|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
25 - 31 January 2001
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Easy Shi'ite succession in Lebanon
Following the death two weeks ago of the head of the Lebanese Higher Shi'ite Council, Sheikh Mohamed Mehdi Shamseddine, a reassessment of the council's political and religious role as a major Shi'ite authority in Lebanon appears inevitable, particularly in light of the awaited succession.
Speculation mounted after Shamseddine's death on 10 January that elections for the council's presidency and vice-presidency might be delayed until an agreement between the various influential Shi'ite figures and factions could be reached. Meanwhile, the council's current deputy president, Sheikh Abdel-Amir Qabalan, would serve as acting chairman to the council until elections were held. However, a source close to the Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, Nabih Berri, one of the Shi'ite community's main leaders, asserted that Berri was committed to holding these elections within the two-month deadline stipulated by the council's by-laws. The source said consultations within Shi'ite circles would be initiated, and would ultimately lead to the election of Qabalan as Shamseddine's successor.
The initial role of the Higher Shi'ite Council when it was founded in December 1967 was running religious matters directly related to the Shi'ite community. But with the election in 1969 of the Imam Mussa Sadr, the head of the "movement of the dispossessed", or Harakat al-Mahroumin, as the council's president, the council started gaining an indisputable political role, consolidated by Sadr's outstanding personality and great charisma.
Sadr imposed himself as both a religious and political leader, despite the presence of another Shi'ite leader, the then head of the Lebanese House, Kamel Assaad. Shamseddine, who was Sadr's deputy, did not succeed him directly when the Imam disappeared during an official visit to Libya in August 1978. Sadr was never proclaimed dead, and as such could not be replaced at the head of the council.
Shamseddine officially became the Imam's successor in 1994. Sadr would have turned 68 that year, which is the retirement age for the council's president.
By the time Shamseddine took over, a number of prominent Shi'ite leaders, both religious and political, had emerged, and the margin of influence of the Shi'ite council's president was thus reduced. Shamseddine saw himself surrounded by a number of Shi'ite factions and leaders, powerful and often opposed to one another: Sheikh Mohamed Hussein Fadlallah, the spiritual leader of Hizbullah, the Shi'ite resistance movement; Hizbullah's Secretary-General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah; Berri, the leader of the former movement of the dispossessed, today known as the Amal movement, who was elected three times as speaker of the House; in addition to Syria and Iran, which have always competed over the choice of the council's chairmanship, and continuously seek a greater say in the council's general policy.
Shamseddine was known for his great wisdom, his wide religious knowledge and tolerance which led him to adopt moderate stands on political issues. One of his main concerns was the achievement of national unity within each Arab society, an objective which became more of an obsession to the spiritual leader. According to Lebanese MP Mohamed Abdel-Hamid Beydoun, head of Amal's political bureau, Shamseddine's commitment to the principle of social unity "stemmed from a deep belief that the success of the resistance (against Israel) depended to a great extent on securing the elements of national unity and preventing factors of division, such as sectarian considerations or fundamentalism, from ripping apart Arab societies." One of Shamseddine's greatest accomplishments in this respect was his contribution, particularly in Egypt, to getting interpretations of religious texts (Ijtihad) to be used to fight divisions instead of reinforcing fundamentalism. His opinions helped introduce a new culture in religion, encouraging the various communities to accept and understand each other by focusing on their essential unity rather than fighting over their differences.
Shamseddine's tolerance and moderation were two characteristics that render his replacement difficult in a society dominated by conflicts of interest that often take the shape of sectarian and confessional feuds.
To avoid undesirable complications, both Berri and Nasrallah tend to favour a soft transition without major changes in the council's religious and political orientation. It would, therefore, be understandable if both Berri and Nasrallah opted for Qabalan as Shamseddine's successor, as those close to them predict. Having accompanied Shamseddine for almost a decade, Qabalan is considered capable of securing the required continuity in the council's overall policy. Moreover, this choice is said to enjoy the support of both Damascus and Tehran, judging from information which has circulated in Shi'ite circles over the past 10 days.
When Syrian Vice-President Abdel-Halim Khaddam paid his condolences to Shamseddine's family, he used the occasion to exchange a few words with both Berri and Nasrallah. Khaddam reportedly praised Qabalan several times, emphasising the positive role the mufti had played in recent years. Khaddam's comments were perceived by both Berri and Nasrallah as a message that Damascus would approve of Qabalan's succession.
Similar favourable comments were made by an Iranian delegation, headed by former Iranian Prime Minister Ayatollah Mahdaoui Kani. The delegation also visited Beirut to present condolences on behalf of the Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The final decision concerning Shamseddine's succession will be taken when the council's 12-member legitimate body (Al-Hay'a al-Sharyia) meets to choose a president and vice-president within the two-month deadline.
In addition to these 12 members elected by the council's general assembly, Shi'ite ministers and members of parliament will also be part of the electoral body. The president and vice-president are elected for a mandate that expires when the new head of the Shi'ite council reaches the retirement age.
The elections, however, constitute a purely technical procedure, whereas an agreement on the identity of the council's chairman and his deputy will have been reached prior to election day.
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