#3 The National Bloc in search of its lost identity

The party of the late Raymond Edde is torn between nostalgia for the past and the complexity of current issues.

#3 The National Bloc in search of its lost identity

The leader of the National Bloc, Raymond Edde, in the 1960s. (Credit: National Bloc)

Editor's note: In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that National Bloc candidate Michel Helou is the former executive director of L'Orient-Le Jour. While Helou stepped down from this position when he launched his run for office, he remains on the board of directors of L'Orient-Le Jour Group.

In November 1969, President Charles Helou proposed to Raymond Edde, then a member of Parliament and Amid (leader) of the Lebanese National Bloc to be part of his new government.

The cabinet's task, as reported by L'Orient-Le Jour in an article published in 1998, was to have Parliament approve the Cairo agreement of Nov. 3, 1969, signed between then-commander-in-chief of the army Gen. Emile Boustany and the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Yasser Arafat, under the aegis of then-Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The agreement legalized the Palestinian military presence in Lebanon with the aim of launching operations against Israel.

Before giving his answer, Edde insisted on knowing more about “this famous Cairo agreement” as he called it in the 1998 interview.

Helou replied, “It is impossible. The agreement is top secret.”

Except that it had been published in its entirety in the pages of the Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram. Even Article 15, reserved for the eyes of the “leadership only” appeared there.

Edde's response was immediate: “How can you admit that the driver of Abu Ammar (Arafat's nickname) knows the content and I, a member of Parliament, representing all the Lebanese people, do not have the right to know about it?”

Edde refused, “of course,” to be a minister in Helou's government.

Although he had always supported the Palestinian cause, he denounced the current proposal as an attack on Lebanese sovereignty, granted by the state.

Throughout his political career, the son of Emile Edde, a former president and founder of the National Bloc, would remain intractable in the face of any concession regarding the sovereignty of Lebanon, whether it came from Syria, Israel or elsewhere.

“He refused twice to become a president, an offer that was made to him on the condition that he accepted the Syrian occupation and tutelage of Lebanon,” recalled Claude Azoury, a National Bloc veteran and a lawyer, and a member of the party's Council of Elders.

His tenacity, also against the 1975-90 Civil War, would be the trademark of Edde, a one-man show who many would describe as “the conscience of Lebanon.”

This quality earned him the admiration of his many supporters, but also the criticism and even threats of his political opponents, and is remembered today, sometimes with nostalgia, when talking about the May 15 legislative elections and the endurance of the National Bloc — a party that continues to be inseparable from its leader.

“At the time of Raymond Edde, the party was a great historical party. I am still waiting for the new National Bloc to become an essential force on the ground,” said Nasri Faddoul, a former party official, of which he was secretary of internal affairs.

“I know they are working hard, but I expect more firm positions and not just lip service,” he added.

Carlos Edde, or the will to reform the party

The criticism is thinly veiled toward the party that had long been in the wilderness before being reconstituted and reformed after the death in 2000 of its charismatic leader, after he had lived in exile in Paris since 1976.

When he arrived at the head of the party, Carlos Edde, Raymond's nephew and successor, set himself the goal of “following in his [predecessor's] footsteps and to struggle for a united, free and sovereign Lebanon, and to defend rights, transparency and probity in the exercise of politics at home.”

But he faced resistance hindering his desire to rejuvenate the leadership and transform the party of a zaim (political leader) into a modern party with a rotating presidency, democratic elections and a council of elders, the seat of senior party officials.

“Some supporters opposed me. Many wanted a zaim and a privileged relationship with him to obtain services or to have one-on-one political discussions,” Carlos Edde said.

“The meetings drifted to memories of the good old days, with very little productive work,” he added.

The young successor certainly lacked political experience, and being away from the country did not help either. Having grown up in Brazil and later lived between Brazil and Lebanon made it difficult for him to deal with the local mindset.

“We live in a traditional society that does not like change. And the Lebanese often give more importance to appearance rather than substance,” he lamented.

His task was complicated by a series of dramatic events: the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the Syrian withdrawal in 2005, the devastating Israeli war in 2006, the Hezbollah takeover of Beirut in May 2008, and a series of political assassinations.

While the National Bloc positioned itself as a secular party alongside the sovereignist camp of March 14, it failed to make a breakthrough in the 2005 and 2009 legislative elections.

Some of the party leaders gave up, such as Fadia Kiwan, an academic who “belonged” to “the traditional National Bloc” and has never hidden her “admiration for Raymond Edde,” praising “his outspokenness, his authoritarian side in velvet gloves, his transparency and his ethics,” she told L'Orient-Le Jour .

She advocated an electoral alliance with General Michel Aoun, then head of the Free Patriotic Movement. She then left the National Bloc, “disappointed.”

