Friday, April 19, 2013

Played for fools - Geagea is in a tough spot

Perhaps it's slowly dawning on the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb that they have been played for fools by Hezbollah, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, and Michel Aoun.

Both of the Christian parties had expected there to be a vote in parliament on the so-called Orthodox proposal, but the signs today are that this will not happen. If so, they will have to admit that they ran into a trap, led to endorse a proposal that would break March 14 apart and prevent it from winning a parliamentary majority.

What is most disturbing is that the Lebanese Forces, from the start, were dishonest about their intentions toward the Orthodox proposal. Facing a strong backlash from the Future Movement, Samir Geagea, and his aides hinted that they were not that keen about the project and would not vote for it in parliament, while arguing that they had to publicly approve of it because most Christians did.

The fact is that the Lebanese Forces always had the most to gain from the Orthodox proposal. Any scheme that mandates voting for candidates only from within one's own sect gives Geagea a boost in his rivalry with Aoun. The Lebanese Forces leader couldn't stomach the 1960 law because it ensured that Aoun would benefit from Shiite backing in key districts such as Baabda, Jbeil, and even Kisirwan and Metn, whereas in a straight competition between Maronite voters, the Lebanese Forces would do far better than under the 1960 law.

The view in the Lebanese Forces is that the party could not afford another election in which it won fewer than 10 seats, with Sunni and Druze voters (in the Shouf and Zahleh) alone permitting them to achieve that. The Kataeb adopted a similar rationale, believing that proportionality in the Orthodox proposal allowed them to win more than the paltry numbers they could expect under the present law.

And now the rug is likely to be pulled out from under their feet, as Berri fails to bring the proposal to a vote. That's understandable, because Berri, Hezbollah, and Aoun are not keen to see the Orthodox scheme become law, despite claims to the contrary. Berri and Hezbollah don't like to be tagged as exclusively Shiite parties, especially when they can bring non-Shiites into parliament on their lists. And Aoun has no interest in giving Geagea and the Gemayels a larger number of parliamentarians than they have today. For all his grumbling about the 1960 law, Aoun was one of its main beneficiaries.

Having been drawn out onto a limb, the Lebanese Forces and Kataeb then decided to saw it off by declaring that they would not participate in elections held on the basis of the 1960 law. Since that law is one of the few means that March 14 has of gaining a majority in parliament, and since the parties' attitude will lead to a vacuum if no alternative election law can be agreed, the decision is astonishingly reckless. The Lebanese Forces and Kataeb are denying March 14 a victory through an attitude that may carry Lebanon into a destabilizing political void.

One of Geagea's advisors, in explaining his party's position on the Orthodox proposal, told me that the Lebanese Forces leader "was playing chess while the others were playing checkers." As things appear now, Geagea is a piece on Hezbollah's chessboard, and anyway it's better to be a good checkers player than a bad chess player.

From a Christian perspective, Geagea has won nothing. His strong card had been that he was the person ideally suited to steer a rapprochement between the Maronite and Sunni communities, something vitally important in light of the situation in Syria and the probable downfall of Bashar al-Assad's regime. Instead, his embrace of the Orthodox proposal, while it was principally directed against Aoun, has been largely construed by Sunnis as targeting them.

That said, Geagea's political gymnastics have betrayed anxiety that a Sunni triumph in Syria might alarm Lebanon's Christians, who fear an upsurge in Sunni Islamist groups. There also seems to be on Geagea's part understated resentment of Saad Hariri, who has been absent from Lebanon since 2011, leaving his allies in the lurch. So there may be some truth to the view that Geagea is not as well disposed to his Sunni allies as he once was.

The Christians are still paying a heavy price for the rivalry between Geagea and Aoun, as if one bout of communal self-destruction were not enough. How odd to hear Geagea speak about revitalizing the Lebanese state when he now backs a plan that will only further break up the state. And it is not being naïve to say such a thing, as if we were not wise to the sly political calculations of the Lebanese Forces leader. The reality is that both Geagea and the Kataeb have tied themselves up in knots through their maneuvering, and the Lebanese in general as well as Christians in particular lose from their choices.

For instance how are Christians living in mixed districts to fare when two of their leading communal political parties are pursuing greater isolation? Did Geagea and the Gemayels think of them at all when they approved of the Orthodox proposal? Or did that other devouring Maronite egotist, Patriarch Bshara al-Rai, who is too besotted with his own purported importance to grasp that many Christians live in mixed confessional districts, therefore need to coexist in harmony with their Muslim brethren?

The stupidity of the Lebanese Forces and Kataeb is painful to watch. At a moment when the overriding necessity, in light of the Syrian conflict, was to gain a parliamentary majority for March 14, or at least prevent Hezbollah from doing so, the two parties preferred to pursue their own trifling agenda. To hell with Lebanon, they have told us, as long as we can get a few more heads into parliament.

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