The notion ‘Chehabism’ was used for the first time by Georges Naccache (renowned journalist and minister) in his famous lecture “Un Nouveau Style – Le Chéhabisme”, in November 1960. When this notion became commonly used by the media to refer to Fouad Chehab’s government, Chehab personally downplayed any philosophical or ideological attribute to it, and simply stated that, his, was a way of governing that aimed to serve at best the Lebanese entity by constantly taking into consideration its various components’ needs and particularities. Chehab believed that with the implementation of adequate administrative reforms and long-term nation-wide development projects, the State would be strengthened and would thus provide the best guarantee for a better and more stable future for the Nation.
To successfully accomplish such a deed, Chehab’s way was to move cautiously but steadily. He knew from his leadership experience as Commander of the Army that any adventurous step in a confessional context as delicate as Lebanon’s, would bring counter-effects on the long run. His actions were based on thorough planning, never on impulsive decisions. He wanted the mind-set of the people to evolve with conviction, along with the changes at the institutional level.
Chehabism is thus, that particular approach to governing, adopted by Fouad Chehab, and the public reforms linked to it.
Fouad Chehab did not seek power; he even declined the presidential post, and more than once: In 1952, when he was named Prime Minister to oversee the presidential elections and proposed as a candidate; in 1958 when first approached, as the emergency of the situation was pushing him forth; in 1960, when he presented his resignation; in 1964, when he refused to allow the constitution to be amended for him to run for a new mandate; and again in 1970, when he explained in a realistic and noteworthy statement his reasons for not running for the post.
When he was elected in 1958, Chehab’s mission was clear: To stop the violence, diffuse the tensions and restore harmony in the country. As successful steps were materializing in this primary task, Chehab’s second endeavor started taking shape: Bringing about reforms that would strengthen the State’s apparatus and make it the true reference for all the citizens, establishing thus the true ‘State of Independence’ as he dearly called it. In his eyes, this would free the citizens from feudal and confessional dependence, bond the national unity and build a strong immunity against possible future crisis.
The Chehabist thinking, conceived state reforms to go along with social and economic nation-wide urban and rural development. True social justice meant that development should reach all parts of the country – especially the most deprived areas – , and all segments of society.
This long-term strategy was the goal and purpose of his governance model. Political games, power seeking and adversities based on sectarian interests, were not a dynamism that Chehab looked for or fed on. He viewed these practices, as diversions and distractions from the main and higher goal.
The end-results of the Chehabist mandate were highly successful: Taking over an almost collapsing country in 1958, President Chehab was handing over six-year later a stable nation, with all sectarian tensions appeased, citizens re-united and a future promising harmony and economic prosperity, with important reforms and development projects underway.
Chehabism is intimately linked to Fouad Chehab as a person, and to his personality traits. He was not a politician, neither by nature nor by intention. He was above all a man of values and principles.
As an army officer formed by the French military tradition, he belonged to a school of discipline, nobility, ethics and professionalism. There is no doubt that he was strongly influenced and embraced with a deeply rooted conviction, the principles and values of the French Republic democratic culture.
As a commander and builder of the Lebanese Army, he inspired immense respect, not only for his strictness in enforcing discipline and the perfect application of the rules, but also for the human understanding and genuine caring shown towards his subordinates for whom he was a fatherly figure.
As a Christian, he was a faithful believer and a compassionate person, applying his religious principles and moral values to his personal life and to all his actions. Detached from the materialistic attractions of the world, he accomplished his duties free from personal interests, and lived a life of contentment sparing a regular amount of his simple salary (30%) to discretely support people in need. His mature Christian faith made him respect all other religions equally and keep a positive disposition for inter-religious dialogue.
As a person, he was modest and humble, full of goodness and empathy. His life-style was extremely simple, even austere (which earned him the nickname of ‘hermit’ or secluded). His best friend and confident was his wife, with whom he shared the same beliefs and philosophical values. They shared a dislike for social life and outings, and the same hobby of reading books on politics, history and spirituality, that they would later discuss (books were the only gifts that he would accept and appreciate).
As an interlocutor, he was an exceptionally good listener. He was very courteous, of refined manners, and spoke calmly and clearly. His words and thoughts were balanced, never imposing or aggressive, rather aiming to convince. His transparent sincerity inspired trust and respect to people meeting him. (This was probably a determining factor for gaining Nasser’s trust during their cornerstone 1959 summit on the Lebanese-Syrian border) He was discreet and reserved on matters that were not of public concern. His beliefs were clearly expressed in the yearly Independence Day speeches to the Nation.
In his public responsibilities, before taking action, he gave ample time to study the subject matter at hand in details, and asked for expert opinions, especially on issues that were not familiar to him. He was realistic in his assessments and his choices of actions, which were often based on healthy common sense. He was far-sighted in his planning. He had a subtle understanding of the human nature and aware of its weaknesses; and therefore had no illusions regarding the Lebanese common citizen and his capacity for changing from being individualistic to giving priority to public interest.
