Arabism, Lebanon, media power, religion, Syrian history

Maronite presidents dynasties and para-militaries: media representations

Lebanese president news,

An article in the ‘Lebanese Daily Star’ reported a meeting between the two contenders for the Lebanese presidency, the usual suspects, Michael Aoun and Samir Geagea. The article determined the direction and focus of this entry, as both politicians are members of powerful families. Prior to discussing the two contenders, a word about the media portrayal of Lebanon.

It is remarkable, how the western media consider Lebanon and how it ignores the tarnished past of its, often murderous, rulers. Note that Nazrallah, (Chair of ‘Hizb’allah’ and always in the news), is not part of the traditional dynastic governing class. This is in contrast to his fellow Shia, the parliamentary speaker and Amal leader, Nabih Berri.

Syria the scapegoat?

Western journalists are no doubt influenced by Lebanese resident and British  journalist, Robert Fiske, who is somewhat of an expert on Lebanon. Mr Fiske wrote a book about the Lebanese civil war and is critical of the ”brutal” factions, including the Maronites. Like so many of his contemporaries he blames Syria for the upheaval, an opinion, which is becoming part of the general discourse in Lebanon, not least because of the current refugee crisis.

Many Syrians, both in the UK and Lebanon, feel they are ”disliked” by the Lebanese people. In my view this resonates with Syrian disgruntlement, when the government homed so many Iraqis; the economy floundered and the demonstrations began. However the Lebanese economy appears to be thriving as a visit to parts of east Beirut and the downtown souks will demonstrate.

Battle for a Greater Syria

There is no doubt, that Syria did have a huge political axe to grind, during the civil war, an axe, that was aimed at the Israelis and those Lebanese factions, who thwarted any hope of a re-united Greater Syria. Nevertheless, when one considers the reports of the events in Syria and the political assassination of president al-Assad, not just for spilling the blood of his ”own” people but for a failure to hold elections; it is an understatement to say Lebanon gets off lightly in the bad press stakes.

Lebanese elections, 2009

Judging from the 2009 elections, decided by the March 14th and March 8th Accords it is certain, that the decision to extend the Lebanese parliament is due to the divisions between those, who support the Syrian government and those, who support western capitalism. To understand the Lebanese balloting process and to gauge pro and anti Syrian feeling, see: www.critical threats.org, an eye opener certainly and an indicator, that yes elections now, could plunge Lebanon into civil war.

The parliamentarians have given themselves two more years and there is no doubt a hope, that by then, Syria will not be an issue, important to the pro-western factions as their majority is not that great. If history is distorted by the power of the western media, younger Lebanese, may well forget the various ideologies, which underpinned the civil war.

Media hegemony; its a western affair

Returning to Mr Fiske, perhaps it is simply useful to have a prominent journalist residing in a troubled country but is this the whole story?. I came across a paper written by Tuen Van Dijk, sociologist and discourse analyst, who studied the international media response to the assassination of president-elect Bashir Gemayyal (see last entry). Gemayyel led the Phalange militia at the beginning of the civil war and was assassinated, in 1982; before he assumed the presidency.

It is obvious to all, that value systems and ideology play a huge part in reporting political events. Though third world, Lebanon is, to an extent, western, it is in favour of the capitalist markets, it was once a tax haven and many of the powerful families have investments overseas. Its leaders ostensibly are easy to negotiate with, so it seems obvious, that the western media is lenient towards its rulers.

Cultural hegamony, derived from the colonial era

Though part of a ”political hotspot”, that is the Middle East, Lebanon is possibly not considered typically Arab by the western powers, even though its internal struggles revolve around issues associated, with  Arabism. Mr. Van Dijk highlights how the western media largely ignored the right wing politics of the Gemayyel family and the Kataeb party, aka the phalange movement, during coverage of the assassination. Remember the party was fashioned from Hitler’s brand of nationalism.

It can only be supposed, that this was because the Gemayyal’s were assumed allies of the Israelis, or that Lebanon’s political parties are minor players on the world political stage. Much of the news coverage revolved around the position of the Israelis, who were condemned for the invasion, though the move was justified as a mere response to Gemayyel’s assassination.

Information gathering

Mr. Van Dijk showed also, how the international media gathers information. The paper was written in the 1980s so there have been changes among, those in control of the media but the accumulation of content has not changed much judging by the similarities in coverage, by the different outlets. Mr. Van Djik explains, how the bigger companies have clients, who supply them with news and basically give them what they expect; for the sake of uniformity.

