Coups and Conspiracies in the Modern Middle East
To cite: "Lebanon's Coups." In Ben Hammou, Salah and Jonathan Powell. Coups and Conspiracies in the Modern Middle East. Orlando, FL: University of Central Florida
President Bechara el-Khoury
Lebanon - July 3, 1949
On July 3, 1949, party leader of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), Antun Saadeh authorized a coup against the Lebanese government of President Bechara el-Khoury, which ultimately failed. Saadeh had given the orders from Syria, where he had fled after Lebanese authorities began mass arrests against SSNP partisans. After securing asylum from Syrian leader Colonel Husni al-Zaim, Saadeh declared “revolution” against Khoury’s government, using two junior officers in Lebanon to initiate the seizure. The plot was to include laying siege to gendarmerie units surrounding Beirut as well as surrounding highways. The attempt quickly faltered following its execution - SSNP militants were unable to take gendarmerie units and were quickly crushed by units loyal to the government who had awaited the fighters. Pending reinforcements from the village of Bchamoun were blocked by a special task force. The commander of the unit was killed, and a number of party militants were injured and taken into custody.
The motives for Saadeh and the SSNP’s coup can be traced back to the party’s formation. Saadeh, a Lebanese Christian, founded the SSNP in 1923 but championed it as a secular party. More importantly however, the SSNP was one of many pro-Syrian parties that emerged during independence talks with France during the 1920’s, advocating for unity between the states and the formation of a “Greater Syria.” Though the pro-Syria sentiment evaporated over time, the SSNP remained a staunch support for unity. However, after the onset of World War II, France demanded that the SSNP be disbanded and outlawed. Fearing his arrest, Saadeh left Lebanon.
Following independence in 1943, the SSNP returned to political life on the pretext that it became the “National Party” and relinquished the desire for a “Greater Syria.” The terms were accepted as Saadeh remained in self-imposed exile but upon his return in 1947, he assumed the reins of the party once more. In essence, unity with Syria became a priority once more. Saadeh’s return and the commitment to his original tenets upset the al-Khoury regime. The party’s newspaper was outlawed in 1948 and after the 1949 Syrian coup by rumored SSNP officers, security forces raided SSNP offices and arrested party members on conspiracy charges. Saadeh once again fled during the mass arrests in June 1949 and found refuge in Husni al-Zaim’s Syria, who was sympathetic with the SSNP. Within Syria, Saadeh sought to remove the al-Khoury regime.
The failure of the SSNP’s coup spelled disaster for Saadeh. Some speculate that al-Zaim’s prime minister, Muhsin al-Barazi, had informed Lebanese officials of the pending attempt, hence the troops that awaited SSNP fighters at the gendarmerie units. On July 6, Saadeh was summoned to al-Zaim’s abode and swiftly arrested and extradited to Lebanon. On July 7, he was executed via firing squad after a rushed and faulty trial. Mass crackdowns of the party ensued and retaliatory attacks by party sympathizers became frequent, such as the assassination of Prime Minister Riad al Soulh in 1951.
President Fouad Chehab
Captain Fouad Awad & the SSNP
Lebanon - December 31, 1961
On the evening of December 31, 1961, Captain Fouad Awad and armed members of the SSNP staged a failed coup against the government of President Fouad Chehab. The attempt unfolded around 12:15 am, with Fouad mobilizing his Armored Company unit of ninety men under the pretext of quelling another attempted coup. In truth, this was a ploy to cut telephone lines connected to Beirut as well as smuggle jeeps to Lieutenant Ali al-Hajj and his men in an attempt to kidnap Chehab. Meanwhile, armed partisans of the SSNP made their way to the Government House to capture Chehab and seize radio stations as well as the Post and Telegraph buildings. For a brief period, the partisans did seize the Post and Telegraph while also capturing some members of the armed forces. In the midst of the plot, they also released their imprisoned ally, Captain Khairallah. However, the plot began to unravel when the unit assigned to kidnap Chehab failed to do so, which occurred after miscommunication between the armed partisans and al-Hajj’s men. Units charged with seizing the Defense Ministry also failed to do so, which ultimately led to a counterattack by units loyal to Chehab. Following a standoff between the plotters and Chehab’s forces, the former surrendered around 7:00 am.
The SSNP’s second bid for power represents a culmination of the trials the party experienced since the execution of their founder, Antun Saadeh. Following his death, government repression of the party increased tenfold and resulted in the party’s reversal into a clandestine organization, specifically after its retaliatory attacks claimed the life of Prime Minister Riad al Soulh in 1951. In 1953, following the fall of the al-Khoury administration, the party reemerged as an active player in the political scene as an ally to the new regime of Camile Chamoun. This alliance was bolstered upon the ascension of Asad al-Ashqar as the party’s leader in 1957, pushing the party to take a pro-West and anti-Communist stance, which Chamoun maximized on to marginalize his leftist rivals. This alliance was maintained during the 1958 civil conflict against the pro-Nasser elements within Lebanon but ended following General Fouad Chehab’s victory during the presidential election that year.
Chehab’s decision to engage in power-sharing with rebels of the 1958 conflict created a rift between the government and the SSNP. This rift was further deepened following the decision to expel a number of SSNP from the country, which partisans viewed as an attempt by Egyptian President Gammal Abdel Nasser to stifle the party. In essence, the SSNP felt that Chehab had bent to Pan-Arab elements both in and out of Lebanon and feared that prospects of a union with Egypt and the United Arab Republic. Over time, it became apparent that Chehab did not align with the SSNP as his cabinet formations regularly excluded SSNP members.
Ultimately, SSNP leaders began courting soldiers in the barracks, where discontent against Chehab had fomented. Prior to Chehab’s ascension, the Lebanese military, a cross-sectarian force, sat firmly under civilian control and did not directly interfere into the political affairs of civilians. Upon ascension, Chehab began drawing on military aides and associated security services, such as the intelligence services, to buttress his base of support, either by appointments or by using covert means to keep tabs on his rivals. Elements within the armed forces, however, abhorred Chehab’s use of security services for his own personal gain, prior to and during his tenure. They claimed his tactics as commander of chief prior to his ascension had left the armed forces factionalized, pushing many officers to align with political parties of varying ideological stripes. Ultimately, this disdain led to covert meetings between SSNP leadership and sympathetic officers such as Captain Fouad Awad.
Following the coup’s failure, the SSNP experienced renewed repression at the hands of Chehab’s regime. The party was formally dissolved by executive order via the Council of Ministers and security forces swept throughout Lebanon to find additional party sympathizers. The coups’ key plotters such as Awad went into hiding but were discovered and arrested relatively soon. An estimated 6,000 individuals, many innocent, were arrested in the aftermath. The failure of the coup also began to pull the armed forces into politics as many politicians began establishing formal and informal ties with soldiers in the barracks, thus undermining civilian control.