He was the only Lebanese statesman to bring social concern to the same level of political ones, and to work diligently on all social issues. He was completely dedicated to his work, spending his private time to study files and hold meetings to ensure the execution of all planned for matters (his heavy working schedule and resulting tension caused him to lose 17 kg during the 6 years of his mandate).
He was not interested in enjoying the extravagant privileges that come with authority and power. He never traveled abroad during his mandate. He viewed his presidency role as a mission, and treated it as a duty and service towards the people of his country. In this, he actually was the opposite of politicians usually driven by power ambitions and personal glories. His public appearances were restricted to the annual official occasions like the Independence Day. He strongly disliked appearing in the media or using any kind of propaganda. His, was a silent way of effective work.
Upon his election, Chehab decided not to move to the presidential palace occupied by his predecessors in Beirut (Kantari palace). He chose instead to renovate a simple villa in Sarba, five minutes drive from his house in Jounieh. His house remained his living place, while the Sarba ‘Presidential Palace’ was the ‘working place’ where he came daily from 8:30am to 3:00pm to hold official meetings and carry out presidential protocol duties. He had a late lunch with his wife when returning home, and went through the official mail and newspapers summaries (both local and international), and reports throughout the afternoon.
Wednesdays were dedicated for the weekly Cabinet meeting and meetings with ministers; Thursdays for meeting the governments General Directors and the experts in charge of studying or executing the various reform development projects that he discussed extensively with them; Fridays for meeting diplomats.
In summer time, he moved with his wife to a rented house in Ajaltoun, and would come down to Sarba only once or twice a week, keeping his regular weekly schedule and holding his other daily meetings in Ajaltoun.
Chehabism as applied by President Chehab was based on the following main political principles:
1- Protecting Lebanon’s independence and sovereignty
This was most exemplified in the following two significant events:
In 1958, when the Marines landed on the shore near Beirut and Chehab as a Commander of the Army was not officially informed: He gave orders for the Lebanese Army to aim its fire towards the foreign invading forces, the tension was diffused only after an official contact was established between the Marines command and the Lebanese Army based on restricting the deployment of the Marines to a limited coastal area near Beirut (Khaldé), without entering the capital.
In 1959, when he insisted that his summit with Abdel Nasser be held on the Lebanese-Syrian frontier.
In general, his pride for sovereignty was visible in his strong aversion to the major foreign embassies’ customary interference in internal affairs.
2- Preserving the National Unity
The 1943 National Pact, the unwritten constitution for the Lebanese political regime proclaimed on the eve of Independence, was the founding stone for President Chehab’s government. The Pact established Lebanon as a final united nation for all Lebanese (Christians reverting from seeking French sponsoring and Muslims desisting from their pull towards a union with neighboring Arab countries). When Chehab was elected in 1958, the basic elements of the National Pact were shaken, and Chehab’s task was to rebuild trust, heal the cracks and renew the Pact’s spirit. He succeeded in this and worked on re-strengthening this national bonding, internally by initiating judicious reforms and development projects, and internationally by repositioning the country in a neutral spot vis-a-vis neighboring conflicts.
3- Respecting and protecting constitutional legitimacy, democracy and public freedoms
These principles were highly sacred for Chehab. It was a paradox to see an army man, save and protect a democratic parliamentary regime. If Chehab was to follow the trend of army generals in the third world countries, he could have taken over power already in 1952, or intervened for this purpose early in 1958 (before the expiration of Chamoun’s mandate). He also would have accepted to amend the constitution for his re-election in 1964.
But instead, he remained intransigently faithful to ‘the book’ (the constitution) and the spirit of democracy that he deeply believed in. Often in his speeches to army officers, he would repeat the ideal that he asked them to strive for (and he was a living example of that ideal): To take it as a military duty to protect democracy and the parliamentary regime.
In regard to freedoms, he refused during his mandate two law projects proposed by members of the parliament aiming to limit the press’s freedom: a law to control the income of media and a law to limit the number of newspapers.
4- Keeping a balanced Foreign Policy
To best protect the National Unity and immunize it against situations similar to that of 1958 that would seriously shake it, Chehab followed a balanced foreign policy. He maintained friendly ties with the West, without being hostile to the Soviet Union. With him Lebanon assumed fully its Arab identity and took a neutral stand in regard to any inter-Arab conflict, encouraging solidarity (especially in regard to the Palestinian cause) and ‘brotherhood’ towards all the Arab countries. By this clear policy, Chehab succeeded in getting Nasser to respect Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence.
5- Political and administrative confessional balance
The Lebanese constitution states that the confessional regime running the country’s political and public life is temporary. The aim was to eventually replace this confessional consensus with a true democracy were the national belonging makes all Lebanese equal in rights. Chehab knew that this was still a far reached goal, and strove in the meantime on applying a fair confessional balance both in political life (representation in ministerial cabinets, essence of election laws), and in the public and administrative nominations. He applied the 50% Christian-50% Muslim rule, trying to introduce a few technocrat public figures to temper the strict confessional aspect in public life.
