Antun Sa’adeh, a nationalist thinker who lived from 1904 to 1949, not only strongly influenced the development of Syrian nationalism; he was one of the major intellectual figures of modern Syria. The impact of his ideas has been felt in politics, literature and philosophy, as well as in the social sciences. Indeed, the publications for which he was best known (The Rise of Nations, The Ten Lectures, Intellectual Struggle in Syrian Literature, and The Folly of Immortality), have had a broad influence on the politico-intellectual movement in Syria and throughout the Arab World.
Sa’adeh’s life was a unique blend of dedicated, perpetual struggle, righteous idealism, and theoretical pragmatism. He was not simply an outspoken figure on the political stage, but attempted the revolutionary treatment of paramount social and economic ills. Sa’adeh’s strength - regarded by some as a weakness - lay in his ability to confront social reality as a normative thinker interested in what ought to be rather than in the pragmatic what is. Some saw his vision as an essential utopian one. If that is utopian, every critic and reformer is a utopian. A scholar, who cultivated his friendship, described him as a man of “unusually strong character and striking personality. He possessed a great deal of will power and was extremely intelligent with a deep insight for politics.”
Sa’adeh passionately desired to achieve a united society, in which its people understood that their highest duty was to the nation. The ways and means by which he could achieve this goal seemed to him as important as the goal itself. He was not an amateur, attracted by fanciful ideas, whose realization did not matter; he was a national leader with a unique vision, and struggle, as we will show in this chapter, was the only means he knew to achieve this vision.
Childhood and Family Background
Sa’adeh was born on 1 March, 1904. He attended the primary school in his native village for his elementary education, the prestigious Freres Institute in Cairo, where his father was living at the time, and the Brummana High School in Mount Lebanon for his secondary education. From an early age, Sa’adeh displayed a remarkable degree of enthusiasm for patriotic ideals. For instance, at a special reception held at the Brummana High School in the honour of Jamal Pasha, then Supreme Commander of the Eastern flank of the Ottoman forces in the Near East, he refused to carry the Ottoman flag in defiance of Jamal’s overlordship. After the Ottomans were defeated and driven out of Syria, he tore the flag to pieces in front of other children at the school as an expression of his overwhelming happiness for the liberation of Syria.
This behaviour was fairly uncommon among the subdued children of Syria at the time. That it should appear in Sa’adeh at such an early age and develop subsequently into an essential characteristic of his personality was due primarily to his background and immediate social milieu. First, the atmosphere in the village where he was born and raised was deeply absorbed in patriotic and national sentiments. The village had a fairly active intellectual life and its members were among the best educated people in Syria. Sa’adeh developed his first insight into the world in this small village, after witnessing the devastation wrought by the First World War. Indeed, there was no village in Lebanon where the events of World War I were debated more keenly than in Shweir. Weary and demoralised though it was, the political discussion of war events was no mere academic exercise; debate ran high among its educated classes.
Equally important was Sa’adeh’s upbringing and family background. Given the pervasive and functional dimensions of the nuclear family in Syrian life, the impact of paternal upbringing on the personality and early development of Sa’adeh cannot be overemphasised. In Syria, as no doubt elsewhere in the Arab World, the family was, and has remained, one of the most solid and enduring social bonds. In Syria, hardly a dimension of one’s life is untouched by the family.
Sa’adeh came from a stable middle class family. His parents were highly cultured and intimately connected to the educated elite of Syria. Like others of their generation, the Sa’adehs valued the advance of nationalism and were generally conversant with the ideas and values of the modern age. Sa’adeh’s mother, Nayfi Nassir, was an American-born Syrian educated in Chicago. Probably no individual with independent influence was closer to young Sa’adeh than her. She understood his needs better than any other family member.
Nayfi’s husband, Dr. Khalil Sa’adeh, was a noted physician and an active scholar. He belonged to a small group of writers and thinkers whose ideas played a powerful role in the process of change which occurred after 1850. His life and intellectual vocation has been described as one of total dedication to the struggle for national independence.
Unlike his wife, Dr. Sa’adeh’s powerful influence on his son was a more subtle one. His education and intellectual background gave Sa’adeh a solid start in life. Dr. Sa’adeh also gave his son fatherly inspiration essential for coping with universal situations. Furthermore, his active involvement in the political struggle at home and abroad assured Sa’adeh an early and significant exposure to the nationalistic and political issues of the day. Ultimately Dr. Sa’adeh became something akin to a mentor to his son and the pair held each other in high esteem.