“It was in 2005. Carlos Edde was trying to put the party back on his feet after having suffered from internal fractures. I supported him then. But when he refused Michel Aoun's proposal to run in the elections hand in hand, and when he subsequently suffered a major blow (losing the Maronite seat of Jbeil), I threw in my towel,” Kiwan said.

While she never belonged to the FPM, Kiwan embodied the desire of many National Bloc supporters to come closer to the movement that Aoun founded in the late 1980s.

“Raymond Edde led an aristocratic struggle, from his exile in France (after having been threatened with death and escaped several attacks). Some of his supporters were going to follow General Aoun, who knew how to mobilize the crowds,” she said.

Blunt criticism

In 2021, the page was definitely turned. Carlos Edde passed on the baton, after 20 years at the head of the party, trying to structurally reform it and abolish the post of Amid.

Unhappy to have been replaced by younger and more dynamic executives, some veterans were lashing out, accusing their former leader of having sold the party.

“In essence, there is no change. It's in the style and form that people get lost,” Edde said.

“In politics, my personal priority has always been to be consistent with myself and to be consistent in practice with my speeches,” he added.

With Pierre Issa as Secretary-General, the party hoped to make a fresh start.

The reputation of the co-founder of Arcenciel, a charitable organization, preceded him.

Issa is known for being honest and transparent and came to prominence during the 2019 popular uprising against a hated ruling class, accused of being responsible for the country's collapse.

At the time, party leaders and members shouted their anger in the street alongside the demonstrators, against corruption, bad governance, theft of public funds, power sharing between the lords of the civil war.

At the same time, the party headquarters opened its doors in Gemmayze to a population in need of answers. Debates, discussions, and enlistments were launched at the party offices and in the field, pumping fresh blood into the National Bloc.

“The National Bloc is today a progressive and avant-garde party whose principles are based on the major essential Lebanese issues,” said Amine Issa, the party's political coordinator.

“It's about citizenship versus political confessionalism, integrity versus corruption, democracy versus feudalism, the rule of law versus clientelism, and sovereignty versus subordination,” he added.

Traditionally Christian, in 2019, the party appointed Salam Yammout, a woman of Muslim faith, as its president.

The party is clear. It seeks to put its principles into practice, and to set an example.

But for the National Bloc's detractors, this is far from sufficient.

These denounce a lack of vision, an overly centrist positioning in an obvious desire to rally different sides, a lack of aggressiveness in the positions, and non-respect of the sacrosanct principle of sovereignty that was so dear to Raymond Edde.

“Sovereignty, one of the founding values of Lebanon, along with respect for the pacts, freedom and independence, is the heritage of the National Bloc and Raymond Edde. Any compromise on these values is formally refused," said a constitutional expert who wished to remain anonymous.

For if sovereignty is indeed in the party's program, he said “the monopoly of organized military force, which is one of the sovereign principles of the state,”, referring in particular to the status and arsenal of Hezbollah, “is drowned in a list of generalities.”

This a reality that, according to him, places the party “on a par with those who caused Lebanon’s misfortune.”

“The National Bloc has not dared to take a clear position in relation to Bkirki’s call [in July 2020] to safeguard Lebanon’s neutrality,” said Faddoul.

Give them time!

To these harsh critics, the National Bloc and some of its veterans tirelessly oppose a single discourse.

“The National Bloc has kept the same identity, that of a sovereign Lebanon over all its territory, that of the fight for freedom and independence,” said Andre Nader, a member of the party’s Council of Elders.

And if the party, the standard-bearer of political Maronitism claims to be secular today, “it is because it has become secular with a Maronite base,” he added.

“Give them time to structure a political atmosphere,” Azoury said.

“While the National Bloc of Raymond Edde was among the oldest political parties and movements of thought in Lebanon, the newly reinvented National Bloc is certainly still a fledgling party, and has made mistakes, but its actions are well within the spirit and continuity of the party,” he added.

Since the beginning of the campaign, the party has become much more outspoken on the issue of sovereignty in general and specifically on Hezbollah’s weapons.

But the transition is clearly still underway, and the National Bloc is still searching for its identity between the nostalgia of a bygone past and the complexity of current issues.

This is evidenced by the fact that the man who represents the party’s forefront, Pierre Issa, has decided not to run for office.

Only five candidates are running under the National Bloc banner: Michel Helou (former executive director of L'Orient-Le Jour ) in Baabda, Wajdi Tabet in Kesrouan, Gistelle Semaan in Zgharta, Camille Mourani in Tripoli and Iman Tabbara in Beirut II.

This article was originally published in English in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub. 

Editor's note: In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that National Bloc candidate Michel Helou is the former executive director of L'Orient-Le Jour. While Helou stepped down from this position when he launched his run for office, he remains on the board of directors of L'Orient-Le Jour Group.In November 1969, President Charles Helou proposed to Raymond Edde, then a member of...