President Elias Sarkis – Sixth President of the Lebanese Republic (1923 – 1985)

Overview of his family

His father, Youssef Fares Sarkis, a fine carpenter, accurate in his work, faithful in his business, honest, humble and of fine morals. He was named by one of the doctors of Hamlin sanatorium in Chbaniye, where he worked as a carpenter, as “Joseph the carpenter”, in allusion to Saint Joseph, because of his goodness and good way of treating every person he dealt with.

His son Elias grew on this good spirit, without arrogance or boastfulness, even in the highest positions he occupied.

His mother is from Abou Jawad family, and his grandmother from his mother’s side used to work as a nanny for one of the rich Lebanese families in the city in order to help her family in its livelihood.

She takes the credit for Elias’s admission at Freres School in Beirut, as she provided him with food and accommodation to assist his father in his education expenses, after it has already been mentioned that his father worked in carpentry to sustain his family which consists of his wife, and two boys, Fouad and Philippe in addition to Elias, Growth of the child Elias.

In this humble family condition, Elias was born in Chbaniye in 1923.

He grew up like most of the village’s inhabitants and started his elementary education at its school. Soon after he moved to Freres School in Beirut at the age of twelve.

He moved from grade to grade until he finished the grade 2, where his father was no longer able to cover his tuition fees, so he went for working at the railway department. He worked at day and continued his studies at night, in a night school until he obtained the second part of the Lebanese baccalaureate.

He studied law at Saint Joseph University while he was still working at the railway department, until he obtained his Bachelor’s of Law in 1945.

Start of his practical life

After obtaining the Bachelor’s of Law, he quit his job and joined the law firm of Me Fouad and Wadih Daoud at Bab Idris locality to carry out the required training.

He remained in this firm for two years but had a longing for occupying a high position in the State, especially in the field of foreign affairs. He was not fond of pleading and practicing law.

He applied for a test prepared by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the appointment of consuls and consultants in its cadre.

He passed the test and was ranked first among contestants. However, during appointment his name was not listed among the approved persons, so he was shocked at the news and headed forthwith to the house of Dr. Elias Baaklini, the son of his village who loved him and encouraged him in all his works because in him he saw insight, intelligence and integrity. Elias considered Dr. Baaklini as his guide in his work.

He told Dr. Baaklini what happened to him and how he was not approved and appointed in the cadre of foreigner affairs despite ranking first at the entrance examination.

The news angered Dr. Baaklini who was one of the leading constitutional figures in governance at that time, and he was upset at what happened to the son of his village, whom he loved.

So he immediately contacted the Minister of Foreign Affairs, shouting and reproaching.

Philippe Takla was at the head of this Ministry back then, so he told him: “If this is what happens to the green, then I wonder what happens to the dry, I would not be willing to contact you to ask you to appoint Elias Sarkis, had he been among the people who did not pass the examination, but having been ranked first and then excluded from appointment and from entering the cadre of foreign affairs, is a matter I take very seriously and cannot tolerate.”

The Minister calmed him and promised him to look into the case immediately, find the reason behind his exclusion, and reply to him shortly.

Shortly after and while Elias Sarkis was still at Dr. Baaklini’s house waiting for the answer, the phone rang and the caller was Philippe Takla, Minister of Foreign Affairs, who started talking before Dr. Baaklini and said: “It is true, doctor, that Elias Sarkis ranked first at the test, but his grade in history and geography was below average, and this subject is essential to whomever wishes to enter the cadre of foreign affairs; this is why he was excluded from entering this cadre”.

Dr. Baaklini then told the Minister of Foreign Affairs that is argument is unconvincing and that his exclusion was for the purpose of leaving space for others who are close to the Minister or to one of the leading politicians.

At the same time he started relieving the pain of Elias Sarkis who was still next to him, and he incited him to enter the judiciary field.

There was an imminent contest for this purpose. He also told him that this time he will not allow for the farce of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to happen again.

Elias accepted the advice of the son of his village, the person he consulted in all matters related to him and the future of his profession.

He decided to enter the contest of the Palace of Justice this time.

In fact he applied for this contest and passed, and his name was listed in the decree of appointment to enter the judiciary field.

Meanwhile, Bechara El Khoury resigned from the presidency and Camille Chamoun, who was his opponent at the end of his mandate, was elected in his place.

