The "conscience of Lebanon" is a grand title. Etienne Sakr was a minor Lebanese militia leader who founded the Guardians of the Cedars (Hurraas al-Arz). He is better known by his nom de guerre, Abu Arz, Father of the Cedar, the cedar being both Lebanon's national symbol and the name of his son. He is best known for having allied his militia with Israel during its long occupation of southern Lebanon. In whose eyes, then, is he the conscience of Lebanon? In Mordechai Nisan's, the author of this hagiography, whose political sympathies have blinded him to Lebanese realities.
Nisan believes that no Lebanese had a more compelling vision for a truly independent Lebanon and no one was more selfless and uncompromising in his pursuit of that vision than Etienne Sakr. Sakr's Lebanon was to include all Lebanese, regardless of religion or sect and "free of all foreign forces and alien ideologies" (p. 33). Specifically, it was to be free of Palestinians and of Syrian influence and at peace with Israel. According to Nisan, Sakr was unable to realize his vision because his closest allies abandoned him. First, during the 1980s he fell out with many of his fellow right-wing Lebanese Christian militia leaders, who, Nisan argues, allowed their personal ambitions to undermine the cause of Lebanese "independence." Second, Israel withdrew its army of occupation, which had armed and worked with anti-Syrian and anti-Palestinian forces in southern Lebanon. Sakr's Guardians of the Cedars and the renegade South Lebanon Army were left without protection from Syrians and from their fellow Lebanese. As a result, Sakr and others like him took refuge in Israel. He has lived there ever since.
Sakr was born in 1937 into a Maronite family in a village close to the Lebanese frontier with Palestine and therefore far from the Maronite enclave in Mount Lebanon. His large family belonged to the provincial middle class. Sakr completed his secondary education at the Carmelite Brothers School in Beirut and began his career at age seventeen in government intelligence and security work.
From the mid-1950s until 1970, Sakr worked all over Lebanon and at the presidential palace, where he tried to counter Arab-nationalist ideas and influence. His experiences in this period shaped his strategic thinking about Lebanon's future. So did his relationship in the late 1960s with the maverick Lebanese poet and ideologue Sa id Aql, who gave coherence to Sakr's growing fears about Lebanon's openness, especially to the Palestinian resistance movement. Sakr and several other like-minded Lebanese Christians formed a political salon in East Beirut, where they debated how to purify Lebanon of what they defined as foreign elements within the framework of Aql's hostile view of Arabism and the Arabic language.
The Guardians of the Cedars party emerged indirectly from the Beirut salon and owed its ascent to the outbreak of the Lebanon war in 1975. Nisan sees eye to eye with Sakr on the causes of that war and its prolongation: both blame foreign intervention and especially the Palestinian resistance and the Syrians. Nisan clearly does not regard Israel as a major contributor to the escalating violence in Lebanon, and he makes no effort to understand the domestic Lebanese social and economic conflicts that helped to spark and extend the war for nearly two decades.
Nisan bases his study mainly on interviews with Sakr and some of his party comrades who also took refuge in Israel. There is no sense that he systematically questioned Sakr or checked his interpretation of key events against those of other participants. He makes only sparing use of published secondary works on the war for Lebanon. Given the fawning quality of Nisan's biography, the specialist will not find probing analysis or even a reasonably complete record of Sakr's thoughts about and activities during the war.
What Nisan chooses to neglect or treat as inconsequential is quite astounding. For instance, he barely mentions the 1982 massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila in Beirut by Lebanese right-wing militias. Nor does he mention Israeli complicity in these events, except to write that Sakr found no reason for Israel to blame itself for what happened. In contrast, Nisan catalogues Lebanese leftist, Palestinian, and Syrian atrocities against Lebanese Christians, and the book's only appendix is titled, "The Massacres and Crimes Committed by the Palestinians and the Syrians against the Lebanese (1975-1990)."
Perhaps the most revealing parts of the book are those that deal with Sakr's relations with other right-wing Lebanese leaders. Nisan points out that the odds were against Sakr's rising to the top of the rightist hierarchy because he did not inherit the family connections or wealth of the Gemayels and Chamouns. He was more like Elie Hobeika, Samir Geagea, Fady Frem, and other right-wing Lebanese Christian militia leaders. And although Nisan does not intend it, he provides the reader with a fairly clear sense that the demise of the Lebanese right had as much to do with the competing political ambitions and internecine rivalries of its various leaders as it did with Syrian military intervention. And while there seems little doubt that Sakr's Robin Hood-like qualities and uncompromising stance vis-à-vis the Palestinians and Syrians endeared him to Lebanese sympathetic to the right, his long-term collaboration with Israel irreparably damaged his reputation.
Nisan writes about Lebanon in terms of what he believes is good for Israel; he considers Sakr good for Israel and Israel's military withdrawal from Lebanon foolhardy. Such a judgment suggests ignorance of the crucial factors behind Israel's decision to withdraw-in particular, the fracturing of the Israeli consensus built around "self-defense," which the occupation of Lebanon did not fit, and the rise of Hezbollah and its success in guerrilla warfare against Israeli forces in southern Lebanon. This book is not a systematic work of scholarship. Nor does it make a contribution to knowledge.
The Conscience of Lebanon: A Political Biography of Etienne Sakr
(2003, Frank Cass, 209 pages).
Reviewer: Philip Khoury