Nabi Berri, a political figure, is one of the most influential politicians in Lebanon. He’s the leader of the Amal movement. He is also one of the world’s longest-serving legislative chiefs. However, his popularity didn’t come from politics or the power he wielded, nor his influence in modern Lebanese politics, but from his failures.
The post-civil war Lebanese politics has become a tug-of-war between two sides that want to control Lebanon.
On the one, you have Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, and Amal; on the other hand, you have the Sunni, Maronite Christian, Druze, and groups opposed to Syrian influence.
As the Amal movement leader, Berri has played a considerable role in the second civil war. Many believe he encourages the battle between the nationalists and Islamists in the region.
Who is Nabih Berri?
Nabih Berri is a Lebanese politician who is currently the acting speaker of the Lebanese parliament since 1992 after succeeding Hussein el-Husseini. In 1980, he became the Shi’ite Amal Movement leader, the largest Shi’ite party in Lebanon.
Berri was the force behind the Shi’ites’ prominent role today in various Lebanese political party offices. He has headed Lebanon’s parliament for almost thirty years.
On January 28, 1938, he was born in Sierra Leone, West Africa, to both Shia Muslim-Lebanese parents. Like many Lebanese during his time, he was the son of a merchant who had migrated to West Africa to escape poverty. His family was originally from the village of Tibnin in Jabal-Amil, around 25km east of Tyre. In Tinbin, the Berri family is the largest and most dominant in the town for generations.
By the 1940s, his family moved back to Lebanon. Through the years, his father became a successful businessman. He went to school in Tebnine and Ain in southern Lebanon. Berri took Law at Lebanese University. During his college years, Berri was politically active.
In 1963, he became president of the National Union of Lebanese Students and became involved in political conferences. He graduated from Lebanese University with a law degree in 1963 before completing his higher education at Sorbonne in Paris.
Berri joined the Arab Ba’ath Movement after graduating. After working with his father in West Africa, he moved to Beirut to open a law office in 1963. During the 1970s, Berri worked in Beirut as a lawyer for several companies, and at one time, worked at General Motors for a brief period. He also served as an attorney for Sadr’s Amal movement. He then worked professionally as a lawyer at the Court of Appeals.
Berri had two marriages and a total of nine children. His first wife, Lila, was an interpreter who worked in the Dearborn Police Department. They had six children together. His second wife, Randa, lived in Beirut with their daughter.
The Amal Movement
Berri met Imam Musa al-Sadr, a Shia cleric who founded the Al-Mahroomen movement, which was later known as the Amal movement. Amal is the Arabic word for hope and was initially given as the name to the disinherited movement’s military arm.
Berri found himself attracted to the Amal movement, thanks to al-Sadr’s charisma. Sadr was an Iranian-born Shia Lebanese who had also founded the Higher Islamic Council in 1969. Sadr, who first established his army, later resisted a military solution to Lebanon’s problem when he refused to let Amal fight during the 1975 Civil War. This reluctance made him less famous in many Shias’ eyes. Many of them left the group to support the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)?
When the war started, the movement was already in shambles. However, the movement came back to life after Al-Sadr mysteriously vanished during his trip to Libya. For this reason, the movement blamed Libya’s then-president Muammar Gaddafi.
The disappearance of Sadr left the community without a leader. Sadr’s popularity had already been declining at the beginning of the civil war. Still, his presence was what kept the faction alive. Eventually, his disappearance became the community’s uniting factor.
After Hussein-al Husseini’s brief tenure as leader of the Amal Movement, Nabih Berri became the Shi’ite Amal Movement leader in 1980. During this time, Amal became the most powerful organization within the Shia community. Berri was able to strengthen Amal so much that it became a formidable force in the country.
Between the years 1979 – 1982, the Amal was already involved in many fights with the PLO. Amal was against the unlawful occupation of Israel in South Lebanon. They called the Lebanese Army to defend their homeland from the Israelites. This battle is known famously as the battle of Khalde in 1982. Berri’s party was also involved in the “war of the camps,” in which they were accused of committing crimes against Palestinian refugees.
During this time, Damascus relied heavily on Berri to counter the refugee camps’ remilitarization by Arafat’s Fatah movement. It was a two-year blood war that killed thousands of people.
