The 1961 New Year’s Eve coup attempt organized and carried out by the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), along with some elements of the Lebanese Armed Forces, is a forgotten episode in Lebanon’s long and fraught history. The coup attempt and its aftermath have been largely overshadowed by the 15-year Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990).
The SSNP remains one of the country’s most controversial parties. Deeply loathed by Lebanon’s pro-Western forces, the SSNP nevertheless has sought to stake out a “reformist” agenda for itself. Staunchly anti-imperialist and pro-Assad, the party is far less known for its positions on anti-sectarianism, civil marriage, fighting corruption, and building a secular state.
The SSNP is far less known for its positions on anti-sectarianism, civil marriage, fighting corruption, and building a secular state.
Lebanon today faces severe economic, political, and humanitarian difficulties. Given the country’s ongoing situation, a study of the 1961 New Year’s Eve coup is worthwhile since the possibility of a greater military role is more openly being discussed.
Beyond Lebanon’s 1958 Crisis
The origins of the New Year’s Eve coup can be traced back to the wake of the 1958 Lebanon Crisis. The country endured an episode of sustained violence as clashes occurred between supporters of Kamal Jumblatt and Lebanese President Camille Chamoun.
The Lebanese government and its allies were resolutely opposed to Lebanon potentially falling into the orbit of the United Arab Republic (UAR)— a union of Egypt and Syria which had been founded in 1958— and the influence of the Soviet Union.
Meanwhile, the factions aligned with Kamal Jumblatt tried hard to rescue Lebanon from succumbing into the realm of pro-Western imperialism and wished for the country to become part of the UAR.
The SSNP itself had fought against the leftist forces that had risen to power in Syria since the mid-1950s.
The SSNP itself had fought against the leftist forces that had risen to power in Syria since the mid-1950s and, in 1958, fought on the side of the Lebanese government since the party feared for its own survival if Lebanon became the third Arab country to join the UAR.
The situation was dire enough that Chamoun eventually called for the United States to send help. The U.S. military intervention brought about an end to the bloodshed but also saw the Eisenhower Administration work out a political arrangement that forced Chamoun to surrender the presidency and landed a popular Lebanese Army general, Fouad Chehab, into power.
The new deal had harsh consequences for the SSNP, as President Chehab sought out reconciliation with Jumblatt’s forces and forged a new unity government that sidelined the party, setting up the conditions for Lebanon’s first military coup.
Dr. Carl Yonker, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University and the author of “The Rise and Fall of Greater Syria,” explained how the SSNP was dismissed in the post-conflict political settlement. “Chehab’s government made a number of moves against the party in the years that followed, including preventing it from holding rallies, arresting party members, and allegedly interfering in the 1960 parliamentary elections to ensure SSNP candidates did not succeed,” he told Inside Arabia.
Members of the SSNP began meeting with Lebanese army officers who were opposed to Chehab’s rule. The SSNP comrades held heated internal debates on whether or not they needed to act against Chehab or continue to be persecuted by the government. They believed Lebanon’s entire political system was moving in the wrong direction. Furthermore, they were emboldened when a coup in Damascus took Syria out of the UAR in September 1961.
“The SSNP leadership and military conspirators convinced themselves that the only way to establish a civil secular state and abolish Lebanon’s confessional system was through armed action,” Dr. Yonker remarked.
The Second Social Nationalist Revolution
Although referred to as the “Second Social Nationalist Revolution” by the party, the event is rarely discussed or commemorated by the SSNP either in public discourse or in the party’s propaganda. For the SSNP, the first “revolution” was the 1949 uprising carried out by the party’s founder, Antoun Saadeh, which resulted in his capture and execution by the Lebanese state.
The entire 1961 coup rested on a complicated plot that was both poorly coordinated and subject to conflicting orders.
The entire 1961 coup rested on a complicated plot that was both poorly coordinated and subject to conflicting orders. New Year’s Eve was selected as the optimal date since many officers would be busy celebrating or on holiday leave.
