The Lebanese Government in April 1960 (President Fouad Chehab Centre, Prime Minister Ahmad al-Daouk Fourth Left)

The Lebanese Government in April 1960 (President Fouad Chehab Centre, Prime Minister Ahmad al-Daouk Fourth Left)

President Charles Helou in 1964

President Charles Helou in 1964

Zokak al-Blat 1966

Zokak al-Blat 1966

Zaytounah 1967

Zaytounah 1967

St George Hotel and Phoenicia Hotel

St George Hotel and Phoenicia Hotel

Beirut 1960 - 1969

The Golden Era

1.The Rise of Shehabism

A crucial election was held in 1960’s General Elections where a joint list from the Phalanges Party and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnak) competed for their seats in parliament in Beirut I against the National Front. Both competitors were not certain in favouring President Fouad Shehab. Although the election was won by the People's List, Shehab’s prominence was still rigid due to the united support he gained from the leftists in Beirut II and Beirut III, following the return of Ahmad al-Daouk as Prime Minister of Lebanon on the 5th of May 1960 following the dissolving of the Lebanese Parliament.

Daouk formed a new interim government subsequently and granted the Left Wing 11 new seats in parliament, restoring political balance with the Right Wing. The independents still dominated 40% of parliament, which affirmed the neutrality within the political rifts of the 1960's. Daouk would then be succeeded by Saeb Salam, who’s Premiership would be short lived as Salam’s alignment broke with Shehab over what he saw as the formation of a police state in Lebanon by granting undue powers to the Internal Security Forces and the establishment of the Deuxième Bureau.

2. Shifting Hand

The year of 1961 proved to be a great yet pivotal year for Beirut. Saeb Salam stepped down from his role as Prime Minister in October 1961 on the national scale and would be succeeded by Rashid Karami, truly starting the ‘Shehabist Era’ of strict police rule, yet unprecedented economic and social prosperity. On Beirut’s municipal stage, Emile Yanni took office as Beirut’s governor following the turbulent events of the 1958 crisis which toppled the Beirut municipality on various occasions, hindering city development.

By now, the population of the Beirut agglomeration was around 403,000 people. Beirut’s quarters were becoming too little to accommodate the growing population making the city denser. This led to the increase in neighbourhoods and the expansions of Beirut’s quarter. Construction was carried out neatly on one end while on other ends, there was uncoordinated edifice. Most notably, Burj Hammoud and al-Hadath experienced an exponential increase in population and building density forcing the boundaries of Beirut to exceed its administrative limits.

The Ministry of Interior began issuing warrants to government individuals to carry out surveys to picture the changing population densities of the city. The most shifting regions were those inhabited by the low-income portion of the population situated in north east Beirut and south west Beirut. This was reflected by the voice of Moussa al-Sadr who lashed at the political system for depriving certain parts of the population from the equally rightful lifestyle that other Lebanese were living. Also that year,  the Beirut Arab University was completed in the Tarik al-Jdideh district of the Msaytbeh quarter, giving access to education for a very under developed region of Beirut.

3. The Culture Bomb 

In the peak of 1961, Phoenicia Hotel opened its doors for the first time under Najib Salha’s vision and Edward Stone’s engineering, as an unprecedented luxury landmark in the Arab World and the Middle East. The hotel had a renowned initial success which injected money so rapidly that the hotel expanded in 1967, adding the Roman Tower (a new section) to the hotel, almost doubling its accommodation capacity.

On the other side in East Beirut, the Sursock Museum opened also in later 1961 with the Salon d’Automne, an open call exhibition showcasing new art of the 20th century envision by Nicolas Sursock prior to his death. The museum was based on 19th century French architecture, glorifying it as a work of innovation, adding to Beirut’s image being the Paris of the East, especially when the museum held exhibitions encompassing Lebanese, Oriental, French and Belgian art.