Dr. Baaklini was known for backing up Bechara El Khoury, so Camille Chamoun crossed out the name of Elias Sarkis from the draft decree of appointment of judges at the Palace of Justice, as means of revenge from Dr. Baaklini, who is known for his adoption and support of the son of his village, Elias Sarkis.

Emir Jamil Chehab, a close friend of Dr. Baaklini, and Head of the Court of Accounts at that time, happened to be at Baaklini’s house and was informed of what happened and knew about his friend’s resentment of this action, so he calmed him and promised to appoint Elias Sarkis who passed in the judges exam, as his consultant at the Court of Accounts, if he approves.

Dr. Baaklini contacted Elias Sarkis and informed him of what happened with Emir Jamil Chehab and asked for his opinion. He replied that he only wishes to work as judge at the Palace of Justice and not as a consultant for the revision and audit of accounts at the Court of Accounts.

Dr. Baaklini convinced him to accept this position temporarily until he gets the opportunity to be transferred to the judiciary field as it is possible considering that both institutions are similar in terms of their judiciary role.

Compelled, Elias Sarkis accepted to try, and he was appointed as magistrate at the Court of Accounts with the help of Emir Jamil Chehab.
The latter was a strict legal person and an unparalleled financial expert.

He was known for his integrity, and stubbornness when it comes to truth, until he set an example in the cadre of civil servants. If one wanted to describe an official with integrity and boldness, one would say: “Is that Emir Chehab?”. I mention this to reach to the following incident which happened right before my eyes in Dr. Baaklini’s house.

Around two months following the appointment of Elias Sarkis as consultant at the Court of Accounts, Emir Jamil Chehab came to the house of Dr. Baaklini, his close friend, for a visit.

During the talk between Emir Jamil and with Dr. Baaklin, the first one said: “Doctor, what is it with this guy from your end that you forced on me?” Dr. Baaklini considered for a moment but did not know who the intended young man is. Emir Jamil continued his talk: “This Elias of yours”.

The doctor’s face grew pale and he thought at first that Elias did wrong or committed a mistake of any sort.

But at that time he was completely confident of the guy’s faithfulness and asked Emir Jamil: “What did he do?”, the Emir’s answer was:
“They accuse me of searching for fleas and preserving public funds, I could swear this guy of yours even searches for ants.”

Dr. Baaklini was relieved at that moment and laughed with joy and said to Emir Jamil: “I only introduce you to people I trust and know of their competence to make you and the country proud.”

This incident truly shows who Elias Sarkis is and how he started his professional life.

His Social Life

Elias Sarkis was introverted, rarely dealt with people, only visited limited families, accepted no invitation and rarely attended a celebration.

He is conservative to the degree of shyness, does not confront people easily, talks little, hates arrogance, does not fool himself nor does he get fooled by others, a man of live conscience, competent and abhors mannerism.

He had poise in words and deeds a slender feeling, and an alert mind which is always vigilant, he was keen on avoiding final judgments, was not carried away by pretensions, did not boast in greatness and did not like acting and actors.

I visited him once at the Presidential Palace after having survived a huge accident.

He was sitting in a sumptuous chair in one of the lounges and stood up to welcome me and gave space for me to sit in his place on the sumptuous comfortable chair to make sitting easier for me because I hadn’t completely recovered and was still using crutches.

I refused to sit in his place, saying: “This is your place Your Excellency.” He replied: “I can sit in another chair, and simply headed towards a second chair just like he did when he received me or anyone at his house before entering the Presidential Palace.

He preferred working without noise, with simplicity, loyalty and deep humility. I lived near his place in Beirut, English Abdul Wahhab Street, when I was single.

We used to go together to most parties at the house of a fellow village resident such as the house of Dr. Elias Baaklini, his brother Naamtallah or Mouannes family, in the same street. Rarely did we go to the movies or theater, because he was not a big fan of them neither of night clubs.

He was pleased with playing cards at the houses mentioned above.

Contrarily to not going to weddings or special occasions or accepting honoring invitations, he never delayed in fulfilling his duties to the maximum in funerals and sorrows.

He did his duty of providing condolences at the death of any of his acquaintances and residents of his village, whether poor or rick, young or old, without delaying once from fulfilling such duty.

His only consolation was reading and listening to music.

As for his favorite sports, a bit of table tennis or a few hunting trips.

He remained single all his life, despite his family and close friends pressuring him and inciting him to get married.

