Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1301, (23 - 29 June 2016)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1301, (23 - 29 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The Phalanges Party quits government, Lebanon faces new crisis

The de facto exit of two ministers from the government has raised the possibility of a complete absence of executive authority in Lebanon, writes Hasan Al-Qishawi

Al-Ahram Weekly

The 14 June announcement by MP Sami Gemayel, the head of the Lebanese Phalanges Party, that his party was resigning from the Lebanese government sparked another crisis in the already crisis-ridden country, demonstrating that the political elite in Lebanon is the foremost producer of such crises.

The Phalanges have two ministers in the government: Labour Minister Sajaan Azzi  and Economy Minister Alain Hakim. Although Minister of Information Ramzi Jreij is close to the party, he is not a party member and said he would not resign.

According to Gemayel, the resignation was prompted by obstruction of the party’s efforts within the government and a lack of engagement with its proposals on numerous issues, among them the garbage crisis and especially the status of the Burj Hamoud landfill, located in a Christian area.

“The party decided to resign from the government because of what it considered attempts to stymie party efforts within the government,” Gemayel said during the press conference announcing the decision. “We entered the government to preserve institutions and reject the vacuum and we’d hoped it would last a month or two or four.”

He continued: “We worked on all issues. We succeeded in some areas, exposed many issues, and put a stop to errors. We protected the army, exposed corruption, prevented tax exemptions, and established a method based on an in-depth study of all issues. We believe we have preserved the minimum threshold of this state during our period of work.”

Regardless of the ostensible grounds for the resignation, the real reasons for the resignation of the Phalanges are linked to aspirations of the party’s 30-something leader and his style of party management.

One of the oldest parties in Lebanon, the Phalanges was established as a youth movement in 1936 and was the biggest Christian party before the civil war in the era of founder Pierre Gemayel. The Phalanges is a right-wing Christian party and was the most important party in the Lebanese Front, which brought together Christian parties against the Lebanese left allied with the Palestinians.

The role of the party waned despite the rise of the son of the party founder, Bachir, the historical Christian leader who founded and led the Christian militias during the civil war. The party declined in status with the death of Pierre and only regained its strength in the era of Amin Gemayel, Pierre’s eldest son, who assumed the presidency of Lebanon after Bachir was assassinated in the 1980s.

Amin assumed leadership of the party after he returned from exile in 2005, following the exit of Syrian forces from Lebanon. Amin, who is not a fighter like his brother Bachir and more measured in his rhetoric, gave up leadership of the party about a year ago to his son Sami, known for his university struggle against the Syrian presence in Lebanon.

Under Sami, the party’s discourse became more strident, both at home and abroad. He has tried to distinguish the Phalanges from the two other major Christian forces, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) led by General Michel Aoun and the Lebanese Forces Party under Samir Geagea. Sami seeks to catapult his party to second or even first place and shed its old image, which relies on its allies, especially the Future Movement, to win parliamentary seats.

His way to do this is by taking revolutionary stances that set it apart from other Christian parties and the 14 March forces, at times by reclaiming the party’s Christian spirit and at other times by inflaming Lebanese chauvinism.

It is thus no wonder that in the face of competition between Iranian and Syrian allies and Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, Sami Gemayel came out saying the party wanted neither Iran nor the Arabs, but only Lebanon, recalling the old anti-Arabism direction of the party.

Sami’s rhetoric denies the Arab nature of Lebanon, in contrast to that of his father, which recognised the country’s Arab heritage, and in contrast as well to close allies of Iran, both Muslim and Christian, such as Aoun, who does not deny Lebanon’s Arab heritage, though he may minimise it.

Gemayel was bolstered in his course by the party’s successes in municipal elections against the alliance between the FPM and the Lebanese Forces. This appeared to have proven the success of Gemayel’s strong rhetoric and encouraged him to take another step — resigning from the government. But the move seems to be grandstanding more than anything else.

