Among the less obvious victims of the fighting in Tripoli this past weekend was Samir Geagea. The head of the Lebanese Forces has made an alliance with the Sunnis a cornerstone of his electoral strategy next year, but suddenly many Christians saw, or thought they saw, that not a few of these partners were fearsome, bearded gunmen.
The Syrians set a trap in Tripoli, and the city fell for it, as did a number of politicians in the March 14 alliance. When Shadi Mawlawi was arrested by the General Security directorate, the counter-reaction was predictable. Armed Islamists would descend into the streets demanding his release; fighting would begin between the Sunni quarter of Bab al-Tabbaneh and the mainly Alawite Jabal Mohsen; and suddenly Tripoli would resemble Kandahar, lending credence to the Syrian regime’s claim that it was fighting a coalition of “Salafist” forces both inside Syria and in neighboring Lebanon.
The reality is somewhat different. While there is a good chance that northern Islamists have become more militant in the past year due to the Syrian uprising and the continued detention without trial of their comrades in Roumieh, Islamist groups in and around Tripoli, the Salafists among them, have traditionally been divided, not especially prosperous, and by and large opposed to jihadism. Indeed a number of Islamist groups are pro-Syrian. Upon closer look, the Islamist landscape in the north is complex and fractured.
That won’t matter to Christian voters, though, who next year will determine, as they did in 2009, the makeup of the Lebanese Parliament, therefore of the state in the coming years. Hezbollah is maneuvering to shape the electoral aftermath in its favor. If President Bashar Assad falls (and no one can afford not to prepare), the party will protect itself by tightening its hold on national institutions. The only way it can do so is by ensuring that it controls a parliamentary majority, which would then select a compliant head of state.
Michel Aoun imagines that he will be that head of state. Other politicians in Beirut are more dubious. They believe that General Jean Kahwagi, the Army commander, will be the anointed one. Before then, however, how might the legislative elections come out?
Hezbollah supports a proportional system of representation, as Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah informed us last week. Their reasoning is that the principle of proportionality will take more seats away from March 14, the Future Movement in particular, and, implicitly, Walid Jumblatt, than it will from the Hezbollah-Aoun alliance. Not surprisingly, Jumblatt views the project as an existential threat, and if there is a vote in parliament to approve a proportional law, he and March 14 would probably have the numbers to defeat it.
However, that wouldn’t substantially handicap Hezbollah. The party and its pro-Syrian partners will sweep seats in those electoral districts where Hezbollah dominates. Saad Hariri’s absence from Lebanon may pose further problems for the former prime minister’s lists in hitherto “safe” March 14 constituencies such as Beirut and Tripoli. But the big question is what will happen in those districts where Christian voters decide, and the picture there is far more convoluted.
Geagea’s objective is to challenge Aoun’s primacy among Christians in terms of parliamentary representation. One facet of his plan is to place his candidates on strong Hariri lists in districts where the Sunni vote prevails or carries considerable weight. However, the Lebanese Forces leader must also devise a parallel approach allowing him to fare better than the Aounists in Mount Lebanon, because that is where the balance of power in Parliament may ultimately play out.
A key electoral battlefield will be Baabda, where the Aoun-Hezbollah alliance will be difficult to beat. The Lebanese Forces have a presence in the area, but to gain ground they would need to persuade a large share of undecided Christian voters to back March 14 candidates. There are divisive issues to play on, not least a fear among Christians in the areas around the southern suburbs that they will soon succumb to the Shiite demographic expansion. Geagea is also wagering that Aoun has lost popularity in recent years, and that his failure to do anything in government will have turned many against him.
Perhaps, but whichever way one cuts it, Aoun appears to retain the upper hand in Mount Lebanon because most of his potential opponents seem so anemic. In the Metn, Sami Gemayel and Michel Murr may pass, but unless Aoun manages to lose the large pro-Tashnag Armenian bloc of voters, it’s hard to see who else will be able to take seats from him. The same holds true in Jbeil, if Aoun enjoys a unified Shiite vote in his favor.
The situation in Kesrouan is less clear. There are no hegemonic voting blocs in the district, amid suggestions that Geagea has made inroads into what had been a solidly pro-Aoun electorate. That could be true, but most of those likely to stand against the Aounists are not necessarily more credible, and do not enjoy the advantages of incumbency, therefore the power of patronage. The assassination attempt on Geagea’s life may have made voters wise to the infiltration of Hezbollah into Christian-majority areas – which is the message Geagea tried to get across – but will that matter at election time?
The tension in Tripoli has made Christians pause. Between Sunni Islamists and Shiite Islamists, they are lost. Unless Samir Geagea can show that most Sunnis have nothing to do with the Islamist fringe, which requires less ambiguity from the Future Movement on incidents such as the Mawlawi arrest, the Lebanese Forces leader will find himself on an uphill trek to garner Christian sympathy.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.