Thirdly, although Sa’adeh was raised in a wholly secular lifestyle, his enthusiasm for patriotic ideals at such a tender age may have been derived, in part, from his own personal and communal identity. By faith, the Sa’adehs were Christian Orthodox. Therefore, like others in the same community, they lived in the social framework within which the intellectual activity among the Orthodox took place. One important feature of this framework was a strong affiliation to a secular form of nationalism:
Of all the Western concepts that were being adopted by Syrian Orthodox intellectuals there was one which bore directly on the community’s political position in the surrounding society. It was the concept of secular nationalism which evoked old ties, hitherto overlooked, with groups outside the community.
The Christian Orthodox of Syria were also permeated by a strong Pan-Syrian feeling. This feeling arose from either an ethnic or a territorial attachment, or both. In contrast to the members of other sectarian communities in Syria, the Orthodox displayed a remarkable degree of social flexibility. They were comparatively moderate, secular, and fairly receptive to modern ideas. Antun Sa’adeh, who came from a predominantly Orthodox village, grew up in this progressive open-minded milieu. He learned a great deal from it and absorbed its ideas and profound spirit without perhaps realising it.
However, by far the single most important factor in Sa’adeh’s childhood was World War I. He was a mere ten years of age when it broke out, but the starvation and widespread misery resulting from the war years left him deeply scarred for the rest of his life. Indeed, the area where he was living at the time suffered the worst of the ravages caused by the war. “In the Lebanon,” writes George Antonius, “whole villages perished; others had their population reduced to less than one half, and cases were known of villagers tramping the countryside to die out of sight of their starving womenfolk and children.” It is estimated that Syria’s contribution to the holocaust of the war was no less than “half a million lives out of a total population of considerably under four million.” But whereas the war drove many people to despair, for Sa’adeh it was an opportunity to reflect upon the sorrows and ordeals of Syria. Some years later he wrote:
I was an adolescent when World War I broke out. As the war progressed and I began to witness the woeful condition in which my people were and the misery that was rampant among them, the first question that came to my mind was: What was it that brought all this woes on my people?
On the eve of the war, Sa’adeh’s mother died from a protracted illness. His father was abroad at the time and barred from Syria for various political and personal reasons. Consequently, Sa’adeh took charge of his parents’ domestic affairs. This included the arduous task of looking after three of his siblings. Despite his youthfulness and the horrid conditions of the war, Sa’adeh remarkably proved equal to the task and emerged from the war physically unscathed. Towards the end of 1919, he migrated from Syria and, after a short stopover in the United States, was reunited with his father who was living in Brazil. He was fifteen at the time.
The Beginning of Sa’adeh’s Political Consciousness
When Sa’adeh left Syria he was disillusioned by the social and political outcome of the war. Like most of his compatriots, he thought that Syria would emerge from its ordeal a better and stronger country, as a reward for its war effort. But this was not to be. Instead, it was carved up and stripped entirely of its national rights. What Sa’adeh did not know was that the fate of Syria had already been decided behind the closed doors of European diplomacy in almost total disregard of popular expectations.
When Sa’adeh arrived in Brazil, the Syrian diaspora there was significantly large, and growing. A number of political parties and organisations were founded and those with intellectual ambitions started their own newspapers and magazines. A recent study has noted:
What draws our attention in diaspora [Syrian] literature in South America is that it is a literature of combat, a literature of bitter struggle against the enemy of the homeland both internally and externally, a literature of commitment to national issues and its aspirations. Internally, there was a drive to deal with social ailments whether sectarian, clannish or provincial. Externally, it was a literature of erupting volcanos casting out its lava against the West which had torn the unity of the homeland and destabilised it.
Among the earlier and most enduring publications in Brazil were Dr. Sa’adeh’s al-Jaridah and al-Majallah, as well as al-Istiqlal, Fata Lubnan and al-Ikhlas. Their influence spread all over South America, stimulating a major literary output.
Under the surface, the community was afflicted by numerous internal quarrels. Some groups, small in number and mainly Christian, felt a loyalty towards the independence movement in Lebanon, but they lacked organisation and remained passive and inarticulate. Opposed to them were Muslim groups which were hardly enthusiastic about an independent Lebanon. They identified their political interests with those of the emerging Arab nationalist movement. Some among them came to regard the idea of Islamic unity as a viable and useful substitute for Ottoman or nationalist reforms. A split among the Syrian nationalists, who constituted by far the largest political bloc in the community, over the emotional question of foreign protection, came as a crushing blow.
The main point of contention was Syria’s political future. While some, like the Syrian National Association, argued for the placement of Syria, including Lebanon, under French mandate until the country had gained a certain degree of political maturity, others like Dr. Sa’adeh’s group regarded the Association’s claim not as a legitimate national aspiration, but as a ploy to deny the Syrians their independence. Such disagreements and the wider divisions that existed in the community, closely interwoven with sectarian loyalties and exacerbated by outside meddling (the French embassy in Brazil was particularly active in this regard) choked off the political leverage of the community.
