies in the region, without Jewish/American support, unless they form into Iran’s North Korea.

    Posted by JY | June 21, 2013, 3:15 pm
  6. The Dear Leader syndrome is obviously in full effect amongst these sects.

    Posted by JY | June 21, 2013, 3:18 pm
  7. The recent events in Turkey may prove to be the most important one in the region. Erogant’s fall in Turkey could pave the future for the Middle class Sunnis in the Arab Gulf.

    Posted by JY | June 21, 2013, 4:00 pm
  8. And for your information, Bill Clinton was booked into the Presidential suite at Burj Al Arab during his last visit to Dubai.

    He wasn’t accommodated into the Royal Suite, because even the most enlightened Gulf Sunni Arab believes there is a difference between a President and a Royal.

    No doubt there is a problem between Sunnis on which room they should reserve for Shi’ite Dignitaries.

    Posted by JY | June 21, 2013, 4:21 pm
  9. What he said reflects to the great extent the truth on the ground. Do you want him to say Lebanon is the “Switzerland of the East”? Lebanon is a piece of shit full of corruption with no respect to any law whatsoever, it’s a jungle whether we like that or not. He simply described what the country is actually like, not what you dream of it to be one day. His words on the respect of constitution in Lebanon are reality.

    Posted by Fouad | June 21, 2013, 6:33 pm
  10. He is frank and stupid. His dialect is crude and his thoughts arcane. I guess in his measure; if any Christian leader had to be respected; then he better have a strong militia. I love his frankness/stupidity. What Zaiim? In my estimation he is a piece of rotten sh**t who inherited his father’s and grandfather’s loot from thievery!

    He is good for comedic relief! After the Barmeel el Khara (Wiam wahab); he is a bridesmaid!

    Posted by danny | June 21, 2013, 7:11 pm
  11. Fouad,

    Only because he wants it that way to serve his interests and preserve his power. Actually he is a main contributor to the “piece of shit” that Lebanon is in.

    There is a difference between stating the negatives of reality for the purpose of improving and progressing, and stating the negatives of reality in order to perpetuate the status quo.

    Posted by Maverick | June 21, 2013, 7:18 pm
  12. Is that a picture of the Bayeux Tapestry? Very fitting QN, a picture tells a thousand words. Mazbout? wala La?

    Posted by Maverick | June 21, 2013, 7:53 pm
  13. Where was he to say these things when Emile Lahoud and Elias Hrawi were Presidents? They weren’t zo3ama in their communities and yet he supported them. This is just an attack on President Michel Sleiman, as are the suspicious failed rocket attacks on the Presidential Palace that were a signal from Damascus that they are not pleased with the Lebanese President.

    Posted by g | June 21, 2013, 8:15 pm
  14. It is something of an irony that Franjieh attributed Shia political strength in Lebanon to the likes of Nabih Berri and the culture of feudalism. The Shia, as I understand, are the least prone of the four largest sects–Sunnis, Maronites, and Druze being the other three–to look for leadership among the traditional zu’ama clans (the Beydouns, the Khalils, the ‘Usayrans, etc.). Historically, the Shia have expressed distrust and antagonistic views of these families, accussing them of having achieved greatness and wealth at the expense of the wider community.

    Among other variables, I would argue that Shia political dominance in modern-day Lebanon is to a great extent the product of the relatively uninfluential role of feudalism and zu’ama families in this community. In this context, the Shia have looked for leadership, patronage, and resources elsewhere. Albeit the scion of a prominent family, Berri’s influence in the Shia community has its obvious limitations. Hassan Nasrallah is, indisputably, the most influential leader in the Shia community, and his origins are far from glamorous or aristocratic.

    Franjieh should consider that the Maronite “problem”–and most other sects in Lebanon for that matter–is arguably the result of their enduring support for traditional feudal leaders: the Gemayels, Franjiehs, and Chamoums still play a prominent in Lebanese Christian politics. The Jumblatts, Karames, and Sulhs continue to play a similar role for the Druze and Sunni communities.

    Old habits die hard, I suppose.

    Posted by @kosharipotomac | June 21, 2013, 11:32 pm
  15. Franjieh speaks crudely, but reveals a relevant truth. The only thing that gives a leader strength is the system he leads. Lebanese idealists love to point to rules and constitutions and assume ideals uphold the systems in the West. In reality, only once one has the authority to project violence over terrain does one actually control it. Nasrallah and Berri have that. Jumblatt does, too. Only Rafiq Hariri was able to get the “authorities” and thugs to go only with him without having means to project violence over terrain.

    The Lebanese system is weak. The institutions are fragmented. The zuama system allows leaders to dominate limited terrain, but their unwillingness to cooperate with each other corrupts the whole system. From the founding of the country, the modern Lebanese parliament empowered zuama and perpetuated limited monopolies in every sphere. However, no dominant authority could be called in to finally settle disputes. Even the Army and Fouad Chehab could hardly broker a settlement. “No victor, no vanquished” also means no one with enough power to settle the petty squabbles.

