Hussein el-Husseini, who leaves us at 86 years old, belonged to that rare class of Lebanese political leaders who refused to safeguard their top positions by bloodying their hands. From the moment he entered the parliament in 1972 until he left it many years later, he never compromised on his unwavering principles, not even – or perhaps especially – when he became Speaker. Until the last day of his long political career, el-Husseini remained true to his principles and his golden motto: “Lebanon comes first,” resisting all the temptations that came with his political career. Even the highest positions meant little to him if not leveraged in the service of Lebanon and the Lebanese of all sects, in a stark contrast to the religious and sectarian silo mindset that dominates the country.
Born into a respected Shia family, Hussein el-Husseini was one of the few Lebanese politicians who always refused Lebanon’s subordination to foreign powers. He had some friends in Damascus, but never accepted to be a pawn in Syria’s hands. This cost him the leadership of the Amal Movement, which he refused to drag into the vortex of the Lebanese civil war and the War of the Camps with Palestinians. He denounced all wars in Lebanon, always advocating for dialogue among the Lebanese, believing that reaching a solution that safeguards coexistence is not impossible. For that, he was removed as Speaker of the Parliament, a position he had held between October 1984 and October 1992.
I once asked former Prime Minister Rafik el-Hariri why el-Husseini’s political influence was undercut in 1992. El-Hariri, the great man who had revived Beirut and put Lebanon on the map again but paid dearly for it, only had these words to answer: “Hussein el-Husseini was a victim of injustice.” He perhaps believed that less is more when talking of a man who played a starring role in reaching the Taif Agreement. In fact, alongside el-Hariri himself and Saudi Prince Saud bin Faisal, el-Husseini was one of the godfathers of the Taif Agreement, the deal that put an end to the Lebanese infighting without really ending it.
The stumbling block on the agreement’s path was the Syrian regime. Damascus refused the essence of the Taif Agreement and wished to keep not only a tight grip on Lebanon’s political life, but also an open wound in Lebanon’s South to pawn that region in its own interests. Hussein el-Husseini’s refusal of these Syrian whims was in harmony with his and his comrade Musa al-Sadr’s belief that political figures must represent all of Lebanon, not a particular sect.
The former Speaker had close ties to Saeb Salam, Takieddin al-Solh, and Raymond Eddeh, all of whom became victims of political assassination for their belief in the idea of Lebanon and refusal of external dependency. But perhaps most prominently, al-Husseini held the ideals of Musa al-Sadr close to heart.
Al-Sadr had always advocated for unity between Lebanon’s Christians and Muslims, and his attempts to save Lebanon were one of the reasons why, on a visit to Libya in August 1978, Muammar Gaddafi got rid of him. Nonetheless, the decision to make al-Sadr vanish was never a pure Libyan decision: Syria and the developments in Iran at the time also had a say in the Shia leader’s disappearance. Damascus feared that al-Sadr would keep the South safe from the armed chaos Syria was so adamant to perpetuate, exploiting both the South and the Palestinian fida’iyin, who had mastered the art of violent chaos, to this end. Al-Sadr was also projected to play an important role in Iran as the country stood at the cusp of the Shah regime’s fall, as eventually did happen in February 1979.
Hussein el-Husseini was not too far from the Iranian Revolution himself, but not only through his association with Musa al-Sadr. El-Husseini was personally close to the Freedom Movement of Iran, a group of elite intellectuals and politicians who opposed the Shah regime and adopted a modern rhetoric that believes in a modern constitution for Iran. Its members were removed one after the other when the Revolution against the Shah ended with Ayatollah Khomeini rising to power and imposing a regime tailored to fit his interests based on the Wali al-Faqih theory under the name of the “Islamic Republic of Iran”.
Today, as Lebanon bids eternal farewell to Hussein el-Husseini, the country mourns a part of its identity that was lost with the man. Two particularly memorable stances stand out in his long political career. On August 12, 2008, an exasperated el-Husseini announced his resignation from the parliament in a speech he made during a vote of confidence session. A decade later, even after having formed a list of candidates in the Baalbek-Hermel constituency, he announced in a statement his withdrawal from the 2018 legislative elections, confirming his abandonment from the political scene altogether. Several of the candidates on his list had good chances to be elected to the parliament that year, but he found there was no place for a normal political life in a country where the constitution is “torn apart” every day. The significance of these two milestones lies in that they show the despair that had taken over the former Speaker.
El-Husseini was a real Sayyid, not one who derives his power from sectarian, Iran-backed military power. A unifying force for all the Lebanese, Hussein el-Husseini remained tied to Lebanon, his native land where he was born and raised and then raised his children to create deep connections with their compatriots no matter their sect, religion, or region. His traditional Lebanese family is a model in embracing coexistence and civilized perspectives, as should Lebanon be in its Arab surroundings, and as should his native hometown of Baalbek be – that city that Hussein el-Husseini worked hard to serve and develop but is now but an illustration of Lebanon’s misery, despair, and chaos, unfortunately.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, Asas Media.