The 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.