Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1280, (28 January - 3 February 2016)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1280, (28 January - 3 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Commentary: Strange things in Lebanon

Meddling in the Taef Accords that ended the civil war in Lebanon could be dangerous for the future of the country, writes Makram Rabah

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Lebanese have a saying that roughly translates as, “If you get to live long enough you will see many strange things.”

It appears to apply to what many witnessed earlier this month when the head of the Lebanese Forces (LF), Samir Geagea, a contender for the country’s presidency, announced his support for his arch-nemesis Michel Aoun.

What might appear to some as a primordial feud between the two men in fact dates back to the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990. Aoun, the head of the Lebanese Armed Forces and interim prime minister at the time, decided to wage a full-scale war against the LF militia.

This “war of elimination” saw some of the fiercest Christian infighting of the war. For many, it was a watershed moment that led to the eventual weakening and decline of Lebanon’s Christians.

Geagea’s strange, yet expected, decision to support Aoun came in response to the recent nomination by Geagea’s allies of Suleiman Frangieh as one of the four main contenders for the presidency, which has now been vacant for 20 months. While it might be perceived as a mere manoeuvre on the part of Geagea, leading to short and longer-term gains for him and his faction, the ramifications of the move could be more problematic than they appear.

After Geagea’s release from prison in 2005 and Aoun’s return from his Parisian exile, both men diverged on their position vis-à-vis the Syrian regime and the weapons held by the Shia group Hizbullah. Aoun, initially an ardent opponent of both, soon repositioned himself and signed a Faustian pact with Hizbullah, giving the armed group the much-needed Christian support it lacked, especially after the 2006 war with Israel.

Another somewhat existential difference between the LF and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) is the two groups’ different stances on the 1989 Taef Accords and the new governance structure the agreement introduced to Lebanon.

The Lebanese Forces endorsed the constitutional amendments and new power-sharing formula in the accords, while rejecting the Syrian tutelage that came along with them. Aoun and, coincidently, Hizbullah, never embraced the accords. They also did not respect the post-war redistribution of power that curbed the powers of the country’s Maronite president.

However, this did not prevent either of these leaders from trying to hammer out their differences in order to elect a president. In June 2015, they signed a Declaration of Intent that included an elaborate list of topics to be addressed by the two sides. This remained merely a mental exercise that was never taken seriously by the other Lebanese factions — until today.

The imperialistic and somewhat theatrical manner in which Geagea announced his support for Aoun’s candidacy did not mask an essential fact, which is that he was breaking with the Taef consensus and adopting the kind of “strong president” rhetoric his new ally Aoun popularly flaunts.

Geagea’s U-turn has shattered some preconceptions of Lebanese politics. One is related to the long-ailing March 14 Movement, which has failed time and time again to respond to the challenges of the March 8 Coalition and its Iranian/Syrian patrons.

By supporting Aoun, Geagea has sent a clear message that a consensus president in line with the Taef Accords is no longer an option, and instead he wants to see a strong and confrontational leader who can reclaim the lost rights of the Christians.

This challenge to the country’s Sunni political establishment and Lebanon’s Muslims could rebound badly on the Christians, at least in the long term. Undermining the Taef Accords, which gave the Christians disproportionate representation despite less favourable demographic realities, removes a safety net for Christians in the years to come.

For years, former prime minister Saad Al-Hariri resisted calls for a rebalancing of this formula and the adoption of a one-third quota system that would give the Shia an equal share in government. Al-Hariri, at least morally, has no obligation to honour his alliance with Geagea, who has now left the realm of Saudi political influence and decided to become Hizbullah’s main political ally.

What does all this translate into in practical terms? Supporting Aoun as president and electing him are two different matters. As it stands, Aoun and Frangieh are set for a showdown, provided that both agree to go to the parliament to cast their votes. Even if the Lebanese Forces vote for Aoun, this will not be sufficient for him to win, despite the support of the main Hizbullah bloc.

If Frangieh continues to refuse to withdraw in favour of Aoun, he should be able to secure enough votes, if not in the first round then perhaps in the second, from the anti-Aoun front, to win the elections.

The anti-Aoun front could include the bloc behind Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, who has shown neither personal nor political support for Aoun, a fact that Aoun seems to recognise. While Frangieh is burdened by his friendship with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, Aoun’s aggressive and condescending attitude and his Iranian backing makes it less likely that he will win the race.

The anti-Aoun bloc seems to prefer a pro-Syrian president who will be able to keep the last traces of the Taef Accords over an ageing but supposedly strong president who threatens them. Geagea, on the other hand, wants to assume the role of the new kingmaker, something that would be permissible on both political and personal grounds.

But no one should forget that meddling in the Taef Accords could bring about a new king. At this stage, no sane person can promise that this kingdom, or Lebanon as we know it, will continue to persist as before.

The writer is a PhD candidate at Georgetown University in the US.

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