The plain and mountains of the ‘Akkar are the northernmost part of the Lebanon, beyond Tripoli and the Koura region to its south and east. Partly because of the insistence of some influential Maronites, and with misgivings on the part of only a few French critics at the time, it was included in le Grand Liban in 1920 by the French League of Nations Mandate authorities, along with the Bekaa Valley and what is now south Lebanon. ‘Akkar’s predominantly Sunni Muslim population (in one of the most thinly inhabited areas of the country) led some to fear that its incorporation would lead to later problems of confessional balance since it was also the hinterland of the Sunni and nationalist city of Tripoli, whatever its advantages as a granary.

Strategic is an important word to bear in mind when we look at the map of ‘Akkar, as is the word military. This is the gateway into northern Syria, after all. It is no accident that famous castles — among them Krak des Chevaliers (Husn al-Akrad, “the fortress of the Kurds” in Arabic) — guard the sweep of the coastal plain inland between the ‘Alawi mountain to the north and the Lebanese mountain to the south. The Ottoman Empire, never too sure of the loyalties of the peoples of either mountain, needed to control the routes that led north from the coast to Homs, Hama and Aleppo and south to Damascus. The ports of the coast up from Tripoli — Tartous, Banyas and Latakia — also played a role in the strategic equation. The ‘Akkar region owed much of its social and economic character as well as its military significance to its relations to Horns, Hama and its main market, Tripoli. The local Arabic accent reflects this relationship, and so, more tangibly, does the agricultural and political order.

Since the second half of the nineteenth century, the area has been dominated by what the French called great latifundia. The Mir‘abi families of beys and pashas, whose importance grew from the latter part of the eighteenth century, acquired major land holdings spoken of not in terms of acreage but of the number of villages owned and how long it took to ride by horse across the estates. Other large holdings of the Homs-Hama plain were concentrated in relatively few hands among key families, usually absentee landlords as time went on. Labor was always scarce, and control over the labor force by coercive means — force, debt, ritual obligations, punitive sharecropping agreements — was crucial and a source of competition. Staffs of bailiffs doubled as strong-arm men who administered and patrolled the villages of extremely poor sharecroppers and laborers. Such aghas, as these intermediate strata were called, might themselves be independent landholders on a small scale, and constituted little local elites.

To the French political and military authorities in the Mandate period, the great families of beys were a godsend, if they were not always seen by the Mandate agronomists in quite such a beneficent light. The latter wanted rural reform and a new class of independent peasants with increasingly efficient production. The former were essentially happy to have the cooperation of the landlords in their tense relations with the often rebellious ‘Alawis and to help control the plain itself. Although the boundary between Syria and the new enlarged Lebanon now ran across the ‘Akkar, the latifundia owners had free run of the region, coming and going as they pleased until the Syrian land reforms of 1958.

Cunning Investment

They were very well placed to build up their political connections and economic investments. In the Sunni slots that led election lists, the Mir‘abis monopolized entry into the political bodies of the state right up to the last National Assembly elections of 1972. By these and other means, they controlled the spoils of patronage, jobs, favors, protection, access to some much disputed place such as the college for army NCOs, the construction of a well, the building of a post office or, just as important, keeping the post office, clinic or even school a village already had. The often ferocious competition for advantage between landlord politicos created spaces for clients and dependents to attempt their own small-scale manipulations. Rivals could be eliminated by all the pressures available, including assassination. Not a few of the Mir‘abis typically lost out in the struggles and became themselves marginal to the core groups of influential figures.

Landlords slowly came to play a less dominant role in the National Assembly in the 1950s and 1960s, and a lord required a great deal of cunning investment in social relations as well as in economic ventures to maintain his position. Those depending more or less entirely on their agricultural incomes felt the squeeze first, as the primary sector declined in economic importance vis-a-vis the burgeoning services sector. It was therefore all the more necessary for such figures to keep local control of labor in ‘Akkar itself and to attempt to shore up their globally declining position at least in their own area by yet more oppressive measures. These in turn exacerbated social tensions with the laboring class.

The more entrepreneurially gifted and financially secure could compensate for loss of villages in post-1958 Syria through changes towards capital intensive farming, of citrus for example, or ensuring that state projects for irrigation passed next to their land. Chicken farming became important in one area of the hills. A sugar beet factory destroyed in the troubles of 1958 was never rebuilt and there was no industrial development. The use of gangs of cheap ‘Alawi laborers, working for a lira or two less per day than their almost equally impoverished Lebanese counterparts, was as much a feature of the 1970s as of the 1930s. Successful lords were businessmen, too, and/or professionals, not to mention owners of urban property in Tripoli and Beirut. They no longer depended on agriculture alone.

The less well-placed beys and aghas might have to sell land or lease it out to peasants. They invariably deplored the terms as unfavorable compared to the benefits of the very unequal sharecropping agreements which had dominated tenure until the 1960s. Land sales were to rival lords or to capitalist investors from Tripoli, Beirut, Jordan or Syria who began to see in the plain of ‘Akkar a promising area for profit, especially in capital-intensive citrus.

The ‘Akkar was therefore thought of as a backward and peripheral region, even lower in its general condition of life than the south or the Bekaa. There were one or two small areas of greater prosperity, due to geography, investment and the accidents of emigration translated years later into that very Lebanese phenomenon of the rich village with great villas built for the summer residence of those returning from the Americas or West Africa. Baynu was the type case here, and exceptional in its monied elegance.