The museum reflected on the development and evolution of fine arts in Lebanon and Syria throughout the 19th and 20th century, which attracted various fine artists such as Shafik Abboud, Michel Basbous and Paul Guiragossian. The Orient-Institut Beirut was also established in 1961 as a base of German oriental studies in the Middle East and North Africa by the Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft (German Oriental Society), aiming to enhance German research links throughout the region and devote its funding to Arabic and Islamic Studies.









4. Foreign Glorification of Beirut

In 1963, many of the recent institutes in Lebanon began expanding, of which the Sursock Museum’s Gallery One Cultural Space was most notable. The Oriental-Institut Beirut also moved its headquarters to Zokak al-Blat in Central Beirut following its recognition by the Lebanese government and Ministry of Education. This influx of cultural institutes attracted a wide international audience venerating Beirut as a holy cinematic spot. Many famous movies were filmed in Beirut during this period such as:

  • Backfire (French movie, 1964);
  • 24 Hours to Kill (British movie, 1965);
  • Agent 505 Death Trap in Beirut (German movie, 1966); and 
  • The Cobra (Italian movie, 1967), 

This would lay down the foundations for the cinematic revolution that would encompass Beirut in the early 1970s, and would also give Beirut an image being the Broadway of the East in the cinematic vernacular. 

On the sports level, al-Ahed Football Club was founded in mid-1966 at a time that was being dominated by Lebanon’s two greatest Armenian football teams, Homenetmen Beirut and Homenmen Beirut, both from Burj Hammoud. On the other side of Beirut al-Ansar Sporting Club from Tarik al-Jdideh and al-Nejmeh Sporting Club from the Manara district in the Ras Beirut quarter were also competing for dominance with the presence of al-Safa Football Club in the Msaytbeh quarter.

5. The 1964 General & Presidential ELections

The following year of 1964 witnessed the next General Elections, which were held in Beirut I and Beirut II in the presidency’s eye of the storm were Fouad Shehab was succeeded by his ally President Charles Helou. In Beirut, the balance of power was unchanged, and Helou would continue Shehabism for the years to come facing little opposition from most parties apart from Saeb Salam, who vociferously opposed what he called a ‘a dictatorial police state’, which did not fall within Lebanon’s democratic tradition. Helou would appoint Hussein al-Oueiny as Prime Minister, but this period of time would see the change of the prime minister on various occasions which would result in Rashid Karami returning to the role again in 1965, 1966 and 1969.

6. The 1968 General Elections

In 1967, Shafik Abu Haidar became the new Governor of Beirut prior to the 1968 elections where the Phalanges Party yet again took 6 of the 8 seats allocated to Beirut I, sharing it with the Dashnak. In Beirut II and Beirut III, the clear winners were the members of the Beiruti Bloc, which constituted former Prime Ministers Abdallah al-Yafi and Saeb Salam, along Uthman ad-Dana and Shafik al-Wazzan who toppled Rashid al-Solh by 20 votes opposite to what happened in the previous elections. In the eye of these events and the Palestinian’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’s (PFLP) attack on an Israeli flight after the elections, Israel raided the Beirut International Airport in March that year destroying the entire Lebanese fleet. Israel’s actions were widely condemned and the United States of America outspokenly denounced Israel, lashing out at its actions with the support of the United Nations’ majority for the first time.

7. The Cairo Agreement

The Cairo Agreement took place in 1969, which handed the newly established Palestinian Armed Struggle Command autonomy over the 16 official refugee camps in Lebanon, which homed 300,000 Palestinian refugees. The Deuxième Bureau’s control of these camps ceased to exist, allowing the camps to become a popular destination and base for Palestinian guerrilla activity against Israel, inevitably establishing a city within Beirut and a state within a state. These events would mark the beginning of the end for the golden era Lebanon became known for in the 1960s. As the British Pathe said in the 1960s: “300 sunny days, 300 moonlit nights, that is the legacy of Lebanon.”