New alliance points to Lebanese political shift
Beirut - Atectonic shift has taken place within Lebanese politics, and particularly within its Christian house, following the announcement of the agreement between Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces party and Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement.
Given the feud between the two Christian leaders and the division between their two parties nobody could have expected the “Declaration of Intent” that saw Geagea abandon his presidential ambitions to endorse Aoun’s candidacy.
Lebanon has been without a president — who must be a Maronite Christian — for nearly two years, with the political stalemate over the issue becoming increasingly belligerent. The initial competition was between March 8 alliance candidate Aoun and the March 14 alliance’s Geagea. This has been resolved in favour of March 8, following the unexpected agreement that was engineered in January by the Free Patriotic Movement’s Ibrahim Kanaan and Geagea’s media official Melhem Riachy.
This is a relatively new and distinctive Christian unity, one that supplants Lebanese partisan politics and the longstanding enmity between the March 8 and March 14 political blocs. “This represents the establishment of a Christian tribe to combat the Muslim one,” Faris Saeed, a senior member of the March 14 alliance said, expressing concerns about this unlikely alliance.
As for the rest of Lebanon’s Christian parties, not least Samy Gemayel’s Phalange party (part of the March 14 alliance), they are concerned about this new Christian alliance, which will, no doubt, weaken its position within Lebanon’s Christian community.
Following this unanticipated alliance, Lebanon was surprised by another political agreement, with Future Movement leader and former prime minister Saad Hariri announcing that he was endorsing Suleiman Frangieh for president. Few could have expected Hariri, who is head of the March 14 alliance, to back the leader of the Marada Movement — part of the March 8 bloc who had been acting interior minister when his father Rafik Hariri was assassinated in 2005.
Theoretically, all presidential candidates today belong to the March 8 alliance. So why did Geagea choose Aoun? According to sources close to the Lebanese Forces party leader, Frangieh is viewed as being on the hawkish far right-wing of the March 8 and questions remain about his role as interior minister in relation to Rafik Hariri’s assassination.
As for Aoun, he is viewed as a relative outsider and is not a central figure within March 8 in the same way that Frangieh was. Indeed, Aoun was not even in the country when March 8 was formed.
Observers say that the Geagea- Aoun agreement is also based on electoral considerations, with Lebanon’s municipal elections expected to proceed on schedule in the near future. There are also practical considerations to take into account, with Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement disinclined to accept or endorse any other figure for president at a time when the presidential vacuum has become an increasing threat to Lebanese security and stability.
If Aoun does succeed, Geagea knows he will be a vital ally for the new president, particularly given his standing within Lebanon’s virtually unified Christian community. While if Hariri’s choice, Frangieh, were to become president, Geagea would find himself on the outside looking in, particularly after his paradigm-breaking alliance with Aoun.
This new political/sectarian alignment raises fears over the return of sectarian bloc voting in Lebanon, as well as increasing divisions between Lebanon’s Muslim and Christian communities.
The Lebanese Forces party is seeking to downplay such fears, trumpeting Geagea’s growing support within Lebanon’s Sunni community as well as some of his pro- Sunni stances, which, they claim, sometimes go beyond the positions taken by Hariri’s Future Movement. Geagea has the ability to win support even in Muslim-majority areas, Lebanese Forces supporters say.
The party has sought to move away from its Christian-centric position. A source close to Geagea says that a growing number of Muslims are joining the Lebanese Forces. “We defend Christians in their capacity as Lebanese. We defend the rights of any Lebanese citizens,” the source said.
Some might say that Hariri’s endorsement of Frangieh is cross-sectarian, while Geagea’s support of Aoun is indicative of sectarianism. The man Lebanon is scrambling to replace, former president Michel Suleiman, has expressed concerns about sectarian alliances. Geagea said he wants more openness in Lebanese politics and is prepared to engage with all parties, even Hezbollah.
Ultimately, Geagea’s alliance with Aoun seeks to ensure that Lebanon’s Christian parties will be major players in the forthcoming stage who cannot be ignored. Critics of the alliance, and Aoun, accuse him of being a dhimmi (non-Muslim citizens of an Islamic state) under Hezbollah, as opposed to Geagea’s relationship with the Future Movement.
Will Lebanon see a new March 8 president anytime soon? And how will this affect Lebanon’s Christian community? Only time will tell.