Lebanon is facing its highest level of popular discontent in a decade following years of government inaction, one of the country’s worst economic crisis, and a massive explosion that destroyed large swaths of the capital. Mass protests have united many Lebanese in opposition of the country’s most influential political groups. While protesters’ demands remain unanswered, reformers within one of the country’s oldest parties have managed to largely wrest control from longstanding party heads.
The Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (SSNP), founded as a secular political organization, initially made the anti-establishment and anti-sectarian politics called for by protesters the bedrock of its identity. At its inception, the party’s creator, Antoun Saadeh, rallied against colonial influences in the region and called for the establishment of a state of Greater Syria, comprising several countries in the region, including Lebanon. In recent years, the SSNP has played a marginal role in Lebanese politics, dismissed by many as a fascist group. Despite its underpinnings the party has remained quietly on the sidelines of the country’s recent political upheaval. Internally, however, divisions have been widening as younger members seek to both modernize the party and return to the ideological roots established by its founder.
“Our main problem is deviating from the [SSNP] constitution and ideology of Antoun Saadeh, which led to crises in the party.”
“Our main problem is deviating from the [SSNP] constitution and ideology of Antoun Saadeh, which led to crises in the party,” Nassir Al-Rammah told Inside Arabia. In 2016, Al-Rammah and other party members founded the July Eighth Movement, named after the 1949 day in which Saadeh was assassinated. July Eighth has gained notoriety within the party, strongly criticizing its management and applying pressure for a change of direction. July Eighth, and other reformists, believe that the party has become too invested in its own power, mired in Lebanese politics, and has even levied allegations of corruption against former president Assad Hardan.
In conversation with Inside Arabia, Chris Solomon, author of the forthcoming book “In Search of Greater Syria: The History and Politics of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party,” stated that the July Eighth Movement is one of the factors that resulted in the dislocation of old guard political elites within the SSNP. On September 20, 2020, the party’s main faction in Lebanon held elections for its Higher Council, the party’s uppermost legislative body. The results bolstered the power of the reformists within the party who gained seats and influence. Higher Council member Hassan Sakr estimates that the majority of members are now advocates for reform or support a change in direction.
“We had a vision and a plan for the future for our party and we ran for the [Higher Council] elections based on this vision and plan and basically the voters chose the new blood,” Sakr told Inside Arabia. “We understand the position because at the end of the day people thought, what did the old leadership do?”
“I think the whole revolution in Lebanon did not have any results except in the SSNP because we’re ready for change.”
Among the first and most pressing issues that faced the new Higher Council related to the control of the presidency. On October 14, 2020, the Council voted to elect a new party president, settling on Rabi Banat. SSNP members eager for change hope that Banat, at only 43 with a PhD in Economics from the University of Grenoble, France, will at last address their concerns over the party’s direction. “I think the whole revolution in Lebanon did not have any results except in the SSNP because we’re ready for change,” Sakr attested. “Our mindset is made for change the whole rest of the revolution did [not] make any change because you cannot [create] change in sectarian parties or family-owned parties. When a party is family owned you can only leave the family, but you cannot [cause] change in the party.”
But not everyone has been happy with the SSNP’s recent shift in leadership. Perhaps none are more disaffected than former president Assad Hardan, who has built a devoted following within the party and served as president between 2008 and 2016. Yet, to reformers, Hardan has come to symbolize the status-quo policies of the establishment that they hope to overturn. Party members also told Inside Arabia that Hardan had pressed to change the party’s constitution so that he could run for a third presidential term but was rebuffed by the Council.
Solomon explained that “this new high council that was established before the presidency was elected was made up of people who are against Assad Hardan. He was in the middle of fighting to prevent the next step, which would be the council electing the president. He didn’t want this council to be recognized and so on. So, he essentially sued in the Lebanese courts to postpone the election.” These efforts were eventually thwarted when the Lebanese courts first ruled elections should be halted but then issued a second ruling stating that presidential elections could go forward, leading to the appointment of Banat.
However, Hardan has used the first ruling to delegitimize the latest Council and bolster support for his own, creating an unannounced but de-facto split between party factions, said Solomon. Al-Rammah stated that the July Eighth Movement hopes that the party will reunite: “What we are calling for during this period is, for the sake of the unity of the SSNP, to hold a new electoral conference and elect new leadership to unite all sides.” Meanwhile, other party members, including Sakr, contend that July Eighth has mostly disbanded following the election of the new Council.
Reformists are cautiously optimistic about the direction of the party as plans for new programs come together.
For now, reformists are cautiously optimistic about the direction of the party as plans for new programs come together. Sakr told Inside Arabia that the SSNP intends to push for a proportional electoral law, the secularization of the Lebanese state with supporting things like civil marriage, and the party’s representation in revolutionary protests going forward. The SSNP will have a long road ahead of it if its rebranding is to win support of the Lebanese people and unify the party.
“The party is rapidly heading towards a protracted crisis,” explained Solomon. “The faction loyal to Banat appears to have the majority of supporters and wants to better position the SSNP as a force to challenge Lebanon’s sectarian system amid the country’s wider climate for political reform. However, Hardan’s smaller faction has the backing of the Syrian regime, which is pushing the party to redo the elections.” The SSNP is due to hold a Party conference in May 2021, but it’s not clear that they will be able to avoid a new split.