BEIRUT: In the post-Civil War era, when their leaders faced systematic persecution, a deep feeling of frustration and despair plagued Lebanon’s Christian community.
It was not until the 2005 withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon that many Christians breathed a sigh of relief. In May of that crucial year, Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun returned after a 15-year forced exile in Paris. During the same year, Parliament passed an amnesty law allowing the release of Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, who had been held in solitary confinement for 11 years in an underground cell of the Defense Ministry complex in Yarze.
Nine years on, however, frustration is once again surfacing among the Christian ranks. This is especially true for LF supporters in light of the recently established friendship between long-term ally the Future Movement and sworn rival the FPM ahead of the upcoming presidential election.
“We have been betrayed by our own allies, but this isn’t new and it won’t affect us,” said Joseph Saliba, an LF supporter from the Kesrouan coastal town of Tabarja.
Just before the parliamentary elections of 2005, Aoun – who has long nurtured a dream of becoming president – put an end to his alliance with March 14 after some of the coalition’s key members, such as the Future Movement and the Progressive Socialist party, forged an ultimately brief union with the pro-Syria Amal Movement and Hezbollah.
Aoun’s departure from the March 14 coalition, followed by the memorandum of understanding he signed with Hezbollah in 2006, widened the FPM-Future schism and helped reinforce the alliance between former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s party and the LF, March 14’s strongest Christian group.
But now, with the much-coveted presidential post coming up for election, reports have emerged that relations have warmed between the Future Movement and the FPM.
Last month, Aoun confirmed in a Facebook post that he met with Hariri in Paris in January, while reports said Aoun’s close aide and son-in-law Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil had also held talks with Hariri in Riyadh in February.
Unconfirmed media reports say that the Future-FPM detente is part of a larger deal that will see Aoun become president and Hariri prime minister for a second term.
A high-ranking LF official and former fighter delivered an unembellished interpretation of recent political developments and their impact on the LF and its supporters.
He claimed that the leadership of the LF was “even more skeptical than the popular base.”
“Frustration and extreme suspicion dominate the Christian street today,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of recrimination.
“But we have long been within the ranks of the opposition,” he added. “This position does not intimidate or discourage us.”
Saliba, 35, said the LF bases expected a surprise from the Kataeb Party, which has long competed with the party for Christian dominance within the March 14 coalition.
“Usually, it was the Kataeb who never miss a chance to accede to power. But this time the surprise came from the Future Movement,” Saliba said.
“The Future Movement is mistaken. ... [They] should return some of the sacrifices that the Lebanese Forces have made for the general good of March 14.”
The rift within the components of the March 14 alliance widened after the Future Movement and the Kataeb party put aside their previous objections and agreed to take part in a national unity government with Hezbollah, despite the party’s ongoing involvement in Syria.
Geagea, meanwhile, stood firm on his demand that Hezbollah withdraw from Syria first and refused to participate in Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s government.
According to Vera Bou Monsef, an analyst at the Lebanese Forces website, the party’s supporters were surprised by the recent political developments. But she argued that talk about depression within the community was “inaccurate,” adding that both LF partisans and supporters trusted Geagea’s foresight.
“The LF made the right choice and [all the bickering] happening now within the government is proof of that,” Bou Monsef said, referring to weeks of disagreements between ministers over the Cabinet’s policy statement and the clause related to the resistance’s role and prerogatives.
But despite the LF stance on the government, sources from the party denied media reports that Geagea threatened to withdraw from the coalition if the March 14 ministers in Salam’s government approved a policy statement legitimizing Hezbollah’s arsenal.
Bou Monsef argued that President Michel Sleiman’s term, which expires on May 25, had given Christians “an unusually large dose of hope.”
“However, unfortunately, Christians are not united on the principles of integrity and patriotism,” Bou Monsef added.
Elie Abou Jaoude, a jeweler from the Beirut eastern suburb of Sin al-Fil, said many Christians felt their allies did not entirely share their “national and patriotic aspirations.”
“Having spearheaded the fight for Lebanon’s first independence, Christian expectations are high, and their idealism a bit unrealistic,” he said.
Abou Jaoude recalled that the LF had a long history of turning down opportunities to take part in governments when offers did not fulfill their national aspirations.
“The same cannot be said about the FPM and its leader Michel Aoun, who has seized every chance to get one minister or more in every government formed since his return from exile.”
According to the high-ranking LF official, the Lebanese political landscape has never been static or set in stone.
“Even the Constitution can be reformed and interpreted to suit the interests of whoever is in power,” the official said.
He maintained that the only way to soothe Christian frustration was to elect a “strong president.”
“The country needs a powerful president who can create real balance with the Sunni and Shiite leadership,” he said. “This new president can be Geagea, [Marada Movement leader MP Suleiman] Franjieh or even Aoun.”
But Bou Monsef seemed confident that frustrations would soon ease due to the faith of the LF officials and supporters have in the Geagea leadership.
“I consider Geagea to be an official of rare qualities,” she noted. “We have full confidence in him because time has proven his choices to be the right ones.”