Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1280, (28 January - 3 February 2016)
Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Issue 1280, (28 January - 3 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Aoun’s unlikely ally

The reluctant blessing Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea has given former army commander Michel Aoun has sent everyone in Lebanon back to the drawing board, writes Hassan Al-Qashawi from Beirut

Al-Ahram Weekly

Few saw coming, but Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces (LF), has finally given his support to the presidential bid by General Michel Aoun, leader of the Change and Reform Bloc. The sudden turnaround has wrong-footed allies and confused adversaries.

The announcement ends years of hostility between Geagea and Aoun, who led Lebanon’s two largest Christian parties. Since Aoun and Geagea emerged on the political scene during Lebanon’s civil war, they have been fierce rivals. Their rivalry turned into active hostility during the 1990 clashes, popularly known as the Harb Al-Ilgha (War of Dismissal).

For nearly three decades, the two men have been vying for the hearts and minds of Lebanese Christians. Aoun used his position as army commander to bolster his popularity, while Geagea was one of Lebanon’s key warlords during the civil war, commanding the influential Lebanese Forces, a militia affiliated with the right-wing Phalange Party.

During Aoun’s term as Lebanese army commander (1984-1989), the army turned into a mainly Christian organisation, with many Muslim servicemen leaving its ranks.

In 1988, President Amin Al-Gemayel made Aoun prime minister, a move that conflicted with the constitution and the norms governing Lebanon’s political formula. The prime minister, according to Lebanese traditions, must be from the Sunni community.

As army commander, Aoun sent the army to take control of Christian areas, which led to confrontations with the Geagea-led LF. Aoun made similar attempts in Muslim areas, with little success, until he finally lost to the Syrian army in 1990. It was then that Aoun took refuge in the French Embassy before fleeing to France.

Geagea remained in the country, against the advice of his friends, and was eventually imprisoned for allegedly ordering the assassinations of political rivals during the civil war. He was released from prison in 2005, the same year that Aoun returned to Lebanon from exile.

Geagea is often associated with the infamous Ihdin massacre, in which Tony Frangieh, son of former president Solieman Frangieh, was killed. These days, the LF claims that the massacre was not planned and that Geagea was injured at the beginning of the clash, which is why things got out of control. The LF has since apologised for the mistakes it made during the civil war. It is the only Lebanese group to have done so.

The massacre added a new element to relations between Geagea and the Frangieh clan, one that fuels the historical animosity between the Bsharri and Zgharta, the respective strongholds of Geagea and the Frangiehs.

In the current presidential race, Tony Frangieh, son of the man Geagea’s militia is accused of killing, is a prominent candidate. Frangieh is the favourite candidate of Future Current, led by Saad Al-Hariri.Frangieh is known to be a close friend of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, which adds a further twist to the presidential race.

Aoun is known for his solid opposition to the Syrian regime. But being a close ally of Hizbullah, he has condoned the Shia group’s involvement in Syria’s civil war.

One of the reasons Geagea preferred to name his former nemesis, Aoun, for president, is that Aoun’s alliance with the Syrians is a matter of political convenience, whereas Frangieh is believed to be sentimentally attached to the Syrian presidential family, a bond that is harder to break, according to sources close to the LF.

During the civil war, Aoun and Geagea were committed rivals, but both were opposed to Syrian influence in Lebanon.

After the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Al-Hariri in 2005, followers of both men took part in the Cedar Revolution, which succeeded in expelling Syrian troops from Lebanon.

Immediately afterwards, Aoun came back from exile and Geagea was freed from prison with a parliamentary pardon. But after he returned to Lebanon, Aoun formed an alliance with Hizbullah and signed a memorandum of understanding with the party in 2006. This alliance widened the differences between Aoun and Geagea, each of whom continues to claim the higher moral ground in their bid for leadership of the Christian community.

Now, if Aoun’s aim is to become president, what’s in it for Geagea?

For one thing, it seems Geagea is trying to turn from being a former warlord into a kingmaker. Commenting on the move, Geagea said that he is moving out of self-denial. But we mustn’t forget that Geagea is almost 20 years younger than octogenarian Aoun. So, all things being equal, he has ample time to replace him, and perhaps not before long.

It is in Geagea’s favour to establish the rule that Lebanon’s strongest Christian leader should be president. And since he is much more influential than Frangieh, the other candidate in the current race, then once Aoun retires he may find it easier to succeed him.

In fact, even today, the LF is viewed by many to be a stronger organisation than the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), which Aoun created before entrusting its leadership to his son-in-law, current Foreign Minister Gebril Bassil.

Geagea is also trying to wean Aoun off of his reliance on Hizbullah. In a letter of intention recently signed by the LF and FPM, Aoun pledged to impose the authority of the Lebanese government with vigour, to have good relations with Arab countries, and to commit to the Taef Agreement, all of which are points that are closer to the principles of the 14 March Alliance (led by the Future Current) than those of the 8 March Alliance (led by Hizbullah).

Nonetheless, Geagea’s historic step doesn’t mean Aoun will cruise to the presidency with no opposition.

The Maronite Church, led by Patriarch Bechara Bourtos Al-Rahi, was quite supportive of the move, and a significant part of the Christian community was also satisfied with the development. But snags are already appearing on many fronts.

Future Current, which named Frangieh for the post, was irritated by what it saw as a hostile move. Frangieh, during a recent visit to the Maronite Church, made it clear that he has no intention of abandoning his quest for the presidency.

Druze leader Walid Jumblatt is unlikely to be pleased at the sight of two of his former foes joining hands. He still leans toward Frangieh as a less risky option. Frangieh, like Jumblatt, comes from a well-established political dynasty and is expected to show more accommodation in office than Aoun, who tends to be opinionated and take risks.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri may also be less than thrilled by the prospects ahead. Berri is a close ally of Hizbullah and, by implication, of Aoun. But people close to both men know that they hardly get along. Indeed, Berri made it clear that if the LF gives its support to Aoun, he will refrain from asking his supporters to follow suit.

Hizbullah, one would think, should be pleased to see the LF for once backing one of its allies. But beneath the surface, Hizbullah officials may be starting to worry. Their greatest fear is that Aoun may, under LF pressure, start to follow policies that conflict with Hizbullah’s interests, especially with regard to its controversial role in Syria’s civil war.

Also, the prospect of Geagea gaining popularity, and perhaps succeeding Aoun in the presidential seat, is not one that Hizbullah would want.

The Pharangist Party, led by Sami Al-Gemayel, already said that it cannot vote for a presidential candidate from the 8 March Alliance, of which Aoun is a key member. But this position may be negotiable. Recently, Phalangist officials called on both Frangieh and Aoun to come up with a national platform that distances them from the principles adopted by the 8 March Alliance.

In short, the Geagea move has energised Lebanese politics, but it also sent everyone — including the allies of both Aoun and Geagea — back to the drawing board.

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