The situation in the “New World” failed to dampen Sa’adeh’s enthusiasm for nationalism. He teamed up with his father as a co-editor of two newspapers called al-Jaridah and al-Majallah issued between 1921 and 1925. In their pages, Sa’adeh elucidated his early political views and engaged his prophetic skills. It is interesting that while many Christian Lebanese at the time were moving in the direction of the Lebanon idea, Sa’adeh was asserting the primacy of Syrian nationalism in the struggle for national independence. He charged that Lebanese “nationalist” aspirations were deliberately misguiding the community and turning its attention away from the benefits of a unified Syria, with Lebanon included in it. Sa’adeh also foresaw, at this early stage in his life, the potential danger of Zionism and warned against any underestimation of its strength:
Despite that the Zionist movement is not rotating around a natural axis, yet, this movement has been able to make significant progress. If no other systematic movement is organised to counter it, it will eventually succeed.
Toward the middle of 1920, Sa’adeh shifted to a broader revolutionary life. Growing popular discontent in Syria due to French insensitivity to local needs and Zionist advances in Palestine aroused his interest in organised collective action. France’s conduct in Syria particularly was a major concern for Sa’adeh, partly because of the ruthlessness with which it tried to assert itself in the country, and partly because “many Frenchmen first sent out to administer France’s Mandate for Syria and Lebanon had previously served in Morocco” where they had been instructed to promote the French weltanschauung at the expense of native life.
As Syria plunged into deep social disarray and a chain of rebellions broke out in 1925, Sa’adeh took the first tentative step toward collective action. With the help of six fellow intellectuals in the Syrian community, he formed an underground political movement called the Organisation of Syrian Youth Commandos (OSYC). Its aim was the creation of an independent secular state in Syria. But before long the OSYC was ripped apart by internal quarrels and quickly disintegrated. In view of the limited opportunities available at the time, Sa’adeh then temporarily joined the local Masonic lodge. When that also failed to quench his political desires he formed a second political organisation, called the Party of Free Syrians (PFS). Though shaped by different circumstances, the constitution, program, and ideological orientation of this organisation bore many similarities to the OSYC. Its platform was specifically Pan-Syrian, consisting of five main principles:
1. Establishment of complete national sovereignty in Syria.
2. The reunification of Syria within its historical-geographical boundaries.
3. Separation of religion from the state.
4. The eradication of sectarianism.
5. The application of force in national struggle.
During the Great Syrian Rebellion in 1925, the PFS gave vocal support to the rebels. It handed a protest note to the French Embassy in Brazil demanding the immediate cessation of the mandate. Sa’adeh also gave a number of public speeches that aroused community anger against the French presence in Syria. The French Embassy in Brazil was deeply irritated to the extent that it notified its government about Sa’adeh in its monthly summary to the Foreign Ministry in Paris.
Through the PFS, Sa’adeh immediately won the admiration and respect of the local Syrian community. The sudden growth in the membership of the party further bolstered his popularity. Realising the limitation of working in a single country, Sa’adeh then pushed for a merger between the PFS and the US-based Free Syria Party which coincidently looked to extend its network beyond North America. But the merger did not eventuate because their disagreements were vast. This failure was to prove the PFS’s ultimate undoing. Sa’adeh then came to realise that the real battle for Syrian nationalism had to be carried on inside Syria itself, not abroad, where the level of political action often tapers away to nothing. In the years following the dissolution of the PFS in 1928, Sa’adeh taught at the National College for Science and Literature. During that time he maintained a low profile until he finally returned to Syria at the end of July, 1930.
Sa’adeh’s Homecoming: Fulfilment and Disappointment
Sa’adeh’s homecoming recalls to mind Ewald Banse’s famous saying that “man’s greatest works always spring from the national soil even when they are not actually directed to national ends.” It was a symbolic act of social defiance because, until then, very few of Syria’s educated and intellectual migrants made the journey back home. Even for those with a record of political commitment, the thought of immigrating back to Syria probably never crossed their minds.
At the time of Sa’adeh’s return, Syria was going through a turbulent phase and the future did not hold bright prospects. Despite the appearance of new forms of political organisations and the constitutional developments of earlier years, its life had remained fundamentally unchanged. As Philip S. Khoury put it:
Indeed, there was a remarkable degree of continuity in the exercise of local political power in Syria which was not disrupted by the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. For the most part, men important in local affairs under the Ottomans were the same men, or their sons, who wielded political influence under the French. Political leaders organised their personal support systems in interwar Syria as they had in Ottoman Syria.
