Known for his rigorous integrity and his political impartiality, Abdallah Yafi is considered to be one of the most popular politicians in Lebanese 20th century history. His ethical behavior in public service is cited as an example in the official civic education high-school textbooks as well as in the graduation of law students.
El-Yafi was at the forefront of the struggle to give women the right to vote, which he was able to achieve with his cabinet in power in 1952.
Abdallah El-Yafi was born in Beirut, Lebanon on 7 September 1901 into a Sunni Muslim family to parents Aref El-Yafi and Jamila Ostwani, a Damascene. Raised with two brothers, he first attended Sheikh Abbas School, a Muslim elementary school, then "Pères Jésuites" (Jesuit Fathers), a Roman Catholic school, and went on to earn his French Baccalaureate Degree. He pursued his advanced studies in law at the "Pères Jésuites" and earned a Juris Doctor.
In 1923, Abdallah El-Yafi enrolled in a PhD program at La Sorbonne University in Paris, France from which he graduated in 1926. El-Yafi's political involvement lasted throughout his school years. He was President of the Arab Students Association, (French: Président de l'Association des étudiants Arabes) and was militating in France against the French Mandate which was then in place in Lebanon. He was known for organizing political demonstrations and giving fiery speeches, which once led to his arrest by the French Authorities only to be released a couple of days later.
Abdallah El-Yafi is the first Arab to receive a PhD from the Sorbonne University, where he wrote his thesis about women’s rights in Islam. The thesis subject was "The Legal Status of Women in the Law of Islam" (French: La Condition Privée de la Femme dans le Droit de l'Islam). Drawing from Quranic decrees and Islamic principles, he made a case about how women are supposed to be allotted more rights in society.
Abdallah El-Yafi was known to be a man of strong and correct principles, who believed that the empowerment of women was crucial for building a stronger society, equality providing a steadier base. These thoughts, when expressed in the 1920s, had quite an ‘avant-garde’ ring to conservative Muslim ears: they were not always welcome with wide open arms or minds. Later on in his political life, Abdallah El-Yafi’s political opponents brandished his thesis as a weapon of defamation to tarnish his reputation. According to them, he was not a “righteous Muslim” but a French minion who had given in to the French authorities—the colonial mandate authority in Lebanon at the time—in blaspheming the Islamic religion in reward of a “Doctorat d’État”. These were aimed at ruining the honest image that he so carefully cultivated throughout his life.
On August 1, 1937, in Damascus, Abdallah El-Yafi married Hind El-Azm, a Damascene from one of the most prominent political families in Syria. Her uncle was Prime Minister of Syria himself. They have five children:Ghada El-Yafi (born 1939), a physician hematologist, who ran for Lebanese Parliament in year 2000. She has one daughter: Hind Kaddoura fathered by Mohammad Kaddoura.
Nahila El-Yafi (born 1942) is a physician ophtalmologist. Children: Tarek, Hisham and Zeinab fathered by Hani Al Hassan.
Aref El-Yafi, (born 1944) the eldest son, is an entrepreneur. Spouse: Joumana El-Yafi (née Noueiri). Children: Abdallah El-Yafi, Ghaith El-Yafi, Sara El-Yafi and Firas El-Yafi.
Wassek El-Yafi (born 1946) is a physician cardiologist. Children: Jamil El-Yafi and Walid El-Yafi
Ghias El-Yafi (born 1949) is an entrepreneur. Spouse: Leila El-Yafi (Née El-Azm). Children: Khaled Yafi and Tarek Yafi.
In 1933, for the first time, Abdallah El-Yafi ran for parliamentary elections in Beirut. He waded through the process because a good friend of his, Khayreddin al-Ahdab, was aiming for the same position. As the tension rose, Abdallah El-Yafi decided to step down famously stating "I will not sacrifice my friend for a parliamentary position".
Abdallah El-Yafi eventually went on to become Prime Minister of Lebanon seven times. He was appointed Prime Minister in the government of every Lebanese President with the exception of Fouad Chehab because Abdallah El-Yafi was opposed to the idea of appointing a military general to the post of Presidency.
In 1947, Abdallah El-Yafi was appointed, alongside future President of the Republic Camille Chamoun, to the Lebanese delegation to the UN that voted against the division of Palestine.
The last term he served as Prime Minister was in 1969. In 1974, President of Lebanon Suleiman Frangieh asked Abdallah El-Yafi to be the Prime Minister, he refused.
The struggle to achieve equal rights for women was one of Abdallah El-Yafi's principal political goals. In fact, Abdallah El-Yafi was the main politician who lobbied for women's suffrage in Lebanon. Despite a growing voice of dissent among his political adversaries, El-Yafi was able to extend the ballot to women during one of his terms. In 1952, the cabinet of Abdallah El-Yafi voted for a new policy that allowed voting rights to women with an elementary education and a minimum voting age of 21.
The law came in effect for the 1953 8th Parliamentary elections and is still in effect today.
In the civic education classes in Lebanese schools, students are taught a lesson on honesty and honor through the story of Abdallah El-Yafi whose integrity was constantly cited as an example for all young people in Lebanon:
Abdallah El-Yafi was a young lawyer in October 1938, when then Lebanese President Emile Edde asked him to form a new government. During his tenure, he closed his law cabinet because he wanted to separate public services from private services. But after just 8 months in office, he decided to resign over a governmental policy dispute.
In the morning following his resignation, he woke up much earlier than usual and sat on the balcony meditating. His wife tried to console him for losing his premiership position. He famously replied: "I’m not worried about the premiership, but I’m worried about how to announce to you that I will have to cancel our telephone subscription for lack of money in my possession given the fact that my law firm has been closed for eight months and I am without clients." He is famous for having once said to a man who asked him to join a prolific business project "I would never even dare give the chance to the smallest villager in the most remote town to even think that I made a benefit of one penny".
Another story relates how a relative of his wife wanted Abdallah El-Yafi to grant him a license to build a tunnel in Dahr El-Baydar, an area in Mount Lebanon promising him a worthy profit. Abdallah El-Yafi told his wife "You either throw him out of my house now, or I will throw him down the stairs myself".
Abdallah El-Yafi was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease at an old age. His sight got worse as he grew older, and therefore stopped reading, which let him degenerate further more into Alzheimer's. He died in Beirut, in his home, on 4 November 1986.