    Bashir Gemayel understood this: get the other grandees to stand with you, or annihilate them. Unify authority and use it to project power outward. It’s not about Christian influence versus Muslim influence: Bashir killed a significant number of Christians. It’s about building one Lebanese state powerful enough to crush those that oppose the decisions of the executive, but also with checks on executive power. Rafiq Hariri followed the Louis XIV model: lure all of the feudal lords to the capital and tempt them into a luxurious life of effete courtly competition while you slowly erode their bases of support without them realizing it. Hezbollah followed the Wallenstein model: if no one is paying attention to you, but you have resources, build an army so powerful you can bring empires to their knees.

    Posted by Charles | June 22, 2013, 12:56 am
  16. DANNY, Christians love Bachir Gemayel because he killed more Christians than people from any other religion. Christians only like those who kill them. Look at the names today, Geagea,, Gemayel… They killed Christians. IT’s Geagea who exiled Gemayel, not any one else. It’s Geagea who helped Syrians come into Lebanon, not anyone else.

    Posted by Fouad | June 22, 2013, 10:14 am
  17. MAVERICK, if you believe Frangieh or anyone else speaking of how to change things will change and improve Lebanon, than am afraid you are less than 30 years old with lots to learn about this country. You can speak for decades about improving it but it will never. They have been speaking about Lebanon and how to improve it since 1943, it got nowhere and keeps getting worst. Feel free to dream, but have a plan B should you wake up one day with no country.

    Posted by Fouad | June 22, 2013, 10:16 am
  18. To Qifa Nabki: Qifa Nabki in such articles. Qifa Nabki on zou3ama you and those reading this blog and commenting on it and protesting near the parliament this week might very probably end up voting for them again and demonstrating again for them as they did in 2005. Qifa Nabki which is alllll what Lebanese do. Hariri persecuted Christians using the Syrians and the stupid Christians ended up crying for his death. Lebanon is not worth to be called a country. Whether you like that or you don’t, it’s the truth.

    Posted by Fouad | June 22, 2013, 10:20 am
  19. Charles, nice comment. I’ve promoted it to the main post.

    What happened to the old blog? I can’t access it anymore.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | June 22, 2013, 10:33 am
  20. Those claiming that the old system of zaimocracy in Lebanon is here to stay for decades to come are mistaken, as if the last 2 years have taught us nothing.

    The world today is a different world than 50 years ago at the onset of the civil war. As evidenced by the recent uprisings gripping the region, leaders can no longer consolidate their power based on broad ideas (e.g. pan-Arabism, anti-imperialism, secularism) without directly improving their people’s socioeconomic conditions.

    In the world of Twitter and Facebook, and with an increasing number of individuals inside Lebanon having access to these social media services, there will be raised awareness that will go against the mentality of “the best leader for me is my za’im, the individual from my sect”. Concrete ideas bounce around much more freely than before, with za’ims having much less control on the information that reaches their followers. It is true that those grassroots movements in Lebanon demanding for radical change to the confessional system do not have nearly the power of the major sectarian parties, but the fact remains that they are growing – a sign that the tide is turning against the current za’im system.

    So those lamenting that Franjieh has it right, that the system is here to stay, and that he who claims otherwise is naive seem to have not grasped the underlying trends in the region in recent years – that of a growing civil society that is less based on a traditional, patronage system and more on the free exchange of social, political and economic ideas free of confessional constraints.

    Posted by gbeaino | June 22, 2013, 3:50 pm
  21. “Lebanese idealists love to point to rules and constitutions and assume ideals uphold the systems in the West.”

    Charles,

    Surely you are not asking the idealists to acquiesce to any form of tyranny in the Levant, because the West is less than a perfect democracy.

    Posted by Badr | June 23, 2013, 1:06 pm
  22. Ideals don’t “uphold the systems in the West”; in America it’s all about indoctrination.

    The “free” taxpayer supported public school system that provides the nearly universal swath of education for American youngsters also provides a venue for teaching the lessons of nationalistic/patriotic thinking starting at age 5 to 6. It all starts with standing hand-over-heart pledging vocal allegiance to the flag and the republic for which it stands. Then come the lies about our first President the honorable George Washington and his childhood confession about chopping down the cherry tree. And so on; the statue of Liberty, Blind Justice, etc.

    The lessons of American citizenship and our inherent-but- humble superiority are reinforced at every step. Our common identity, “from sea-to-shining-sea”, is critical for the “rugged individualists” to unify in acceptance and obedience to our institutions of governance. Institutions, that as we are constantly reminded, are legacies of their venerable predecessors from northern Europe; especially dear Albion.

    I can’t even imagine what a violent chaotic mess this place would be without the indoctrination that provides the binding ties.

    Posted by lally | June 23, 2013, 4:29 pm
  23. Lala,

    Thank you for another “eye opening” disclosure about the US (it seems to be a habit). This time about American indoctrination in the public school system.

    I am hoping one day American public schools will be as good as middle east public schools. I think Gaza public schools, in terms of indoctrination, are the best. :o)

    Posted by Akbar Palace | June 23, 2013, 5:08 pm

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