Violence surged on the streets of Beirut on October 14, killing seven people, all Shia Muslims, and injuring dozens. The two Shiite parties, Amal and Hezbollah, and their Christian adversaries in the right-wing Lebanese Forces (LF), are trading accusations. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has called for a speedy investigation into the attack, putting full blame on the LF. The leader of the LF, Samir Geagea, a ranking veteran of the Lebanese Civil War, denies the allegation and says that the LF “has no fighters.”
The morning after the killings, the pro-Hezbollah newspaper al-Akhbar ran a front-page photo of Geagea, doctored as an image of Nazi leader Adolph Hitler, describing him as a “war criminal.” Geagea was summoned for interrogation by a Beirut military court, but responded that he would only appear if Nasrallah were also called, a demand that Hezbollah would never accept. Meanwhile, angry Shiites are threatening retaliation for the murders on October 14, pushing the country to the brink of another civil war.
A history of conflict
On April 13, 1975, a Lebanese Christian party called the Lebanese Phalange, named after the Spanish fascist Falange party, opened fire on a bus carrying Palestinians in the neighborhood of Ain El Remmaneh in Beirut, killing 30 people and igniting the country’s civil war (1975-1990). The bus attack came in retaliation for a drive-by attack on a Christian church carried out by unidentified gunmen earlier the same day, in which four Christians were killed. In the resulting 15 years, sectarian and multi-faceted conflict, some 120,000 fatalities were claimed.
Fifty-six years later, the same Ain El Remmaneh neighborhood witnessed a new wave of violence.
Fifty-six years later, the same Ain El Remmaneh neighborhood witnessed a new wave of violence, this time between the LF, which was born of the earlier Lebanese Phalange, and its two Shiite opponents, Hezbollah and Amal. Comparing photos from the two events, one can see that apart from color photography and COVID-19 masks, very little has changed in the small Mediterranean country. Just like 1975, people are still being killed on the streets of Beirut and militiamen are still armed to the teeth, taking the law into their own hands in the absence of governance by Lebanese officialdom.
Militiaman turned politician
Geagea has long been opposed to Hezbollah influence in Lebanon, calling for its disarmament in accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701. Describing himself as an ally of the West and self-appointed defender of Lebanese Christians, he has been highly critical of Hezbollah’s regional backers, mainly Syria and Iran, and its domestic allies in the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), which is led by the current President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil.
Geagea, now 69, first rose to fame during the early stages of the Civil War, as a young member of the Phalange Party that was responsible for the bus attack of 1975. He dropped out of medical school at the American University of Beirut to take up arms with the LF, initially an umbrella organization for right-wing militias, before it assumed independent status. By 1986, he managed to wrestle the LF out of Phalange Party control, becoming its sole commander.
Two years later he joined the “War of Liberation,” led at the time by then Prime Minister Michel Aoun, against Syrian troops stationed in Lebanon since the mid-1970s. In January 1990, he fell out with Aoun and waged what came to be known as the “War of Elimination,” a bloody confrontation between the two major Christian blocs, resulting in heavy shelling of entire neighborhoods of Christian dominated East Beirut, which until then, had been spared from most of the war’s violence.
The war against the Syrian troops in Lebanon concluded in Syria’s favor; Aoun was exiled to France and Geagea surrendered his arms, disbanded his militia and was arrested in February 1994. The LF party was banned and its members went underground, re-emerging as a major political force after Geagea’s release from jail in July 2005, three months after the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon.
His party ran in parliamentary elections in 2009, winning a small bloc of six MPs, which grew to an impressive 15 deputies in 2018. That gave the LF the second largest parliamentary bloc after the 25 seats of Aoun’s FPM. Geagea emerged as a presidential hopeful in 2016, but Hezbollah refused to endorse his candidacy, and the presidency went to his longtime Christian rival, Michel Aoun.
The battle for Lebanon’s presidency
Geagea accepted Aoun’s presidency, with reservations, positioning himself as leader of the parliamentary opposition. Two years ago, he supported what has come to be known as the October Revolution of 2019, a mass protest movement against the Aoun era, demanding political reform, revamping of the political system, and resignation of the president. After the Beirut port explosion last year, the MPs of the LF bloc collectively resigned from office, and have stayed out of the last two cabinets, first under Prime Minister Hassan Diab and now under Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who came to office last September.
After the Beirut port explosion last year, the MPs of the LF bloc collectively resigned from office and are now bracing for a comeback in next year’s elections.
They are now bracing themselves for a comeback in next year’s elections, scheduled for March 27, 2022. The LF expects to raise its parliamentary share to 20-25 seats, given that many Christians will not vote for the FPM because of the ills associated with the Aoun era, starting with the financial meltdown, the breakdown of the banking sector and the Beirut port explosion. Whatever representation Geagea and his LF party manage to win in the upcoming elections will be vital for choosing a new president for Lebanon, once the tenure of Michel Aoun, who is now in his 80’s, ends in October 2022.
For now, there are two candidates for the post-Aoun presidency: Aoun’s son-in-law Gebran Bassil and Suleiman Frangieh, the Hezbollah allied scion of a ranking Maronite Christian political family. Although Geagea would love to nominate himself for president, he realizes that without the support of Hezbollah, he has no chance of entering Baabda Palace. That is a realization that Aoun reached shortly after returning from exile back in 2005, prompting him to forge an alliance with Hassan Nasrallah. In exchange for supporting Hezbollah’s right to arms, Aoun was promised the Lebanese presidency. Both parties lived up to their sides of the agreement, and Aoun was indeed inaugurated as president in October 2016.
A similar tactic is unthinkable for Geagea given that it would contradict everything he has stood for throughout his political career. Additionally, Hezbollah would move heaven and earth to prevent him from becoming president, and so would its allies in the Amal Movement, led by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. Rather than try for an alliance with Hezbollah, Geagea has seemingly decided to fight them—triggering the first confrontation at historic Ain El Remmaneh in mid-October.
More confrontations are yet to come, and from the scenes that came out of Beirut in mid-October, it appears that Geagea’s men are armed, trained, ready for battle, and possibly, another civil war. At best, such a confrontation could endear him to the United States, which brands Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. But provocations may be unwelcome at a time when participating in a protracted civil war is the last thing President Biden would want, even as they might score points with some Christians and Sunni Muslims who oppose Hezbollah. Unless he receives regional or international backing for such an undertaking, therefore, Geagea risks being obliterated on the battlefield; Hezbollah troops are far larger in numbers, better trained, religiously inspired and supported by Iran.
Back in 2008, then Prime Minister Fouad Siniora tried to take on Hezbollah by dismantling its telecommunications network at Rafik al-Hariri International Airport, which triggered a violent response. Hezbollah troops stormed the streets of Beirut, outnumbering and disarming the small number of fighters affiliated with various Christian and Sunni Muslim parties. Nasrallah then warned that he would “cut the hand” of whoever tried to disarm his party, a threat echoed with different terms—no less powerful, however—during his most recent speech after the Ain El Remmaneh incident.
The full story of modern conflict in Lebanon is yet to unfold, but those who seek peace and prosperity in the land of cedars, mountains, sea and the unparalleled beauty of Beirut, may have to wait