There are few within the Lebanon political establishment who deserve the designation of statesman, as the vast majority of Lebanon’s so-called political elite has proven to be incorrigible and beyond salvation. One such rare man of honor was the former speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, President Hussein el-Husseini, who passed away today at the age of 86 -- leaving behind him a legacy of sectarian conciliation and a political career that summarizes the country’s post-war (1975-1990) resurrection and subsequent downfall.
A scion of one of the most prominent Shia families of Lebanon’s Bekaa region, President Husseini was a public servant all his life. He initially served as mayor of his ancestorial village, Shumstar, at the tender age of 18, before entering Parliament in 1972, which made him a junior member of Lebanon’s last elected Parliament before the outbreak of the civil war in 1975. A decade later, in 1984, President Husseini was elected Speaker of Parliament.
President Husseini’s greatest service to his country as Speaker came in 1989 to end the Lebanese civil war under the Saudi-brokered factional peace talks held in the Saudi Arabian city of Taif, where the surviving members of the 1972 parliament met under the patronage of the late King Fahad, the Arab League and the international community.
There, the parliamentarians under President Husseini’s direction helped bring fifteen years of bloody factional warfare to an end with a new power-sharing formula, later known as the Taif agreement. As the Godfather of Taif, as he would later be known, President Husseini became the guardian of the Lebanese Constitution and the rule of law and an ardent voice for the need to implement the Taif agreement in word and deed.
Yet it is unfair to limit President Husseini’s colossal legacy to Taif. This soft-spoken yet decisive figure played a central role in the founding of Lebanon’s Amal Movement alongside the Iranian-born Shia cleric Sayed Moussa al-Sadr, who served as its President. President Husseini would later fill the position of President of Amal after Sadr was abducted along with two of his aides during a trip to Libya in August of 1978, apparently at the behest of the Iranian dictator Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei, who feared al-Sadr’s charisma and could not abide the idea of a Shia force in the region operating independently of Iran.
Despite his high standing among Lebanon’s Shia, President Husseini did not fit the profile of the local warlord/politician favored by regional actors seeking loyal proxies within the country. He was replaced as head of Amal by the regime of Hafez al-Assad, which preferred Nabih Berri, a more unscrupulous and compromising figure. Berri would also replace President Husseini as speaker of Parliament in 1992, a position which Berri ironically still holds till this day.
After stepping down as speaker, President Husseini continued to play a vital role as a legislator and a yardstick for proper constitutional practices, something which vexed the political establishment whose wheeling and dealing contradicted the culture which President Husseini championed throughout his political career. In 2008, President Husseini was forced out of Parliament by the hegemonic Shia duo of the Amal Movement -- which he helped found -- and the Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah, who, after the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005, was no longer willing to accommodate President Husseini’s moderation and his propensity to shun violence. The country’s corrupt oligarchs accused President Husseini and his generation of being too idealistic and naïve. They underscored the point that the Taif was nothing more than a façade for Hafez al-Assad’s hegemony over Lebanon and its resources. This position cynically redirected blame from themselves to the man in the country who least deserved it.
Until his passing, President Husseini never missed a chance to remind the Lebanese that for their country to regain its footing, it needed to prepare a road toward a civil state governed by proper constitutional institutions that skilled civil servants would run. Though President Husseini’s vision of the Taif republic was never fulfilled in his lifetime, his name and legacy live on in the voices of those who took to the streets in the October Revolution of 2019 to demand reform, dignity and sovereignty for Lebanon.