Rethinking the State from a Societal/Humanistic Approach

Dr. Simon Kachar & Dr. Tania Haddad

If we want to skim through the countries of the Middle East, “Lebanon is one of the states which are often defined as weak”. “Lebanese government reluctance to interfere with the economy or with the sphere of social benefits were not conducive to the state control over other forms of social organization, or to gaining monopoly for establishing rules that would be binding to the entire population. The first political leader who met the challenge of consolidating the central power, to the extent that it would dominate local centers of power, and who in some parts successfully expanded the state’s sphere of influence, was General Fouad Chehab. The period of his presidency (1958-1964) and the first years of the presidency of his successor, Charles Helou, are often defined in the literature as the best years, when the most serious attempt to modernize Lebanon and to introduce comprehensive reforms in its political and administrative system had been made.”
“Chehab and his political supporters aimed at building a modern state that would become the most important inspirer of social integration and cooperation, in spite of deep religious divides existing in the country. Chehab’s efforts ended in defeat: in the short period after his presidency, the so-called “Chehabist state” was gradually dismantled, and it eventually ceased to exist with the 1970 presidential election victory of Suleiman Frangieh.”
J.P. Nettl points out in his publication “The State as a Conceptual Variable”, “the concept of the state is and ought to be treated as a variable in social science, as a reflection of the varying empirical reality with which social science concerns itself.”
“The state, whose boundaries in relation to society remained impossible to define unequivocally, was treated as a symbol or myth rather than an analytically useful construct.” In his attempt to capture the dynamic character of these mutual relations, Joel Migdal proposes a new approach to the analysis of the state, which he defined as “the state in society”. According to this definition, “the state is field of power marked by the use and threat of violence in attempting to control people’s behavior and shaped by: the image of coherent, controlling organization in a territory which is an outgrowth and representation of the people bounded by that territory; and the actual practices of that organization’s multiple parts.”
This introduction leads to the question on how have states and other social organizations interacted in societies in which states have note achieved predominance? Which in its turn leads to the analysis of the relation between the Lebanese state and society under the rule of Fouad Chehab.
From the very beginning of his term in office it was his main goal to consolidate the state through introducing a series of far-reaching political, economic and social reforms. Chehab was very sensitive to social injustice, so he realized that the Muslim population could hardly be expected to be loyal towards the state when most of them had no chance at all to improve their social status and living conditions, and were refused the right of equal access to positions in public administration, education etc. The president considered the traditional political leaders, the zu’ama, to be his greatest political opponents; he also considered them to be the main obstacle in the development of a modern state.
Chehab was fully aware of the difficulties he had to face up to in order to realize his plan of modernizing the state; still he had no intention of repeating the mistakes of his predecessor. Introducing reforms required political stability and building the widest coalition possible, which would become supportive of the president in his attempt to realize subsequent stages of repairing the state. It would above all require the political back-up of people who would be loyal to the president, well qualified and open to change. He was not a revolutionary, but he was certainly a pragmatist. He believed in the concept of evolution instead of revolution.
The creation of the Civil Service Council and Central Inspection Board, which was headed by a trusted collaborator of Chehab, well-known for his honesty, lead to new principles in applying for a position in public administration, where candidates had to pass exams designed to confirm one’s qualifications. As a result, a new chance of employment was open to people from outside of the clientele circles of local political leaders. This was a serious blow for the zu’ama, who were opposed to any reforms in administration, even back in the period of Chamoun’s presidency.
There are a lot of opinions that Chehab and his circle, despite all the good work and planning that was done during his tenure as President, failed to establish legal and permanent rules, which would be accepted not only by his successors and most of the members of the establishment but also by the society at large. This is yet to be discussed, studied and discovered in the coming period during our scholarly work.
Back to the main issue, some questions, based on which scholarly in this regard work can continue, should be raised. Those questions were put by Fadia Kiwan in her paper “Dealing with the Past Through Collective Memory – Towards Rebuilding the Lebanese State” where she asks if it is possible to build a state without looking at the foundations first, and if the Lebanese society is homogeneous as a national society or is there something that prevents its homogeneity.


Tonta, Rachela, Why the Chehabist State Failed – The State in Society Approach, Hemispheres. Studies on Cultures and Societies, 2009, issue 24, pp. 91-104.
Winslow, Charles, Lebanon: War and Politics in a Fragmented Society, Routledge, 1996, pp. 131-164.
Zamir, Meir, “The Lebanese Presidential Elections of 1970 and their Impact on the Civil War of 1975-1976”, Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 16, No. 1, January 1980, p. 52.
Tonta, Rachela, Why the Chehabist State Failed – The State in Society Approach, Hemispheres. Studies on Cultures and Societies, 2009, issue 24, pp. 91-104.
Nettl, John Peter, “The State as a Conceptual Variable”, World Politics, Vol. 20, No. 4, July
1968, p. 562.
Mitchell, Timothy, “The Limits of the State: Beyond Statist Approaches and their Critics”, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 85, No. 1, March 1991, p. 81.

Migdal, Joel S, “Researching the State”, in: Comparative Politics. Rationality, Culture and Structure, Mark I. Lichbach, Alan S. Zuckerman (eds.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
2009, pp. 162-176.
Salibi, Kamal, “Lebanon Under Fouad Chehab”, Middle Eastern Studies, No. 2, 1966, pp. 212-213, 218.
Tonta, Rachela, Why the Chehabist State Failed – The State in Society Approach, Hemispheres. Studies on Cultures and Societies, 2009, issue 24, pp. 91-104.

Kiwan, Fadia, “Dealing with the Past Through Collective Memory – Towards Rebuilding the Lebanese State”, Civic Influence Hub – Konrad Adenaur Stiftung working papers, 2023, p. 2.


Simon Kachar, Ph.D., Lecturer in Political Science, Fellow at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs – American University of Beirut.

Tania Haddad, Ph.D., Associate Professor for Public Administration at the American University of Beirut.

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