It is troubling, that the last three decades have seen an increase in people soaking up information. ”Social” media appears to be the exception but all the disparity continues to focus on western versions and its value system. It is taken for granted, that the west knows what is right, true and that its definition of ”freedom” prevails, even though this is for the most part, the freedom of the market.

The clash of the Maronites: profiling future presidents

Samir Geagea

Mr Geagea is the leader of the pro western, ‘Lebanese Forces party’ and has been prominent in Lebanese politics for many years. Perhaps his greatest claim to fame is being the only militia man imprisoned for crimes committed during the civil was. His punishment resulted in eleven years solitary confinement, though he was originally sentenced to death. He nevertheless lives to fight another day as his nomination for the presidency shows.

Mr. Geagea was born in the B’chara in the Northern part of the Lebanese mountains and though from a poor family he came up through the ranks twice. His elevation into the ruling elite was consolidated, through marriage to Setrida Tawk, in 1990. ‘Amnesty International’ (see footnote) condemned his incarceration after the civil war as being politically motivated, no doubt true as he was opposed to Syrian involvement in Lebanese politics.

It is hard to believe the man was wronged entirely, though ironically accused of “maintaining a militia in the guise of a political party”, he was found guilty also, of the assassination of two prominent leaders, fellow Maronite, Danny Chamoum and renowned Sunni statesman, Rashid Karami.

Mr. Geagea made a public apology for the ills (or as he so succinctly puts it, the mistakes) of the civil war at Jounieh, in 2008 and met, with French and American leaders in the same year. There was an assassination attempt on his life in 2012 and Wikipedia reports say the weapon was fired from a kilometer away. As for the culprits, Wikipedia mentions Syria and Iran as contenders but as Geagea prides himself on being the only ”strong” critic of both countries and of the Lebanese government, the possibilities are endless.

 Michelle Aoun

Mr Aoun now heads the ‘Free Patriotic Movement’, founded in 2005 and holds nineteen out of the sixty four Christian seats in  the Lebanese parliament, as opposed to the five held by his adversary, Mr. Geagea and the five held by the Kata’eb party or Phalange Movement, which was once a home to both. Mr. Aoun’s party is part of the 2009, March 8th Accord, whereas the former two are part of the March 14th Accord. See the link above to better understand the Lebanese electoral system.

As opposed to his current affiliations, during the civil war General Aoun fiercely opposed the Syrian invasion of March 14th and fled to France, where he remained until 2005. Prior to his departure he commanded the militia led by Gemmayel, see the previous entry and supported the Iraqi former president Saddam Hussein, who had fallen out, with the Syrian Ba’ath party.

Born in Haret Hreik, just south of Beirut and part of the Baabda District, Aoun trained in the military academy and graduated into the Lebanese army. As well as aiding Gemayyal in his attempt to appoint a Maronite president his reign under in the ‘Kata’eb Party’ saw him battling, with the Palestinians and Druzes, particularly at ‘Souk-al-Gharb’ or Western Souk, in the Baabda district. This intrigue will unfold as entries focus on individual sects and their affiliations.

After returning to Lebanon in 2005, Mr. Aoun made overtures to Setrida Geagea and supported her husband’s release from prison. He also visited the grave of recently assassinated Rafik Hariri, part of a Sunni dynasty. He was greeted by many political groups including the Christian ‘National Liberal Party’ and ‘Hizb’allah’.

Whatever the outcome, both contenders for the presidency have an illustrious past, both are old and both have a propensity to bounce back. We’ll see.

Next time the inter-relationship between Mr. Geagea and Mr. Aoun

Footnote
Amnesty International are said to be non-political but I wonder. Recently it was rumoured, that Amnesty lost members because of their support for Muazzim Begg, the British mercenary and freed guantanamo Bay prisoner, who was subsequently re-arrested last year. His arrest was in connection to his activities in Syria, though he was released prior to his trial in October, 2014. There is no doubt he opposes President al Assad and has held meetings, with the fundamentalist opposition groups. The British government are reluctant to disclose their reasons for arresting Mr. Begg and equally gave no reason for his release. As for Amnesty, their support for Mr. Begg suggests their intentions towards Syria are not quite non-political.

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