Under those circumstances, Sa’adeh had either to join the established political order, or rebel, and try to bring about change from without and, if necessary, in opposition to it. The first option would have entailed his assimilation to institutions and structures which derived their legitimacy from a traditional form of political representation in which the workings of sectarian, clannish, and feudal interests and their competitive interplay constituted the nucleus of the political process. The second option involved a great deal of personal risk and danger. In a system in which there was no room for ambitious plans that went beyond the common forms, the thought of radical change was a heresy.
Sa’adeh carefully weighed his options for practically two years. When he finally realised that none of the existing parties or political organisations suited his needs, he founded a separate political movement and launched himself into the political struggle. The Syrian National Party (SNP - or PPS, as the French mistakenly called it) was an important landmark in the ecumenical movement of Syrian nationalism. Formed outside the mainstream thinking, it proposed a program of national action that defied the enormous political and social odds which heretofore corroded the possibilities of change. Its format was also unusual by conventional standards. The party was established primarily from within the ranks of university students because of their dynamism and receptivity to new ideas. It was also Sa’adeh’s belief that the students were, of all social classes, the group least infected by the prevailing social psychology. Furthermore, the SNP was formed in complete secrecy, “to protect the nascent organisation from the dangers of premature confrontations with reactionary forces and the French mandate before its internal structure had reached a defensive cohesiveness that will ensure its withstanding the turmoils of open militancy.”
Except for a minor setback in 1933, this time Sa’adeh achieved his objective with resounding success. By contrast to the OSYC and the PFS, the Syrian National Party developed into a full-fledged organisation with branches in Lebanon, the Syrian interior and Palestine. Its membership was highly disciplined and its platform appealed to a wide cross-section of the community. Sa’adeh emerged as the undisputed leader of the party. His leadership shielded the party from the competitive interplay of individual and political interests. On the other hand, there were some who considered it a vestige of European Fascism with a style that was alien to the political practise of the day.
As Sa’adeh was secretly going about his task, nationalist feelings in Syria once more came to a head. The failure of the French government to grant the Syrian states their independence, and the growing unrest in the Eastern Mediterranean, arising out of the Italo-Abyssinian War and the Palestine conflict, had led to fresh violence in Syrian and Lebanese cities. Sensing the need to act before his supporters lost patience, Sa’adeh called a general meeting to outline the position of the SNP on topical issues. In the meeting, he was at pains to emphasise the unique character of the Syrian National Party as “an idea and a movement embodying the life of a nation in its entirety.” He urged his followers to stand firm against Italian propaganda which he considered an undesirable distraction from the national cause.
Shortly after the meeting, the authorities discovered the SNP and brutally suppressed its leadership. Sa’adeh was among the first to be arrested and he was sentenced for six months imprisonment. The High Commissioner of France to Syria and Lebanon, Comte Damien de Martel, was infuriated by the discovery because it came at a time when “the mood among nationalists was changing from frustration to deep-seated anger” due to France’s refusal to resume treaty negotiations and to deliver long overdue social and economic reforms. It is also worth noting that in the months leading up to the SNP’s discovery, Pan-Syrian nationalism was rejuvenating. This was partly due to various Lebanese Muslim leaders’ refusal to join the predominantly Christian state in Lebanon, and partly to the annual anniversaries of Faysal’s death which revived memories of the Syrian Kingdom of 1920. The French High Commissioner often did not take these kinds of outburst very seriously, but because the SNP was highly organised with members recruited almost entirely from among the educated elite, his hand was forced.
In view of this new situation, the Commissioner attempted to discount the importance of the discovery by withholding it from the press. Both Le Temps and L’Asie Francaise remained silent and coverage of the incident in local Arabic and international newspapers was broad and often inaccurate. But Sa’adeh’s trial, in particular his self-defence, received a considerable coverage. One newspaper, which heretofore was a symbol of early Lebanese hopes, devoted an entire edition to the SNP!
In prison, Sa’adeh completed nushu’ al-umam, a treatise on nationalism, and wrote a long commentary on the principles of the party. Both works were written in a rush to counteract a political terror campaign orchestrated against the SNP by factions on both sides of the political spectrum. Spearheading that campaign was Mgr. Arida, Patriarch of Lebanon’s Maronites. Mgr. Arida denounced the SNP, claiming that the organisation opposed Lebanese independence and that it “profess[ed] beliefs in destructive principles against religion, country, and good breeding.” Nor were the Arab nationalists any more sympathetic. Their attitude was that the SNP symbolised a new shu’ubist backtrack to regionalism and was therefore, anathema to Arab unity. As to the Lebanese Communists, they adopted a policy of provocation and insults which reflected itself rather vividly in the pages of their daily periodical, al-Anbaa’. Paradoxically, the campaign against the SNP worked to Sa’adeh’s own advantage, because it gave him publicity and greater public exposure.
Sa’adeh’s release in May, 1936 was followed by a period of party consolidation. But the SNP remained a thorn in the side of French domestic policy in Lebanon.
