Obituary: Suleiman Franjieh

Robert Fisk
Thursday 23 July 1992 23:02 BST

Suleiman Franjieh, statesman, born Zghorta northern Lebanon 15 June 1910, elected deputy in Lebanese parliament 1960, President of Lebanon 1970-76, died Beirut 23 July 1992.

SULEIMAN FRANJIEH was a vengeful old man. He had much to be vengeful for. All the old cliches applied to him: Christian warlord, mafioso, militia strongman, grief- stricken father, corrupt president, mountain baron and, eventually, a thoughtful, intelligent, rather frightening old man, living out his last years beside the lions of Ehden, still hinting that he might yet again stand for president.

He had more blood on his hands than most Lebanese politicians. He was popularly believed to be responsible for the deaths of around 700 men and women, 20 of them Christians shot to death during a requiem mass in the north Lebanese town of Miziara, when Franjieh attacked the rival Douaihi clan at prayer. His daughter always indignantly denied that he had fired a shot - he was directing the attack, she said, from behind a church pillar.

When a single vote appeared to be about to prevent his presidential election in 1970, Franjieh stormed towards the Speaker of the parliament, carrying a pistol and shouting: 'You can't pull that one on me]' The outgoing president, Charles Helou, warned the Speaker that every member of parliament would probably be murdered if there was a recount; so Franjieh was declared president.

Ruthless men tend to suffer, especially in Lebanon. So it was with Franjieh. When he refused to accept the growing Christian Phalangist relationship with Israel in 1977, Bashir Gemayel sent his gunmen up to Ehden to destroy the young son - a possible future president - in whom Franjieh had placed all his political hopes. Bashir's men entered Tony Franjieh's home at night, forced him and his wife to watch the shooting of their three-year-old daughter, then forced Tony to watch the execution of his wife. Then they killed him, too. Suleiman ordered their coffined bodies to remain unburied in the family chapel until his desire for vengeance has been satisfied. 'I hope Bashir's father one day feels what I now feel,' Suleiman told me. He had his wish. When five years later Bashir - himself now president-elect - was crushed to death in a bomb explosion, Suleiman Franjieh could not control his delight, telling me his only sorrow was that he had not been responsible for the murder.

He had grown up in the shadow of his more successful brother Hamid, who had become Foreign Minister under the French mandate in 1939. Suleiman was Hamid's election agent but earned his keep as a ship-chandler in Beirut, commuting down from the mountains above Tripoli each day because he could not afford to take board and lodgings in the capital. As Jonathan Randal recalls in his account of the Christian wars in Lebanon, Franjieh was also the local mafia leader, arranging the deaths of anyone who crossed the family, even if his behaviour ultimately prevented Hamid from becoming president. Hamid suffered a stroke shortly after the church slaughter and Suleiman fled to northern Syria, where he was reportedly befriended by a young Syrian air force officer called Hafez al-Assad. Although he may not have known it then, Franjieh's career towards the presidency had begun.

His election in 1970 was a quick fix by the zoama - the traditional family 'leaders' in Lebanon - who wished to prevent Elias Sarkis, Charles Helou's technocrat favourite, from becoming president. Franjieh's rule was spectacular, tragic and corrupt. He gave ministries to his friends and installed his son Tony as Minister of Posts and Telecommunications. Under Tony's supervision, the country's postal system virtually collapsed. The mayor of Franjieh's local town of Zghorta was made director at the Ministry of Information. Another close friend became army chief of staff. When Saeb Salam refused to be premier in a later administration unless Tony was fired, Franjieh chose another prime minister who agreed to keep the son and heir in his post.

Within a year of becoming president, Franjieh faced the country's first serious military challenge. Palestinian guerrillas who had entered Lebanon after their defeat at the hands of King Hussein began to use southern Lebanon as a base for attacking northern Israel and set up their headquarters in Beirut.

Franjieh's administration was too weak to control the PLO and too inept to prevent the inevitable breakdown into civil war in 1975. With the Christian mountain heartland almost surrounded by Palestinian and Lebanese leftist militias, one of Suleiman Franjieh's last acts as president in 1976 was to ask his old friend President Assad to send the Syrian army into Lebanon to save the Christians and restore order.

They are still in Lebanon to this day. 'I never thought they would stay so long,' Franjieh admitted ruefully to me two years ago. He had made the Syrians official protectors of the Christian Maronites, a relationship which was to cost much blood in the years to come and to bring about - as it has today - a Christian Maronite presidency almost totally subservient to the wishes of Damascus.

Franjieh's friendship with Syria never broke. Surrounded by his Marada (Giants) militia, he would welcome Syrian delegations to his palace above Tripoli and invariably praise their role as guarantors of Lebanon's independence. Inevitably, Franjieh's greatest enemies could be found among his fellow Christians, for the self-destruction of Lebanon's Christian community is one of the country's saddest characteristics. Perhaps it was the old feuding Crusader blood - frozen in the veins of the mountain Maronites who had given their support to the knights of France so long ago - that doomed them. The Franjiehs can trace their lineage back to that time - the 'Franj' or 'Franks' was how the Arabs described the Crusaders; even the hated Douaihi family could claim its name from the Crusader knights of Douai in northern France.

But families rarely die out in Lebanon. The zoama survive. Franjieh lived just long enough to know that his grandson, another Suleiman, had been appointed a minister in the new Lebanese government.

(Photograph omitted)

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