The Politics of Frustration: The Failed Coup of 1961
Reviewer: William Harris
Beshara provides a thorough, well-documented account of a curious punctuation in Lebanon's modern history-the attempt by the small Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), in cooperation with sympathetic middle rank army officers, to overthrow the regime of President Fouad Chehab on the night of December 31, 1961. The SSNP, founded by the Orthodox Christian Antun Sa'adeh in Beirut in 1932, aimed to combine the new states of the Levant into a Greater Syria; accordingly, he opposed both Arab nationalism and Lebanese sectarian politics. The SSNP gained enough adherents and was sufficiently well organized to make intermittent assertions in Lebanon and Syria in the 1940s and 1950s, though it lacked the public following necessary to make its ambitions realistic. Out of frustration, it became increasingly radicalized, looking to its paramilitary wing, its links with army officers, and strong-arm tactics to compensate for limited popular weight.
Beshara, a historian at the University of Melbourne, has closely examined the SSNP and Syrian nationalist ideology. He here deploys his formidable knowledge of both the party and the Lebanese political environment of the time to place the 1961 coup attempt in a wider context. He investigates the SSNP's emergence as a significant armed backer of President Camille Chamoun in the 1958 confrontation between the Lebanese regime and Nasserite Arab nationalism. He then charts the SSNP's drift into hostility to the regime as the new president, former army commander Fouad Chehab, sought to pacify Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt and the mainly Muslim Arab nationalists in Lebanon by updating rather than eroding the country's sectarian political system. In particular, Beshara includes an excellent study of the army's position in Lebanese political life and the increasing distaste of some younger officers for Chehab's political predilections, authoritarian tendencies, and manipulation of the military intelligence apparatus. The SSNP and the disaffected officers gravitated together and dreamed up a scheme to remove Chehab and transform Lebanon in defiance of the actual balance of forces in the country.
Beshara's detailed, balanced dissection of the incompetence of the coup attempt, the mixing of judicial fairness and casual brutality in the regime's response, and the underlying strength of pluralist, confessional politics tells a great deal about Lebanon's distinctiveness in the Arab world. His analysis of the subsequent evolution of the SSNP, as it changed from a rightist to a leftist orientation with entirely new allies in reaction to prolonged regime hounding, is a good illustration of the more general twisting and turning in the Lebanese pressure-cooker. The SSNP began the 1960s in alignment with Camille Chamoun and ended the decade at the opposite end of the spectrum with Kamal Junblatt. Finally, Beshara's information on the Lebanese army's interface with civilian affairs is useful background material for anyone interested in President Emile Lahoud's "security regime."