New alliance points to Lebanese political shift

Sunday 01/05/2016
Chairman of the Executive body of the Lebanese Forces party Samir Geagea (R) with Michel Aoun, head of the Change and Reform bloc in the Lebanese parliament.

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.