6- Social justice, nation-wide development
Social justice is the economic expression of National Unity. Chehab rectified the social and economic injustice endured by the citizens in the remote regions, first by ensuring that basic needs such as schools, medical dispensaries, roads, electricity and water, reached them, then by coming forth with development projects in these regions. He believed that when the rights and needs of citizens were cared for and delivered by the state, their confessional and regional belonging would slowly melt into a unified national identity, in which all Lebanese would enjoy equally rights and duties.
7- Economical liberalism and development planning
Chehab protected the free and liberal economy system enjoyed in Lebanon, making sure that the elements of personal initiative, free capitalism and bank secrecy remain protected in Lebanon’s economic system. But, following the examples of European countries, he introduced proper and long-term judicious planning into development (based on the expert studies provided by the IRFED Mission). This resulted in more stability, less control by monopolies, and an impressive economic boom and prosperity benefiting all the sectors of the Lebanese society.
8- Limiting foreign interferences in internal affairs
To curb the inherited and strongly embedded tendency of politicians to seek and strengthen individual ‘special relations’ with foreign powers, and as a necessary step following the coup d’état attempt of 1961, Chehab strengthened the intelligence services in the country (Mainly what came to be known as the ‘2nd bureau’). This succeeded in limiting foreign interference and building a firm control on security. But eventually this solid security grip was used as a tool by the traditional politicians who saw their power positions diminish, to criticize Chehab’s rule accusing it of infringing public freedom and democracy.
What can be identified as limitations to Chehabism on the practical level, are in fact fundamental principles of the Chehabist thought: The respect of democracy and the constitution, not imposing changes unless the citizens are ready for them, not using propaganda to manipulate people’s feelings and dreams.
Chehabism’s golden era was President Chehab’s mandate years (1958-1964). To prolong this era and move forward with the reforms, Chehabism needed to stay in power longer. But in 1964, truthful to his principles and in respect to the constitution, Fouad Chehab refused to run for a second mandate which would have allowed him to powerfully continue with the state reforms and the development projects. He chose to back a civilian to continue the mission. President Charles Helou, started his mandate on the tracks of Chehab’s reforms, but slowly fell into the traps of politics and compromise between matters of pure national interest and others of political maneuvering nature. This made the retired Chehab take his distances from Helou, and Helou engaged in subtle power struggles with other Chehabist strong components: politicians and members of parliament faithful to Chehab, and most of all the ‘Second bureau’ which enjoyed a powerful and respected presence.
In 1970, and despite the insisting demand of parliamentary majority, Chehab chose again not to run for the Presidency, endorsing instead his ‘spiritual son’ Elias Sarkis (who unexpectedly lost these elections, by just one vote). As expressed in his statement of August 4, 1970, which explained why he didn’t want to run for the presidency again, Chehab believed that the country was not yet ready for the changes that he would have wanted to bring about; changes that he wouldn’t envisage imposing using non-democratic means.
Probably because of a personal sensitivity towards the fascistic ways that Europe had recently endured, and the military regimes in the Arab world, Chehab had a strong dislike to the use of propaganda or to allow the creation of a public idol image around his person.
The limits of Chehabism can be summarized in one condition that Chehab had put: That all citizens participate with conviction in the national reform task.
Being a way of governing, Chehabism in theory can be envisaged without the personal presence of Fouad Chehab.But the post-1970 period – and up to date – has shown that without Chehab (and the respect that he personally imposed), and without the special conjuncture that brought him to power, Chehabism never fought to reach power again, and when it did reach the presidency through national consensus when the nation was facing dead-end situations, it did not have the opportunity or the means to take initiatives.
Elias Sarkis, Chehab’s personal presidential choice for 1970, was elected by consensus in 1976, but the degrading situation in the country left him with no political authority and no chance to even envisage reforms or development. For six years all that he could do was manage the crisis, try to minimize the damages and protect the little that could be preserved of the State’s presence.
In 1989, the Taef agreement, when looking for a personality accepted by all, who could successfully reunite the country and govern it in a healthy way, the choice fell on President René Moawad a faithful and convinced Chehabist politician. Unfortunately Moawad was killed before he even started his nation-rebuilding task.
In 1998 and in 2008, when searching for a consensual President with the profile of someone able to reunite the nation, the choice fell on the Commanders in Chief of the Army General Emile Lahoud and General Michel Suleiman, inspired by the choice of General Chehab in 1958.
This leads us to conclude that Chehabism, with or without Fouad Chehab’s presence, does not live on adversity, or seek power. It is called upon in time of crisis, and takes over authority on a national (and international) consensus basis. Thus, Chehabism never envisaged forming a political party and compete with other parties for positions and public responsibilities.
Nevertheless, Chehabism is undoubtedly a virtuous way of governing that any person in a responsible position can be inspired from, and seek to apply when approaching matters of general interest, particularly delicate ones.