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Syria and Lebanon Syria and Lebanon

In early 1926, French Mandate High Commissioner Jouvenel appointed a constitutional committee for Lebanon. The four members included three pro-French Christians, and one pro-French Muslim. In October 1927, the Administrative Council ratified the constitution, and codified the existence of the Lebanese Republic. Lebanon was to be legally dominated by Christians, and permanently and irrevocably separate from Syria. It would have a seventeen-member Chamber of Deputies (formerly the Administrative Council) and an elected president, subordinate to the High Commissioner. General Gouraud and Robert de Caix had created the Administrative Council by decree in September 1920, when they announced the existence of Greater Lebanon, and following their sectarian electoral plan.

The council was organized by religion and locale and Gouraud appointed its first fifteen members. Beirut received three seats: one Greek Orthodox, one Sunni Muslim, and one Maronite or other minority Christian. Muslims received a total of five seats, divided between Shici, Sunni, and one Druze. The remaining ten seats were reserved for Maronites (five or six), Greek Orthodox (four), and Greek Catholic (one).2 Mass protests and attacks on the French presence followed both the 1922 decree, and the ratification of the constitution, and led to the expansion of the Chamber of Deputies by two seats set aside for Muslims, to bring the total to seventeen, and a 58 percent Christian domination, instead of 66 percent.3 After 1922 the Chamber was partly elected.

In 1920, General Gouraud had ignored the existing Ottoman Administrative Council and appointed his own council. The Ottoman state had arranged the special administrative district of Mount Lebanon after local conflict and French and British intervention in 1860. The Ottoman administration had included a Christian governor, always originating from outside Lebanon, and a loose representative structure in which each district was supposed to be represented on the Administrative Council by a member of the “dominant sect.” Modifications could be made, and in practice the representatives came from the leading families of the districts.4

The members of the last pre-war Administrative Council resented their exclusion from the mandate council and objected strongly to the mandate. Seven of the twelve members wrote a petition to the League of Nations. They protested against the expansion of Lebanon, the French Mandate, and the denial of the full independence they felt they deserved. Among the signatories were the most prominent Christians in the country, including Saadallah Hoyek, the brother of the Maronite

Patriarch, Elias Hoyek, and leading pro-French figure, who was sometimes called the “father of Lebanon.”5 The Lebanese constitution and the hardening of mandate arrangements it signified provoked a reaction among regional politicians.

In October 1927, fifteen ex-Ottoman civilian politicians and lawyers, from most of the major cities of Ottoman Syria, met in Beirut to plan a program to oppose the mandates, and demand representation. They couched their demands in terms of the “necessity of collaboration and the reciprocity of interests” in running the country.6 Their meeting and reappraisal led to the emergence of the National Bloc (al-Kutla al-Wataniyya), which became the leading political configuration in Syria between 1928 and independence in 1946. Ibrahim al-Hananu had managed to stay out of jail during the 1925 7 Revolt and came from Aleppo to attend the meeting. Homs politician Hashim al-Atasi, like Hananu, a graduate from the Imperial Maktab-i Mulkiye administrative academy and former Ottoman governor, also attended, as did Damascus lawyer Faris al-Khuri. The Bloc leaders termed their strategy “honorable cooperation.”

Events in Iraq had made an impression on High Commissioner Ponsot. The British Mandate government seemed to have achieved its goals in Iraq by negotiation and treaty. Ponsot appointed a new Syrian prime minister to preside over elections for a seventy-member Constituent Assembly. Among the jobs of the new assembly would be the drafting of a Syrian constitution, and approving a treaty with France. The elections proceeded smoothly, and the new National Bloc dominated in Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo. French intelligence had recruited rural notables to run in the districts outside the urban areas, and while the rural representatives were more numerous, making up about two-thirds of the assembly, they were outclassed by Ottoman-educated urban nationalists, who were already veteran politicians.7 The High Commissioner considered the rural deputies his “moderate majority.”

High Commissioner Ponsot gambled on elections and then gambled that the constitution could be written without interference in a way acceptable to France. The plan failed when prominent nationalists and ex-Ottoman politicians were elected to head the assembly. Hashim al-Atasi became the president of the assembly, and Ibrahim Hananu became the head of the constitutional committee. Hananu’s committee and its three experienced legal scholars produced the constitution quickly, but it was not acceptable to France, and the French press attacked Ponsot with enthusiasm.8 Rustum Haydar, Nuri al-Sacid, and Yasin al-Hashimi visited Damascus ostensibly as representaives of King Faysal to investigate if France might want to consider the services of a friendly king. But Yasin visited his old friends and nationalist colleagues also, probably to quietly explore the possibility of an Arab republic joining Iraq and Syria.9

The troublesome constitution should not have been a surprise to the French. The drafters stipulated that Syria would be a parliamentary republic governed by a single assembly elected every four years by universal adult male suffrage. It guaranteed equality of citizens of all religions, but stipulated that the president must be a Muslim. Secularleaning ex-Ottoman nationalists did not favor any mention of religion, but the drafters, one of the three of whom was Protestant law professor, Faris al-Khouri, considered it necessary to preserve majority popular support for the process.10 The constitution declared that Syria included all the regions under mandate except Iraq, and was indivisible. The Syrian republic should have its own army. The president could conclude treaties, receive ambassadors, grant pardons and amnesties, and declare and suspend martial law. The president had the power to dismiss the assembly, but was required to call new elections if he did so. The British consul expected the assembly to vote Ibrahim Hananu first president of the republic. High Commissioner Ponsot warned the assembly that the constitution was unacceptable to France, but the assembly voted to accept the draft constitution as written anyway. In response, Ponsot dismissed the assembly for a period of three months in August 1928. He extended the closure thereafter, and closed the assembly indefinitely in February 1929.11

In summer 1930 Ponsot signed decrees enacting the Syrian and Lebanese constitutions. Amended to the Syrian document was a final 116th article that rendered the Syrian constitution meaningless: France had the right to determine, in all cases, if the constitution violated its “rights and obligations” as mandatory power. Mandate prerogative overrode the constitution at the will of the High Commissioner. A petition to the League of Nations noted that the constitution in its final form was an imposed document, that it left no authority to the Syrians, and that it merely dressed up conditions of military occupation. Sultan al-Atrash sent a telegram to the League of Nations from exile in Transjordan. The imposed constitution had “shattered Syria’s sacred unity,” he wrote.12

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