Ersal, Bekaa - Ali Mohammad al-Hujeiri might as well be called the President of the Republic of Ersal. The North Bekaa town Mayor rose from the poverty into which he was born to assume leadership of his strategic town on the Lebanese- Syrian border. The 48-year-old’s role and importance in these parts match those of any head of state or prime minister.
Ersal, and the legacy of its struggles past and present against injustice and poverty, has been entrusted to him. He has waged many struggles, experienced much suffering, and squared many circles for the sake of Ersal, and is proud to have become its leader, “for good,” as he likes to stress.
Hujeiri has not forgotten the stories he was told by his grandmother about his grandfather’s struggle against the French Mandate in Syria and Lebanon in the mid-1920s. His grandfather was the mayor of the village, and supported the rebellion against French rule, fighting with the rebel leader Tawfiq Haidar. He was arrested and sentenced to death, but was spared the guillotine in exchange for the sequestration of his assets.
“My forefathers were badly oppressed under the French Mandate. My family and Ersal were with the rebels against French injustice, and they opposed the colonizer along with [the towns of] Baalbeck, Labweh, Nabi-Othman and Eiyat. My grandfather owned 1,000 heads of sheep, gold, and a lot of agricultural land. But the Mandate confiscated my family’s property, so some of them fled to Syria and worked for aghas (feudal landlords), farming and plowing,” he relates.
“My father inherited poverty and misery from my grandfather, but I have recovered a big portion of my ancestors’ property,” Hujeiri continues, adding with a triumphant flourish: “Today, I alone own 5,000 cherry and apricot trees, as well as other farmland in Ersal, Jourd Ersal, and the area of al-Qaa.”
Hujeiri certainly inherited his ancestors’ rebellious spirit. “In Ersal, babies drink rebellion and revolt with their mothers’ milk,” says the man who defied the “gangsters” of Syrian intelligence when they used to rule Lebanon, and beat them in municipal election battles.
“I defeated them in 1998 and 2004, when I nominated my cousin, and then again in 2010, even though most of the parties and families were aligned against me.” He adds: “Nobody has taken me on without being beaten. Ghazi Kanaan (the former head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon) used to call me to give me Eid greetings, even though I didn’t know him. He knew I beat his men after a long battle over politics and smuggling. I built a temple for the Baath Party, and then brought it down on their heads when they challenged me.”
Hujeiri was born in Ersal, learned farming by instinct, had his primary education at the convent school in al-Qaa village, and completed his intermediate school stage in Ersal. But then “I rebelled against my father and school and joined the Communist Action Organization. I fought on the Mount Lebanon and Souk al-Gharb fronts between 1984 and 1985.”
He did not stay in the group for long. His father summoned its members in Ersal, and threatened to have them killed if his son Ali wasn’t brought back or if he came to any harm. “So I returned to the family and began working on smuggling to Syria. America and France were besieging it in those days, so I stood with it and started smuggling goods, with a blind eye from Syrian intelligence and with their support.”
But Hujeiri fell foul of Syrian intelligence in 1988, and went into hiding in Walid Jumblatt’s stronghold in the Chouf for a while, until he managed to mend fences with certain officers. “I paid them money to pardon me and let me go back to smuggling goods to Syria,” he explains. “I was good friends with some of them. They were my security protection, after they realized that the reports written against me by Baath party informers in Ersal were lies.” He adds: “I became a big deal with the Syrian officers. We used to send convoys of 100 trucks into Syria carrying all kinds of goods, openly, and the officers would tell their informers: let Ali do whatever he likes.”
Hujeiri’s good relations with Syrian intelligence obliged him to help them revive and reorganize the moribund local Baath party branch in Ersal. “I was asked to sort out the situation of the Baath party and get them more supporters. I succeeded in getting 200 members to join.”
But problems arose with the smuggling business, prompting Hujeiri to abandon it and devote himself to farming: “I left smuggling because of security harassment, and because I couldn’t pay the money to the Syrian officers any longer. So I switched to farming in Jourd Ersal and Masharih al-Qaa. But I kept in limited contact with the Syrians. Then I opened a stone quarry, which my sons work in today.”
As Hujeiri asserted and consolidated his local leadership, he increasingly ran into political difficulties with the Syrians and the Baath, resulting in his expulsion from the party in 2001.
“We didn’t understand the Syrians, and they never understood us,” he now says. “An official from the Baath Party came and held a meeting in the village. He asked us to do this and that, and told us Ersal’s interests lie here and not there. I objected to what he was saying and said: go and teach the people of your own village. I walked out of the meeting, and everyone there from Ersal followed me,” he recalls. “That gave Syrian intelligence a grudge against me, so I was expelled from the Baath party because I was against Syria and Assad.”
That incident did not prevent him from repairing his relations with Syrian intelligence, who asked him to run in the 2004 municipal elections. But he refused, opting instead to back one of his relatives as mayor and take on the Baath, which did not score a single municipal council member. “I told them: I will beat you in Ersal, and that is exactly what happened.”
While beating the Baath and defying Syrian intelligence, Hujeiri forged a strong bond with former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri – though the latter always advised him to keep on friendly terms with Damascus’ officers in Lebanon. “I was constantly in touch with the martyred prime minister, and he knew Ersal corner by corner and knew about all its needs,” he says. “When Hariri was martyred, Syrian intelligence asked me to help them prevent people from going down to the funeral in Beirut. But I refused, and began organizing convoys to take people from Ersal to Beirut. That angered them and they began threatening me. But their withdrawal saved me, until the Syrian revolution came, which we support.”
Since becoming mayor of Ersal for a second time in 2010, Hujeiri has had a fair amount of contact with Hezbollah, but “the party only wants to deal with us for sectarian reasons,”he complains.
“Sayyed Nasrallah was victorious against Israel in 2006, but I don’t know why he slid into narrow alleyways [of internal Lebanese politics] and wasted this great victory. I, for example, used to be against [prime minister] Fouad Siniora, but I became with him, like all the people of Ersal,” he says.
“Ersal today is with the Syrian revolution against Bashar al-Assad,” the mayor reiterates. “I don’t hide the fact that we support the revolution here, but I challenge anyone to prove that there is al-Qaeda in Ersal” – adding, with a laugh, “three quarters of Ersal do not know how to perform ablutions, and don’t trust bearded people.” In any case, “we faced a lot of insults from the Baath here and in Syria, so don’t blame us, boys.”
Ersal’s strongman is emphatic: “If the entire world supports Bashar, and his people and Ersal are against him, he will not stay in power.” He adds that “the Syrians destroyed a house of mine in Jourd Ersal, and another in Masharih al-Qaa, and also some of my water wells, but I will not back down from my support for the revolution.”
The mayor declines to elaborate on the subject of weapons smuggling via Ersal into Syria, remarking “you should ask the Syrian intelligence and leaders of the Baath in Lebanon -- they know best who does the smuggling and who deals with them here and in Syria.” He points out, however, that “we now control the border all the way from al-Qaa to Ersal, up to the Zabadani countryside. More than 100 kilometers of the border with Syria are under our control.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.
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