Friday, April 6, 2012

Two bullets and a ballot

It has been a busy few weeks for the Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea. On Wednesday he dodged a bullet—in fact two—just days after organizing a rally to commemorate the dissolution of his party in 1994. This followed Geagea’s high-profile criticisms in mid-March of two leading Maronite figures, Patriarch Bechara al-Rai and Michel Aoun—both men for defending the Syrian regime, and the second for having assailed the Sunni community.

The security forces are investigating the assassination attempt. Regardless of what they find, Geagea is high on any list of politicians slated for elimination. Nor is there much doubt as to who would carry out such a crime. What will be interesting to determine, however, is how the Lebanese Forces leader uses the incident as he prepares for an essential moment in his political resurrection after his release from prison in 2005, namely parliamentary elections next year.

That’s not to suggest that the sniper attack was a setup. But Geagea is a political animal par excellence, and someone shrewd enough to employ all the means at his disposal to ensure that he can bring a substantial bloc to parliament and challenge that of Michel Aoun.

There has been much speculation about what the assassination attempt actually meant. Are we returning to a new spate of killings similar to the one in 2005-2008? Geagea certainly sought to place the assault in that context, linking it, strikingly, to the elections of 2005 and the rationale behind the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. “Why did they assassinate … Hariri?” Geagea asked in a press conference, before explaining: “All he did was acquire greater power than they had given him, and it was clear that he was likely to acquire a parliamentary majority during the 2005 elections.”

The implication was that Geagea, too, had been targeted because he was expected to perform well in upcoming elections. Moreover, his remarks were designed to induce his audience to set off into specific speculative directions, all otherwise left unstated by the Lebanese Forces leader. Who loses if Geagea gains? Aoun, of course, but also his allies in Hezbollah. What does this tell us? Among other things, that Hezbollah has infiltrated the Christian mountains, where Geagea resides. And who has covered for Hezbollah’s growing military presence in these mountains? Obviously Michel Aoun.

That thought process could be damaging to Aoun next year. It comes in the wake of a dispute at the Antonine University, in which Shia students prayed outside a church in contravention of the institution’s rules. The Aounists were embarrassed by the consequences, and in the eyes of many outraged Christians responded lamely to what had occurred. Meanwhile, MTV, over which Geagea enjsoys influence, has broadcast reports of how Christian neighborhoods abutting the southern suburbs are being transformed by Shia-led construction.

Baabda, where Aoun and Hezbollah are powerful, will be a key electoral battleground for Geagea. Expect the Lebanese Forces to play on Christian fears of the demographic shifts in their neighborhoods. More broadly, from one side Geagea will scare Christian voters by raising the Shia scarecrow; from the other, Aoun will raise the Sunni scarecrow. The election themes in Christian districts will revolve around communal anxiety and identity politics, which risks leaving Christians even more isolated and wary than they already are.

Nor will there be a Maronite patriarch in place who can unite the community and inject confidence into his flock. Instead, the Maronites merely have Bechara al-Rai, who in sectarian terms has proven to be even more polarizing than Geagea or Aoun. Given the cleric’s weakness for politics, and his compulsive recklessness, the patriarch will be open to manipulation by both men.

Geagea is a deliberate operator. Whenever he does something, he usually has put some thinking into it. The Lebanese Forces leader has been consciously in the limelight lately, defining himself more sharply while differentiating himself just as sharply from other Maronite figures. He’s backed the Arab uprisings, especially in Syria, unlike most of his Maronite political and religious counterparts; he’s defended the Sunnis against Aoun, when many Christians are worried about Sunni political Islam throughout the Middle East; and he’s even attempted to portray himself as a man of regional stature, by inviting speakers from various Arab countries that are currently experiencing political upheavals to address the Lebanese Forces ceremony.

Elections are high on Geagea’s mind. He evidently feels that now is his time to make a qualitative leap forward to become Lebanon’s dominating Christian representative in the coming years. Aoun is his primary impediment, but time isn’t really on the general’s side, and many believe that the Free Patriotic Movement and its electorate will fragment once he leaves the scene. Someone will have to pick up the pieces, and Geagea aspires to amass a large share. 

In that context, we can say, rather cynically, that the bungled assassination attempt could ultimately serve Geagea well. It casts a disparaging light on everything the Lebanese Forces leader has warned against, and, as during his 11-year imprisonment, shows him to be a man defying the odds. Geagea’s enemies, but also his allies, will have to remember that once election season comes.

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