Lebanon can avoid a domestic implosion with a visionary, consensus-building president.
Beirut – January 18 was a historic day for Lebanon: The leaders of the country’s most powerful Christian factions decided to put 30 years of bloodshed and political bickering behind them.
Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces (LF), announced last week his endorsement of Michel Aoun, an ex-army general and head of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), for president. In doing so, Geagea essentially withdrew his own bid to be nominated president.
The announcement, which took place at Geagea’s residence in the presence of an assortment of LF and FPM officials, was marked by the two former strongmen cutting cake together. The gesture signalled an end to a long and bloody feud, in which hundreds of cadres on both sides sacrificed their lives.
During Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war, Geagea headed a right-wing Christian militia allied with Israel, while Aoun was the head of the Lebanese army. Aoun fled to France and lived in exile until 2005, when he returned to Lebanese politics, while Geagea was convicted and handed four life sentences for assassinations he took part in during the civil war. He was released in 2005 during an amnesty agreement and also returned to politics.
Analysts and political players see Geagea’s endorsement of Aoun as a move to strengthen Lebanon’s Christian minority in the face of rising tensions between the Middle East’s two dominant forces, Shia-majority Iran and Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia.
“What we have been seeing is an increased polarisation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which translates to polarisation between the Sunnis and the Shias and thus the creation of a different dynamic in the region,” explained Maha Yahya, a political analyst at Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “This has prompted concern within the Christian camps to join together and protect themselves in a war that they’re being dragged into… This rapprochement is definitely a game-changer on many fronts.”
According to a source involved in the Geagea-Aoun rapprochement, the move “is absolutely necessary in order to protect the Christians in Lebanon”.
“Look at the Christians in the region at the moment,” he said. “We need to be united.”
Lebanon has been without a president since May 2014, and despite holding 33 presidential election sessions thus far, opposing parliamentary blocs have boycotted the sessions to prevent a quorum. The Lebanese constitution requires that the president be a Maronite Christian, and until recently Lebanon’s rival political camps, the Saudi-backed March 14 alliance and the Iranian-backed March 8 alliance, each endorsed their own candidate: Samir Geagea and Michel Aoun respectively.
But will the reuniting of Lebanon’s Christians be enough to finally elect a president? Political alliances and manoeuvrings in the country are steeped in enough drama and controversy to rival any soap opera plotline – and the presidential election is no exception.
Last November, former Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri, the leader of the March 14 bloc, attempted to break the presidential stalemate by endorsing Suleiman Franjieh, a stalwart March 8 leader and bitter rival of Geagea, whom Hariri had previously backed. While many see Hariri’s nomination of Franjieh as the primary reason behind Geagea’s surprise move in endorsing arch-nemesis Aoun for president, others point out that the rapprochement between Geagea and Aoun has been in the works for many months now.
I don't see an election happening on February 8... But then again, a lot can happen between now and two weeks' time. Two weeks in Lebanon is like a lifetime elsewhere.
“Did Geagea nominate Aoun because Hariri nominated Franjieh, or did Hariri nominate Franjieh because Geagea and Aoun were moving closer?” said one source within the March 8 movement.
According to Rabie Barakat, a political commentator and opinion editor at the Lebanese daily newspaper As-Safir, Geagea decided to endorse Aoun “because he was spending a lot of the time taking the back seat without gaining much from his political allies”.
“Domestically speaking, this move is a game-changer, as it has overcome the stalemate based on the previous fault lines of March 8 and March 14,” Barakat added.
Sources within the March 8 movement have also said the rapprochement was encouraged by the Vatican, who consider it important for Christians to be united in the Middle East.
Aoun supporters see Geagea’s endorsement as necessary given the current climate in the region. “This was long overdue and absolutely necessary,” said Nadeem Khoury, a long-time supporter of Aoun from the Christian-majority Metn area. “We will sign a deal with the devil if we need to, for the sake of the Christians.”
Yet both sides of Lebanon’s political divide have concerns about what will happen in the long term. March 8 sources admit that Aoun has become so fixated on reaching the presidency that he “will do pretty much anything to get to the chair”, said one source. “And this move has brought him one step closer.”
Others within March 8 have voiced concern that Geagea’s alliance with Saudi Arabia and the United States, coupled with his former alliance with Israel during the civil war, will cast a shadow over the March 8 Christians.
Meanwhile, some within the March 14 camp have dismissed both Geagea’s and Hariri’s endorsements as “blunders”.
“Hariri’s blunder was nominating Franjieh. You can’t be the leader of a political camp and nominate someone from the only opposing political camp, and do so without consulting your allies. This shows lack of leadership,” said one March 14 source. “At the same time, Geagea’s response to this blunder was another blunder. He had an immense opportunity to be a leader with Lebanon’s Sunnis, and he’s just sacrificed this.”
Both major presidential candidates now, Aoun and Franjieh, are considered pro-Hezbollah. And Geagea has been able to put aside personal issues regarding his relationship with Aoun and step up as a leader of the Christians, gaining supporters within the FPM camp for his endorsement of Aoun.
Nevertheless, this does not mean Lebanon is any closer to electing a new president. The Amal movement, which is led by Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri and is a significant component of the March 8 bloc, has made it clear that its preferred candidate is Franjieh. And Hariri’s bloc, which holds the largest number of seats in parliament, will not be voting for Aoun.
This leaves observers unconvinced that recent developments will lead to the election of a new president – the 34th session is scheduled for February 8 – until the regional impasse is resolved.
“I don’t see an election happening on February 8,” Yahya said. “If we are going to connect a president here with some sort of resolution between Saudi and Iran, I’m not holding my breath.
“But then again, a lot can happen between now and two weeks’ time,” she added. “Two weeks in Lebanon is like a lifetime elsewhere.”