On November 24, 1989, Elias Hraoui was elected President of the Lebanese Republic under extremely difficult security conditions, after the assassination of President Rene Mouawad. In 1995, his presidency was extended for a term of three years.

President Elias Hraoui was a model of courage and endeavor in Lebanon's emergence from war to civil peace. He faced crisis, with patience and tenacity, and worked relentlessly during 9 years to anchor national unity, restore vitality to Lebanese life, rebuild the Republic, launch the process of reconstruction and liberation, and establish sovereignty on all Lebanese territory.



 

Biography

Elias Hraoui

Elias Hraoui was born in 1926 in Hawsh Al-Umara, Zahle. He came from a venerable Lebanese family, which relocated from Baskinta in Mount Lebanon to the Bekaa region at the start of the nineteenth century. His father Khalil Elias Hraoui grew up in Zahle and married Helena Nakhle Harb from Baskinta. They had six children, three girls and three boys. Their youngest was Elias, who carries his grandfather’s name, given name of the family’s firstborn who died at ten months of age.

His father Khalil Elias Hraoui

Elias Hraoui completed elementary school studies at the Oriental College in Zahle. At age eleven, he moved to Beirut to continue his schooling, as his ambition had been and as all his siblings were already doing: his eldest brother Joseph and other brother Georges at the Jesuit Fathers School and his sisters Labibeh, Mary, and Navrick at the Sisters of Besançon School.

In 1937, Elias Hraoui enrolled at La Sagesse College in Beirut, where he completed secondary school and received his Baccalaureate in Literature.

With his classmates

Elias Hraoui was shaken by the death of his father during his first year away from home in boarding school at La Sagesse College in Beirut. He encountered great difficulties at that time in fact, while he also followed the news of World War I battles and tragedies and of the events that led to the Declaration of Lebanon’s Independence on November 22, 1943. His personality was influenced to a large extent by this period of his life, of which he wrote in his memoirs:

“The spirit of nationalism was burning in our souls… We, at La Sagesse, were more aware of national responsibilities than our mates in other schools.” (p.39)

His children George, Rina and Roy

Elias Hraoui aspired to professional law throughout secondary school, and as soon as he graduated from La Sagesse, he enrolled at the School of Law at Saint Joseph University. In parallel, he also studied commerce, which interested him while at La Sagesse as well and helped him during summer vacations to earn a “part of what is called pocket-money”. (p. 40) He graduated from the School of Commerce with distinction and top of his class.

Upon his return to Zahle in 1947, he worked in the agriculture and commerce sectors, but all the while his passion for politics and the public sector kept growing. In that same year, at the age of twenty-one, Elias Hraoui got married to Evelyn Selim Chidiac, as they had agreed before he went to university. They had three children: Rina in 1948, Georges in 1951, and Roy in 1955. The marriage did not last, however, and the couple divorced in 1959.

His meeting with Mouna Jammal, 1960
In 1960, Elias Hraoui met Mouna Jammal when she came from Amman to visit her mother, Victoria Hariz, in Baalbeck. They fell in love and agreed to marry, but before they were able to, he had a car accident and suffered serious spinal injury that required four months of hospitalization. The couple eventually married on February 13, 1961. Their firstborn died at two years of age, but then God blessed them with Zalfa and Roland, named as his late brother had been. Elias Hraoui wrote of his marriage to Mouna in his memoirs: “Mouna compensated me for a failed marriage with one that provided me with a happy married life and a life companion who still affectionately and competently shares my sorrows as well as joys.” (p.50)

Elias Hraoui was an enthusiast of politics, to which he was constantly exposed at home because of the prominent role the family played on the political scene. As early as 1943, in the first elections to follow Lebanon’s independence, his uncle Youssef Hraoui was elected into parliament and appointed Minister of Agriculture and Minister of Post and Telegraph. His brother Georges Hraoui won the parliamentary elections three times in a row in 1953, 1957, and 1960; was appointed Minister of Interior in 1954; and was elected Chairman of the Executive Board of the World Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome.

