Riding the revolutionary wave or wiping out? How the Lebanese Forces is trying to capitalize on the Oct. 17 uprising

Since the outbreak of the Oct. 17 uprising, the Lebanese Forces appears to have realigned its political strategy in a bid to win support among revolutionaries

Riding the revolutionary wave or wiping out? How the Lebanese Forces is trying to capitalize on the Oct. 17 uprising

Samir Geagea gives remarks at the Presidential Palace in July 2018. (Credit: Dalati & Nohra)

Since he ensconced himself in the huge Lebanese Forces headquarters in Maarab, Kesrouan, in 2007, Samir Geagea has hardly moved. Those who wish to meet him, including diplomats, are forced to take the winding path leading up to his residence perched on a wooded hill, 950 meters above sea level.

The LF leader cites security reasons, but also his love of nature and remote areas, for staying at his retreat, which has further emphasized his mystical side — something that has characterized him for decades. This trait was probably accentuated by his 11 years of imprisonment, which allowed him to immerse himself in reading and meditation.

Geagea seems to benefit from the privilege of an idyllic setting that allows him to ponder the world. Yet this privilege might prove disruptive for someone with an ambition to bring about change, and even more so for someone seeking to embody the opposition to those in power and ride the wave of an uprising that has rocked the country.

“Samir Geagea is cut off from society. He is far from modernity and from the city where the revolution was born,” says a political analyst close to him.

This presents a paradox for the LF. Although its leader is far from the revolution’s birthplace, the party has viewed the uprising as a pivotal moment, and an opportunity to rebuild its political image.

Since falling out with several of his former allies, namely Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri and Hariri’s de facto partners such as President Michel Aoun, because of differences in political vision and power sharing, Geagea has turned back toward the opposition.

At the beginning of the uprising, Geagea’s party upheld the movement’s cause, identified with some of its slogans and endorsed its demands.

Without shouting it from the rooftops, Geagea allowed his supporters to take part in the various protest groups in Beirut and other areas, and was accused by his opponents of stirring up the movement.

Admittedly, the LF is far from being the only political group to have tried to take advantage of the Lebanese revolt. But it is the only party that has gone to great lengths to do so, with the exception of the Kataeb Party, which already shifted in this direction years ago by withdrawing from the traditional political game.

Like Sami Gemayel’s party, the LF refused to nominate Hariri as prime minister during the last parliamentary consultations, opting for Nawaf Salam, who was the preferred candidate of a large number of protesters.

These coaxing efforts, however, did not resonate well with most of the revolutionaries. How can an intrinsically sectarian party represent a movement whose main demand is the end of sectarianism? How can a political group born as a militia respond to the aspirations of youth who want to ward off the specter of civil war?

“We have irreconcilable differences with the LF,” says Zeina Helou, an activist and political researcher.

Indeed, a large part of the revolutionary youth who shouted at the top of their lungs the slogan “Killun yaani killun” — Arabic for “All of them means all of them” — consider the LF an inherent component of the decrepit political system.

What’s more, the political party’s past is both its strong point and its weakness. While a large proportion of the population demanding a radical rupture with the parties of the Civil War era condemns the LF, the party’s history allows it to present itself as the most solid reference for a large number of Christians.

The party’s supporters, in fact, marched hand in hand with revolutionaries in Achrafieh, Jal al-Dib and Zouk, where LF supporters and partisans felt at home and even dictated the tempo and rules of the game.

“They served the revolution on digital media and with logistics,” says Ghassan Saoud, an activist and freelance journalist.

When the LF withdrew from the streets one month after the outbreak of the uprising, at the joint request of Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai and the president, one could feel that these predominantly Christian areas had lost their momentum.

Is the LF a revolutionary party? “We mapped out the path which paved the way for the revolution,” says party spokesperson Charles Jabbour, who believes that the group had begun to shift toward the opposition long before Hariri’s resignation at the end of October 2019. He says the LF had already been loudly voicing its concerns on several problematic and suspicious issues before popular anger broke out.

“The LF had, from the very beginning, endorsed the main demands of the protesters, notably the formation of a government of independent specialists,” he says.

Yet the extremely structured and organized political party and the spontaneous protest movement seem to be worlds apart. This is especially true in terms of rhetoric. The youth speak the language of new social movements, while the Christian party continues to espouse a discourse that has hardly changed over the decades.

“Samir Geagea reminds me of black-and-white television. He does not get the new dynamic of youth,” says the aforementioned political analyst.

The LF, however, currently enjoys a more positive image compared to other traditional parties. It is seen as one of the “cleanest” in terms of corruption and clientelism.

The LF has long been removed from power, and it was not until recent years that the party took part in government, but it was sidelined when it came to distributing the largest shares of the pie.

When the LF participated in the government of national unity, it was represented by technocratic ministers who enjoyed good reputations.

“Samir Geagea is not against the system, but he is a reformer. We can see this in his choice of ministers,” says the political analyst.

‘The LF failed in its mission’

In contrast to Free Patriotic Movement leader Gebran Bassil or Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Geagea was relatively spared from being a main target of protesters’ slogans in the streets.

Kataeb leader Sami Gemayel was the least targeted by protesters’ slogans. Gemayel shares with the LF leader a very similar strategy for political rehabilitation.