He said sometimes that he will not get married as long as his mother, whom he loved, is still alive, in order not to cause her any embarrassment or do her harm (since she’s from the old generation) by living with a girl from the new generation in her house, knowing that his father’s house knew no woman other than Umm Elias.

This is an excuse he made; I don’t know whether it was really sufficient for his wish not to marry.

When his mother died, he was within the dilemma of major obligations and responsibilities, as President of the Republic of Lebanon in the midst of its problems which took all his time and attention. He no longer considered marriage and was fifty-eight years old by that time.

Major positions he occupied and how made it:

We knew from his biography that he entered the professional field in his capacity as magistrate at the Court of Accounts.

He monitored the affairs of the State’s ministry financially along with a number of consultants like him, and each consultant had a specific number of ministries to take care of.

Elias Sarkis’s portion was the affairs of national defense.

This Ministry was presided over by the Army Commander, General Fouad Chehab, who took care of it with his heart and mind, he who supervised its launch since the beginning of the independence era. He left no matter related to it without his inspection.

A formality related to the Ministry of Defense concerning some purchases happened to be sent to the Court of Accounts and was rejected, then was returned again and made its stop at Elias Sarkis’s desk.

Some officers went mad and complained to the Army Commander about the delay of this formality at the Court of Accounts.

General Chehab called his cousin, the president of the Court of Accounts blaming him, saying that some formalities of the Ministry of Defense and Army Commandment are being delayed and their study is being hindered, and as they know, such formalities are under the supervision of a magistrate at the Court of Accounts named Elias Sarkis.

Emir Chehab replied promptly saying that if such formalities are delayed and under the supervision of Elias Sarkis, then this means they contain violations, and cannot be passed before correcting such violations, and as means of providing him with assistance, he will dispatch to him Elias Sarkis personally along with the said formalities to discuss them.

And so it was, on the following day, Elias Sarkis appeared at the Ministry of Defense holding under his arm the file of formalities transferred to him.

In the presence of the Army Commander, with no fear or shame, he started explaining to him the violations contained therein in addition to the attempts to steal that the people who put there wanted to pass on by taking advantage of their presence in the Ministry.

Knowing that the formalities of the Ministry of Defense and Army Commandment are never stopped no matter where they are passed because of the attention given by major officials and the Army Commander to assist and develop this public institution.

It never occurred to them at any time that one day a person named Elias Sarkis will come to thwart their formalities and stand before them like a blocking barrage.

General Fouad Chehab listened to the young man meticulously and was pleased from his boldness, the stance he took and his preservation of public funds. “Thank you for giving me this information.

Keep working as such and when you see anything odd, stop it and I’m in charge of every review concerning formalities related to this Ministry and the Army Commandment”, he said to him.

Then he took the phone and called his relative, the President of the Court of Accounts, and said: “I congratulate you Emir Jamil for such an employee and ask you to place all the formalities of the Army Commandment under his supervision because he is honest and legal and I do not wish to have any suspicion over the formalities of my commandment.

Moving to the Chamber of the Presidency of the Republic

Not long after this incident, General Fouad Chehab became President of the Republic and was in need of competent assistants and faithful employees.

He immediately sent after Elias Sarkis telling him: “As of this date you will become my first assistant and I will appoint you as Director General of the Chamber of the Presidency of the Republic.

And so it was. Elias Sarkis was transferred to the Chamber of the Presidency of the Republic where the knowledge, capacity and devotion he showed attracted attention to him. With his insight and intelligence, he was the dynamo of the presidency.

He set up all decree-laws which reversed the workflow in the State departments because of the advantages added which were not witnessed from decades.

They also created new institutions such as the Civil Service Board, Central Inspection Board, and others which did not exist before. He helped in filling their positions with competent persons. Public administration was therefore in a new phase of vital work.

Moving to the Central Bank

Elias Sarkis remained in his position until the middle of Charles Helou’s mandate when the incident of Intra Bank happened and led to a crisis in all banks, followed by the Central Bank of Lebanon.

Philippe Takla, the then-Gvernor of the Central Bank, tendered his resignation and it was accepted and Elias Sarkis was appointed as new Governor of the Central Bank of Lebanon.

In this position, he showed great proficiency. He protected the Lebanese pound and doubled its support by gold and rare currencies, and even with all the wars and disasters that struck Lebanon after this period, the Lebanese pound maintained its value until the date of his death, which is ten years after the devastating war and if a war as such erupted in any other country, its currency would have collapsed like everything in Lebanon collapsed.