By immersing himself in public affairs and providing numerous services to Zahle citizens, Elias Hraoui landed a seat at the city’s Municipality Council in 1963 and was elected Vice President of the Chamber of Commerce, Industry, and Agriculture of the Bekaa governorate in 1967. In the same year, he participated in the establishment of the Cooperative Association of Potato Farmers in the Bekaa and became a member of its board of directors. He was also among the first to promote industrialization of agricultural products and opened a dried vegetables factory that exported its products to Europe, the United States, and Japan. He founded the first agricultural cooperative for beet production and manufacturing in 1968, and he headed the country’s Union of Agricultural Cooperatives in 1972. He made it a point to keep holding all these positions until he was elected President of the Republic in 1989.

With his brothers George and Joseph

Following his brother Georges’ death, Elias Hraoui declared his candidacy to the parliamentary elections in 1965 to fill the vacated seat. However, “Deuxième Bureau” interventions and various political pressures led him to withdraw his candidature in favor of his brother, Dr. Joseph Hraoui, who won the Zahle seat.

Elias Hraoui commented: “Joseph was elected yet continued to care for his patients, while I attended political meetings on his behalf, until the end of the parliament’s term in 1968.” Elias Hraoui ran in the parliamentary elections of 1968, but the unfavorable military situation that prevailed in Zahle at that time prevented his success.

With the President Sleiman Franjieh

Elias Hraoui was elected Member of Parliament for the first time in 1972, during President Sleiman Franjieh’s term, and was elected President of the Agricultural Committee and Member of the Budgetary and Monetary Committee.

 He headed the Lebanese delegation to the World Nutrition Conference in Rome in 1974 as well as the Lebanese delegation to the FAO from 1975 until his election as President of the Republic.

With the President Elias Sarkis

The national security situation was steadily deteriorating at that time, as armed Palestinians’ influence increased at the expense of the state authority, until the Ain Al-Rimmane bus incident and first shot of the civil war on April 13, 1975.

In May 1976, Elias Hraoui participated in the election of Elias Sarkis as President of the Republic, for whom he held much respect and amiability: “President Sarkis was a self-made man… I knew him well. He was the example in political work and in defending Lebanon’s supreme interests.” (p. 82-83)

Minister of Public Works and Transportation

Between October 25, 1980 and October 8, 1982, Elias Hraoui was Minister of Public Works and Transportation and, despite the war, succeeded in executing numerous projects, such as highways, bridges, and road repairs. 

In Elias Hraoui’s biography, one must stop at an important juncture: the city of Zahle.

 In 1981, Zahle witnessed violent and bloody confrontations between the Lebanese Forces in the city, the Syrian military on its hills, and the Palestinians surrounding it.

Elias Hraoui exerted every effort to pacify the situation and save his city from the infernal battles that destroyed part of it and killed many of its citizens.

On April 3, 1981, following a twelve-hour-long cabinet session, President Sarkis asked Minister Hraoui to go to Damascus and meet with President Hafez Al-Asad to find a resolution to the Zahle issue.

With His Holiness The Pope

Elias Hraoui took a helicopter to Damascus, where he met with the Syrian president and agreed with him on a formula that would ensure the restoration of peace in the city, the lifting of its siege, the withdrawal of militias, and the taking over by the Lebanese army.

Once all concerned parties agreed on the plan’s implementation mechanics, combatants were successfully evacuated from the city, which hailed Elias Hraoui as its savior. He was then invited to the Presidential Palace, where President of the Republic Elias Sarkis, Prime Minister Shafic Wazzan, and the Saudi and Kuwaiti ambassadors commended him for the valiant steps he undertook that saved Zahle from doom. 

In Taif Conference, September 30, 1989

Elias Hraoui pursued his political work at both the Bekaa and national levels throughout the civil war years, and he cofounded the Independent Maronite Deputies Coalition, in the activities of which he played a prominent role.

On September 30, 1989, Elias Hraoui participated along with 61 other MPs in the twenty-two-day-long Taif Conference that resulted in ending the war in Lebanon, as well as in the Document of National Accord that became the country’s new Constitution.

