What is behind the Kataeb Party’s withdrawal from government?

Sunday 26/06/2016
Former Lebanese prime minister Saad al-Hariri (R) meets with Sami Gemayel, head of the Kataeb Christian party, in Beirut, last February.

Beirut - The leader of Lebanon’s Ka­taeb Party, Sami Gemayel, recently announced that Labour Minister Sejaan Qazzi and Economy Min­ister Alain Hakim would resign from the Tammam Salam government. Qazzi subsequently said he would not fulfil these directives and was suspended by the Kataeb Party.
Gemayel sought to portray the decision as based on what was best for Lebanon, saying the party could not remain part of a weak, suspect government. These are precisely the points raised by Salam, who acknowledged that his government was unable to accomplish anything and criticised the country’s political elite for prioritising partisan issues over national ones.
The only logical explanation for Kataeb’s withdrawal from the gov­ernment is that Gemayel is gam­bling that this will result in a shock that generates support for the party among Christians. There is no risk that the move would torpedo the government, given that Lebanon has been without a president for more than two years.
Qazzi justified his rebellion against the Kataeb move by saying this was a “political decision” and calling for the party to be realistic, warning against a walkout at a time when Lebanon is without a presi­dent.
“I cannot resign at a time when our country is facing such challeng­es,” he said, adding that, instead of seeking to walk out, Kataeb should reinforce its position in the govern­ment and defend party issues.
Gemayel is the son of former pres­ident Amine Gemayel and grandson of Kataeb Party founder Pierre Ge­mayel. The party has always played a major role within Lebanon’s Chris­tian community but the results of the recent municipal elections demonstrated that the party is able to match the ambitions, if not the actual strength, of the political alli­ance between Samir Geagea (Leba­nese Forces) and Michel Aoun (Free Patriotic Movement).
By withdrawing from govern­ment, Gemayel is trying to restore the party to past glories from be­fore the civil war when it occupied a key place in the Christian con­sciousness. Today, the party has been supplanted by Geagea-Aoun partnership. Observers said its role in government overestimates its ac­tual strength and is based on the ab­sence of Lebanese Forces from the government coalition.
Gemayel’s decision to withdraw Kataeb from the government was likely not taken with his father’s consent. Amine Gemayel, in his 70s and retired from politics, has not issued a public statement confirm­ing this but anybody who knows his policies and decision-making knows that he would not endorse a withdrawal from government when there is no prospect of a new government due to the absence of a president. This withdrawal will only further halt government action.
Those who know Sami Gemayel, who took over the country’s old­est independent Christian party in 2015, say he could be seeking to re­move old-guard Kataeb figures, who arrived during the era of his father or even his grandfather. The Kataeb Party’s complicated and divisive history means that many members of the party arrived under previous incarnations. This is something that perhaps explains the quick decision to expel Qazzi from the party.
Qazzi, 64, had been involved in Kataeb since he was in his 20s and said that he was disinclined to simply follow unilateral orders, all these years later, when he is a min­ister. He has a storied history within Lebanese Christian politics and ties with other Lebanese Christian par­ties, including Geagea’s Lebanese Forces. Given the political realities in Lebanon, Lebanese Forces is a major rival to Kataeb, which could have partly motivated his decision to expel Qazzi.
Gemayel has been quoted as say­ing that this withdrawal is not the last action that will be taken by Ka­taeb and that Lebanon should ex­pect new “surprises” from his party.
However, nothing has been leaked from Kataeb about its plans, either because there is no specific strategy in mind or because the par­ty’s decision to withdraw from gov­ernment was reactive, rather than pre-emptive.
Ultimately, the only thing that has changed is this: The Kataeb Party rid itself of a figure it has long want­ed out: Sejaan Qazzi.