Béchara El Khoury
“…It’s always the same old story. In Lebanon political concessions usually mean rushing backwards into self-protecting policies. What poor thinking! A strong President would follow the Constitution and not seek re-election…Lebanon’s best hopes lie not in the might of an individual but in that individual’s integrity…”
About a presidential system of government M.C., Le Jour, July 24th, 1952.
The attainment of Independence in 1943 and the election of his brother-in-law Béchara El Khoury as President of the Republic, established Michel Chiha as the Administration’s main advisor, a role which he would fulfil until May 1949 when Béchara El Khoury decided to extend his presidential mandate for a further six years, against Michel Chiha’s will.
My Dear Béchara
Ahmad el-Assad came to see me yesterday. He wanted to discuss a particular constitutional amendment involving the regulatory procedures for the re-election of a President. I was touched by his faith in me but I pointed out that before I could give him my opinion I felt it necessary to discuss the matter with you. I write rather than call on you because he is expecting me to give him my answer by tomorrow morning. I believe the reason he is pushing the matter is because he would like to involve some deputies who represent the South including Ibrahim Azar; I’ve heard rumours of this around town.
You have been aware for a while now of my feelings in this matter. In the interest of the nation and of a clear conscience, my opinion is that a President should not be eligible for re-election barring of course certain exceptional circumstances or unless called for by the ‘vox populi’. Legislation of this nature must rise above the interests of an individual and it must encompass not only the interests of others but also of those who come after. What may seem reasonable and timely to you now may not in fact be quite so reasonable and timely in the future. Hence the rationale for doctrine and why such a tutelary document must not be modified for any reason. That notwithstanding, I do understand how the circumstances would make such an option attractive and preferable to an uncertain outcome.
The Presidential mandate expires in a year and a half (the Syrians acted within two months of that) and the current situation in Lebanon dictates that neither the President nor the Government volunteer any criticism, or controversy or inflame partisan loyalties. The initiative taken by the Deputies of the South might carry some appeal there but it certainly would not to appeal to other politicians or anyone with an informed point of view.
I would like to underline the following points:
1. This matter involves the very future of Lebanon where poor examples already exist at every stratum that we don’t need another bad example to emanate from the highest office in the land.
2. That no one, especially abroad, will understand the reason for an amendment introduced 18 months before time and which could have negative repercussions on our moral credibility.
3. That this would be a formidable precedent and that with the uncertainty of the future, we have a duty to make sure that the established rule of law remains as such for as long as possible. An ambitious and unscrupulous president could use this precedent to extend his mandate thereby shaking the very foundations of the country and exposing it to plunder.
In view of these fundamental arguments as well as a few others, I am open to debating the matter whenever you like. I feel the proposal is premature and dangerous. I believe the Syrian example is not applicable now in 1948. We have several difficult issues to address and numerous grounds for discord but ultimately no real urgency on which we might present an argument to the electorate in favour of strengthening the powers of the Presidency.
I have given this matter some serious thought and in view of Ahmad al-Assad’s initiative, I feel it is my duty to inform you of my conclusions. In spite of the gratitude one might feel toward this man and his supporters, the sensitivity of the matter precludes our ability to repay him in kind.
On the latter subject and other similar topics, I would add that it is only natural for us to want to differentiate between Lebanon and our neighbouring country where a resurgence of pro-Ottoman partisanship has occurred. As for Ahmad al-Assad, I shall tell him that we have communicated and that with all due respect and with a deep sincere gratitude, he must nevertheless look to you for his answer. I am sure that when you consider the matter calmly and impartially, you will opt for what is in the best interest of Lebanon and choose your duty to your office and to your countrymen. In a country where the Law is precarious and carries little respect, you must do everything in your power to defend it.
I assure you of my deep understanding and convivial sentiments
Letter to Béchara El Khoury, April 6th , 1948.
“…just before submitting the article below for publication, it was announced that the proposed amendment of the Constitution would only affect the procedures governing the re-election of this particular president and would not encompass any other aspect of constitutional law as such. This is undoubtedly an attempt to appease. From here on and for reasons outlined in detail here below, I leave it up to others to comment further on the matter.
We are told that more than 40 Deputies asked to have the Constitution amended so that the current President becomes immediately eligible for re-election in the immediate future. The agreement by these 40-odd Deputies was not announced publicly and the document which they allegedly signed is apparently safely archived. Or at least that is what is being said as the whole undertaking was handled covertly and no one has yet to lay eyes on the said document. The pathetic manner in which constitutional law and public affairs have been handled exposes the dismal quality of civic morals and the absolute necessity to rectify them.
It is public knowledge that from time immemorial, I have been connected to the Head of State through lifelong ties of kinship, affection, enduring friendship, communal life, professional life and a common national cause. If the matter was left to just the two of us and our sense of brotherhood and friendship, then we and the Republic would be laughing. But this happens to be a question of principle; one which involves an uncommon procedure and which could quite literally subordinate the future of the State. This is why the citizen in me and not the friend (who would surely follow his heart) must speak out. When one engages the general public on a daily basis and assumes a degree of moral responsibility then one forfeits the right to stay silent.