The poor of the plains and the villages which had not been involved in early, relatively rare waves of migration, tended to opt for Tripoli or Beirut. By the early 1970s, Australia was becoming a dreamed-of destination, though not everyone found their hopes fulfilled and some returned quickly. Not surprisingly, ‘Akkar became well-known for the number of young men who joined the army and, following normal military policy, were posted elsewhere.

Small wonder that ‘Akkar, a peripheralized area in which semi-feudal relations still governed much of agricultural production and politics while considerable changes were occurring locally and nationally, was troublesome for the authorities. The large Palestinian camp at the Nahr al-Barid had its own influence on those young Lebanese villagers who might get sporadic training there. Suleiman Franjieh, a za‘im from Zaghurta elected president in 1970, was the first from the north and an opponent of liberal reformist programs. He saw the region as falling under his sway. The Phalangists were seeking to expand their influence, too, from bases in a couple of Maronite villages obviously in competition with the boss of Zaghurta. This competition during the civil war led to the slaughter of the president‘s ambitious son, Tony Franjieh, along with his family and bodyguards.

Syria had great local clout both in Tripoli and in the ‘Akkar in general, and wished to exercise it as it saw fit, which might include brief closing of the border, for example, thus stopping the export of vegetable crops. It might also mean more blatant intervention in elections in certain frontier areas.

Peasant Revolt

The fundamental class tension between landlords and laborer/tenant farmers constantly threatened to become more than individual cases of violence, threats, sometimes killing. In the early 1970s, a worker-peasant alliance emerged, headed by a gifted lawyer from Baynu, Khalid Saghiya, a Syrian Baathist in political terms. Saghiya led what amounted to a revolt by the poor and scattered settlements of the plain against the exploitative system under which they suffered. In part it was a protest against social and economic conditions of extreme severity, in part against what were thought to be plans by some beys to sell off their holdings to outside capitalist investors, displacing the peasants altogether. Certain areas were declared military zones. The government alternated between promises of reform and crude pressure on the peasants. Movement between villages was stopped, water supplies were blocked, tractors were destroyed, and stories of harassment in the name of legality abounded.

After 1970’s Black September events in Jordan, arms were in plentiful supply as smugglers made a killing selling the suddenly accessible Kalashnikovs. The lords bitterly denounced “outsiders” — i.e., Syria — and small villages on the sparsely settled plain such as Mas‘udiyya were virtually under siege at various times. In 1972 Saghiya himself led the first sha‘bi (popular) electoral list ever assembled in the ‘Akkar, popular in the sense that the two Sunni slots (‘Akkar had four slots in this election: two Sunni, one Greek Orthodox and one Maronite) were not filled with Mir‘abi candidates and that Baathist rhetoric, deriving real appeal in the oppressive context of landlord rule, was the identifying marker. Saghiya claimed that three percent of the proprietors owned 73 percent of the plain, an area of some 25,000 hectares. Few were surprised when he was murdered a few months after the election by someone popularly associated with a leading minister, who was also one of the Mir‘abis.

Saghiya was able to cultivate an alliance with other anti-bey forces, notably the clan of the Ba‘arinis from the mountain region of the Jurd. They had their own rivalries with the lords, and their own alliances on the plain as well as in the powerful Sunni mountain villages of Fanaydik, Mishmish and, lower down in the foothills, Barqayl. They also had reasonable relations with the Palestinians of the Baddawi camp, which added a dimension to the struggle. The Jurd had always operated as a semi-autonomous zone where the writ of the state barely ran. These new links with the plain opened up a power struggle with many dimensions. The beys were weakened, despite their apparent victory over the peasants in several legal cases. Continued resistance showed signs of crystallizing awareness of the diminishing power and prestige of some of the traditional rulers.

No one could forget Syria. There were lords who were for or against; a population of floating individuals without a Lebanese identity card and often described as ’Alawi whose obedience lay that way; members of the worker-peasant alliance, of course; and those who decided that sheer political common sense dictated at least careful acknowledgement of so powerful a neighbor’s interests.

As was true of other areas of Lebanon, though in different ways, the ‘Akkar was riddled with contradictions and divisions. Franjieh and the Phalange were in rivalry. Peasant-laborers fought landlords, Jurd clans sometimes fought with each other but by 1972 were in alliance against the beys. The state ineffectually sought to defend ruling interests against the ruled, the latter relying on Syrian indulgence and backing, depending on circumstance. Suspicion and power competition between major villages might arise, too, as each sought to defend or expand zones of influence and possible wider alliances in this fluid, shifting set of struggles. There was no emergent intelligentsia to speak of, or not one that constituted itself in regional terms, and no equivalent of the mass migration of poor Shi‘a from the south to Beirut. Tripoli contained its own complex antagonisms which drew in numbers of ‘Akkaris in urban movements, as Michel Seurat has shown.

But rural ‘Akkar had ties to Syria which went back for generations. The great neighbor was bound to be predominant. Indeed, in the wars to come the ease with which Syrian forces dominated the plain and established a local peace worked to the advantage precisely of many popular forces which had begun to coalesce in the late 1960s. The region was thus spared many of the horrors which overtook other areas, and benefited not a little from the breaking of traditional political controls. This happened just at the moment of the oil boom; emigration to the Gulf became an attractive option for many who had not before seen this as an avenue to the future. The war and effective Syrian control thus came to mean for many a time of progress and economic gain.

How to cite this article:

Michael Gilsenan "‘Akkar Before the Civil War," Middle East Report 162 (January/February 1990).
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