A physical clash between some of its members and reporters of Al-Masa’ newspaper, which repeatedly depicted Sa’adeh as a fascist agent despite an official denial of it, gave the French a pretext to distract Sa’adeh’s from his daily routine. Instead of chasing the culprits involved in the clash, they held Sa’adeh personally responsible for it. He was arrested and sentenced to another term of six months imprisonment. This time the Prime Minister of Lebanon stepped in and granted Sa’adeh political freedom after obtaining from him a written assurance that he would uphold the existing political entity of the Lebanese state.
The French High Commissioner did not take too kindly to this arrangement. He encouraged the growth of confessional parties, like the Kataib and Najjadah, to counteract the rising popularity of the SNP, and kept a tight watch on Sa’adeh. In the last week of February, 1937, government security forces clashed with the party at a political rally in the Lebanese mountain town of Bekfeyya. In retaliation, the government arrested Sa’adeh for a third time on a charge of inciting the people against public order. He was released after giving the authorities an undertaking similar to the one obtained earlier by the Prime Minister.
After the Bekfeyya incident, a general truce was called, and Sa’adeh was allowed, for the first time, to issue a newspaper and to speak more openly about his political views. In his newspaper, an-Nahda, Sa’adeh shifted to a confrontational style of politics and took a swipe at all the existing parties and political organizations. The following remark about the Syrian National Bloc, the most powerful organisation at the time, is an ideal example of the style which he developed:
The National Block consists of a group of individual men who had come together in suspicious political circumstances to resist the French mandate [over Syria] nothing more nothing less ... [They are men] of a reactionary and traditional culture, with an old Turkish upbringing, and a superficial understanding of international diplomacy.
For Sa’adeh, the most important issue was Palestine, judging by the number of times he wrote about it. Here, the question of what form his attitude toward Palestine should take was inextricably tied to his desire to see Syria, including Palestine, as a unified and independent country. Sa’adeh insisted that Syrian nationalists had an inherent duty to repel Jewish migration to Palestine. The SNP responded by offering material and moral support to the General Strike of 1936. The SNP also rejected both the recommendations of the King-Crane Report on Palestine and a plan put forward by Nuri Said of Iraq. On both occasions, Sa’adeh urged the international community to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Syrian nation in Palestine.
Sa’adeh’s assertiveness was also evident in the debate over Alexandretta. As with Palestine, he pushed Syria’s national claim to it to the extreme limit. In fact, his persistent hammering of the National Bloc over Alexandretta aroused considerable resentment against the SNP in Syrian political circles. When asked if the National Bloc recognised the SNP as a legitimate political force, Fakhri Berudi replied: “God Forbid! ... The Bloc recognises in Syria only Arab nationalism, for we are Arabs, we were born Arabs, we have lived Arabs and we shall die Arabs.” The two sides eventually became reconciled, but they remained ideologically at odds over many issues.
Although poorly staffed, an-Nahda established Sa’adeh as a prolific writer and a political leader in his own right. But his uncompromising attitude and provocative style were often a discomfort to those around him. Politicians and factions on both sides of the political fence were criticized, but the bulk of his attack was directed at the system of zu’ama clientalism. Much of what he said back then about that system retains its relevance to this day.
After the annexation of Alexandretta by Turkey and the defeat of local forces in the political battle against French mandate in Syria and Lebanon, Sa’adeh launched a massive assault on the status quo. In reaction, the Lebanese government banned an-Nahda and tightened the noose around Sa’adeh’s neck. According to the SNP, the government’s action was part of an elaborate plan to dispose of Sa’adeh, a claim denied by the Lebanese authorities. As a precaution, the Supreme Council in the party advised Sa’adeh to leave the country. First, Sa’adeh hesitated, but when he realised how delicate the situation was, he left clandestinely. Two days later, government security forces raided the headquarters of the SNP, confirming what the party had suspected all along.
The Exile Years: 1938-1947
Sa’adeh fled Lebanon via Palestine and Europe to Brazil, where he was eagerly greeted by “a small but active group of Syrian emigrants.” On the way, he stopped briefly in Rome and Berlin, but did not connect with the Fascist leadership in either city. Nevertheless, the French mandatory authorities judged it as a telltale sign that the SNP was a Fascist organisation, and rounded up its leadership.
Upon his arrival in Brazil, Sa’adeh was briefly detained because of his stopover in Berlin. But he was not indicted and was set free. From Brazil, he set sail for Argentina, where he ran into more troubled waters. Little did he know that soon after he left Syria, the French had sentenced him, in absentia, to twenty years in prison, and a further twenty years in exile. When he tried to renew his visa at the French consulate in Buenos Ares, which, at the time, handled consulate and diplomatic affairs for Syrians and Lebanese, his passport was confiscated. Sa’adeh thus found himself at an impasse: unable to return to Syria or to continue his trip beyond Argentina.