Elected President delivering his constitutional oath

Once the MPs had returned from Taif, Parliament Speaker Hussein Al-Husseini called for a presidential election on November 5 at Kleiat air base. Although convinced that Rene Moawad had a better chance of success as the Taif consensus man, Elias Hraoui nevertheless declared his self-nomination upon the start of the electoral session, in the spirit of upholding the democratic process. Rene Moawad eventually won in the second round.

On November 22, and while on his way back from the reception ceremony at the seat of government to the provisional presidential quarters, President Moawad was killed when his transport vehicle was blown up.

On November 24, 1989, Elias Hraoui was elected President of the Republic for a term of six years in the second round with 48 votes. The electoral session was held at Park Hotel in Chtaura under difficult security conditions and with the participation of 52 MPs.

He was sworn in at the premises, where he then delivered his acceptance speech, which included the program of his presidency.

Moving to the Presidential Palace in Baabda on July 1993

On the next day, and due to the precarious security situation, the elected president moved into the home of the Bekaa Head of Intelligence, and then to Ablah Casern, where he stayed for forty-three days. Of his stay at Ablah, President Hraoui says: “My wife Mouna used to spend the day at our family home in Zahle, where she received visitors. And she used to send me meals to Ablah – the specter of poisoning haunts everyone – before joining me at the casern in the evening, only to return the next day to the Bekaa’s bride.” (p. 130)

On the night of 5 to 6 January 1990, President Elias Hraoui moved to the provisional presidential quarters in Beirut, which hosted the presidential offices for three years and six months, and where the president lived with his family until the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the Presidential Palace in Baabda were completed:

“Following displacement that lasted nearly four years, during which the presidential palace offices moved from a hotel in Chtaura to a casern in Ablah and then to a building in Ramlet Al Bayda that His Excellency Rafic Hariri placed at my disposal, renovation of the Baabda palace was completed in July of 1993, and I decided to move there.” (p. 345)

Hence, and as Ghassan Tueni said: “The palace was once again a symbol of the presidency where it belongs, rather than in some borrowed quarters or in half quarters for a half authority…” (p.21)

During the first years of his presidency, amidst the devastation and division engendered by the war in Lebanon from 1975 until 1990, and in the face of multiple security disturbances, bombings, and assassinations as well as dire economic, financial, and living conditions, President Elias Hraoui encountered great difficulties in dissolving militias, curbing sectarian disputes, aborting national dissension attempts, cementing civil peace, anchoring national unity, launching the reconstruction, the resettlement of the displaced, and the liberation processes, and achieving sovereignty on the entirety of the Lebanese territories. (See 1, 2, 3, & 4)

As the presidential term approached its end in 1995, the consensus was for the continuance of President Elias Hraoui in office. Thus, on October 16, 1995, Prime Minister Rafic Hariri convened an extraordinary session of the cabinet at the Presidential Palace, where the unanimous decision was for President Hraoui to submit a constitutional bill to extend his presidency for an additional three years.

In the mean time, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri issued the following statement:
“On behalf of heads of parliamentary blocs, and in appreciation of His Excellency the President of the Lebanese Republic, Attorney Elias Hraoui’s performance at the verge of this presidency’s term, I extend my gratitude to His Excellency, who has been an example of courage and endeavor during Lebanon’s emergence from a sate of war to one with prospects of civil peace, noting that His Excellency, besides being a sharp and seasoned politician, safeguarded Lebanon, including the South.

