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Marc Loris

Lebanon’s Fight For Independence

(January 1944)

From Fourth International, Vol.5 No.1, January 1944, pp.14-16.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

On November 10 the newspapers carried two important news items in regard to French affairs. The first was Giraud’s retirement from his position as chairman of the French Committee of National Liberation in Algiers. With the General went four of the Commissioners who were his supporters in the Committee, leaving de Gaulle sole chairman with an indisputable majority behind him. Giraud’s elimination from the committee marked the final collapse of the set-up arranged by Washington and London beginning with the Darlan deal. After the assassination of Admiral Darlan, Giraud was installed by the American and British governments, but despite this help, he could not conceal the complete vacuum of his regime. A compromise with de Gaulle became unavoidable and last June a new regime was formed, crowned by a committee in which the two factions had equal representation. All these moves and the forces behind, them have been analyzed in previous issues of this magazine. The instability of the new committee was foretold at the time of its formation (Fourth International, July 1943.) Giraud’s departure from the committee marks a new victory for the left bourgeois-democratic tendency which de Gaullism has become, mainly under the pressure of the underground movement in France.

The second news item informed that the Chamber of Deputies of Lebanon had voted for full sovereignty and independence. Lebanon is a small state in the Middle East, the control of which was given to France after the last war, by the League of Nations in the form of a “mandate.” After the departure of the reactionary Giraud did the Algiers Committee, bursting with democracy, undertake to put an end to colonial oppression? If anybody had that illusion, he was to lose it quickly.

The Lebanese Chamber unanimously passed a law to the effect that the French should henceforth have no say in what might or might not be discussed in the Chamber; the Lebanese would have their own flag and Arabic would be the one recognized State language. Immediately after the vote, the French authorities clamped a strict censorship on communications and the press. French police occupied newspaper offices in Beirut, the Lebanese capital. Then Helleu arrived, the delegate of the French National Committee of Liberation (one has to laugh in writing down these words). And his first action, on November 11, was to order the arrest of President Bedhara El-Khoury, Premier Riad Solh and other members of the Lebanese Chamber of Deputies and of the Government. Helleu appointed Idde, “one whom the French can trust,” as “Chief of State.” Such is the irony of history that this Quisling was invested with the exact title that Petain had taken in France.

After Lebanese police refused to obey French orders to suppress protests against the arrests, Senegalese soldiers, whom French imperialism has traditionally used for its dirty work against French workers in strikes and against revolting colonial peoples, fired on demonstrators at Beirut and at Tripoli. Street fighting ensued for several days, with an undisclosed number of victims.

True Visage of Committee

By its actions the French National Committee showed to everybody – even to those who do not want to see – what it really is, namely, a rescue committee of French imperialism. The Gaullists have been fond of speaking of the “new France” of tomorrow that will make a clean sweep of the filth of past French politics. But in the Lebanese affair the Gaullist Committee showed that it has remained true to the imperialist traditions of the Third Republic.

Syria and Lebanon, countries long civilized, were formerly part of the Ottoman empire in which they were relatively autonomous. Lebanon is partly inhabited by a population of Catholic faith, the Maronites, and this was France’s original pretext for showing a special interest in the country. Catholic schools and missions were the carriers of French penetration. During the last war “for democracy” Turkey sided with Germany and in 1916 the British and the French entered into a secret agreement known as the Sykes-Picot treaty, by which they divided the spoils: Palestine and Arabia for the British; Lebanon and Syria for the French. Is it necessary to add that these champions of “democracy” did not even bother to consult the peoples concerned?

After the last war, France swept away the Lebanese national government and moved in. French corporations and banks grabbed all they could. The political regime under the Third Republic became more severe than it had been under the Ottoman empire. The whole operation was juridically sanctioned by the League of Nations which gave Lebanon and Syria to France as a “mandate”.

The history of Lebanon and Syria since then has been one of incessant revolts against the French yoke. In 1925 armed rebellion broke out and for a while it seemed almost successful. But French imperialism managed to crush it, and has since then maintained its rule by a combination of open violence and innumerable promises of independence which have never been fulfilled. Political oppression goes hand in hand with economic exploitation and pillage.

De Gaulle promised independence to Syria and Lebanon in June 1941. And during an official trip in November 1941, General Catroux announced to the Lebanese and Syrian peoples that their independence was coming, although the “how” and the “when” were left in the dark. When de Gaulle failed to keep that promise but instead in November 1943 shot and jailed those who asked for its fulfillment, he simply followed the long tradition of the Third Republic. De Gaulle’s main argument during the crisis was that France had received her “mandate” over Lebanon and Syria from the League of Nations and could not relinquish it except by action of the League of Nations. What the League of Nations is nowadays is hard to say. But if we place ourselves for a moment on this juridical plane, isn’t it clear that de Gaulle made a promise he knew he could not fulfill?

