“President! President! President!” On June 14, 2015, the atmosphere was euphoric at the Kataeb headquarters in Saifi. Hundreds of people shouted for joy, delaying the party’s then secretary-general Michel Khoury from announcing the outcomes of a long day during which the party’s new leadership council was elected.
“I declare Sami Gemayel seventh president of the Kataeb party with 339 votes,” he finally managed to announce.
The new leader was warmly applauded by the base on which he has relied for the years following his election. After greeting his supporters and giving the floor to his defeated opponent, Pierre Atallah, he pledged to “work for Lebanon 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year.”
“You will have to keep up with me,” he added.
The young MP, then 34 years old, wanted to modernize his party, founded in 1936 in the wake of the struggle for Lebanese independence.
Son of former President Amine Gemayel and grandson of the founder of the Kataeb, Pierre Gemayel, he sought to represent both continuity and rupture with the past of the party. It was a form of ambivalence that would serve as both his main strength and main weakness in the years that followed.
In the meantime, his election firmly established the family’s control over the party, after a tricky time in the 2000s.
At the beginning of the new century, Amine Gemayel’s leadership was seriously challenged by several veterans who rotated in the Syrian regime’s orbit. Among them was Karim Pakradouni, who took over the Kataeb’s leadership in 2001 and advocated a rapprochement with Damascus.
In a bid to counter this political orientation, a reformist movement emerged in the octogenarian party, which until then was marked by a respect for hierarchy. It was in this movement that Sami Gemayel made his debut.
“I worked within the reformist movement. But I was against a reconciliation with Karim Pakradouni and his companions,” Sami Gemayel told L’Orient-Le Jour, in reference to the agreement Amine Gemayel reached with his rival following the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005.
“That’s when I distanced myself [from the Kataeb] and founded Loubnanouna [Our Lebanon]. It was a real lab for the exchange of ideas, especially on the Lebanese Civil War,” he explained.
The political movement, which arose from a student mobilization, advocated a vision of Lebanon that focused on somewhat taboo ideas, such as reassessing the current system and exploring federalism, which is sometimes seen as a first step towards Lebanon’s partition.
A little over two decades later, Sami Gemayel would speak of decentralization, rather than federalism, and the gradual secularization of the state.
The turning point came in 2006. On Nov. 21, on the party’s anniversary and on the eve of Independence Day, Pierre Gemayel, Sami’s older brother, was assassinated in broad daylight in Jdeideh, in the heart of Metn, the Kataeb’s undisputed stronghold.
“I perceived it as a challenge. … They wanted to kill the party,” the resigned MP said. Sami Gemayel fully returned to the Kataeb and moved his way up the ladder until he became president a bit less than 10 years later.
Was history written in advance? He denies it.
“I started my political struggle at the age of 16. I ran away from school to take part in demonstrations advocating for the country’s liberation from the Syrian yoke and I was arrested several times,” he said, highlighting his background as an activist.
However, it is difficult to escape the weight of the family’s heritage, especially when one has a family name that sparks adoration and respect among some, and hatred and disgust among others.
How to portray the octogenarian party’s future without risking being paralyzed by the past? How to make an internal revolution without abandoning the party’s identity? How to attract a new public without losing the party’s traditional electorate? From the start, Sami Gemayel was forced to walk between two worlds.
‘I demonstrated that it is possible for an opposition to exist’
Back to 2015. A few weeks before his election, the MP for Metn presented the main lines of his undertaking to modernize the party. Addressing an audience of leaders and veterans of the Kataeb in Bikfaya (the Gemayels’ stronghold), he delivered a kind of investiture speech, making some impressive statements.
“I will work to prove to Muslims that this party and its project are open to them .... I call on Muslims not to be afraid to join this party,” he said.
For a decidedly Christian party that played a leading role during the Civil War, these words sound like a small revolution.
“He made a critical reading of the party and insisted on the need to question the way the country is managed,” commented Salim Sayegh, the Kataeb’s vice-president.
The discourse changed. So did the methods. The MP for Metn represents a new generation’s rise in power within the party. This generation is much less marked by the war and includes Elias Hankash, resigned MP for Metn; Patrick Richa, the party’s head of media and communication; and Serge Dagher, the party’s secretary-general.
Some of these veterans, however, have felt left out and denounced a policy of ageism designed to marginalize them. “I’ve been a member of the Kataeb for 22 years,” Patrick Richa said. “I am a childhood friend of Pierre. I worked with him in the reformist movement and then I joined the party,” said Dagher.
Breaking with the past became much more effective in 2016. Joseph Abou Khalil, who has been a companion of the Gemayels for three generations, was by Sami Gemayel’s side when the Kataeb leader decided to resign from the Tammam Salam-led cabinet on June 14.
The decision lacked unanimity within the party: leaving the government meant giving up the important benefits that it could provide and risking isolation.
Among the three ministers for the Kataeb, only Alain Hakim ended up resigning. His colleague Sejaan Azzi refused to comply with this decision — which was taken by the party’s political bureau, despite some opposition — especially amid a presidential vacuum during which the government was exercising the prerogatives of the head of state.
But Azzi’s stance caused the party to permanently disbar him. “He should have resigned, because it was a clear political position,” commented a former Kataeb official.
Similar to several people interviewed by L’Orient-Le Jour, he said that the party had to bar him due to “flagrant violations of the internal rules.”
Azzi declined to comment on this episode, saying he had moved on and turned the page on this case.
