Thursday, April 5, 2012

Lebanon's politics shaped by a strategic enmity for Assad

On Saturday, the Lebanese Forces party commemorated its 1994 dissolution by a pro-Syrian Lebanese government. This was followed at the time by the arrest of Samir Geagea, the party leader, and his imprisonment for 11 years. At the gathering last weekend, Mr Geagea loudly praised the recent transformations in the Arab world, not least the uprising in Syria against President Bashar Al Assad.

Mr Geagea portrays himself as a figure of regional import - several of the speakers on Saturday were from Arab countries that have faced recent upheaval. However, for now his political horizon remains domestic. The Lebanese Forces leader is looking to expand his influence among Christians, but also to appeal to the Sunni community. In his mind the two are related. Mr Geagea hopes his performance in Lebanon's elections next year will confirm his grander political role.

In March, Mr Geagea sought to sharply differentiate himself from two other prominent Christian public figures. In a television interview, the Lebanese Forces leader harshly criticised the Maronite patriarch, Beshara Al Rai, for having defended the regime of Mr Al Assad, on the grounds that it was friendly to Christians. Mr Geagea noted that the patriarch had "put all the Christians in the region in danger" by taking a position so at odds with the mood in Syria and beyond.

At around the same time, Mr Geagea also attacked his foremost Maronite Christian rival, Michel Aoun. Even more than Patriarch Al Rai, Mr Aoun has been a staunch backer of Mr Al Assad, affirming that he is facing a Salafist armed revolt. In response, Mr Geagea came to the defence of the Sunnis, insisting that Mr Aoun was "trying to picture [Sunnis] as extremists, at a time when there are many intellectual and moderate liberal Muslim Sunnis".

Always calculating when choosing his words, Mr Geagea was making a larger point: among the main Maronite Christian representatives, he was almost alone in standing on the right side of history. The Lebanese Forces leader has made a strategic choice to affiliate himself with the Sunnis regionally, much as he has inside Lebanon through his alliance with former prime minister Saad Hariri. It remains to be seen, however, if Mr Geagea can succeed in becoming a legitimate Lebanese Christian interlocutor with the country's Sunnis.

Mr Geagea has also sought to build bridges to Iraq's Kurds, and visited Irbil last January. Another Maronite notable, former president Amin Gemayel, did the same, as did the Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. While each man had different motives in visiting Iraqi Kurdistan, they probably did share one: for Arab minorities it is increasingly attractive to hedge by developing political relationships with other minorities, without harming ties with Sunni Arabs.

The primary aim of the Lebanese Forces leader in the elections next year is to bring a sizably larger bloc to parliament than the one he controls today, and challenge the dominant Christian bloc of Mr Aoun. Mr Geagea sees that Mr Aoun is getting on in years - he's 77 - and that his lumbering Free Patriotic Movement will most probably fragment over who eventually succeeds him. Now is the time, Mr Geagea feels, to attract part of the Aounists' electoral base.

While the Aounists deeply dislike Mr Geagea, there are many Christians who voted for Aounist candidates in elections past who are not necessarily hard-core movement members. They have rallied to Mr Aoun because of their minority anxieties. It is these people, Mr Geagea believes, whom he can ultimately rally, who will appreciate that he has read regional dynamics properly, therefore can negotiate from a position of strength and goodwill with Sunnis.

There is also a more pragmatic reason why the Lebanese Forces leader appealed to the Sunni mood in condemning Patriarch Al Rai and Mr Aoun. If Mr Geagea wants a substantial parliamentary bloc, his best way of achieving this is to place his candidates on Hariri lists or lists openly or implicitly allied with Mr Hariri in constituencies with significant numbers of Sunni voters. This applies, among others, to the third voting district in Beirut, as well as the Shouf, Zahleh, the West Beqaa, Akkar and even Tripoli, with its single Maronite seat.

Some have said that Mr Geagea has presidential ambitions. Which Maronite does not? However, this appears to be less a priority for the Lebanese Forces leader at the moment than to consolidate his authority nationally. That won't be easy among the fractious Maronites, especially for a man still resented as a onetime warlord. But Mr Geagea is playing the so-called "Arab spring" right, and his conviction that the Assad regime is destined to fall seems more persuasive than Mr Aoun's and Patriarch Al Rai's assessments, and above all their defence or minimisation of Mr Al Assad's crimes.

There is an irony in Mr Geagea's Sunni flirtation, and it goes beyond the fact that his militia during the war years was a bitter foe of the Sunnis. Rather, as the son of the secluded northern mountain village of Bsharri, Mr Geagea was always the least likely Maronite to manage a reconciliation with the Sunnis, particularly urban Sunnis, and to turn that understanding into a prop for his own political revival.

No one should underestimate Mr Geagea. The Lebanese Forces leader spent 11 years in an underground cell, much of that time in isolation. That he emerged sensible and sane tells us something about the man. Willpower can go a long way, and Mr Geagea feels that his time has come, even as his enemies fight for their political survival.

No comments: