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By endorsing Michel Aoun’s candidacy for president of Lebanon, Samir Geagea might have finally pulled the right string to untangle the knot of electing a new Lebanese head of state. Lebanon has been without a president—a position traditionally reserved for Maronite Christians—for nearly two years because its politicians have failed to resolve a broader political crisis that has paralyzed the country. Yet even if his move doesn’t do the trick, Geagea, in a stroke of political genius, did at least set in motion his own political ascendency among Lebanese Christians, reshuffled the national political deck, and brought political relevance back to—and, in turn, ensure self-preservation of—a long-marginalized and beleaguered Christian community.
The news was shocking even to the keenest observer of Lebanese politics. After all, the political rivalry and feud between Geagea, the head of the Lebanese Forces party, and Aoun, the Free Patriotic Movement chief, is one of the oldest and bloodiest in the country. The two Christian leaders fought bitterly during the 1975–1990 civil war, inflicting massive destruction on Christian areas and causing lasting and deep divisions among their constituencies. In October 1990, the Syrian military forced Aoun into exile in Paris for leading a failed “war of liberation” against their military presence in Lebanon. As for Geagea, he was jailed in 1994 on charges of bombing a church in Zouk Mikael that killed ten people. He was also suspected of killing Lebanese Prime Minister Rashid Karami in June 1987 and rival Christian politician Dany Chamoun along with his wife and two sons three years later. Geagea was hardly alone in committing atrocities during the war. Among warlords, only he faced extended prison; the rest were pardoned and moved on to occupy positions of power under Syrian tutelage. In June 2005, Aoun returned from France, and a month later Geagea was released from prison.
Aoun and Geagea’s parties competed fiercely in Lebanon’s post-Syria parliamentary elections. Geagea sided with the anti-Syrian March 14 coalition, which formed after the February 14, 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Aoun, in a desperate and controversial attempt to improve his chances of becoming president, joined forces with the Shi’ite Hezbollah. Yet neither Hezbollah nor March 14 were able to fulfill the presidential wishes of their respective Christian allies, and both Aoun and Geagea continued to veto each other’s candidacy, and as a result obstruct the election of a representative Christian head of state.
The physical and political confrontation between Geagea and Aoun—and the disastrous consequences it has had on the fate of Lebanese Christians—is key for understanding Geagea’s latest move. It is tempting to explain his new partnership with Aoun as a knee-jerk reaction to his Sunni ally Saad Hariri’s implicit presidential nomination of Sleiman Franjieh, another Christian rival. After all, Geagea must have felt blindsided by Hariri’s bizarre decision to support Franjieh, who is a close friend of Syrian President Bashar Assad, a man widely believed to have orchestrated the murder of Hariri’s father in addition to several other anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians. That Hariri did not bother consult with Geagea prior to proposing his initiative must have made the latter mad and disillusioned.
But it would be a mistake to limit Geagea’s brilliant political act to an emotional outburst or sudden shift of alliance. Nor did bravery or morality prompt Geagea to extend an olive branch to Aoun. Instead, this was a carefully calibrated and well-thought-out political strategy on Geagea’s part that has been in the making for at least a year. A major milestone in this process of rapprochement came in June 2015, when the two men signed a “Declaration of Intent” in Aoun’s home in Rabieh, committing the latter to strict Lebanese sovereignty principles that the March 14 coalition favors and that Hezbollah resists.
It is not difficult to see that Geagea wants to be an omnipotent force in Lebanese Christian politics and now that the Syrians are out, his goal is very much achievable. But the only way for him to realize his vision is, ironically, by paving the way for Aoun to become president, which has been the FPM leader’s singular focus since coming back to Lebanon in 2005. The logic works like this. If Aoun becomes president, Geagea’s role as Christian kingmaker will be cemented in the eyes of Lebanese Christians and therefore, his influence within the community will dramatically increase. The majority of Lebanese Christians will see him as the man who broke the presidential deadlock, brought the Christians back to power, and forged historic intra-Christian peace for generations to come. With time, and it may not be too long due to Aoun’s old age, Geagea might be able to win the hearts and minds of his archrival’s support base, and if all goes well, possibly succeed him as president when his six-year term is over.