By invoking the sanction of the League of Nations, de Gaulle revealed the hypocritical character of his previous promises of independence, made at a time when his movement was extremely weak and had to marshal support by any means. Moreover, during the twenty years of her “mandate” over Lebanon and Syria, France has many times violated the rules prescribed by the League of Nations for a mandatory power (the establishment of a constitution within a certain time, etc.) These “obligations” had been fixed by the great powers, mainly Britain and France, but France did not even bother to respect them. De Gaulle’s invoking the juridical impossibility of granting independence only reveals the emptiness of the case of French imperialism.

Lebanon is a mountainous country and as such has been a refuge in the past for heretic religious sects. The population of the country is now divided mainly into Maronites, who are Catholics of special denomination, Druses, who have a religion of their own, and Moslems. In past centuries bloody conflicts took place. The French have incessantly played on these religious differences, as the British do in India. But the failure of these intrigues is patently clear in the present crisis. The unity of the nation against French oppression is symbolized by the fact that the jailed President El-Khoury is a Catholic while Premier Sohl is a Moslem.

Immediately after Helleu’s first repressions, both the Maronite Archbishop and the Grand Mufti of Lebanon protested against the French action. A dispatch to the New York Herald Tribune stated on November 16, in the midst of the crisis: “For the first time in many years Moslems and Christians are united against the French.” And, further: “The most interesting aspect of the present disturbances is that members of all religions and sects are united.”

Before the present war the French colonial empire was already out of proportion with France’s economic strength. Defeat has now changed France into a minor power. However, she still formally remains the second greatest colonial empire in the world. This is a very unstable situation.

The prestige of France has greatly suffered from her defeat, creating an objective condition for colonial revolts. The cry for independence heard today in Lebanon will be heard tomorrow in Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria. Three weeks after the Lebanon crisis de Gaulle has felt obliged to grant more civil rights to the Arabs in Algeria. In Morocco French administrators have had to make in recent weeks quite a few promises to the Arabs. Tomorrow promises will not be enough.

The measures taken by the French in Lebanon aroused angry protests throughout the Arabic world. Sympathetic demonstrations were especially vehement in Egypt. War has brought to the Middle East economic disorganization. On tEe other hand, phrases about democracy and freedom have little appeal in countries plundered by those who utter these phrases. And so, the Arabic world has been watching with a growing impatience a war from which it expects nothing. Egypt, for instance, remained neutral while the British and German armies were fighting on her soil.

When Egyptian students demonstrated in the streets of Cairo shouting “We are soldiers of Lebanon!” – this is easy to understand. However, something quite unexpected happened. It soon appeared that Churchill was also ready to fight for Lebanon. Churchill? Yes, Churchill himself, the chief of a government that holds four hundred millions of Indians in political oppression and economic destitution. But didn’t Churchill put Gandhi and Nehru in jail for exactly the same reasons that de Gaulle jailed El-Khoury and Sohl, namely, for asking the independence of their respective countries? In this Lebanon crisis, it is hard to decide where the most disgusting hypocrisy lies: in a de Gaulle, head of a Committee of Liberation, fighting tooth and nail against the independence of Lebanon, or in a Churchill, oppressor of India, proclaiming himself champion of this independence.

On November 12, at the opening of the crisis, the British Foreign Office announced that the British government had protested to French officials in Beirut against their summary measures. The following day the British were reported “ready to act.” The British government made it clear that it was ready to seize control quickly in Lebanon “if necessary,” the Associated Press reported. On November 15 it was reported that the United States had joined Great Britain in making strong representations to the French Committee. On November 17 it was learned from London that “unless the situation is speedily cleared up, it is possible that British military power will intervene.” Churchill was really going to fight for Lebanon’s independence!

British arguments against the French can be reduced to two. First, Lebanon is situated in an area of vital strategic importance. Second, the British government has associated itself with the pledge of independence given by de Gaulle and Catroux to Syria and Lebanon; and, in consequence, the British government has to keep its pledges to the Lebanese in order to maintain British honor throughout the Arabic world.

These arguments are, to say the least, rather strange. The military location of the country was precisely the reason invoked by Britain in India for “postponing” the independence of this nation until after the war. In Lebanon, however, it becomes an argument for immediate independence – from the French. The casuistry of imperialism is very rich indeed. The second argument – that Britain cannot break one of her pledges – can only make us smile if we remember, among many others, the long series of broken pledges to India.

