Hussein Husseini, a Lebanese politician and statesman who helped forge a 1989 pact that ended the country’s 15-year civil war but could not curb the powers of sectarian militias and factions including a Shiite Muslim group he once led, died Jan. 11 at a hospital in Beirut. He was 85.
Like any political figure in Lebanon, Mr. Husseini was defined by how he fit within the country’s mix of Shiite and Sunni Muslims, Christians and other groups such as Druze. He first made his political mark seeking to boost Shiite clout and find accommodations with powerful neighbor Syria, which often had its own forces in Lebanon as leverage to dictate affairs.
But Mr. Husseini, in a career that spanned more than a half-century, remained one of the few Lebanese political leaders who appeared to rise above the factional jockeying and rivalries. He denounced the warlords and militias, including Shiite-led Hezbollah, that effectively carved out state-within-a-state fiefdoms in Lebanon to sharply undercut the central government’s ability to steer the country.
In positions that included more than a decade as parliament speaker, Mr. Husseini led battles that had high-minded goals but sometimes limited successes: seeking compromises among bickering factions and trying to stabilize the country’s debt-choked economy that has brought a parade of fiscal crises for generations.
Mr. Husseini was a “champion of a Lebanese civil state,” wrote Joel Rayburn, who was the U.S. special envoy for Syria from 2018 to 2021, in a column for the news outlet al-Arabiya. “Perhaps the last such champion Lebanon will know.”
A crowning moment for Mr. Husseini came in 1989 after leading negotiations in Taif, Saudi Arabia, seeking to end Lebanon’s civil war that claimed more than 100,000 lives and cemented sectarian lines across the country.
The Taif Agreement hammered out a power-sharing deal between Christians and Muslims that brought the main fighting to a close in 1990. Mr. Hussein was bestowed the nickname “Abu Taif,” or Father of Taif.
Among the Taif provisions was an even division of parliament seats, cabinet posts and senior civil servant jobs between the main Christian and Muslim groups. The deal added to a long-established three-way split that reserved Lebanon’s presidency for a Maronite Christian, the prime minister for a Sunni and the speaker of parliament for a Shiite.
The Taif framework was intended to eventually lead to creation of a senate and other political changes aimed at cooling the endless cycles of unrest and leadership battles. Yet most of the plans did not move forward.
“Thieves,” grumbled Mr. Husseini in an interview with the New York Times in 2021.
His list included the major sectarian poles of power in Lebanon since the civil war: Hezbollah; Druze leader Walid Jumblatt; Maronite Christian militia chief Samir Geagea; and Sunni oligarch and former prime minister Rafik Hariri, who was killed in 2005 in a blast on Beirut’s seaside corniche that also claimed 21 other lives. (In 2020, judges on a U.N.-mandated panel implicated Hezbollah in the assassination but failed to clearly establish who was directly responsible.)
Also facing Mr. Husseini’s ire was his successor as parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, who took over the Shiite-led Amal Movement that Mr. Hussein helped create in the early 1970s. Mr. Husseini tried to keep Amal out of the fighting as the civil war erupted. He stepped down as Amal leader in 1980 under pressure, leaving Amal in the hands of Berri. Amal militiamen soon were part of the conflict.
“Every one of them has a statelet within the state. … As long as they are present, there is no reform, because any reform will lead to their disappearance,” Mr. Husseini said of the array of militias and sectarian groups.
In August 2008, Mr. Husseini reached the breaking point. In a fiery speech, he announced his resignation as a parliament member and decried how Lebanon’s constitution was being trampled by a government deal with Hezbollah to give it veto powers in the Cabinet.
“It is as if we have not learned from past experience, as if we wanted a state without institutions, as if we wanted a homeland without citizens,” he said. “The ruling class is capable of something if it has a desire for it, but the reality is that it has so far lacked such a desire.”
Hussein Husseini was born April 15, 1937, to a prominent family in commerce and local affairs near the Bekaa Valley east of Beirut. His birthplace was reported as either Shmistar or Zahlé, both in the Bekaa region.
He studied business administration at Cairo University before entering politics, first as mayor of his hometown and then winning a parliament seat in 1972. He soon joined with a Shiite cleric, Musa al-Sadr, to build what would become the Amal Movement in attempts to boost the political voice of Shiites in Lebanon.
In 1978, Sadr disappeared during a trip to Libya in a case that has not been solved. Mr. Husseini then took over as head of Amal and served as parliament speaker from 1984 to 1992. His role brought him into a center of high-level international encounters, including negotiations that led to the release of more than a dozen Western hostages held by Shiite militias. Among the captives were Anglican church envoy Terry Waite and Associated Press correspondent Terry Anderson. Both were freed in 1991.
In 1989, Cardinal John O’Connor of New York called off a planned visit to mostly Muslim west Beirut, citing security concerns. Mr. Husseini complained that O’Connor was remiss in failing to get “Muslim views” and wryly noted that the cardinal was better protected than most Lebanese officials: traveling in a bulletproof black Cadillac escorted by four vehicles with military commandos.
Mr. Husseini had several sons and daughters, according to Lebanese media. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.
His stature in Lebanon was reflected by the warm tributes from factions he once denounced. The Lebanese Forces, a Christian-Druze alliance led by Geagea, said Mr. Husseini’s death showed how much Lebanon is in “dire need of rational people, moderates and statesmen.”