Nabih Berri (born 1939) became the leader of the Shi'ite Muslims in Lebanon in 1980. He helped the Shi'ites achieve more prominent role in Lebanese politics.
Like many of his countrymen from south Lebanon, Nabih Berri's father was a merchant who had migrated to West Africa in order to escape the impoverishment and lack of economic opportunity in his native land. Nabih was born in 1939 in Sierra Leone, where his father had established a relatively successful business.
At the time of his birth the Shi'ite Muslims comprised the third largest sectarian group in Lebanon, but they had little political influence. In the 1943 national pact that served as the basis for the establishment of independent Lebanon, the predominant political offices—the presidency and the prime ministership—were given to the Maronite Christians and the Sunni Muslims. The Shi'ite Muslims (second in membership to the Sunni sect in all of Islam) were only accorded the post of parliamentary speaker—a distant third in terms of effective political influence. The lack of influence accorded to Berri's Shi'ite brethren reflected their general underdevelopment and poverty, whether measured in terms of income, education, health care, or occupation.
Nabih's biography is in large measure a mirror of the extraordinary modernization and change that took place in the Shi'ite community over the span of his lifetime. By the mid-1980s the Shi'ites, who had a much higher birthrate (until the 1990s) than any of the other sects in Lebanon, were clearly the largest single community in the country (representing as much as 40 percent of the population). They began demanding a more central role in the Lebanese political system, and were clearly unwilling to continue to accept the second or third class status that had long been their fate.
The career of Berri illustrates some of the changes that occurred. After working for a time for his father in Freetown, he attended the Lebanese University in Beirut and graduated from the Beirut Law School in 1963. After graduation Berri went to France, where he studied for a year at the Sorbonne. He was active in student politics, and served as president of the student body at the Lebanese University. He was also active, by the early 1960s, in ideological politics and especially in the Arab Ba'ath (or Renaissance) Party.
In 1974, after Berri had practiced law for a time in Beirut (and had also traveled to the United States), he changed political affiliation. Leaving the Ba'ath Party, he affiliated with a charismatic religious leader by the name of al-Sayyid Musa al-Sadr. Al-Sadr began organizing a political reform movement among the Shi'ites in Lebanon in 1959. Initially Berri played only a minor role in al-Sadr's movement, and the onset of civil war in 1975 somewhat eclipsed that movement.
However, several things happened in the late 1970s that brought the movement into the forefront and with it brought Berri into prominence. First, when al-Sadr disappeared during an August 1978 trip to Libya he became an authentic hero for the Shi'ites. The movement that he had created, the Movement of the Deprived, was reinvigorated as the Amal movement ("Amal" means hope in Arabic, and it is also the acronym for the Detachments of the Lebanese Resistance).
Second, the Shi'ites became increasingly unwilling to remain in the crossfire between the Israelis and the Palestinian guerrillas who were deployed in south Lebanon. The Shi'a took up arms in their own defense, and by the late 1970s they were engaging in armed combat with the Palestinians, who had earlier been their allies. The deterioration of the relationship between the Shi'a and the Palestinians provided a context in which Amal could serve as a credible vehicle for communal self-defense.
The third development was the Iranian revolution of 1978-1979. The events in Iran provided the Shi'ites an inspirational model. Amal provided a vehicle for action, and one which possessed a profound cultural authenticity. It should be emphasized, however, that the Lebanese Shi'ite of the Amal movement did not desire to create an Islamic republic in Lebanon, but instead wanted to gain greater power in a multi-confessional state.
The disappearance of Musa al-Sadr created room for a new leader of the Shi'ite movement, and in 1980 Berri assumed that role. He was not without competitors. His opponents included the traditionally powerful political bosses who long dominated the Shi'ite community, a number of religious officials, and various Shi'ite groupings that wanted to hew more closely to the Iranian position.
By the time of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Berri's Amal movement was gaining significant strength and was clearly the most important political organization of the Shi'ites. Berri and many of his compatriots thought that the Israeli invasion had created a new situation replete with opportunities for the Shi'ites to increase their political power in a reformed political system. The Israelis had expelled the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) from the south and Beirut and had decisively weakened the Lebanese militias and movements that had remained aligned with the PLO. In short, it appeared the Amal was going to make great gains.