During the last war France and Britain divided the spoils of the Ottoman empire among themselves, but the Middle East and especially Syria and Lebanon became a field of intrigues and a battleground between the British Intelligence Service and the French Deuxième Bureau. Now, with her prestige below par in the Arabic world, Britain is of the opinion that Lebanese independence would be a good concession – the more so since she has in this case no need of giving something of her own. Whether Britain started the crisis by letting the Lebanese leaders know that she would not oppose their move or whether she availed herself of an opportunity not originated by her, it is impossible to say with the information available here. In any event Churchill could not let such an opportunity pass.

There is another reason behind the Anglo-American intervention. The Darlan deal and the Churchill-Roosevelt friction with de Gaulle have tarnished the democratic reputations of these two gentlemen and they are only too eager to show that, after all, de Gaulle was no more of a democrat than they, and perhaps even less. Finally, Anglo-American intervention in the Lebanese crisis is a serious warning to de Gaulle. All the French colonies are now in the power of Anglo-American armed forces. On the morrow their independence can become the object of the solicitude of London and Washington – if de Gaulle, that is, the resurgent French bourgeoisie, is not subservient enough.

When the crisis developed, de Gaulle sent to Beirut General Catroux, a professional colonial administrator, known for his cruel regime in Indo-China. Catroux’s first action was to complain about British interference. He is reported to have said in Beirut on November 19 that “Great Britain should confine its interest in Lebanon to purely military affairs and leave France to deal with political matters.” However, the position of French imperialism is not such that a Catroux could give lessons to Great Britain and on November 21 the French Committee in Algiers approved a settlement involving the immediate release of the arrested president and ministers. They were released and reinstated on November 22. (French troops had been withdrawn from the streets on November 20.)

But the whole situation still remains quite obscure. The crisis had started with the vote of independence by the Lebanese Chamber of Deputies. Was that vote to remain valid or was it nullified? Nothing precise has appeared in the press, and after the bare announcement of the settlement news practically ceased.

What probably happened is that the reinstatement of the nationalist leaders was the beginning of a period of bargaining, with British and American diplomacy active behind the scenes. Formally, the settlement seems like a return to the status quo ante. But exactly which status? The situation preceding the vote by the Lebanese Chamber of Deputies or the one immediately following the vote? This point, which is decisive to the entire question, remains obscure. However, it may be said that a return to the status quo preceding the vote is hardly conceivable. The impotence of the French to act in the present situation has been clearly demonstrated. On the other hand, it is not sure that London and Washington want to damage the prestige of the French too much. Moreover, the Lebanese nationalist leaders have in the past shown more than once, their ability to collaborate with the French. Therefore some new compromise may be reached.

But besides the French, British, American imperialisms and the nationalist leaders, there are other forces. There are the Lebanese masses. Nobody, the British no more than the French, has been eager to mention the participation of the masses in the present crisis, but from a few indications we can measure its extent. On November 21 a dispatch from the Palestine-Lebanon frontier states that:

“The general strike in Lebanon is reported to be continuing today, the twelfth day in all the large towns. Only a few foreign commercial establishments are not affected.”

“The twelfth day” means that the general strike broke out immediately after the vote for independence. On November 22 a dispatch from Cairo, reporting the releasing of the President, and the Premier, added: “Strikes are continuing.” Since then no news has been forthcoming.

The problem of the immediate future of Lebanon may be clarified a little if we look at what has just taken place in Syria. The crisis in Lebanon had immediate repercussions in neighboring Syria. On November 30 the Syrian Chamber of Deputies voted to rid the Constitution of Article 116. This article is the only one which refers to France. It gives the French authorities the right to veto any bill proposed by the Chamber of Deputies. The vote to abolish Article 116 took place a few days .after Catroux’s visit – on his way back from Beirut to Algiers – to Damascus, Syria’s capital, and was not followed by any reaction on the part of the French. Under these circumstances the vote would indicate that the political grip of the French has been broken and that Syria and Lebanon are henceforth politically independent, no matter what formal gestures may be taken in order to save the prestige of France.

This is the most favorable hypothesis allowed by the complete and strange lack of news since the announcement of the settlement and the extreme vagueness of the news of the settlement itself. The precarious character of such independence is obvious. It may disappear at the end of this war as it disappeared after the last war. But even if Lebanon and Syria can keep their political independence, French investments – in banks, railroads, port facilities and utilities – remain. Tomorrow British and especially American investments will increase. The fate of these countries is foretold by Irak. Irak was a “mandate” given by the League of Nations to Great Britain in the same way as Lebanon and Syria were given to France. Subsequently Irak became politically independent, but, held in the grip of British imperialism, cannot escape from economic poverty. The national independence of the people of the Middle East is only a stage in their fight against imperialism. This struggle cannot be carried to the end by the native bourgeoisie. The young proletariat of these countries, in alliance with the workers of the great imperialist powers, can alone break the grip of imperialism that keeps the whole Middle East in stagnation and misery.

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