Arabism, Lebanon, religion

Lebanese presidents, dynasties or paramilitaries: Maronite divisions & dissent

No change imminent

I must stress, that the account below is designed to highlight the divisions in the Lebanese hierarchy and the inconsistencies of the various alliances. There is a startling amount of information available about the events discussed but their truth is relative as the divisions, between the ruling families are not simply about power but about national sovereignty and what it means to be an Arab. All that said, the country’s history resembles, that of the ”wild west” and there is little indication, that matters will improve.

The western media tends to attribute the mayhem to Hizb’allah and its allegiance to Syria and Iran but this is a gross over-simplification. All the factions are in league, with one foreign power or another and as the array of visiting ambassadors and political leaders show, Lebanon continues to be of strategic importance. Nevertheless, despite declarations of Peace Accords, pledges and cross ”party” talks, Lebanon is in crisis.

The Maronites, a sad lack of political homogeneity

France is involving itself in the momentous task of appointing a president in Lebanon. Their interest stems from former French colonialism, which involved supporting the Maronites, who traditionally hold the presidency. It is apparent, that French influence did not end, with Lebanese independence, in 1946, when the tradition began. In 1946, Lebanon gained independence from France and ”democracy” was really underway. The election of a president in Lebanon is a politically charged event.

The role of president maintains the status quo between the Christian and Muslim populations but Lebanon has been president free for six months. The acting president, Tammam Salam, is Sunni, though an independent politically, as is the case, with many of those, who have held the position in the past. It is not unusual for the election of a president to take a while, for instance, from 2007 and 2008, there was a gap of six months, when the interim president was Sunni Muslim and also an ex prime minister.

In the period between November 1988 and November 1989, there were three acting presidents, one of whom was assassinated after three weeks and the third of which was a Sunni Muslim and a former prime minister. This was the period, when the civil war was drawing to a close; a war, that had begun in 1975 and didn’t officially end until 1990.

What happened during 1988 and 1989?

Author, Samir Khalaf, in his book ‘Civil and Uncivil Violence in Lebanon: A History of the Internationalization’, explains how the outgoing president Amin Gemayyal appointed general Aoun to lead a ”bi-sectarian military interim government” consisting of three Sunni Muslims and three Maronite Christians. Unfortunately the president appointed a Maronite as prime minister, leading to the resignation of the three Sunni Muslims from the cabinet.

To add to the confusion, Salim al-Hoss, the incumbent prime minister opposed the move and continued to govern west Beirut, along with his cabinet, while general Aoun controlled the governorate of Ba’abda, which extends from the capital into the Lebanese mountains. General Aoun was opposed to Syrian intervention, partly at least because he was an ally of Saddam Hussein, former president of Iraq. Finally Aoun was deposed by a ”joint Syrian and Lebanese assault” and  granted asylum by the French, in 1991, where he remained until 2005.

The actions of general Aoun and the ruthlessness of Lebanese Forces commander, Samir Geagea also created by the Kataeb Party ensured the civil war ended with a bang. The chaos caused much blood shed as many para-military groups sought to fill the ”government vacuum”. General Aoun was on the offensive, as he sought to gain control of all the Christian enclaves in the country and some of the ports, which were sources of wealth to those, who controlled of them.

The struggle drew attention to the separatist movement (from Syria), in Lebanon as the Maronite cause was viewed as a battle for liberation by the outside world. Liberation or blood bath, as Mr. Khalaf explains, the big powers were divided, the French favoured general Aoun but Britain and America, concerned about the Palestinian conflict and currying favour with Saudi (my opinion), sought a solution, through the Arab League and the al-Hoss government. The people, who have read earlier posts will say no change there then.

Talks were held at Ta’if in Saudi Arabia and against all odds the Ta’if Accord was drawn up. This didn’t stop the conflict immediately but it did introduce some important constitutional reforms and changed the composition of the Lebanese Parliament. One of the reforms was to extend the term of the speaker from one year to four years, important as the speaker is always a Shia Muslim, by the 1946 Accord, which guarantees all presidents are Maronite and all prime ministers are Sunni. That reform may have built bridges between the newly formed Hizb’allah and the Amal movement as the conflict saw skirmishes between them.

The Accord also saw the withdrawal of Syrian troops, or at least in part, as the last clause spoke of safe-guarding the sovereignty of both Syria and Lebanon. The next two presidencies were short-lived as Mr. Moawad was assassinated soon after his election and ex prime minister al-Hoss replaced him until a successor, Mr. Hrawi was elected. It is difficult to discern if there are parallels between the failure to elect a President in 1988 and the current failure. What is apparent is the split among the Maronite hierarchy, which is sure to impact on the people, who elect and support them.