The outbreak of World War II added to his woes. Sa’adeh was immediately cut off from the party and any chance he may have had of sneaking back into Syria was dashed. Worse still, the situation abroad did not hold brighter prospects. Up until his death in 1934, Sa’adeh’s father had been a key symbolic figure of Syrian nationalism in the eyes of the rest of the Syrian community. After his death, political aspirations had tilted toward other nationalistic doctrines, and had become more sectarian. Moreover, the pursuit of personal interest had taken over as the predominant motive of the individual Syrian in the diaspora. Naturally, this made Sa’adeh’s task all the more difficult. One illustration will suffice. In 1939, not long after arriving in Argentina, Sa’adeh was approached by two freelance journalists with an idea to issue a joint newspaper under the title of Suria al-Jadidah. In desperation, he agreed to their request, and with his wealth of experience in journalism the newspaper quickly established a name for itself among Arabic readers in South America. But when suddenly the paper changed direction, and began to emphasise a strong pro-Nazi tone for profitable purpose, Sa’adeh was infuriated. He tried hard to maintain the neutrality of the paper but his cries went unnoticed. At that point, after exhausting all avenues for common sense, he dissociated himself and the SNP from the paper.
With the party entirely behind him, Sa’adeh issued another newspaper called al-Zowba’. In its pages, he formulated a new theory of literature and provoked a series of gripping debates with some of the leading poets in the Syrian diaspora “who once were a source of inspiration to him.” Al-Zowba’ also became a vehicle for Sa’adeh’s unique views on religion and secular thoughts which he elucidated in controversy with the “Village Poet.” A recent convert to Islam from Christianity, the “village poet” drew sharp distinctions between Islam and Christianity, provocatively judging Islam as a superior religion for human happiness. Such an attitude promoted sectarian differentiation at the expense of national solidarity and Sa’adeh stood up to it. His reply remains to this day the most extensive literary critique ever written in the history of the Syrian community in South America.
At the end of the Second World, Sa’adeh began to question the validity of his exile. Like many intellectual émigrés, he suffered from what Badawi called “a feeling of exile [and] lack of belonging.” He tried repeatedly to return to Syria but was turned away on technical and bureaucratic grounds. After extensive diplomatic and political bargaining, a breakthrough was finally achieved early in 1947. It is claimed that in giving assent to Sa’adeh’s return, President Khoury of Lebanon has been expected to draw political capital from the SNP in the general elections which were scheduled in May of the same year.
Antun Sa’adeh and the Struggle for Syrian National Independence (1904-1949)
From Conspiracy to Revolution
Sa’adeh arrived in Beirut on the second of March to a monster welcome. He immediately projected himself on the political scene with a fiery speech that rocked the Establishment to its foundations. His remarks about the independence of Lebanon and Syria were particularly contentious. Both the government and Lebanese nationalist groups judged them as distasteful. As a result, earlier hopes of a reconciliation between Sa’adeh and his traditional foes were completely dashed.
Under renewed pressure, the Lebanese government summoned Sa’adeh to appear before the Surete General. On the advice of his advisers, Sa’adeh defied the order and instead retreated to an SNP stronghold in the mountains overlooking Beirut. In the stand-off that followed, both sides displayed their political muscles, until the government backed-off for fear of losing the elections scheduled in May. The SNP took part in those elections but failed to win any seats. In the light of the rigging that took place, Sa’adeh declared the next day that the elections were “a mere exercise to maintain a group of irresponsible and totally individualistic politicians in power:” a comment not taken lightly by the government. Though weakened by its mismanagement of the elections, it suddenly renewed its search for Sa’adeh in the hope of turning public attention away from the rigging controversy. A large reward was offered to anyone who would deliver Sa’adeh to it, “dead or alive.” But the dispute was defused by an SNP-government delegation which persuaded Sa’adeh to pledge, yet again, to uphold the sanctity of the Lebanese entity within its existing borders. Although the pledge failed to meet the President’s demand for “unconditional loyalty,” it served its purpose, and the bickering temporarily died down.
With the authorities off his back, Sa’adeh then set out to overhaul the SNP. The problem inside the SNP was a far-reaching one and the leadership which steered the party during Sa’adeh’s exile was at the centre of it. As Yamak has pointed out, under the collective leadership of the war the policy of the SNP was directed “more toward the domestic problems of independent Lebanon than to the national problem as defined by Sa’adeh.” A senior deputy in the party and a long time companion of Sa’adeh gave the movement for decentralisation an added boost by suggesting that had Sa’adeh founded in 1932 a Lebanese Reform Party in Lebanon and a Syrian Reform Party in Syria, and then steered the two parties in compatible directions, he would have emerged as the undisputed leader in both countries. Not to be outdone, Sa’adeh immediately purged those who dared to question his authority, and then embarked on an intensive process of internal reconstruction. Under his supreme leadership, the SNP switched back to its original format, and was renamed the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP). Sa’adeh also gave the party the first definitive statement of its social philosophy and principles.
