The February 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafic Harriri led to the Cedar Revolution, during which Christian, Sunni and Druze sects united in the March 14 Alliance that was instrumental in forcing the exit of the Syrian army. Syria had dominated its tiny neighbour for nearly 30 years and was widely blamed for a string of assassinations, including that of Harriri.
After initially showing unity with the March 14 group, the Christian-dominated Free Patriotic Movement, led by former army general Michel Aoun, broke from the coalition, citing the domination of his Sunni and Druze allies and an electoral bias that favoured those communities at the expense of the Christians. In the May 2005 elections, Aoun and his allies won 27 seats in the 128-seat parliament. Then, in February 2006, Aoun controversially entered into a ‘memorandum of understanding’ with Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. This dramatic shift in policy is now set to be put to the test.
In May 2008, Shia-aligned Hezbollah allies stormed the Sunni areas of Beirut, leaving more than 60 dead, with Sunnis in the northern city of Tripoli retaliating in kind against Hezbollah’s allies. The 7 June elections are essentially a foregone conclusion where those two communities are concerned, with each dominating its traditional areas.
This effectively leaves Lebanon’s other major group, the Maronite Christians, who have been denied a political say in the country for some 20 years, with the potential to decide the political orbit of Lebanon and whether it will fall into the Western sphere of influence or under an Iranian-Syrian axis.
However, displacing Aoun as the Christian political incumbent isn’t going to be easy for the March 14 Alliance. Aoun has capitalised on both the lack of cohesion within the March 14 Alliance and the past actions of Sunnis, who held influential positions – largely at the expense of the Maronites – under Syrian occupation. Aoun has justified his alliance with Hezbollah by playing on Christian fears of a Sunni Wahhabisation of Lebanon (Wahhabism is a conservative form of Sunni Islam), and the recurring ‘threat’ of the naturalisation of some 400,000 (largely Sunni) Palestinians has played a large role maintaining tacit Christian approval of Aoun’s stance.
The March 14 Alliance now seeks to woo back Christian support in an effort to counter Hezbollah and Syrian influence in Lebanon. It has made some inroads by allying with key members of the Christian community, including Michel Mouawad (son of the late president René Mouawad), who has played an important role in areas like Zgharta, which might otherwise vote overwhelmingly for the pro-Syrian Sleiman Franjieh.
The comeback of the Phalangists
However, March 14’s best chance of winning the Christian vote and dominating the elections lies in the revival of the once powerful Kataeb Party (aka Lebanese Social Democratic Party, or Phalange Party), which will be contesting the Free Patriotic Movement in key Christian electorates. Part of the March 14 Alliance, the Kataeb Party fielded a powerful Christian militia during the civil war, but was largely rendered impotent during the era of Syrian domination. But its political comeback has given March 14 the cohesion it needs to secure a sizeable parliamentary majority.
Nadim Gemayel is the son of murdered President-elect Bachir Gemayel (assassinated on 14 September, 1982) and a first-time Phalangist candidate for Ashrafieh, Beirut’s Maronite seat. Gemayel’s popularity owes much to the consistent and assertive stances he has taken, which hark back to a pre-war era of Christian authority. As well as reflecting Maronite concerns, his priorities also have a national focus – the strengthening of the state.
‘We [Christians] need to go back to the state as it provides a unique guarantee for us to survive in Lebanon,’ he told The Diplomat. Asked why the Christians would support a March 14 ticket rather than the pro-Syrian March 8 alternative, Gemayel replied that the March 14 goal of seeking the ‘independence of Lebanon. has been a [Christian] historical position in Lebanon’.
For many Christians, the spectre of the Hezbollah-initiated violence in May last year and the devastating 2006 ‘July war’, in which Hezbollah (a Shi’a Islamic political and paramilitary organisation) fought a bloody conflict with Israel, has made the intentions of its backers, Syria and Iran, ever more apparent. The question of Hezbollah’s arms is of major concern for Christians, even trumping traditional worries about Sunni fundamentalism, which Christians believe has been on the rise in recent years, as witnessed by the battle the Lebanese army fought with Islamist militants in the Nahr el-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in 2007.
According to Nadim Gemayel, General Aoun’s alliance with Hezbollah and Syria ‘questions Christian identity in Lebanon’. He believes Hezbollah’s strength has grown in the last three years and worries that it is seeking to implement an Islamic Republic and ‘transform the identity of Lebanon. by getting involved in parliament and government. And if they cannot reach it, they will then turn their arms on the streets of Beirut.’
Hezbollah sheikh Naim Qassem has already said that the group will be happy with nothing less than its ally Aoun winning enough votes to have the power of veto in the next parliament, which adds some credence to Gemayel’s concerns.
In a country used to imposed consensus, Gemayel has thrown the gauntlet down, making it clear that ‘the Kataeb and the Lebanese Forces [another Christian party allied to the Phalange] will not accept any type of intimidation’. Such rhetoric from the Phalange is not new. Nadim’s cousin, Sami Gemayel – also an influential figure in the party – has consistently made similar remarks in the past. But by addressing Maronite concerns and reinserting itself into the political scene as major traditional player, the Kataeb Party could go a long way to resolving the longstanding divisions within the Christian community.
Nevertheless, significant doubts remain as to whether the June elections will ease the inherent tension in Lebanon or simply exacerbate it, heightening sectarian fears. And with the other communities united one way or another, there is every chance that the Christians will again hold the balance of power. Whether the pro-Hezbollah/Syrian Free Patriotic Movement or the anti-Hezbollah/Syrian Kataeb Party secures the decisive votes will have a critical bearing on this troubled country’s future.