First of all, the resignation cannot be officially accepted, as he himself said when he met with Prime Minister Tammam Salam. In response to a question about submitting the resignation in writing, Gemayel said: “In the absence of a president, the resignation cannot be submitted either orally or in writing.”

Though the government’s performance is subject to criticism from all sides, everyone knows that the reason is the political forces participating in it. But there is no alternative to this government with the presidency vacant and parliament out of session. It is a government of national necessity. Its collapse would mean the absence of any executive authority, or at least turn the government into a caretaker one, in which every minister would be the absolute ruler while bringing collective government action to a standstill.

The resignation sparked internal division within the Phalanges. Party leader and Minister of Labour Sajaan Azzi  attempted to minimise the impact of the resignation as soon as it was announced, saying: “The resignation of the two party ministers from the government is in force, but it does not apply constitutionally in the absence of a president.” He added: “We submitted the resignation, and it’s serious, but of course we’ll continue to conduct government business because we have a responsibility to the people.”

“So the resignation is in force politically but stalled constitutionally.”

Azzi  said he hoped the resignation of the two Phalanges ministers would be a positive shock that would generate national political momentum that could stimulate the government and encourage the election of a president. He said he hoped the “step is well placed”.

In contrast, party leader Elie Marouni said that the resignation was “final and in effect”.

Marouni said that the next step will be waiting for the government and Prime Minister Tammam Salam to take a position on a caretaker government: will they issue a decree appointing two acting ministers or will they ask the two Phalanges ministers to continue as acting ministers themselves?

“This is on the official side,” Marouni said. “On the party side, the day after tomorrow, on Monday, the party politburo will meet to examine the possibility of exercising caretaker powers or not.”

Asked whether it was true that Azzi  may attend the cabinet meeting since the resignation is not in effect, Marouni said: “The party president submitted the resignation of the two ministers. In turn, constitutional and legal logic says they will not participate in cabinet meetings. I don’t think Minister Azzi  would break his party obligations.”

Asked if there was a difference of opinion between party chair Sami Gemayel and Minister Azzi , Marouni said: “We’re an old, broad party with thousands of members. We have numerous opinions, but the decision is one. When the decision is made, everyone complies with it. This is democracy and the discipline of the Phalanges.”

Commenting on Azzi ’s statement that he would not “throw [his] accomplishments on the side of the road”, Marouni said, “Accomplishments remain always; no one can throw them away and every minister who has worked in his ministry has achieved something. Let’s assume the government fell constitutionally with the resignation of the prime minister, the election of a president, or the formation of a new government. At that point every minister is obligated to turn over his portfolio and leave it behind.”

There were press reports of the possibility of Azzi ’s expulsion from the party if he does not honour his obligation to resign; Azzi  was vice-president of the Phalanges.

As for Minister of Information Ramzi Jreij, who was nominated for his post by the Phalanges Party, he announced that as he is not a member of the party he will not resign, jeopardising his relationship to the party that brought him into the government.

The Phalanges resignation and the earlier resignation of Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi throw the crisis of the Lebanese order into relief.

In light of the sectarian dispensations and deal-making that have paralysed the country and voters’ despair with the current political elite, sectarian publics are moving toward the factions with most uncompromising rhetoric as an alternative to official parties. So Sunnis in Tripoli, instead of going for the Future Movement list and Najib Mikati, elected the list supported by General Ashraf Rifi, which is more hardline in its rhetoric on Hizbullah than the Future Movement.

Rifi himself resigned from the government because he refused to refer the case of Minister Michel Samaha, who is close to Syria, to the civilian judiciary and he objected to the dialogue between the Future Movement and Hizbullah. He also refused to endorse Suleiman Frangieh for the presidency, though he was nominated by Future Movement head Saad Hariri.

In Christian circles, Sami Gemayel’s discourse, which stands apart from the Future Movement and is uncompromising with Hizbullah, has given the party new momentum, working better than his father’s more considered position that sought an alliance with the Future Movement and reasonable ties with Hizbullah.

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