Sa’adeh’s re-emergence as the undisputed leader of the SSNP in the course of 1948 was an embarrassing outcome for his political foes who were counting on his demise. In view of the situation in Palestine, and Sa’adeh’s uncompromising attitude toward the Palestinian question, Arab leaders were discomforted by the thought of dealing with a revitalised SSNP. Under the banner “No arms to the Social Nationalists,” they stopped all military weapons from getting to SSNP fighters on the Palestine front for fear that these weapons might be turned against them in the event of defeat. A planned SSNP demonstration against the partition of Palestine was also suspended at the last minute by the Lebanese government much, to Sa’adeh’s disgust. Finally, in a bid to isolate Sa’adeh from public opinion, his newspaper Jil al-Jadid, issued at the turn of 1948, was banned. Indeed, it is claimed that “the idea to get rid of Sa’adeh and the SSNP began to take form about that time, i.e., toward the end of 1948.”
Matters took another turn for the worse after the military coup in Syria in March 1949. News that the coup was masterminded by SSNP officers send cold shivers throughout the Lebanese Establishment. When Husni al-Zaim, the coup leader and a one-time member in the SSNP, announced his first communiqué consisting of words taken from Sa’adeh’s writings, it seemed that the Lebanese government’s worst fears would be realised. Some independent political observers in Lebanon had even suggested a potential link between the coup and an earlier inspection tour of Syrian cities by Sa’adeh.
Sa’adeh, on his part, took a keen interest in Zaim’s coup. He felt “that the new government was trying ... to implement the principles of the [Syrian] national movement, and [a] reform program identical to that of the Syrian National Party.” Privately, however, he reproached military coups as an inadequate last ditch measure. Nonetheless, Sa’adeh held a top level meeting with Zaim, after which they expressed a mutual desire to work more closely with each other. As a token of their new friendship, Zaim presented Sa’adeh with his own private revolver.
The Lebanese government was alerted to the meeting by Adel Arslan, the then foreign minister of Syria. Fearing the worst, Prime Minister Riad Solh called an emergency session of the Security Council (majlis al-amen) in Lebanon and decided to dissolve the SSNP. As a warning to Sa’adeh, a new alliance between the Lebanese Kataib and the Najjadah party was announced under the patronage of Lebanon’s prime minister, Riad al-Solh and the Syrian foreign minister. Subsequently, SSNP offices throughout Lebanon were raided by security forces and harsh new measures were taken against its members in an attempt to persuade them to leave the party. On June 9, the printing press of the party was suddenly attacked by members of the Lebanese Phalange Party, apparently in secret understanding with the security forces. Armed with machine guns and hand grenades, the attackers forced their way into the building and set it alight. In the confusion that followed, several members of the SSNP were injured, but Sa’adeh, who was in the building at the time, escaped unharmed. According to Hisham Sharabi, the Lebanese Gendarmerie arrived belatedly on the scene and arrested the SSNP members instead of the attackers!
Once the government’s complicity in the incident came to light, Sa’adeh took the offensive. Unaware that Zaim was using him as a bargaining tool with Lebanon, a country with which he had been in frequent quarrels since he came to power, he fled under cover of night to Damascus and from there began to plot for the overthrow of the Lebanese government. The Syrian leader offered him political asylum and financial aid, as did King Abdullah of Jordan, who cherished the dream of a United Syria with himself at the helm. The next day, Riad Solh announced that “the government had made all the preparations to dissolve this party [SSNP] and had fixed the deadline for the previous Saturday. But the Jumaizzah incident [burning of the press] which took place the previous Thursday - that is 48 hours before the deadline - forced us to bring the dissolution order forward and to promptly begin the process of purging.”
The First Social Nationalist Uprising
When Sa’adeh arrived in Damascus, President Zaim was busy consolidating his position and combating union movements. To his south was King Abdullah of Jordan, waving the banner of “Greater Syria” and threatening to destroy his new political foundations. To the east was Nuri’s Iraq which “was hesitant, and apparently ... not ready to accept a non-committal agreement.” Further away was Egypt and Saudi Arabia, neither of whom cared very much to see the Hashemites grow stronger, and readily extended recognition and financial aid. Finally, to the west was Lebanon, a country in a no less precarious situation, trying to head-off the Jordanian union scheme. Sa’adeh understood the political enigma which faced the Syrian leader, but underestimated its volatility.