Many criticize the LF for having banked on the presidential compromise and political bias as long as it served its interests.

“The LF acquitted the corrupt instead of facing them and fighting this scourge,” says Helou.

According to Hicham Bou Ghannam, the head of a Jal al-Dib protest group, “The LF failed in its mission quite simply because the interests of the party were a priority and preceded the collective interests of the Lebanese.”

LF MPs have also been criticized for refusing to resign from Parliament after the Aug. 4 Beirut port blast, as did eight independent and Kataeb MPs.

But above all, the Christian party has been reprimanded for contributing to the election of Aoun as president. Geagea chose to reconcile with his historic opponent in January 2016, paving the way for the latter’s arrival in Baabda later that year.

“If the March 14 camp had insisted on the candidacy of Samir Geagea, the LF would not have found itself in this position, forced to endorse the [presidential] compromise,” says Jabbour in the party’s defense, noting that the regional context was also not conducive to Geagea’s candidacy.

The decision to endorse Aoun for the presidency should in principle be compensated — some say rewarded — by the Maarab agreement between the FPM and the LF. The latter, however, ended up walking away from the agreement almost empty-handed.

“This is a vicious deal based solely on pie-sharing and nepotism, which is everything the thawra stands against. This agreement ended up pushing the LF to integrate the culture of Aounists, that of making deals,” says a political analyst close to the Kataeb Party.

“An agreement like Maarab cannot be easily overlooked by those who want a total change of the political class and the system,” argues Karim Emile Bitar, the acting director of the Institute of Political Science at St. Joseph University in Beirut.

While the LF failed to break away from the system, the party has had other cards up its sleeve in a bid to attract support from among the revolutionaries.

On the political scene, the LF’s trademark remains, without any doubt, its opposition to Hezbollah and its weapons, as well as its rhetoric in favor of the rule of law and the defense of the country’s sovereignty.

Its members claim to have been consistent in their political positions and in their opposition to the Syrian-Iranian axis — a means to meet the calls for sovereignty in the street.

Camille Abousleiman, a former labor minister who is close to the LF, pushes this logic even further and speaks of “convergence of interests and objectives” between the protesters and the party.

“Both sides are called upon to fight against two things: the scourge of corruption and that of the Iranian axis and its Lebanese counterpart, Hezbollah,” he says, calling for unifying efforts in this direction.

‘Appealing to those disappointed with Aounsim’

The LF cannot count on hard-line “secular” protesters, let alone on the Shiite ones whose heart continues to beat for the “resistance” that is, according to them, embodied by Hezbollah. The LF can, however, try its luck with all those who consider the Party of God the main reason behind Lebanon’s shipwreck.

The Christian street, including some former Aounists, appears to be increasingly sensitive to this discourse, while the revolutionaries, as a whole, were much more divided on the issue.

“It is not through the revolution’s enthusiasts that the LF will succeed in redeeming itself, but by appealing to those disappointed with Aounism who are not fully committed to the revolution’s cause,” argues Bitar.

By making the fight against Hezbollah its main political objective, the LF does not hesitate to showcase its militia-like dimension. This was the case when the party put on a military-style parade, but without weapons, in Gemmayzeh on Sept. 14, which marked the anniversary of the 1982 assassination of President-elect Bachir Gemayel. The show somewhat brought to mind the parades of the Shiite party in Beirut’s southern suburbs.

“For us, the LF and Hezbollah are two sides of the same coin,” says Helou, who considers the two political parties as sharing the same methods.

“So much the better,” says a government official close to the Christian party who appears to rejoice at the idea that the LF can be a little intimidating and that they can show off their strength against the “Shiite duo,” i.e. the Amal Movement and Hezbollah, which, according to him, “are holding the country hostage.”

While Hezbollah maintains an organic relationship with Iran, the LF is now Saudi Arabia’s main ally in Lebanon, to the point that some revolutionaries draw an analogy between the two Lebanese parties.

Rumors have been circulating that Riyadh is funding the Christian party, but without any solid information to back the allegations. “This is completely false,” says Jabbour, who claims that the party is funded by “wealthy businessmen and sympathizers who believe in the cause that their leader defends.”

“Since 2009, not one dollar was sent by the Saudis to the March 14 camp. If to this day Samir Geagea remains the [favorite] interlocutor of Saudi Arabia and the United States, it is because he is respected for his unchanged principles and his consistency in politics,” says Jabbour in the party’s defense.

The LF, including both revolutionaries and conservatives, seeks to defend the establishment of a modern state while maintaining its Christian and conservative dimension — something that proved rather successful during the Lebanese uprising.

This could work even better for them, especially since the revolutionaries of the Oct. 17 uprising continue to struggle to organize their ranks politically. This is not to mention that the issue of Hezbollah is once again a main bone of contention, so much so that many political pundits now believe that Geagea’s party would win in the event of early parliamentary elections.

This article was originally published in French in L’Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.

Since he ensconced himself in the huge Lebanese Forces headquarters in Maarab, Kesrouan, in 2007, Samir Geagea has hardly moved. Those who wish to meet him, including diplomats, are forced to take the winding path leading up to his residence perched on a wooded hill, 950 meters above sea level.The LF leader cites security reasons, but also his love of nature and remote areas, for staying at his...