He has also striven to maintain the highest levels of coordination between Lebanon and Syria in this momentous phase, during which reconcilement was pressing on both countries. And he demonstrated steadfastness and patience on the domestic front, which had the profoundest effect in restoring reconstruction and vitality to Lebanese life – and we should not forget that both the liberation of Lebanese territories since 1978 and the emancipation of the Lebanese human being from the nightmares of the old system are still at their beginning. Therefore, and in settlement of the constitutional stipulation, the assembly were in favor of entreating His Excellency the President to exert his constitutional right as decreed in Article 76 of the Constitution and submit a motion to the cabinet as a prelude to the submittal of a bill to parliament to reconsider Article 49 of the Constitution. Godspeed.” (pp. 405-406)

With the French President Jacques Chirac, Baabda, 1996

Following the amendment of the two clauses of Article 49 of the Lebanese Constitution, President Elias Hraoui’s presidency was extended for half a term, to last until November 24, 1998.

President Elias Hraoui’s presidency was permeated with eminent milestones and important accomplishments (see Website section: “Events of the Ruling Years, 1989-1998), as well as official visits by a number of Arab and international dignitaries, notably: American President George Bush in 1991, French President Jacques Chirac first by himself in 1996 and then accompanied by his wife Bernadette in 1998, and Saudi Heir Prince Abdullah Bin Abdel Aziz in June 1997, who presented him with “The King Abdul Aziz Medal”:

“That was the eleventh medal I was awarded during my presidency. I had been awarded three medals by Arab states Syria, the Emirates, and Saudi Arabia; three by European states France, Italy, and the Czech Republic; two by African states Ivory Coast and Gabon; and three by Latin American states Ecuador, Brazil, and Argentina.” (pp. 525-526)

American Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited President Hraoui on September 15, 1997, followed by Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro on November 15, and by Argentine President Carlos Menem in February 1998.

With His Holiness Pope John Paul II, May 1997

Among the milestones that are dearest to President Elias Hraoui’s heart was His Holiness Pope John Paul II’s visit on Saturday, May 10, 1997, which lasted for 32 hours: “His Pontiff emerged at the airplane’s door with his white robe and luminous face, his figure bent by age, and he slowly descended the staircase, where I awaited him with Prime Minister Rafic Hariri and His Beatitude Patriarch Cardinal Mar Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir. The first thing he did was kiss the earth that had been gathered from all the Lebanese governorates in a box made of Cedar wood. We then shook hands before I clasped his left arm and we headed for the podium of honor.” (p. 505)


With the Syrian president Hafez Al-Asad

Elias Hraoui fancied travel in his youth, and in his memoirs he relates how, on the day he traveled to Egypt on business in 1949, he came to be known in Zahle as “the man who took an airplane” (p. 42). His successive trips took him to Egypt, Europe, Japan, the United States, Canada, Brazil, and Argentina, and his wife Mouna often accompanied him. And while in office, President Elias Hraoui made numerous international appearances; most notably:

