Nabih Berri: Lebanon’s Great Survivor
Born in Sierra Leone in 1939 to expatriate parents, Nabih Berri became a lawyer in Lebanon after graduating in 1963. Before the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990), he became involved with the new Amal Movement, which he led from 1980. He has been the parliamentary speaker since 1992.
Berri’s life and career have been shaped by Lebanese history but also by the evolution of the country’s Shiite community, which had little political influence before the civil war despite being the third-largest religious group. Due to Lebanon’s system of proportional representation, the president is always a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni and the parliamentary speaker a Shiite. The Shiites’ position improved with the arrival of the Iran-born cleric Musa al-Sadr and Hussein al-Husseini, who gave a sense of purpose to the community and founded Amal as the ‘movement of the dispossessed’ in 1974.
Amal and Hezbollah are the two largest Shiite parties in Lebanon. They have been allies since the civil war, when Hezbollah was dependent on military aid from Iran, and Amal, with Berri at the helm, had a legitimate role in the government. Yet Amal’s power relies on crony capitalism, while Hezbollah gained from the post-war impunity for militias and parties. Despite ongoing competition for influence, the two parties have not taken any steps to separate.
A politically active student, Berri joined the Arab Baath Movement upon graduating but was later attracted to the Amal Movement by al-Sadr’s charisma. When the war broke out, the movement lost significance. However, al-Sadr’s disappearance in August 1978 during a trip to Libya and his subsequent elevation to hero reinvigorated the party. The Shiites became increasingly involved in the war and started organizing their own defence and alliances. It was in this context that Berri became Amal’s new leader.
Berri’s actions and decisions during the war are still considered as decisive by the Shiites. In February 1984, after Shiite areas were attacked by government forces, he called for an end to the fighting. His call was heeded because many of the soldiers were Shiites. In cooperation with the Druze leader Walid Jum-blatt, Berri then took control of Beirut West and bolstered his position with support from Syria, a key Shiite ally.
In 1984, Berri became minister of justice and minister for the South. Yet despite signing the Damascus tripartite agreement with Jumblatt and the Maronite militia leader Elie Hobeika, the civil war continued, threatening his credibility. He clashed with the Druze Socialist Party, then with Hezbollah for questions of influences and clashed between militias, and was politically sidelined by Michel Aoun, the current president, who formed a military government until his cabinet was dissolved in November 1989. Berri was appointed minister of hydraulic and electric resources as well as of housing and cooperatives until December 1990, then minister of state for several months in 1992 before becoming the parliamentary speaker the same year.
He continued his political climb over the following decade, winning the 2000 parliamentary elections in the south with his Resistance and Development list and again in 2005. He also won the 2009 elections with his Liberation and Development list. In the May 2018 elections, his party ran on a programme focused on preserving Lebanese sovereignty, fighting crime and drugs, and strengthening the army. On several occasions he called on expatriates to vote for the lists affiliated with Hezbollah and Amal. He said: “In all cases, I ask for your attention because your country has learned a lesson and has paid attention to you, not only as a financial force but also as an electoral force that all groups and alliances are in need of. […] Don’t be afraid of the elections, but be afraid for them [if you do not vote].”
Close to the confessional balance and religious share of the country’s power, he is also pro-public service, and in 2013 and 2014 stood with teachers, civil servants and soldiers to increase their salaries. He also has strong ties with Syria and Syria’s allies Iran and Russia, appearing on billboards in southern Lebanon next to billboards calling for Vladimir’s re-election in Russia.
Berri is perceived as intelligent, dedicated and honest, with good political instincts and the ability to change when needed in order to maintain his position and party. However, he is not without his political opponents. In late January 2018, Foreign Affairs Minister Gebran Bassil called Berri a “thug”. The comment prompted hundreds of Berri’s supporters to take to the streets of the capital Beirut and the southern city of Tyre to protest against the Free Patriotic Movement, led by Bassil and founded by Aoun. Berri was opposed to Aoun’s election in 2016 and accused him of seeking to “topple political Shiism” in Lebanon, warning that such an attempt could lead to a new civil war. In order to contain the situation, Berri eventually asked his supporters to stop protesting on 1 February.
Berri is meant to last in politics, like most of Lebanon’s warlords, until his last breath. His heavy involvement and current long-lasting position in the Parliament make of him an unavoidable figure of Lebanese political life.