Members of the Lebanese army based in the south of the country moved out in the middle of darkness in the early morning hours of December 31. They cut the military’s communication lines and made their way towards Beirut. In an effort to spread disinformation, the rebel units announced that a coup was already underway by forces aligned with Jumblatt. Some of the Lebanese soldiers within the units loyal to the coup did not even know the true nature of their orders.
The plan involved seizing control of the Defense Ministry, detaining Chehab, and capturing the radio station. Armed civilian squads composed of SSNP comrades fanned out across Beirut to link up with the rebel military units. However, the coup ran into trouble when they could not synchronize their operation and encountered fierce resistance from government loyalists.
As the opposing forces exchanged gunfire around the Ministry of Defense building, the rebels, gathered in the courtyard and ground floor, called out for the loyalists on the upstairs levels to give up the fight. However, the loyalists adamantly refused and held firm until government reinforcements eventually arrived. The rebels failed to capture Chehab and retreated. The New Year’s Eve coup had collapsed.
For the SSNP, the consequences of the coup plot were extreme. The Lebanese army surrounded the rebels’ stronghold village of Dik al-Mahdi and shelled the area until they surrendered. The subsequent weeks and months saw Chehab’s government launch an all-out purge of the party in Lebanon.
“The failure of the coup had a profound impact on the party,” Dr. Yonker said, noting that thousands of rebels were arrested and hundreds of party members, including many of the SSNP’s leaders, were sent to prison. “The party was outlawed but continued to operate in secret despite the fact that its leadership had been decimated.”
The State Strikes Back
In the short run, the coup’s failure enabled Lebanese military intelligence to expand its political influence. This newfound security structure eventually subsided but it was still a notable moment in Lebanese history.
Lebanon subsequently entered the decade of the 1960s under “Chehabism,” which is usually described as a golden era of state-building and economic prosperity, but also resulted in a legacy of intense romanticization of the Lebanese Armed Forces.
The army’s role in stopping the coup also added to the narrative that the military essentially “saved” Lebanon.
The army’s role in stopping the coup also added to the narrative that the military essentially “saved” Lebanon. To this day, the army remains the only institution in Lebanon that is widely trusted and beloved by all.
The party’s comrades languished in prisons even as the alleged use of torture was widespread. The SSNP suffered a huge political blow because of its actions and is still regarded by some Lebanese as a nefarious force that had struck out at a “free” Lebanon and was thus justly punished.
Regarding the lessons that could be applied to the crisis in present-day Lebanon, the events of 1961 would likely not translate as a coup in today’s context. Salah Ben Hammou, a Security Studies Ph.D. student at the University of Central Florida, noted that the modern-day grievances certainly shape the public’s view of the ruling elite as inefficient and corrupt.
“As this frustration continues to build with worsening economic conditions and increased security measures… it is more likely that we will see this manifest in some form of political violence once again. Whether or not it’s in the form of a coup remains to be seen,” Hammou told Inside Arabia.
Other themes that can be drawn from 1961 include the relationship between the political parties and militaries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), which often have a symbiotic dynamic with interests that can overlap.
“The SSNP’s coup, pushed by soldiers and party militants alike,” is an important detail to keep in mind since “a common misunderstanding about MENA coups is that the armed forces were divorced from broader societal issues and intervene because of military concerns,” Hammou added.
In addition, the idea that coups are undertaken without the blessing, support, and fomentation by civilian actors is also mistaken. “Rather than undertaken by highly unified and cohesive armed forces as is often assumed, MENA’s 20th-century coups were pushed by the margins of society with a revolutionary flair,” Hammou said.
How successful the SSNP would have been in abolishing feudalism and sectarianism and building a new Lebanese society if they had captured the state is unknown. The 1961 New Year’s Eve coup takes its place in the country’s history as a key event that offers plenty to ponder as Lebanon continues into another year of disenchantment, pain, and uncertainty.