By 1983, Berri shifted his position because he was losing support among religious fundamentalists and leftists. He was known for having strong ties with the U.S., even though he often criticized it publicly. Berri lived in Dearborn for a brief period in the 1970s. He also visited the U.S. at least once a year to keep his resident permit current so that he could see his six children.
In September 1985, Berri and Walid Jumblatt, and Elie Hobeiqa signed the Syrian-brokered Tripartite agreement, which initiated peace between Syria and Lebanon. Berri also played a critical role in the civil war.
In 1986, his party fought against president Amine Geyamel’s government during the Lebanese Civil War. This was his retaliation to Gemayel’s order of razing Shi quarters of Beirut. During this time, his group earned the support of Syria’s Hafez al-Assad regime, while Iran backed its rival Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah. Although they hail from the same sect, they clashed many times.
In 1987, Berri made a huge mistake of ordering his forces to act against Drize and the pro-PLO militia forces, which entrenched West Beirut. He lost this war, and his headquarters overran within five days. Berri sought help from Syria, which then drove Amal forces out of several positions over the next months. To prevent complete defeat, Syrian troops stormed into West Beirut, followed by Berri, who spent nine months in Exile in Syria.
The Taif Agreement is a document that provided the basis for the end of the civil war. It was negotiated in Ta’if Saudi Arabia in September 1989 and approved by the government of Lebanon and the Lebanon parliament on November 4, 1989. This agreement returned political normalcy in the country.
In 1992, after the Taif Agreement ended the civil war, Berri was elected as the Parliament’s Speaker. He remained in this position for over two decades. Berri dominated Lebanon’s Shia political scene thanks to the rise of the Amal Movement. Many Berri supporters praise him for his focus on development projects and employment opportunities in the south. Berri is known for having a sharp tongue, a booming voice, and always speaking off-the-cuff, even during heated parliamentary sessions.
Berri never makes comments to the media, but he holds open houses for parliament members every Wednesday. The journalists then interview visitors on their way out. Berri was an influential political member. He would regularly host top officials visiting from Western countries to Lebanon, especially those who cannot meet with Hezbollah.
Since 1999, Berri has led the Arab Parliament Committee in charge of disclosing Israeli crimes against Arabs. In 2003, he was elected president of the Arab Parliament. In 2004, Berri was elected president of the Parliamentary Union of the OIC Member States. This lasted until 2006.
Here’s a summary of Berri’s roles as a cabinet minister from 1984 to 1992:
- April 1984 to September 1988: Minister of Justice in the government of Rashid Karami.
- November 1989 to December 1990: Minister of Hydraulic & Electric Resources in the government of Selim Hoss.
- November 1989 to December 1990: Minister of Housing & Cooperatives in the government of Selim Hoss.
- May 1992 to October 1992: Minister of State in the government of Rachid Solh.
- In 1992, Berri was elected as president of the Lebanese National Assembly.
Final Thoughts: Is Nabih Berri Shi’ite’s Most Successful Leader?
- Nabih Berri is the most influential Lebanese politician who also became the leader of the Amal movement.
- Nabih Berri was born in West Africa, and his family moved to Southern Lebanon.
- Nabih Berri graduated with a law degree and took higher studies in Paris.
- Two years after Sadr’s disappearance and after Hussein-al Husseini, he became the Amal Movement leader.
- The Amal Movement became the most formidable force in Lebanon. They fought against the president of Lebanon, Amine Gemayel, during the civil war.
- Nabih Berri dominated Lebanon’s political scene after he was appointed speaker.
During the time of his birth, the Shi’ite Muslims were the third largest sectarian group in Lebanon. They had very little political influence in the country.
In the 1943 national pact that founded independent Lebanon, the president, and the prime ministership was given to the Maronite Christians and Sunni Muslims. The Shi’ite Muslims were only given the post of parliamentary speaker. This lack of influence resulted in underdevelopment and poverty among the Shi’ite population.
During the 1980s, the Shi’ites were already the largest single community in the country, representing 40 percent of the population. They began to demand a more central role in the Lebanese political system. They weren’t willing anymore to take a second or third class status.
Upon Berri’s entry to parliament, the politicians who aligned with him have always won elections. Shi’s have also acquired various key Lebanon government positions. They now have equal opportunities in society, and most of the population have benefited and prospered economically.