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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Lebanon election 2018: A bloody history that encapsulates the country's woes

When the dealmaking begins after Sunday’s elections, one party will remain frozen out of government

A huge banner of Lebanon’s late president elect Bachir Gemayel, father of Nadim Gemayel, stands in Beirut’s Sassine Square. He was assassinated in September 1982. Arthur MacMillan / The National
A huge banner of Lebanon’s late president elect Bachir Gemayel, father of Nadim Gemayel, stands in Beirut’s Sassine Square. He was assassinated in September 1982. Arthur MacMillan / The National

For a country whose modern political history is written in blood, perhaps no family has suffered as much tragedy as the Gemayels.

The name is synonymous with Lebanon’s Maronite Christian community and the civil war that tore the nation apart between 1975 and 1990. The patriarch, Pierre Gemayel, an opponent of France’s mandate over Lebanon, founded the Phalange political party in 1936, advocating for an independent state, free from foreign control. He did so in reaction to the formation of the Syrian Socialist Party, created years earlier to try and influence Lebanon towards the interests of Damascus.

Since independence in 1943, he has been regarded by all Lebanese as a founder of the republic.

Lebanese president-elect Bashir Gemayel pictured in Beirut on 26 August 1982, the month before he was assassinated. Dominique Faget / AFP
Lebanese president-elect Bashir Gemayel pictured in Beirut on 26 August 1982, the month before he was assassinated. Dominique Faget / AFP

His son, Bachir Gemayel, commander of the Christian militias, was elected president in August 1982, only to be assassinated nine days before his official inauguration. The bomb in Beirut that killed him also left 25 others dead. The killers, Syrian nationalists, were sentenced to death in absentia only last year by a court in Beirut. The judge said they had committed an act of terrorism that derailed efforts to stabilise the country which were coming to fruition at the time, under the president elect. An assassination attempt two years earlier had failed; he was not in his car when a bomb targeted it. But his 18-month-old daughter, Maya, was, and died.

Today in Achrafieh, the Beirut neighbourhood in which his father was killed, Nadim Gemayel’s political office is emblazoned with memorials. One large wartime photograph carries the caption, "Le President Martyr Bachir Gemayel 1947-1982."

A poster of parliamentary candidate Nadim Gemayel at his campaign headquarters in the Achrafieh neighbourhood of Beirut. Arthur MacMillan / The National
A poster of parliamentary candidate Nadim Gemayel at his campaign headquarters in the Achrafieh neighbourhood of Beirut. Arthur MacMillan / The National

It is difficult to avoid wondering why politics would appeal, after so much loss, and with Lebanon again in the maelstrom of a fight among outside powers for control.

“Passion,” comes the reply, when asked why on Sunday he will try to return to parliament in the country’s first legislative elections since he took office in 2009, then aged 26. “At stake are the same things we stood for nine years ago: independence, freedom and sovereignty.”

A handout picture released by the Lebanese photo agency Dalati and Nohra shows Lebanese candidate Nadim Gemayel casting his ballot at a polling station at his hometown Bikfaya, east of Beirut, on June 7, 2009. Dalati and Nohra / AFP 
A handout picture released by the Lebanese photo agency Dalati and Nohra shows Lebanese candidate Nadim Gemayel casting his ballot at a polling station at his hometown Bikfaya, east of Beirut, on June 7, 2009. Dalati and Nohra / AFP 

Nadim was only four months old when his father was killed. He entered parliament three years after another family figure – Pierre Amine Gemayel, an MP widely expected to become president – was assassinated. Lebanese convention is that the head of state is Maronite. Nadim’s cousin, Sami Gemayel, leads the Kataeb Party, a successor to the Phalange, that they both represent. But their influence has diminished in recent years, with the rise of Hezbollah, the Shiite militia and political party currently dominant in Lebanese politics.

Some prominent Maronites have struck deals with Hezbollah – the current president Michel Aoun, founder of the Free Patriotic Movement took office in 2016 among them.

That party is now led by Mr Aoun’s son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, the foreign minister who has twice failed to become an MP but is considered likely to be elected on Sunday.

In contrast, the Gemayels and their supporters stand outside the increasingly fractured inner circle that rules Lebanon. They say there will be no compromise, as long as Hezbollah retains its arsenal of weapons outside the authority of the Lebanese state.

“There is a group that is completely affiliated to Iran, to Syria, that includes Hezbollah, Amal, Aoun and all his team,” Mr Gemayel said, referring to the present government.

“These are the people who want the influence of Iran and Syria to control Lebanon, under their vision of dictatorship. This is the main problem.”

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More on the election from The National's foreign editor Arthur MacMillan in Beirut:

In Lebanon, women vote but few are chosen

Lebanon paves way to election as regional tension soars

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A new electoral law has made it difficult to predict the outcome of Sunday’s polls. But it is accepted that no party will win outright, meaning renewed manoeuvring between Hezbollah, Amal, and the Free Patriotic Movement, a grouping collectively known as March 8. A list of independents are also expected to back Hezbollah, which could push them collectively toward 65 seats, and a parliamentary majority.

As such, the Kataeb Party finds itself isolated. Yet, to Gemayel, this is for the right reasons.

“Unfortunately, they have the power of arms, of assassination, and throughout the years have killed all the people and all the symbols of freedom, such as Pierre Gemayel, Gebran Tueni, like Mohamad Chatah,” he said of March 8.

“They killed them, one after one. So this created a kind of fear, throughout the entire sovereign entities. So some of them surrendered. Some of them changed and at the end it has weakened our state.”

Lebanon is never far from political crisis. In November last year the Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, vanished from Beirut only to turn up in Riyadh and announce his resignation, following condemnation from Saudi Arabia, his longtime backers, of Hezbollah.

He later returned to Beirut and rescinded it.

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Read more:

Candidacy, conflict and territorial claims: Lebanon’s election posters

In Lebanon's election, one man's place in parliament is certain

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Since December 2016, Mr Hariri, like Mr Aoun, has also had a partnership with Hezbollah in government. But the prime minister’s rival election grouping, known as March 14, is expected to lose seats to Amal, potentially bringing uncertainty about whether their political understanding can hold. The ramifications of the new electoral law mean that every political group’s numbers may change but the powerbrokers will not.

Such trading over seats, said Mr Gemayel, is likely to play into Hezbollah’s hands.

“We stand against the entire hegemony of Hezbollah, which has taken the presidency and has imposed Michel Aoun after two years of vacancy. Hezbollah has taken the government and imposed itself, controlling all the important institutions and ministries, including defence and justice,” he said.

“Now remains the third legal entity: the parliament. With this law, Hezbollah will obtain 45 per cent, and along with Aoun and their other stakeholders, they’ll have 55 per cent, and full control of the state entities. This, for me, is unacceptable.”

Pressed on how there can be any change to the current situation in Lebanon, Mr Gemayel was hesitant. But the mood among many Lebanese is that it is not a matter of if, but when, another war may affect the country. It is the inability of the Lebanese citizenry to dictate their own future, he says, that has bred the apathy that is expected to see less than half the electorate vote this weekend.

Asked about whether a stronger stance from Saudi Arabia against Hezbollah, and an offer of greater international engagement, would change the current situation, he said he and his colleagues, estimated to take only three to five seats on Sunday, would work with anyone to achieve goals of security, economic development but, above all, sovereignty, whenever the time comes.

“The Christian DNA is based on sovereignty. After 2005, all these martyrs who have been assassinated, they stood against tyranny. I don’t know what can break the current equilibrium, but we cannot have a strong state while a Kalashnikov is pointed at our head.”