-    Multiple visits to Damascus and Lattakia to confer with Syrian President Hafez Al-Asad on the peace process and a number of common issues.
-    Two Arab tours at the start of his presidency to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Morocco, and then to Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia.
-    The Cairo Arab Summit in August 1990, following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
-    Speech at the UN General Assembly in New York on September 24, 1991 and meeting with President George Bush.
-    Trip to Paris on President François Mittérand’s invitation in October 1991, followed by an official visit to Rome and a meeting with Italian President Fransesco Cossiga and Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti.
-    Speeches on behalf of both the Arab League – headed by Lebanon at the time – and Lebanon at the Islamic Conference in Dakar, Senegal, on December 10, 1991.
-    Arab tour to Kuwait and Abu Dhabi in end of March 1993 with a number of ministers to confer on the participation of the Gulf states in the Arab and International Fund to Support Lebanon.
-    Visit to Rome and the Vatican with his wife and two daughters on November 4, 1993 and a meeting with His Holiness Pope John Paul II, to whom he voiced the nation’s worries and extended an invitation to visit.
This was followed by a lecture at the FAO and the inauguration of the Lebanon Hall at the FAO building.
-    Flash visit to the Elysée Palace in June 1995 to congratulate French President Jacques Chirac on his election for a second term.
-    Trip to New York with Foreign Affairs Minister Fares Boueiz on April 22, 1996, following the Grapes of Wrath operation and the Qana massacre in the South on the eighth day of the wanton Israeli assault, and a speech at the UN General Assembly, calling on the world to put an end to the brutal slaughters in his home country. This was followed by a visit to the White House and a meeting with American President Bill Clinton.
Afterwards, President Hraoui was hospitalized for five days at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital, where he underwent artery surgery in his right leg.
-    The Cairo Arab Summit on June 22, 1996, to where he carried the “voice of the Arab conscience” from Qana in the South, the martyr village.
-    Eleven-day visit to Brazil with his family and a number of ministers, press members, and friends on invitation by Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso and members of the Lebanese community. In his meetings and speeches, President Hraoui emphasized the common convictions of Lebanon and Brazil to work towards cementing peace, development, democracy, and human rights.
-    Visit to Teheran on December 8, 1997 and meeting with President Mohammad Khatami; and the Organization of the Islamic Conference Summit.
-    Three-day official visit to the United Arab Emirates on March 31, 1998.
-    The “Lebanon Day at the Vatican” on May 10, 1998, when His Holiness Pope John Paul II beatified Maronite Monk Nematullah Kassab al-Hardini:
“I headed the delegation to the celebrations, which included my wife Mouna, Mrs. Nazek Hariri, and Ministers Michel Murr, Michel Edde, Shawki Fakhoury, and Nicolas Fattouche. The turnout of Lebanese was not fewer than ten thousand who had come from around fifteen countries and attended the mass while carrying Lebanese flags. They roared themselves hoarse as the Pope’s voice rose to beatify al-Hardini, and as Saint Peter Square burst with applause. And the Pope indicated in his speech that the day was a holiday for all Lebanese in the entire world.” (pp. 592-593)

President Hraoui addressing a farewell speech to the Lebanese, eve of Independence Day, 1998

An earnest striving for the smooth running of the parliamentary democratic process characterized President Elias Hraoui’s three-year extended term, which was riddled with difficult stages that led the President to take many bold positions and decisions favoring Lebanon’s unity and sovereignty as well as the activation of her role in her Arab environment and in the world. 

The President also realized the extent of the restrictions that the Taif Constitution imposed on the presidency and pinpointed its faults as well as the articles needing amendment. He then called for a rational dialog on “a modern framework for the state structure and function” (p. 489) in an important address to the Lebanese on the eve of the Independence Day, November 21, 1996, in which he also expressed the need for constitutional reforms, a new civil law, and a new parliamentary electoral law.

Although a practicing believer, the President fought sectarianism and religious fanaticism, always repeating: “Religion is for God and the sate is for everyone”. Thus he was keen on the ratification of a new civil law to include optional civil marriage – in accordance with the Constitution that stipulates freedom of opinion and of belief – before the end of his term. The proposed law was submitted to the cabinet on March 18, 1998 and won a majority vote, but that was deemed only an endorsement of the “principle”, and the matter was deferred due to unsuitable timing (See law draft and cabinet proceedings, pp. 652-685). The President felt that, by submitting this bill, he had adhered to his conscience, but the issue continued to trouble him until the last days of his life.

Twenty days prior to the presidential term, a cabinet session at the Presidential Palace deliberated, among other issues, a bill on unlawful wealth amassment, in light of the amended 1956 Law. President Elias Hraoui insisted that the bill also apply to the president of the republic, as was the case in democratic states. The President’s remarks impressed the cabinet, and the bill was unanimously ratified (see session proceedings, pp. 613-617).

As his term neared its final days, the President moved to his private residence in Yarzeh, restricting use of the Presidential Palace to the daytime, while eagerly awaiting his successor’s election.
On October 15, 1998, Lebanese Army Commander Emile Lahoud was elected President of the Republic and, immediately afterwards, proceeded with the Parliament Speaker to the Presidential Palace, where a protocol meeting was held between President Elias Hraoui and President Emile Lahoud. This was later followed by a series of meetings until handing over was complete.

On the night of November 10, 1998, President Hraoui suffered two heart attacks and was taken to Sacré Coeur Hospital in Baabda, where he at once underwent a catheterization procedure, and a stent was inserted in his blocked artery.

