The Middle East, you may have noticed, has been an
inhospitable place over the past several years for family dynasties. Egyptians
revolted when it became increasingly obvious that Hosni Mubarak would attempt
to pass the presidency off to his son, Gamal. Syrians are fighting a bloody war
to rid themselves of Bashar al-Assad, another second-generation ruler. The
wealth and power of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's family was a rallying cry for the
revolution in Tunisia, and Yemenis are still focused on wresting away important
military positions from the sons of deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
But there is one nominally democratic Arab country where the
tradition of politics as a family business is alive and well: Lebanon. And with
Tammam Salam, the son of former Prime Minister Saeb Salam, expected
to be nominated for the premiership as a consensus candidate, Beirut will welcome another dynasty
into the fold.
Lebanon's powerful families have somehow survived a civil
war, foreign interventions, and the ballot box: There's former Prime Minister
Saad Hariri, son of billionaire premier Rafiq Hariri; Druze leader Walid
Jumblatt, son of Kamal Jumblatt; MP Sami Gemayel, son of former President Amin
Gemayel and grandson of MP Pierre Gemayel; MP Nayla Tueini, daughter of journalist
and MP Gebran Tueini and granddaughter of journalist and MP Ghassan Tueini; MP
Suleiman Franjieh, son of assassinated civil war-era leader Antoine Franjieh
and grandson of former President Suleiman Franjieh; and Youth Minister Faisal
Karame, son of former Prime Minister Omar Karame. The list goes on, but you get
It's a great irony: In the one Arab country where citizens
could legally and peacefully rid themselves of second- and third-generation
leaders who rose on little but their last name, they choose not to do so. There
are a lot of reasons for that, related to Lebanon's peculiar political system
and its precarious domestic peace -- but one key reason is the families
themselves have proven incredibly politically flexible.
Take Lebanon's newest scion, Tammam Salam. His father Saeb
was a Sunni leader in Beirut during the 1950s, and something of a radical -- he
was enamored of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's vision of pan-Arab
unity, a staunch opponent of U.S. and British influence in the Middle East, and
a critic of the Christian community's domination of Lebanese politics. He
joined an armed rebellion against the government in 1958, and established control
over the Beirut neighborhood of Basta. He was "smooth as oiled silk," according
to a U.S. State Department cable from the time, and showed off his arsenal of
machine guns to the U.S ambassador when he came visiting, boasting "the Basta
has the best."
The United States, it goes without saying, hated Saeb Salam.
The U.S. embassy in Beirut was quick to squash a suggestion that a covert deal could
be reached with him. "No touch with that morally slimy rug merchant could ever
be discreet enough," reads a cable from May 1958.
Today, the Salam political dynasty lives -- even as the
political beliefs it upholds bear no resemblance to those it held in the
previous era. Tammam Salam is the very image of moderation, winning the support
of anti-Assad and pro-Assad Lebanese parties alike. It's a neat trick: The times may change in
Lebanon, but the faces remain the same.
JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images