And so everyone, friend and foe, acknowledged the mighty work he had done.

Following the end of President Charles Helou’s mandate, General Fouad Chehab nominated him for Presidency along with the Chehabist Party because of the ability and genius they knew in him and told others about.

He almost won but was defeated by President Suleiman Frangieh by a single vote. Frangieh kept him in the position of Governor of the Central Bank of Lebanon after coming to power despite him contesting against him for the presidency because he knew him as a man of integrity, the specialist who is indispensable in this delicate position.

Elias Sarkis carried on with his legal and national missions at the Central Bank and maintained the strength of the Lebanese currency during these serious conditions Lebanon went through until the end of President Frangieh’s mandate where the country with the all its bodies reached rock bottom because of the devastating war.

Election of Sarkis as President of the Republic

This time he became himself the President of the Republic, and he accepted the mission entrusted to him despite its difficulty and despite the deteriorating conditions never witnessed before.

The representatives of the people elected him and gave him their trust after having experienced his capacity in the most important positions in the country, especially as Governor of the Central Bank of Lebanon, the conditions of which were deteriorating when he took over its management. He corrected its situation and preserved it, just like he preserved the Lebanese currency, in outmost safety and solidity.

Upon his election as President of the Republic, I was among the first people who visited him at his house to congratulate him.

I only found there Lebanese Army Colonel Michel Nassif, a soldier from his village standing at the entrance and a domestic worker to offer coffee.

This little group formed at that time the administration of the Presidential Palace. Otherwise, the army was disassembled and fragmented, public administrations were non-existent, each officer was retired away at his house and the judiciary system was on mandatory holiday. There was no sign of life in the State departments as was the condition all over the country.

This is how Elias Sarkis started his Presidency mandate, the country hadn’t witnessed such deterioration since independence and before that, so the President started work from scratch. Authority didn’t mean to him arriving to a position and having power, he devoted every effort of his and his entire self for it; he sacrificed all for the sake of the trust given to him, neglecting his health until the point of suffering from diseases and exhaustion.
He was keen on judging without fraud or deception; he was lofty and was not exhilarated by being in power.

He faced bias, grudges and slander with the weapon of indifference and gave the impression that nothing affects him, he made efforts to hide his true feelings, he knew how to accept disappearing and retreating, so he hid from the frontline and endured a purgatory that he did not deserve preferring silence.

He did not reproach anybody, even those of the closest people who were ungrateful to him.

He inherited in 1976 a presidency without republic, a republic without country and a country without army.

With a lot of patience and silence he was able to take on the challenge, he took care of the army first, stabilized its steps, restored all its platoons and equipped it with the latest ammunition then restored to the administration its efficiency and powers and all the State utilities started to improve.
However, external and regional forces which interests were damaged by the improvement of the situation in the country, were opposing him.

The lack of support to him from the Lebanese forces and their lack of agreement with each other against a common enemy, despite the President soliciting them to help him overcome the ordeal, prevented his success and all this was troubling his heart as he was keen on keeping danger away from his country.

He visited Arab and European countries many times for this purpose and on many encounters he gathered together the warring parties from his fellow countrymen from different affiliations to bridge the gap in their viewpoints but received no cooperation whatsoever.

He was even attacked by all categories, and he, who knew well of the state of the country and of the external plots surrounding it, was not able to fend them off, so he did his best with patience and long suffering without boastfulness or showoff and this did not please some citizens, who criticized him and defamed him but he did not care and tolerated it with the great patience of a believer who is always concerned about his country not his own interest.

He continued his work actively, courageously and tirelessly, putting his health and life at stake, until disease took over him and killed him while he was still at the peak of youth and vitality and he preserved the trust which was entrusted to him and the oath he made until the end of his mandate, so he gave back everything in a much better condition than how he received it after his efforts weakened him and disease ravaged him.

The Lebanese people, all and sundry, knew of the favor he did for the country and that they wronged him when they accused him of being silent while he was working in secret without fanfare.

Their love for him increased and doubled after the end of his mandate and most of them wanted to renew his mandate but he persistently refused, not trying to flee responsibility or stay away from public service, but because of his health condition.

His was in a war of nerves because of all he endured and the pain and suffering he went through because of what happened to his country without being able to protect it from harm.