The Maronites, a sad lack of religious homogeneity, the pledge

I referred earlier to French involvement in the presidential nominations, this was based on a recent article in the ‘Lebanese Daily Star’, which also described the role of two very influential and prominent figures, Samir Geagea and Beshara al-Rahi. The post will now focus on the latter, a Maronite and Patriarch, appointed in 2011 and now formerly know as Patriarch or Bishop Rai. By the 7th century the Antioch Church consisted of five separate sects, the Maronites, Melkites, Syriacs, Assyrians and Armenians, each with their own patriarch and the 12th century saw the emergence of a Latin patriarch. I can’t quite discern, where the Coptic faith slots in but it has been around as long; the whole subject will make an interesting future entry.

Bishop al-Rahi joined a religious delegation to Kurdish controlled Erbil in Iraq in defence of the displaced Christians in the region. More controversially and unlike his predecessor, who refused, he recently visited the Israeli controlled part of Palestine to address the Maronite population there. His assertion is, that Palestine is Arab and Christian as they were there first. Despite some alleged moral outrage by its leader Nasrallah, the Bishop publicly supports Hizb’allah’s right to defend Lebanon from the Israelis.

Importantly Bishop al-Rahi warned of the possible strengthening of the Syrian Brotherhood by the anti-government uprising there. Of course he proved correct, as the troubles have led to a rise in Islamic fundamentalism in Syria and Iraq. The Bishop’s support for the Syrian regime is in stark contrast to that of his predecessor, who supported the right wing Christian militias, the Lebanese Forces, the brainchild of Geagean.

Though it may not be fulfilled, the Maronite leaders in Lebanon made a pledge to Bishop al Rahi, on his inauguration, to work, with the Muslin population and called for cooperation between the two as Lebanon is a partnership between Christians and Muslims. Bishop Rai was quoted as saying, that Lebanon’s diversity of religions was “tainted by political and partisan colours that have stripped them of their sanctity, the purity of their faith and the spirituality of their religion.” This quote certainly nutshells the problems, which exist in the country, not least among the Christian denominations as Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea doubts, that agreement between the sects is possible.

The Phalange Dynasties: elected representatives and militias

In Mr. Khalaf’s view, the Ta’if Accord is commendable as it was drawn up by elected representatives rather than war lords, though to my mind it is a fine line. The Ta’if Accord explains, Mr. Khalaf is in stark contrast to the short-lived tripartite Agreement, drawn up in 1985, which ”brought together the heads of the three most ”belligerent” militia organisations”, Elie Hobeika, a Maronite, from the Phalange Party, Jumblatt, a Druzes and Nebih Berri, from the Shia, Amal Movement. These talks were convened by the Syrian government and the Agreement broke down in a few years.

References to such prominent characters re-opens the discussion about dynastic power. The position of the Gemayyal family dispels the myth of any clear demarcation line between Lebanese elected representatives and para military organisations. The Phalange or Kataeb party was founded by Pierre Gemayyal. He was reportedly impressed with Hitler’s brand of socialism, which inspired the formation of the movement. By the 1970s the party had attracted support from other Christian groups, the Druzes and the Jews. During the civil war their headquarters was in Ashrafieh, a large Christian area of Beirut a factor, that probably gave rise to the popular premise of a war between Christians and Muslims. If only it were that simple.

The allegiances of the Phalangists, like all the other political movements in Lebanon, sway in the wind as will manifest on closer scrutiny of the interpersonal relationship, both within the movement and with other sects. Bashir Gemayyal was the younger brother of Amin had taken control of the Phalange militia in the late 1970s. He had mounted ferocious and deadly attacks on other Christian sects but was eventually elected president in 1982. He was assassinated, prior to taking office and replaced by his brother Amin, who in turn was elected president.

Amin Gemayyal run the family business but had been a member of parliament for twelve years before his presidency. He studied law and his talents were many, including newspaper proprietorship. He introduced some parliamentary, administrative changes, though not that successfully as they seemed to exacerbate the turmoil not end it.

Not surprising as the appointments he awarded were intensely partizan and included that of general Aoun as prime minister a move, which resulted in Lebanon having two separate governments; as referred to previously. It is alleged, that Rafik Hariri, from the noted Sunni dynasty, offered Amin a large amount of money to obtain the post of prime minister but no deal. Amin used his army to quell civil disturbances involving anti phalangists and refused to talk to the invading forces. After the war he exiled himself for twelve years before returning and resuming his role as part of Lebanon’s ruling class.

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