Speaker Nabih Berri, great survivor of Lebanese politics

Beirut (AFP) –


Famous for his quick wit and shrewd politicking, Hezbollah ally Nabih Berri is returning for a sixth consecutive term as speaker of Lebanon's parliament, making him one the world's longest-serving legislative chiefs.

At 80 years old, he is one of the great survivors of the country's complex political scene, which he has expertly navigated as head of parliament for the last 26 years.

In a confessional system where the speaker's post is reserved for a Shiite Muslim, Berri has become one of his community's most successful leaders.

He won another four-year session practically unchallenged on Wednesday, winning votes from 98 of parliament's 128 members at their inaugural session.

The tall, light-eyed politician heads the Amal Movement and is a close ally of the powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah.

Together, the two parties hold all but one of the 27 Shiite-allocated seats in Lebanon's parliament.

A lawyer by training, Berri won power as a militia leader during the 1975-1990 civil war and transitioned to politics as the war ended.

His career since has mirrored the Shiite community's steadily rising clout in a country where it had long been marginalised both economically and politically.

He has nimbly navigated shifting tides over the past three decades to seal both his popularity in the Shiite community and his grip on the post of speaker.

Even as he fashioned himself into a mediator among Lebanon's deeply divided political factions, he has remained firmly allied to Hezbollah.

That partnership is likely to remain intact. In an AFP interview shortly after this month's election, Berri said the triumvirate of "the army, the people, the resistance (Hezbollah)" was key to keeping Lebanon safe.

- From law to war and back -

Like many Lebanese from the south, Berri's parents moved to Africa to make a better living. He was born on January 28, 1938, in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

He earned a law degree from the state-run Lebanese University in 1963 before completing post-graduate law studies at the Sorbonne in Paris.

During Lebanon's war, he rose to prominence by taking over the leadership of the Amal movement in 1980, two years after the mysterious disappearance in Libya of its founder, Imam Mussa Sadr.

In 1984, he led his militiamen in an uprising against the US- and Israeli-backed regime of president Amin Gemayel.

Between 1985 and 1988, he helped crush supporters of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the so-called "war of the camps".

In 1988, his militia fought a deadly power struggle with Hezbollah, which took control of almost all the Shiite southern suburbs of Beirut and swathes of Lebanon's Shiite-dominated south.

Amal continued to fight against Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon until the latter withdrew in 2000.

"I am proud of my participation in the resistance against Israel," Berri told AFP in an earlier interview. "But the rest (of the war) could have been avoided."

Like many of Lebanon's war-time chiefs, Berri transitioned to politics when the frontlines calmed, making himself an indispensable ally to Syria, which kept its troops in Lebanon.

Berri was named minister several times between 1984 and 1992. That year, in the first elections after the war ended, Berri was simultaneously elected a member and speaker of parliament -- the highest post for a Shiite in the country's sectarian political system.

- A 'wily fox' -

Since Berri's entry into parliament, politicians aligned with him have virtually always won in legislative elections.

He is known to speak off-the-cuff, even while chairing parliamentary sessions, which typically involve a lot of gavel-banging.

Despite his famously sharp tongue, use of colloquial idioms, and booming voice, Berri rarely makes direct comments to the media.

But he holds an open house for members of parliament every Wednesday, and visitors relay his words to waiting journalists on their way out.

He regularly hosts top officials visiting Lebanon from Western countries, who talk to Berri as they cannot publicly meet with Hezbollah.

Supporters cite Berri's focus on development projects and creation of employment opportunities for Lebanon's long-neglected south.

Detractors, meanwhile, deride him as a "wily fox" who runs his political party the same way he ran his wartime militia -- unfairly filling government posts with members of his own constituency.

But even they admit that they respect his ability to shrug off criticism and carry on.

Berri is married and has nine children, six of them from a previous marriage.