After convalescing at home, President Hraoui insisted on attending the Independence Day parade. Having addressed the Lebanese the previous evening, he bade them farewell the following day with a brief word: “I took a nation from the past and I hand over a nation headed for the future.” (p. 624).

When handover took place on November 24, 1998, President Hraoui addressed the newly elected president: “I am handing over the presidency to you while nobody handed it over to me. And I am handing over the presidential medal to you while nobody bestowed it on me. I am leaving the presidency with an ache in my heart, not because I am no longer president, but because I had wished that the resettlement of all the displaced and the liberation of the South and the Golan would be achieved during my presidency.” (p. 632).

The President in his home in Yarzeh, November 1998

He then left the Palace and went back to his home and private life, longing for rest after nine years in presidential office:

 “I now enjoy a family life like the rest of the citizens, and I feel the grandfather’s happiness when he is surrounded by his grandchildren, God having blessed me with eleven of them, six girls and five boys.”

The President signing his book “Building the Republic: From Segmentation to Unity”, 2002

President Hraoui continued to receive numerous officials, politicians, friends, relatives, intellectuals, and media personalities at his residence in Yarzeh. He used to meet with journalist Camille Menassa once a week, and sometimes twice or three times a week. They used to sit for hours in the President’s private office on the lower floor of the residence to recall the past, assess the present, and write the President’s memoirs.
These “recounted memories that were written down by a journalist who is known for his reserve and faithfulness”, in Ghassan Tueni’s words, were eventually published in 2002 in a book titled Elias Hraoui, Building the Republic: From Segmentation to Unity. In the book’s preface, Camille Menassa writes: “It is a promenade with President Hraoui in the garden of his life, mixing the personal account with historical events that occurred successively over a period of more than half a century.” (p. 11)

 

President Hraoui’s residence remained open to everyone. He often liked to invite visitors to lunch and follow up on the country’s news as well as analyze the latest developments.

President Hraoui also increased the frequency of his visits to his hometown, Zahle, where he liked to spend Easter week and attend mass on Good Friday at Mar Elias Church in Hawsh Al-Umara. He made sure to attend mass at this same church every year on Saint Elias day on July 20 as well.

In the last two years of his life, President Hraoui suffered an incurable disease, which he bore bravely and patiently, maintaining his composure and awareness until his very last breath, which coincided with the outbreak of the wanton war Israel waged on Lebanon.

President Hraoui passed away on July 7, 2006. A national funeral was held, and the President of the Republic, the Parliament Speaker, the Prime Minister, the Cabinet, and the Parliament officially mourned him. A three-day official mourning period was declared, during which the flag was lowered at all official and public institutions.

Four army officers took turns to guard the body of the departed at his residence in Yarzeh. On Sunday, July 9, 2006, the overflowing official funeral procession proceeded to Mar Maroun Church and then to Saint George Cathedral in downtown Beirut.

After the service, the President’s body was transported to his place of birth in Zahle and was met by popular crowds, who carried the coffin to Mar Elias Church in Hawsh Al-Umara on their shoulders, before it was finally lain to rest in the family’s burial grounds.

President Elias Hraoui remains in the people’s memory “the president that Lebanon misses”.


This biography is primarily based on the second edition of Camille Menassa’s Book Elias Hraoui, Building the Republic: From Segmentation to Unity.

 

1- Camille Menassa, Elias Hraoui, Building the Republic: From Segmentation to Unity, 2nd Edition (Beirut: Dar An-Nahar and Raidy Printing Press, 2002).
2- Lebanon: From Crisis to Peace, Words and Stances, 1989-1995, Volume One and Volume Two (Beirut: Dar Al Andalos Publishing).
3- Cementing the State of Institutions and Reconstruction, Words and Stances, 1959-1998, Volume Three (Beirut: Joseph D. Raidy Printing Press).
4- Website section: “Events of the Ruling Years, 1989-1998”.


© Copyright 2012 - All Rights Reserved.
Contact Us   |  Site Map   |  Gallery