In the next two weeks, events unfolded rather quickly. The unpredictable Zaim, bowing to pressure from Egypt and France, “both of whom were friends of Lebanon and opposed to the Greater Syria scheme advocated by the SSNP,” suddenly switched positions and began to show less interest in Sa’adeh. By siding with Sa’adeh, he was in fact driving the Lebanese Government into the arms of his arch-rival, the Hashemites. According to a British report, Lebanon was willing “to cooperate with Iraq, even to the extent of acquiescing in the Fertile Crescent scheme provided that Iraq was prepared to guarantee the integrity of the Lebanon.” Moreover, in supporting Sa’adeh against the confessional political system in Lebanon, Zaim placed the interest of his own internal government under threat in the event of an SSNP victory. As a reward for switching positions, Zaim was granted a new deal: better economic terms and official recognition by Lebanon.
Sa’adeh had become a bit doubtful of Zaim soon after the latter’s election to the presidency of the Syrian Republic on June 25. He had asked Zaim’s political adviser, Subri Qubani, to arrange a meeting between them after the elections, but was bluntly turned down on the ground that the President did not want to create a new crisis with Lebanon after it had released of Akram Tabarra (a Syrian officer who shot an Israeli agent inside its territory) and after Lebanon’s recognition of his government. By now, Zaim was besieged on all fronts: by Riad Solh of Lebanon, tempting him with an economic treaty in exchange for Sa’adeh; by King Farouk of Egypt, who was opposed to any sort of unity in the Fertile Crescent; by various Western powers fearful of any change in the political status of Syria; and by his own prime minister Muhsin al-Barazi, whose hatred of Sa’adeh was well-known. So great was the pressure on Zaim that he asked one of his aides to have Sa’adeh discreetly disposed of, much to Qubani’s disgust.
Despite the volatility of the situation, in early July, 1949 Sa’adeh proclaimed the revolution against the regime in Lebanon. Armed units of the SSNP attacked a number of gendarmerie posts near the Syrian-Lebanese frontiers, in southern Biqa’ (Rachayya and Mashghara) and in the mountains over Beirut. Their mission was to seize weapons before the main contingent, led by Lieutenant Assaf Karam, moved in to occupy those areas. Hisham Sharabi, who was at Sa’adeh’s side, described the mood as follows:
Although Sa’adeh was speaking about the revolution as though it was certain to succeed, still in the statement which he issued just before the proclamation of the revolution he indicated that it was the “first social nationalist revolution”. Was he expecting that the uprising might fail and that it would be followed by a second revolution in the future? Was he discreetly grasping that the revolution was a mere adventure set off by despair and that it was very unlikely to succeed? I believe that he did indeed understand all of that. But, nonetheless, he did not reveal any worry. He kept on speaking in a very confident way and laughing merrily, as though he did not have a worry in the world.
However, things quickly went horribly wrong. The SSNP units that engaged Gendarmerie posts seized only a few weapons and were outnumbered by a larger and better-equipped force. In view of the large number of SSNP members thought to be hiding in the Lebanese village of Bshamoun, a special task force was sent there to prevent them from linking up with the rebels. “In the ensuing engagement, the officer commanding the force, Captain Tewfik Chamoun, was killed. Several members of the SSNP were injured and considerable numbers arrested.” It soon became apparent that the Lebanese Government was being alerted in advance of SSNP movements through Muhsin al-Barazzi, who passed the information to his brother-in-law Riad Solh in Lebanon.
Within less than forty eight hours, the uprising was put down. Sa’adeh, who was scheduled to meet Zaim in the Presidential palace at the request of the latter, instead headed toward Jordan by car. At the halfway mark, he ordered his driver to turn back to Damascus. “He judged that escape was useless and decided to make one last stand. When the car got to Damascus, he told Sobhi [his driver] to go straight to the Presidential Palace and ordered Samir [his bodyguard] to take off on foot, and affectionately farewelled him.” When the car entered the Presidential Palace, Sa’adeh was immediately arrested. He was handcuffed and driven in an armoured car to the Syrian-Lebanese borders and handed over to the Lebanese security.
Sa’adeh was not given a fair trial or allowed to defend himself. In less than forty eight hours he was summarily tried by a military tribunal and condemned to death. He was executed in the early hours of July 8 “in a moment of panic” along with six members of the SSNP selected on a confessional basis. The government’s decision to waive normal judicial procedure and the swiftness of Sa’adeh’s execution aroused considerable anger in Lebanon and hinterland Syria, most notably in the pages of their leading newspapers. It would suffice to quote Ghassan Tueiny of An-Nahar: “...by its rash action,” wrote Tueiny, “it [i.e., the Lebanese government] has created a great giant, stronger than Sa’adeh ever was, and has made of him a martyr, not only to his followers but to those who never wished him better than death.”