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Is Aoun-Geagea alliance more about increasing Christian clout than presidency?

Lebanon's two most powerful Christian politicians appeared to end their bitter rivalry on Monday, with Samir Geagea announcing that he was backing Gen Michel Aoun to become the country's next president.
Samir Geagea (C-L) welcomes Michel Aoun (C-R) to his headquarters in Maarab, north-east of Beirut, on January 18, 2016. Aldo Ayoub/Lebanese Forces/AFP
Samir Geagea (C-L) welcomes Michel Aoun (C-R) to his headquarters in Maarab, north-east of Beirut, on January 18, 2016. Aldo Ayoub/Lebanese Forces/AFP

BEIRUT // At a heavily-fortified compound in the hills north of Beirut, Lebanon’s two most powerful Christian politicians sat down for what was an unlikely meeting.

During Lebanon’s civil war, the former warlords’ forces had fought long, bitter battles against one another, laying waste to the Christian corners of the country. And this enmity continued long after the war and through to the present – their power struggles moving away from sandbagged front lines and into politics, each has long eyed the presidency.

One man is an ally of Hizbollah, while the other has vowed to oppose the powerful Shiite movement and other vestiges of Syrian power in Lebanon.

But on Monday, Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces, invited Gen Michel Aoun to his mountaintop headquarters to announce that he was backing his adversary to become Lebanon’s next president.

By an unwritten agreement made in 1943, Lebanon’s president is always a Maronite Christian, its prime minister a Sunni and its parliamentary speaker a Shiite. However, largely thanks to a boycott of parliamentary votes by Gen Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and its allies, Lebanon has now been without a president for 20 months.

In the face of this political stagnation, Mr Geagea defended his move as necessary to keep the country from collapse. But his newfound friendship with Hizbollah ally Gen Aoun may mark something else: an attempt by Lebanon’s Christian parties to refocus power away from the Shiite and Sunni groups that have monopolised political clout here.

“Definitely they are in need of one another to close ranks and present a united Christian front to balance out the Shiite and Sunni political power base,” said Imad Salamey, a professor of political science at Beirut’s Lebanese American University. “They sense that unless they come together, they will become politically irrelevant. And by coming together now, they could have a significant say in the presidency.”

While there is plenty that still divides Gen Aoun and Mr Geagea, a plan to end the country’s political vacuum proposed late last year by Saad Hariri — leader of the Sunni-backed Future Movement and the anti-Syria “March 14” political coalition – provided the rivals with common ground.

The plan would install Sleiman Franjieh, a personal friend of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, as president and return Mr Hariri to the post of prime minister. Both Gen Aoun and Mr Geagea opposed the plan, which would sideline the two men and end their own presidential ambitions.

While Gen Aoun’s participation in the pro-Syria “March 8” alliance is often seen as a marriage of convenience – in 1989 his forces launched a “War of Liberation” against Syrian troops in Lebanon and after the war he lived in exile until Syrian troops withdrew from the country in 2005 – Mr Franjieh’s support for Syria is seen as more sincere and heartfelt.

The rapprochement between Gen Aoun and Mr Geagea, and any effort to consolidate Christian power, could cause fissures in Lebanon’s pro and anti-Syria political blocs and potentially redraw the map of the political landscape here.

“March 8 and March 14, they will remain. However they wouldn’t be as consolidated and as coherent as they have been,” said Mr Salamey.

Invoking the name of a series of bloody battles between Mr Aoun and Mr Geagea’s forces 26 years ago, Mohammad Machnouk, a member of the Future Movement and Lebanon’s minister of environment, tweeted that Mr Geagea’s move marked a “war of elimination” between Mr Hariri and Mr Geagea.

“We hope that this war will not remove our hope of electing a president in the near future,” he said.

Mr Hariri has not yet responded to Mr Geagea’s move. As Mr Hariri’s strongest ally, the future of the March 14 coalition could be in jeopardy if Mr Geagea’s shift causes a rift between the two men.

On paper, Gen Aoun should now have enough votes to secure the presidency when parliament next meets for an election. But Lebanon’s speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, said he will not convene parliament for a vote unless he has guarantees that all of the main sectarian parties agree to attend, meaning that more consensus-building would need to be done before Gen Aoun could become president.

“I think the jury’s still out,” said Kamel Wazne, political analyst and founder of the Centre for American Strategic Studies in Beirut. “He has a good chance, but he hasn’t reached the point where we can declare him a winner.”

For Mr Salamey the move is more about giving Gen Aoun and Mr Geagea influence over the presidency — and giving Christians a greater say in Lebanese politics — than installing Gen Aoun as president.

“I highly doubt that an alliance between Aoun and Geagea will ultimately lead to Aoun becoming president ... the opposition to Aoun being president is, I think, overwhelming,” he said. “However this alliance will make sure that any president will have to have the approval of these [two] figures. I think this is the bottom line.”

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Updated: January 19, 2016 04:00 AM

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