Lebanese people grew more attached to him when they saw what happened to their country shortly after expiration of his mandate. They knew then that he had endured a lot and was patient a lot and not one could stop this international attack on this small country.

They appreciated his work and mourned for him after his death following his battle with the disease that even the best doctors in the world could not treat.

Elias Sarkis lived and reigned and had opponents like all world leaders, however, he died overwhelmed by the compassion of all Lebanese people and they unanimously appreciated him and loved him despite their different affiliations and conflicts, and all gave him credit for his work.

This was mentioned in all radio stations, newspapers and mass media by all spiritual and civil figures and all different persons in Lebanon and abroad.

Upon hearing about his death, some said: “History values the lofty person and registers him on its glorious pages long after his death, while history registered Elias Sarkis on the immortal pages of Lebanon directly after his death.”

His travels and trips

Elias Sarkis travelled many times outside his country, most of his travels were for the service of this country.

In the mandates of Presidents Chehab and Helou, he accompanied each to some Arab and foreign countries and attended with them some regional and global conferences.

As Governor of the Central Bank of Lebanon, he represented the country in the International Monetary Conference and similar conferences.

During his mandate, he visited most Arab countries, attended conferences of Riyadh, Cairo and Fes, fiercely defended the cause of his homeland, and sounded the alarm in front of the attendants of the conferences, attracting their attention to the ambitions of Israel, especially its danger on southern Lebanon, calling on Arab countries to face Israel and support Lebanon in fear of its invasion.

But Arabs turned the deaf ear to his call, and so was the disastrous invasion of southern Lebanon up to the Capital and some areas of the mountain, by the Israeli army.

During his presidency, Elias Sarkis visited the French capital, the Vatican and Rome, all for the cause of his country.

But he lost hope from everyone in the end, after he knew that all the countries of the world only care about their own interests above all, and that the Lebanese people alone, by its cooperation, and by holding to its legitimacy, can help save its country from the adversity that has befallen it.

His speeches during his presidency

The speeches of President Sarkis in various national occasions during his presidency mandate, were a pledge of faith in Lebanon, and exceeded presidential statements on traditional occasions, being made in delicate and crucial conditions, and as such were, in the unity of their contents, coalition of ideas and precision of expressions, a pledge of patience and steadfastness, a solicitation of the power within and a reliance on the mind as a way to have a dream, vision and foresight.

In his speeches, he continuously aimed to breathe out life lurking in the Lebanese depths and preserve the remainder of Lebanon in the conscience of its citizens, without hiding the features and details of the gloomy picture from the citizen, pursuant to the frankness and sincerity in declaring the truth imposed by democracy.

From a position of responsible courage, he prevented weakening confidence and putting out hope in the hearts of citizens, which made him avoid drifting into the current of optimism resulting from superficial interpretation and the risk of slipping into the turn of despair and pessimism.

In his speeches, he did not recourse to the style adopted by political professionalism such as using images and exaggeration.

You could feel his total compassion with the pain of the people, and his dealing with the effects of the crisis, so he was keen on recalling the fundamentals of the Lebanese entity and the elements of its perpetuity.

According to him, democracy with its parliamentary system and legitimate authority is the backbone of governance.

National institutions are one integral part and reconciliation among the Lebanese is the first condition and strongest motivation to secure political and security stability.

In his speech, President Sarkis appeared like a heart beating with love and an eye tearing up in pain for the destruction of Lebanon.

Each of his expressions was marked by loyalty and praise to whomever seeks graciously to save Lebanon and restore life and prosperity to it.

His ideas and words indicated that arranging the Lebanese home, uniting its sections and restoring its crumbling walls can only be made by a joint Lebanese will promoted by mutual trust and deep brotherly tolerance.

One may notice in his speeches a clear approach and an indisputable firm stance.

In fact we see in his speeches the features of a leading figure, quiet, strong, patient, believing in God, self-confident, amorous and giving, superior over grudges and hatred and consistent with the requirements of a stage surrounded by exploding events which can only be addressed and remedied by having honesty, frankness, wisdom, patience, perseverance and facing disasters.

We also see in his speeches an upright approach, whose owner adopts patience, is guided by his mind and encourages people to be active to establish the future and promote building amidst the sounds of guns and under their fusillade.

Consequently, we read in his speeches the will of a nation in a single man. This is the life of a great figure from Lebanon, it is the good son of Chbaniye, the village mountain he loved and was faithful to until his last breath.