This all sounds promising for Geagea, except that his strategy will have to contend with the age-old Lebanese dictum that national political appointments in Lebanon are seldom, if ever, purely a domestic matter. Regional and sometimes international powers have a big say over who gets to be elected as president from the Christian Maronite community and who gets to be appointed as prime minister from the Sunni community. (The speaker of parliament position has been held by Shiite Amal leader Nabih Berri, a staunch ally of Hezbollah, since October 1992.)
The good news is that there is greater room for Lebanese politicians to maneuver now than there was in the past, due to Syria’s exit from Lebanon, the world’s preoccupation with the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), and concern over further political vacuums in the region. Indeed, a continuously destabilized and paralyzed Lebanon hurts the anti-ISIS campaign. This doesn’t mean that the Lebanese will be able to do it on their own. It merely suggests that the two regional powers that wield the greatest influence over Lebanese national politics—Iran and Saudi Arabia—might show more flexibility toward the preferences and calculations of their surrogates—Hezbollah and Saad Hariri, respectively—in the interest of preventing the fires of regional Sunni-Shiite confrontation from reaching Lebanon.
The two main domestic parties from which Geagea and Aoun have had no definitive response are Hezbollah and Hariri’s Future Movement. Both sides have been lukewarm, neither killing nor embracing Geagea’s initiative. Hezbollah should have been thrilled with Geagea’s support for Aoun. After all, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah promised Aoun the moment he signed a memorandum of understanding with him in 2006 that he will do whatever he can to help his Christian ally win the presidency. And to his credit, despite intense regional and international pressure against his party, Aoun stuck to his alliance with Hezbollah.
But Hezbollah is now confused and a little wary about this newfound love between Aoun and Geagea. The Shiite group has never trusted Geagea, viewing him too far to the right and too close to Washington. And now that Aoun has embraced Geagea, Hezbollah is starting to wonder whether a president Aoun, having signed a “Lebanon-first” declaration of principles with his new ally, could be trusted. What if Aoun went back to his old ways of aggressively campaigning against all forms of foreign intervention and championing the cause of Lebanese non-interference in regional conflicts? Such a campaign could complicate Hezbollah’s pro-Iran agenda and involvement in the Syrian war.
As for Hariri, he would have to consult with Saudi Arabia, perhaps more so than Hezbollah would with Iran, to see if the kingdom can lift its veto on Aoun. Not too long ago, Hariri publicly said that he would not stand in the way of Christian solidarity and would accept a president picked by the Christians themselves and endorsed by the Maronite Church. It would serve Hariri well to stick to his words and be seen as an active supporter of Muslim-Christian peace and interfaith dialogue in a region swept by violent religious extremism.
There has been no clear word yet from Riyadh on Aoun, but the Saudis seem to be unhappy with Geagea’s torpedoing of their Franjieh plan, which allegedly was fabricated with French and American guidance. Riyadh also suspects that Doha may have had a hand in Geagea’s machinations, the former having quietly made inroads into Lebanese politics over the past few years at Saudi Arabia’s expense. But the Saudis’ views could change if they receive reassurance from Iran that an Aoun presidency would come with a Hariri premiership, assuming Hezbollah gets over its new concerns about Aoun. Should that happen, the Christians would get their strong president, the Sunnis would welcome the homecoming of their prime minister, and the Shiites would still have the house speakership, not to mention of course the almighty Hezbollah, the most potent political-military force in the country.
Of course, none of this, should it ever materialize, would solve the numerous other problems that Lebanon has had to deal with since the founding of the republic, including the lack of reform and political accountability, corruption, the failure to transition to a real democracy, and most recently and tragically, the inability to even collect garbage from the streets of Beirut. But the hope is that with this short-to-medium-term recipe for political stability, state institutions can be reactivated, a new electoral law can be negotiated, and national security can be preserved. As for Geagea, his strategy might not work—but, even then, he would emerge as a winner for engineering his own political resurrection and for strengthening Christian solidarity at a time of great peril for religious minorities in the Middle East.