Berri adopted a patient stance in the fall of 1982, but the Israelis sought to undercut Amal by creating proxy forces in south Lebanon. The new president of Lebanon, Amin Gemayel, seemed unwilling to even recognize Berri and his Amal movement. External powers—the United States, France, Italy, and Great Britain—that sent a multinational force to Beirut were slow to recognize the significance of the Shi'a.
Berri, indisputably a political moderate, had little to show for his moderation. As a result his hold over Amal was ever more in jeopardy throughout 1983. After a number of bloody episodes, including acts of terrorism by extremist Shi'ites and oppression of the Shi'ite suburbs of Beirut by the Lebanese army, Berri was forced to act. In February 1984, after Shi'ite areas had been shelled by the government, Berri called for the Lebanese soldiers to lay down their arms. His call was an effective one, since many of the soldiers were in fact Shi'ites.
Under his leadership, and in cooperation with the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, Berri's Amal movement seized control of West Beirut and thereby emasculated the central government. Simultaneously, the multinational force was withdrawn and Syria's influence, reduced by the Israeli invasion, was reasserted. The result was that the allies of Syria, now including Berri (who had earlier tried to keep his distance from Damascus), gained power.
By the summer of 1984 Berri was installed in the government as minister of justice and minister for the South (a position of great symbolic significance). Unfortunately, this is not the end of the story. The years from 1985 on proved to be difficult for Lebanon and for Berri. Although the Syrians attempted to engineer a political settlement that would accommodate the demands of all of Lebanon's sectarian groups, they failed. In December 1985 Berri signed the Damascus tripartite agreement with Walid Jumblatt (the principal Druze leader) and Elie Hobeika (a Maronite militia leader), but the agreement did not produce the reform and stability many hoped it would. Instead, Lebanon remained a killing ground upon which no community could impose its will, while each major community had the means to veto the initiatives of others. In 1987 Berri's Amal movement was challenged in West Beirut by the Druze Socialist Party and other leftist groups. A year later Amal clashed with the Hizbollah in skirmishes that lasted for nearly two months. By the end of 1988 departing president Amin Gemayel appointed his chief of staff, General Michel Aoun, to form a military government. This led Berri to spend as much time out of the capital as possible. Aoun's cabinet lasted until November 1989 when his colleague and presidential candidate, Rene Mu'awwad was assassinated 16 days after his election. With much ground lost, Aoun was dismissed and eventually exiled to France by swiftly elected, Syria-friendly President Elias Hrawi. This also led Berri back to a cabinet position.
In October 1992 a new parliament was instituted by President Hrawi which appointed Berri to his current position of parliamentary speaker. While Hrawi's government brought much greater potential for gain for the already wealthy, under Syria's iron hand, the current parliament found it difficult to act on issues close to Lebanon. They were bombarded with accusations of corruption. Also Lebanese discontent with their own leaders submission towards Syria surfaced heavily and voter apathy was widespread.
Within the Shi'ite community Berri's challengers continued to erode his influence. Extremist Shi'ites who desired to establish an Islamic republic in Lebanon clashed repeatedly with Amal, and few knowledgeable observers believed that Berri could fail to take them into account. The problems Berri faced had been well illustrated in June 1985 when a TWA passenger jet was hijacked to Beirut. Amal was not responsible for the hijacking, but Berri quickly assumed control of the hostages, not only to assure their safety, but to deny a full-blown media victory to the perpetrators and the views they represented. Yet Berri was unable to solve the crisis without the major intervention of Syria (and even Iran), a clear indication of the limitations on his authority and an interesting omen regarding the future of Lebanon.
Nonetheless, Berri was an easy man to underestimate. He was intelligent, dedicated, honest, and had good political instincts. He was able to grasp the political mood of his constituency and was capable of doing what needed to be done in order to survive.
Although there is no published biography of Berri, the reader can find authoritative accounts of the Amal movement in the following sources: Edward Azar et al., Emergence of a New Lebanon (1984); Myron Aronoff, editor, Religion and Politics (1984); Nikki Keddie and Juan Cole, editors, Shi'ism and Social Protest (1986); Robin Wright, Sacred Rage (1985); and Martin Kramer, editor, Shi'ism, Resistance and Revolution (1986). A short but excellent biography was prepared by Tom Hundley for Contemporary Newsmakers (1985). For more information on Berri's role in the events of Lebanon, two good sources include Dilip Hiro's Lebanon: Fire and Embers: A History of the Lebanese Civil War (1993) and William W. Harris's Faces of Lebanon: Sects, Wars, and Global Extensions (1997).