LEBANON: Exit Father of Belly

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The citizens of the tiny (Connecticut-size) Republic of Lebanon saw their first President, old Sheikh Beshara Khalil el Khoury, as a sort of fat and friendly George Washington, nicknamed him "Abu Kirsh" (Father of Belly). He helped to push first the Turks, later the French out of his land, ruled a nation split almost exactly between Christians and Moslems with such a talent for compromise that both sides were happy. Lebanon became one of the most stable and progressive countries in the Middle East. But the "Father of Belly" had one weakness that is fatal to both girls and politicians: he couldn't say no.

His cronies and family began cashing in on that weakness. Son Khalil's law practice and business deals began showing enormous profits. So did Brother Fuad's cement plant. Brother Caesar's wife became a busy influence peddler. El Khoury's friend, Henri Pharon, a banker, boss of the taxi drivers' union and owner of a racing stable, was known as the man who could put the fix on any kind of problem.

Two years ago, a Deputy in the Chamber cast the first stone. Why, he wanted to know, has Mrs. el Khoury taken $100.000 worth of gold off to Paris with her? After a deafening silence, the government replied: "Mrs. el Khoury has already spent this money in the interests of the Lebanese Republic and has been doing the job of an ambassador."

The lid was off. Opposition politicos kept asking embarrassing questions, e.g., How was it that some 25 Buicks and Cadillacs had been imported duty-free in the President's name? El Khoury tried to suppress the scandals, but there weren't enough rugs in all Lebanon to sweep the dirt under. He kept losing supporters. Lebanese resented the nickname their country was getting: the Baksheesh State.

Last July when Egypt's Naguib led a revolt against his government's corruption, Lebanese wondered whether their country was not ripe for similar treatment. Two weeks ago 'Premier Sami el Solh turned on his boss in the most violent speech ever heard in the Chamber, then quit.

The opposition called a general strike. Last week. El Khoury asked help to shore up his crumbling regime from General Fuad Shehab, an able nonpolitical military man who commands Lebanon's brigade-sized army. The general politely refused. He added that the army could no longer be depended on to protect the President's safety. Just after midnight one day last week, El Khoury quit. At El Khoury's insistence, General Shehab became caretaker President and Premier. No Naguib, he made it clear that he does not want to stay in office. This week Lebanon's Chamber of Deputies will pick a new President. In the President's palace the Father of Belly spent the weekend packing, while old friends, remembering his glorious days, streamed in to say goodbye.