Described by Albert Hourani as "a man of courage, decision and powerful intellect,"(1) Sa'adeh differed from others in the determination and inflexibility with which he held his political opinions. Sa'adeh stepped into the political arena at a time when most Lebanese were uncertain about what kind of an independent country they wanted, and hazier still about how to achieve a viable society. Their main point of contention was over the legitimacy of the Lebanese state: while most Christian Maronites - then the largest and most influential Christian sect in Lebanon - felt that Lebanon had a right to lead a separate national existence along Western lines, most avowed Muslims, led by veteran Sunni politicians, wanted to re-incorporate Lebanon into the Syrian hinterland as it had been before 1920, although in terms of realizing a wider pan-Arab community. In a country where the central authority was weak and where the government was regarded with suspicion and mistrust, this sectarian-driven division over national identity threatened to split the Lebanese entity in half.

The establishment of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party by Sa'adeh in 1932 was largely inspired by the desire to see this condition in Lebanon ameliorated. However, instead of siding with one group against the other, as most Lebanese appeared to have done, the SSNP proposed a solution that explicitly emphasized nationalist goals over parochial interests.(2) The point that should be emphasized, though, is that the unity sought by the SSNP was a Syrian, not a Lebanese or an Arab one.(3) The Party believed that neither the Arabs nor the Lebanese constituted a nation because the factors that underlay their political claims, namely language, ethnicity and religion, did not play a vital role in the process of nation-formation.(4) The SSNP also argued that the Lebanese, both Christians and Muslims, had always been historically part of the Syrian nation and that, until 1920, when the French proclaimed its establishment as a separate political entity, Lebanon shared with Syria a common national outlook.(5)

The second key characteristic of the SSNP was the goal of building an independent secular state in Syria. Political reforms were encouraged by the party to further specific goals but also from a sincere desire to break down the barriers that impeded the process of national and political integration. In the first place, reforms provided an excellent rational for the urbanized nationalist elite to diminish the powers of local chiefs, headmen, and clergy who appealed to narrow ethnic or religious loyalties. Moreover, the usefulness of reforms in the nationalizing process is obvious. In a pluralistic society like Syria, they served as an instrument in the development of national identity within politically alienated groups of the same society.

Thirdly, the SSNP advocated the creation of an "Arab Front" as a bulwark against foreign ambitions in the Arab World. The idea of an 'Arab Front' is quite different from that of an 'Arab nation': the first would be an alliance while the second was a national idea par excellence. In assessing the significance of the idea of 'Arab Front' in relation to Pan-Arab nationalism, Daniel Pipes has classified the SSNP as a "purist" organization because it regards the unification of Syria as an end in itself rather than as a stepping-stone toward a wider Pan-Arab polity.(6) Pipes' characterization is useful when comparing the SSNP with pan-Arab organizations, such as the Baath Party or the Arab Nasserites. It does the party no justice, however, when the purpose of it is to depict the SSNP as anti-Arab. For despite the pan-Syrian focus of its program, the SSNP did not reject the idea of Arab unity per se, nor did it deny the existence of historical and cultural ties between Syria and the rest of the Arab World.(7)

The most distinguishing feature about the SSNP is that, from the outset, it adopted an oppositionist posture, preferring to defy the prevailing social and political norms rather than pay lip service to the predominant problems in Syria (including Lebanon).  The party rejected the country's traditional patrimonial and confessional system and vociferously attacked the political leadership for "dissipating the interests of the people for the sake of their personal power."(8)


(1) Albert Hourani, Syria and Lebanon: A Political Essay, (Beirut: Librairie Du Liban, 1968), 197.
(2) The founding of the SSNP, writes Sharabi, "marked the end of the first phase of the nationalist movement of the older generation and the beginning of organized political parties."H. B. Sharabi, Governments and Politics of the Middle East in the Twentieth Century, (Princeton: D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc., 1962), 143.
(3) The call for the national independence of Syria goes back to the middle of the nineteenth century. Butrus Bustani, described by one scholar as "probably the first Syrian nationalist," (See Butrus Abu-Manneh, "The Christians Between Ottomanism and Syrian Nationalism: The Ideas of Butrus Bustani," International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, II, 1980), 294) propagated it in Naffir Suriyya (The Clarion of Syria), a broadsheet he published in the wake of the sectarian unrest of 1860. His writings inspired political consciousness in Syria and gave the Syrian idea its first real impetus. In 1880 a secret group of intellectuals plastered the walls of Beirut with placards urging the Syrians to independence and revolution. Its action had no political significance apart from arousing local suspicion. As the imminent collapse of the Ottoman Empire approached, Syrian nationalism grew in popularity, but it was overshadowed by Islamic and Arab nationalist doctrines.
(4) The party regards the national spirit as an embodiment of the "most complete community" differing from all other communities only by the degree of social integration which characterize it. Its founder was opposed to the classical pan-Arabist position of subordinating the process of nation formation to cultural traits. In his paradigm, cultural traits are subservient to group solidarity: they do not cause the nation to come into existence, but proceed from it. What brings the nation together is the intermingling of peoples of different backgrounds living in a specific territory and interacting with it over diverse historical stages. For detail studies of the party's conception of nationalism see A. Beshara, Syrian Nationalism: An Inquiry Into the Political Philosophy of Antun Sa'adeh, 77; Adel Daher, "Some distinguishing aspects of Sa'adeh's thought," A lecture delivered at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University, January 27, 1982; and Nassif Nassar, Tassawarat al-Umma al-Haditha , Kuwait: The Kuwaiti Institute for Further Education, 1986.
(5) A note of caution: although the SSNP and the Lebanese Sunni Muslims shared a common interest in Syrian nationalism, there were major differences between them. Compared with the Lebanese Sunnis, whose support of a Syrian-Lebanese union was motivated by sectarian considerations arising from the "extremely uncomfortable" position which they found themselves in after the creation of the heavily Christian state of modern Lebanon, the SSNP regarded the unity of the two countries strictly as a national, political and ideological question. Sectarian considerations did not play any noticeable part in the way the party framed its policies. Furthermore, whereas the plan proposed by the SSNP called for the complete reunification of Lebanon and Syria without the exclusion of any part or community living in either country, most Lebanese Sunnis did not regard Mount Lebanon as an essential part of the Syrian state which they wanted to join together. This divergence suggested a clear distinction between the attitude of the SSNP and the Lebanese Sunnis towards Greater Lebanon. Thirdly, by sharp contrast with the Arabophilia of the Sunni Muslims, which gave Arab identity a clear priority over the Syrian identity, the SSNP refused to embrace 'Arabhood' as a political goal. "Within the boundaries of Syria," declared its leader, "there can be one nationality only - the Syrian nationality." Athra, (Assyrian newspaper), Beirut, 23 December 1947.
(6) D. Pipes, "Radical Politics and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party," Int. Journal of Middle East Studies 20, (1988), 305.
(7) Indeed, in its political platform, the SSNP regards Syria as an "Arab nation" and the country most "qualified to lead the Arab World." See Sa'adeh, Complete Works, vols. 4 and 5 passim.
(8) Antun Sa'adeh, The First of June Speech of 1935, in The Ten Lectures, Beirut: SSNP Information Centre, 1980), 34-45. An English translation of this speech can be found in A. Beshara, Syrian Nationalism: An Inquiry into the Political Philosophy of Antun Sa'adeh, 228-231.

Sa'adeh and Lebanon
Adel Beshara