It goes without saying, that with his infinite respect for the rule of law, its application and its conventions, I am in no way casting aspersions on the personal character of the Head of State who deserves respect and praise. As the most elementary of duties, it is to the Chamber of Deputies, to the Government and to Public Opinion that I appeal.
When this very same legislative body was disparaged and criticised by an unhappy public and a unanimously antagonistic press, I was the only voice defending it in the name of high politics and in the public interest, both of which were way above its competence. I did so in order to save it from sinking under a sea of discontent, to avoid having the fledgling independence of this country be irreparably damaged by some act of excess and to protect it, one way or the other, from yet further foreign intervention. “…
…Now, more so than any other Lebanese, it is my duty to remind the Chamber of its mission both towards itself and the people which it represents. Previous examples of the proposed action have not resulted in a good outcome. A Constitution is not usually amended in this manner a year and a half before the end of a presidential mandate. What might be appropriate now in favour of a venerable man might, in the future, prove to be terrible with someone much less admirable.
The debate on the subject has overtaken rationalism. However, Lebanon is a nation of thinkers, of jurists and experts in International Law and where informed and experienced minds are plentiful. In a nation familiar with the principles of political science, the State owes a duty of admiration and respect to its enlightened citizens. Its political action must be endowed with basic checks and balances and domestic policy must endeavour to avoid earlier and further mistakes.
Parliamentary life in this country will probably remain hesitant and amorphous for a long while. That does not excuse our institutions and fundamental laws from pretence or sham. The Government bears a great deal of responsibility in this. Whatever procedures are condoned in the present will be magnified to their advantage by our successors, which is why we must be vigilant in what we do now. We have frequently demonstrated the extent to which the Executive, in a country such as ours, is in fact more powerful than the Legislative. We must not allow that imbalance to mortgage the future and restrict our liberties. The early advent of certain events is always surprising and sometimes shocking. These events appear to be an anomaly and they cause both the citizen and the city unnecessary disquiet.
When, like so many others, the Constitution specified twenty two years ago that an outgoing president would only be eligible for re-election after six years, it was intended to prevent the temptation of putting self-interest above that of national interest. This contingency is common in all effective and healthy democracies (take for example the prudence and moderation of the Swiss).
It is conceivable that a country favours a particular individual and would thus be amenable to a breach in constitutional law. However, such a possibility should only be entertained, so to speak, on the eve of his departure or as circumstances dictate. I take no pleasure in laying all this out but we live in a country where the Law is in need of defending and where it is increasingly under siege. This is merely a way of easing my conscience.
The ancient Romans had a saying: “dura lex, sed lex” – “the Law is harsh but it is the Law” which is why they didn’t attack it with hammer blows.
To conclude this treatise I hope that it is understood to be simply an expression of national and political duty and civic vigilance. What I disapprove of or what I find blameworthy or lacking in scruples I express publicly. No one can deny that I do not have the option of remaining silent.
On the amendment of a Constitution, M.C., Le Jour, April 13th, 1948.
We agreed that I would contact you this morning with regard to my earlier letter and our recent conversation. In the interim I believed that nothing significant would occur but I found out quite by chance, indeed from within your own home, that around 38 to 40 Deputies have ratified the amendment. I have also learnt which way the wind is blowing both in the Chamber and along the corridors of power. Apparently you are unaware of the full facts and that things are happening without your knowledge.
Both of us had some thinking to do and I can see now that I was idealistic and a little naive. My obvious duty now is to reiterate what I wrote earlier and I do so calmly resigned to the consequences of disagreement in order to protect a point of view that is clearly of both national and moral importance. Do I really have to point out what is vital to the well-being of this country and to remind the Chamber of this before it falls into further disrepute?
It seems you are resolved at all costs not to take any risks; that you are indifferent to others taking them or even that they are taking them for you. Time will show the ill consequences of this. I pointed you toward the honourable path, one which would avoid political lobbying, the owing of favours and promises and other devices in an already dubious environment. I proposed an option which would have displayed to all the value of someone of conviction. It seems however that you prefer the option of using the backdoor…. how I deplore that!
Political morals in this country have never been very edifying but now, little by little and perhaps even without you actually realising it, you will push them 30 years backwards. By writing and talking to you on this matter I believe I have fulfilled an essential personal duty. On the political scale our country is in moral regression and this is principally due to current political morals….
I find that you have greatly changed in the last two or three years. I really must learn not to be so surprised at such things. Putting all this down on paper makes the abuse all the more evident but I must do so anyway whilst struggling to remain only moderately melancholic.
Good Luck my friend. May God protect you and help you,
2nd Letter to Béchara El Khoury
“To conclude this treatise I hope that it is understood to be simply an expression of national and political duty and civic vigilance. What I disapprove of or what I find blameworthy or lacking in scruples I express publicly. No one can deny that I do not have the option of remaining silent.”
On the amendment of a Constitution, M.C., Le Jour, April 13th, 1948.