Thursday, February 28, 2013

Lost in Geagea’s maze of maneuvering

The tension between Samir Geagea and the Future Movement is palpable thanks to Geagea’s support for the Orthodox election proposal. But beyond the political calculations that we know – the fact that the Lebanese Forces leader does not want to appear “less Christian” than Michel Aoun (in a rivalry that has devastated Christian fortunes) – what deeper thoughts explain his decision? A fair answer shows that there continues to be Christian mistrust of Muslim political power. Amid talk of Sunni-Shiite tension threatening Lebanon, we cannot underestimate that an old fault line, between Christians and Muslims, still very much survives, despite Geagea’s alliance with Saad Hariri and Aoun’s closeness to Hezbollah.

In discussions with journalists, Geagea has reportedly justified his support for the Orthodox scheme by arguing, among other things, that he sought to contain Walid Jumblatt. For Geagea, the 1960 law will lead to a similar alignment to what we have today, which will give Jumblatt the ability to hold the balance between March 8 and March 14. This the Lebanese Forces leader wanted to prevent, insisting that by pushing Jumblatt into a corner, he would then force the Druze leader to rejoin March 14, which is good for the coalition.

Perhaps, but there are several problems with this rationale. For one thing, the 1960 law is far more likely to bring March 14 a parliamentary majority, while the Orthodox plan will not do so. So, forcing Jumblatt to adhere once again to March 14 seems slightly ridiculous a goal if, ultimately, there is no majority to show for it; or rather, if the plan to compel Jumblatt to reintegrate March 14 actively ensures the coalition will not win a parliamentary majority.

Moreover, Geagea’s calculation may be faulty in another way. Recently, Jumblatt visited Saudi Arabia in what was plainly a reconciliation visit. This suggested that Saudi funding may have resumed, or will soon resume, which is essential to Jumblatt’s power of patronage. Under such circumstances, does he have any latitude to betray March 14 a second time, which would mean a new cutoff of Saudi money? Can Jumblatt afford this at a difficult time economically for his electorate?

All this suggests a more profound malaise in Geagea, one that goes beyond his declared aims in approving the Orthodox law. It’s very likely that the Lebanese Forces leader took badly the meeting between Jumblatt and Saad Hariri last January to discuss the electoral law. This came at a time when the 1960 law was likely to prevail given the inability to agree on an alternative, and neglect by Future officials of Geagea’s own election law proposal. The meeting also was held at a moment when the mood in the Future Movement was that Hariri would not place Lebanese Forces candidates on his lists as Geagea had sought.

The Hariri-Jumblatt meeting must have provoked complex thoughts in Geagea. Here was the Druze leader being received with open arms by the man whom he had undermined a year earlier, while he, Samir Geagea, the unshakeable ally who had done more than most to reconcile Sunnis and Christians, was taken for granted. Worse, here was Geagea holding the fort in Lebanon, while Hariri had spent nearly two years abroad, and getting nothing for his efforts.

So, as the Lebanese Forces leader saw it, he was the Christian dupe, destined to pick up the crumbs of a Sunni-Druze entente. Hariri’s mistake was not to sense this displeasure and head it off, no doubt the heaviest price he has had to pay for his prolonged and damaging absence. But more worrisome is that Geagea likely interpreted his predicament in the context of Christian-Muslim mistrust.

Which leads us to a third motivation, namely that Geagea is nervous about the Sunni revival that is occurring thanks to the uprising in Syria, a revival he feels may marginalize him completely. Geagea was already embarrassed by Sheikh Ahmad Assir’s foray into Faraya on the Prophet’s Birthday, which angered many Christians. He felt, rightly, that it was a case of Assir provoking a confrontation to rally support, and that his own political interests were completely ignored.

But beyond Assir, Geagea senses that if Islamists triumph in Syria, there will be negative consequences in Lebanon, and many Christians may well embrace those who best express their fears. Aoun has been a consistent opponent of Sunni Islamism, and Geagea doesn’t want to lose political ground to him over Syria. Worse, with the Future Movement frequently outmaneuvered by Salafist groups, Geagea worries that the trend in the Sunni community is toward radicalization.

The diagnosis may prove correct, but Geagea’s reaction is bizarre. The only way Salafists will be marginalized is if the Future Movement and other moderate Sunnis do well in the elections. This will definitely not happen under the Orthodox proposal. On the contrary, if the proposal passes, thanks to the proportional representation it mandates we can expect fringe groups to do far better than under the 1960 law.

Some will insist that the entire debate is worthless, given that the Orthodox proposal is unlikely to be approved by Parliament. Perhaps, but in that case Geagea has been duplicitous, with some journalists who have talked to him suggesting that he favors the Boutros commission election proposal. So basically Geagea is playing sectarian politics for reasons of convenience, which means, additionally, that we should doubt his reasons for supporting the Orthodox proposal. But an arch-maneuverer is not likely to secure public confidence, particularly when he has earned the mistrust of his political allies.

Voters will judge Geagea on his ideas, not his acrobatics. In recent years he has stuck to his positions, as others have readjusted theirs. This made him credible. However, his latest moves on the Orthodox proposal smack of opportunism, sectarian opportunism above all.

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