|Antoun Saadeh, a Christian from Mount Lebanon,
founded the Syrian Social Nationalist Party in 1932
“I was only a child when the Great War broke out in 1914, but I had already begun to perceive and comprehend. The first thing that suddenly occurred to me, having witnessed, felt and actually experienced the affliction of my people, was this question: What was it that brought all this woe to my people?”
So wrote Antoun Saadeh, one of the Arab World’s most prolific nationalists, from prison in 1935.
Born in 1904 in Mount Lebanon, Saadeh’s political philosophy was shaped by the climate in which it developed.
War, plagues, famine
When World War I broke out in 1914, Lebanon’s Ottoman rulers imposed compulsory military service with an extortionate exemption tax that led many into the path of usurers.
Jamal Pasha, the Ottoman envoy who was sometimes referred to as the ‘Butcher’, publicly executed independence activists between 1914 and 1916, while by the end of the war, famine – caused in large part by Ottoman commandeering of food supplies – had killed an estimated 100,000 people in Beirut and Mount Lebanon.
Plagues and an invasion of locusts aggravated the situation as dead – and sometimes barely alive – bodies were piled in the streets for the municipality to cart away.
With the Ottoman defeat in 1918, the Arabs saw their lands divided into French and British ‘zones of influence’ in accordance with the Sykes-Picot accords of 1916.
Lebanon became a French mandate and in September 1920, the frontiers of modern-day Lebanon were re-drawn.
Against this backdrop, Saadeh completed his education and left Lebanon, first for the US, and a year later in 1921, for Brazil, where he joined his father, Khalil Saadeh, a respected Arabic-language journalist.
Saadeh’s political views continued to take form, his concerns revolving around the “chronic political problem that seems to drive my people from one adversity into another, constantly delivering it from a lesser evil to make it an easy pray to a greater one”.
He argued for the creation of a united Syrian nation in the lands that formed historic or Greater Syria – Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Syria and Cyprus. In such a bold proposal, he deviated from traditional Arabists and Lebanese nationalists. He later included Iraq in this desired Syrian nation.
Geography – not language, ethnicity or religion – was the defining characteristic of a nation, according to Saadeh.
He maintained that Syria was historically, culturally and geographically distinct from the rest of the Arab world.
After a brief spell in Damascus, he returned to Beirut in 1932, taking a position at the American University of Beirut.
In the same year, he founded the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP).
As well as proposing the formation of a Greater Syria, the SSNP also posited the complete separation of religion and politics as a fundamental condition for real national unity.
Historian Kamal Salibi suggests that for the Greek Orthodox community, of which Saadeh was a member, “the concept of pan-Syrianism was more meaningful than the concept of Arabism”.
For the first three years of its existence the party operated underground, and when it eventually began overt activity in 1935, Saadeh was repeatedly harassed and imprisoned.
In 1938 he fled to Brazil and then to Argentina.
Revolution and execution
Saadeh returned to Lebanon in 1947, after the country’s independence from France.
In 1949, after the cancellation of legislative elections, the SSNP attempted a coup d’etat.
The revolt failed and Saadeh fled to Syria to meet Husni el-Zaim, the Syrian military dictator who had previously agreed to support him, but el-Zaim handed him over to the Lebanese authorities.
Within 48 hours of being captured, Saadeh and many of his followers were tried by a military court and executed.
Saadeh’s ideas and the party he founded would go on to play an influential role – sometimes revolutionary but predominantly ideological – in the turbulent politics of Lebanon and Syria throughout the course of the 20th century.