Thursday, April 24, 2014

For Christians, blessed are the dividers

Why is it that many people misjudged the Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea’s presidential bid by whether he became president? Using that benchmark, Geagea’s inability to secure a majority Wednesday was a defeat. In fact, his aims were different, and win or lose, he came out of the experience in a better position.

Geagea had three principal objectives in his candidacy: to compel March 14 in general, and the Future Movement in particular, to endorse him as their favorite. In that way he strengthened his hand as the coalition’s primary Christian representative at a time when Future has improved its relationship with Michel Aoun.

Geagea also apparently sought to turn the election into a contest between him and Aoun, knowing that such a situation would effectively neutralize both, blocking Aoun. Whether this gambit has actually succeeded remains to be seen.

And third, Geagea sought to legitimize the idea that Samir Geagea can be a presidential candidate, amid a widespread belief that, given his past, he could never pretend to such an office. While the Lebanese Forces leader is no worse than others from the war generation who are in positions of authority today, the stigma that has stuck to him has somehow been more enduring. That is why Geagea sought a way of rewriting his personal narrative.

Geagea can look with some satisfaction on his strategy and will hope to cash in on this when parliamentary elections come later this year. But there was also something disconcerting in Geagea’s endeavor, a feeling that he was wrestling with old phantoms. No event better illustrated this than Geagea’s decision to show journalists a replica of his Defense Ministry prison cell that he built at his home in Maarab, complete with sound effects.

Most would have buried that past. Geagea, partly for opportunistic reasons, has refused to do so. That is not surprising given that Geagea and Aoun, whose enmity once devastated the Christians, are still the main protagonists in a struggle for communal predominance. They cannot break free from that rivalry, and Christians cannot break free from both men.

Unlike Geagea, Aoun has not bothered to grace the public with a political program. There was a time when the Aounists serenely explained that they had such a program, and that their understanding with Hezbollah was written down. Not that such transparency changed much, but the implicit message was that Aoun did politics differently than other leaders in Lebanon.

Today things have changed, and the Aounist faithful are not averse to a backroom deal that could bring their champion to office. Aoun has not declared his candidacy, preferring to present himself as a compromise candidate who will take power only if invited by Lebanon’s diverse factions.

By virtue of his larger representation in Parliament and government, Aoun has been less a hostage to the past than Geagea. He has had more on his political plate to propel him forward. And yet his ambitions, too, were once thwarted by an inability to shake off earlier animosities.

In 2006, Aoun formally allied himself with Hezbollah against the March 14 coalition, hoping this would advance his plan to become president once Emile Lahoud’s term ended. In fact it did precisely the opposite, ensuring that Aoun would be opposed by the March 14 parliamentary majority. Had Aoun remained in the center, between March 8 and March 14, he would have been Lahoud’s natural, indeed uncircumventable, successor on the basis of the large victory he had won in the elections of 2005.

What motivated Aoun was, principally, his hostility to the Hariri family and Walid Jumblatt, whom he blamed for having tried to isolate him politically, and who had been the general’s political adversaries prior to that. Rather than putting his personal antagonisms aside in the pursuit of the presidential prize, Aoun allowed himself to be manipulated in the March 8-March 14 battle, ultimately being shunted aside when a consensus candidate was found in Michel Sleiman.

Aoun appears to have realized his error, and recently he has tried to sound presidential. But it could be too late, though there is a possibility that Saad Hariri could support Aoun in a maneuver that has several politicians worried, Geagea and Jumblatt above all.

With the first round of elections over, there is now room for a variety of options. Aoun can delight in the fact that Geagea received fewer votes than the number of blank ballots. Jumblatt can be happy that Henri Helou received 16 votes. In other words, if March 14 were to support Helou in the second round, they and Jumblatt would name the president. This could ward off a Hariri-Aoun rapprochement, which would marginalize Jumblatt.

But beyond the specifics of the election, a larger question is how long will the Christians be ruled by the figures from their past? The broader community, and the Maronites in particular, are in perpetual search of a strongman. This makes them no different than Lebanon’s other communities. But when the men toward whom they are turning are the same ones who destroyed Christian fortunes, you have to wonder about the Christians’ priorities.

For now Lebanon is still without a president, and it’s not for the Christians to decide who becomes one. The next president will have a far more momentous task, that of leading Lebanon through the labyrinth of Sunni-Shiite tensions and ensuring that the country remains united. Having divided their own community, Aoun and Geagea seem poorly equipped for such an undertaking.

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