This week's question | 2007-07-02

Looking back, how can we give Shukri al-Quwatli his proper place in history

June 30, 1967. Shukri Quwwatli, draws the last breath of an eventful, exciting,  dramatic, and very public life. He was, at 75, a disillusioned and broken-hearted old man. Yet this June of 1967, the heartbreak was more poignant, and more personal: the humiliating defeat of the Arabs during the Six Day War, was only exacerbated by the fact that he was living in exile in Beirut, ostracized and neglected by his fellow Syrians.

It was Quwwatli, more than any modern Syrian politician who had been through the highs and lows of Syrian politics. Ever since his days as a young agent provocateur in the underground anti-Ottoman movement al-Fatat in 1916, to his towering achievement of overseeing Syria's independence from France in 1946, to his role in co-creating the Egyptian-Syrian Union of 1958; Shukri al-Quwwatli was always intimately involved in shaping the destiny of Syria. It must have been insufferable for a man of his stature and history to have no alternative but to stand idly by, watching while his beloved country?to whom he devoted his every thought and effort?suffered a crushing defeat.

But why had it have to come to this? Why did Shukri al-Quwwatli have to die a stranger in another country, a political has-been, and a vestige of a bygone era?

Well, simply put, because the Syria Shukri al-Quwwatli?along with other towering figures, such as Fares Khuri, Saadallah al-Jabiri and Hashim Atassi?had helped create, had outgrown them. With the advent of the 1960s, their views on life, traditions, social customs and order, the economy, and politics had become archaic and far removed from the realities of their day. These were gentlemen of an old order?a sort of a pre-revolutionary nobility, which understood politics as simply being no more than an ever-recurring game of musical chairs among themselves. You lose a turn, you win another. But you will always be in the game.

That game changed, abruptly, on the early hours of March 29, 1949. This was the first of a torrent of military coups that would forever change Syrian?and Mid-Eastern?politics. Husni Za'im's coup d'etat marked the opening of a Pandora's Box, which thrust the armed forces into Syrian politics as its kingmaker and ultimate arbiter for the coming 21 years. The tragedy of the Syrian political elite, of which Shukri al-Quwwatli was a prominent member, was that it did not truly digest the significance of this momentous change. The 1949 coup marked the first nail in the coffin of the old school of 'gentleman politics', where friendships were respected, enmities rarely devolved into uncivilized violence, and where there were unwritten rules that everyone knew and respected.

Ever the survivor, Shukri al-Quwwatli's fortunes changed in 1955, following the deposal of Adib Shishakli's rule. He assumed the presidency of a nation far removed from the one he presided over in the early independence years. Syria was a nation in turmoil. Imbibed in revolutionary fervor, susceptible to the magnetism of Arabism and its champion Gamal Abdel Nasser, and with a growing and younger population. The elite, and Shukri al-Quwwatli at its helm, was far removed from the pulse of the street. They continued to bicker among themselves, fighting for the vestiges of power; while beneath them a younger, more politicized ideological generation of contenders for power was slowly on the ascent. This generation not only observed with glee the infighting of the traditional political elite, but also started creeping among the fissures it created: ideological parties made considerable gains that almost passed unnoticed.

Shukri al-Quwwatli, and indeed the entire Syrian traditional political elite were thrust into the ill-starred union with Egypt in 1958. It was a telling sign that, the impetus for the Union?indeed the very concrete steps to initiate it were not instituted at the elite level; they were rather the machinations of a young, ideological, and increasingly politically-active officer corps. This was an officer corps that nominally took its order from the President, but over which neither the president, nor any other authority for that matter, had any actual control. The manner in which the Union was consummated, and the eradication of the function of Syria's traditional political elite were the actual precursors for the complete eradication of their role.

The irony of this situation was that, Shukri al-Quwwatli, the man who personified Syria's independence was the man who allowed a group of junior officers to drag him into not only abrogating independence?but also his political role. Praise was heaped onto Shukri al-Quwwatli. He was given the honorary?but hollow?title of 'The first Arab citizen'. Then he was unceremoniously bumped off stage. Despite all his political cunning, experience, and abilities to rebound; Quwwatli, and indeed the entire political culture he represented was mortally wounded. Their brief return to power after the Secession in 1961, marked nothing more significant but the final death throes of an entire generation of politics. 

It was not only al-Quwwatli, and his generation, who lost. Syria lost a great deal when she lost a generation that?despite its many shortcomings and inadequacies?represented a mild-mannered and more civilized approach to politics and conflict-management than its successor. The crucial fault of al-Quwwatli's generation was that it did not appreciate?or accommodate?the changes the country was passing through. It was a fault which, exiled, broken and ostracized, Shukri al-Quwwatli had ample time to ponder.

Shukri al-Quwwatli, loved Damascus, and she loved him back. And she continued to love him. She forgave his many faults, and embraced him one final time. The funeral which he was given in his native Damascus, was a testament to his enduring popularity. In his death, Shukri al-Quwwatli remained a towering figure, so much so that the then-ruling wing of the Baath Party almost banned the funeral?only to be forced to sit and watch by the popular outburst of nervous and saddened Damascenes, welcoming their flawed and broken hero for his final rest.