Resigning from the government became the symbolic birth of the Sami Gemnayel’s version of the Kataeb. Not only did he opt for the opposition, but he did so due to the garbage crisis — a crisis affecting the daily lives of the Lebanese people, and far from the great political principles that usually distinguish the party’s struggle.
Sami Gemayel understood before many others that geopolitics was no longer enough to mobilize the crowds. More importantly, he understood that geopolitics could not explain all ills, including why mountains of garbage were piling high in the streets while the state still failed to supply 24-hour electricity decades after the end of the Civil War.
While his critics accuse him of acting more out of opportunism than conviction, it is clear that he has not once changed course since.
During the six years that followed, he did not participate in any government and built an opposition discourse, unlike the other traditional parties, on most of the key topics.
“I proved that it is possible for an opposition to exist and live in Lebanon,” Sami Gemayel said.
The two cousins
Aligned with this battle, the Kataeb was the only traditional party to oppose the presidential settlement reached in 2016 between the leader of the Future Movement, Saad Hariri, and the founder of the Free Patriotic Movement, Michel Aoun.
With this Sunni support, coupled with Christian support provided by the Meerab agreement, cooked up a few months earlier with his historical opponent, Samir Geagea, Michel Aoun became president.
At the time, Sami Gemayel offered justification, saying,“We are not going to elect a candidate who carries the project of the March 8 coalition.”
“Here too, the decision was not taken unanimously, as some party members felt that he should join the reconciled Christian tandem and the great settlement,” said a Kataeb official, without providing the names of those who opposed the decision.
It was an audacious challenge that led, initially, to a bitter failure in the 2018 legislative elections. The party was isolated and relations with the Lebanese Forces, its sister party founded in 1980 by Bachir Gemayel, had never been worse.
Here again, Sami Gemayel’s choice to distance himself from the LF caused him criticism within the party, particularly since Meerab and Saifi converge on the main strategic issues, including the need to confront Hezbollah.
It is in this vein that the first sign of a rift between the Kataeb leader and his cousin, Nadim, son of Bashir Gemayel, appeared.
“Nadim did not like the political distance between the Kataeb and the LF,” commented a source close to the Beirut MP.
Thanks to Nadim Gemayel’s insistence, the Kataeb allied with the LF in the 2018 legislative elections in the constituencies that related to the collective memory of both parties, such as Beirut I (Achrafieh-Rmeil-Saifi and Medawar), Zahle and North III (Zgharta, Besharri, Koura and Batroun).
After the elections, the cousins’ divergence took on another dimension. At the party’s general congress in 2019, Nadim Gemayel gave an incendiary speech, in which he lashed out at the leadership and its choices, accusing it of giving priority to social issues at the expense of the political struggle.
“There was no disagreement between Nadim and Sami. They do not diverge on principles, but on partisan affairs’ management,” said a close friend of the resigned Beirut MP.
“Today, this page is turned. And we are coordinating with each other in view of the elections,” Nadim Gemayel told L’Orient-Le Jour.
His cousin said no different. “Nadim and I have a very good relationship. He understood my way of working. I see him at least twice a week and we are preparing for the electoral battle in Beirut,” Sami Gemayel said.
Officially, everything is now going very well between the two cousins. But while disagreements have perhaps been swept under the carpet, they are not less visible.
Ostensibly, two lines still coexist within the Kataeb, one mainly looking towards the past and the other towards the future. That is particularly true when it comes to the alliance with the LF, restructuring the banking system and the party’s community identity.
‘They will remain a Christian party’
Sami Gemayel lost the 2018 elections, with the party’s number of MPs dropping from five to three.
His willingness to fight the battle alone partly explains this defeat. But not only that. With his decision to move away from the LF, he kind of surprised his traditional electorate, part of which prefers the LF, which doubled its score in the election and went from eight to 15 MPs.
On the other hand, he did not go far enough to attract a new public that is more sensitive to his discourse.
He is a bit caught between a rock and a hard place. “In 2018, in the wake of the 2016 settlement, people believed the false claims of the parties to the understanding, and did not hear our warnings,” he said.
However, everything changed on Oct. 17, 2019. The popular uprising firmly established the rupture between the ruling class and the people devastated by the fallout of an increasingly evident unprecedented economic crisis.
His supporters were in the street. A group of protesters espoused slogans that are very close to his. The Kataeb headquarters even became a refuge for protesters who were subjected to violence by the police.
This could have been his moment. A unique opportunity to become a prominent leader in the country presented itself. He could boast — unlike the LF leader Samir Geagea — that he moved to the opposition long before the Oct. 17 uprising.He could also boast — unlike most of the parties emanating from the uprising — that his party has a structure, a political line, a popular base and a history.
But this is precisely what a whole segment of the popular protest reproaches him for, seeing in him an heir to the system with which they want to break up.
“The Kataeb has not done the necessary critical assessment and historical revision,” said Karim Safieddine, an activist member of the Mada network, who contends that the Kataeb remains a confessional party despite its internal transformation.
“No matter what the Kataeb do, they will remain a Christian party whose discourse is marked by confessionalism, including Christian supremacy,” said Zeina Helou, a political activist, who recognized, however, the progress made by the party.
The name of the party, its history, and some of its speeches continue to deter a segment of the thawra (revolution) forces, stopping Sami Gemayel from being one of its leading figures.
The question of an alliance with the Kataeb, whose MPs resigned after the Beirut port explosion on Aug. 4, 2020, was one of the main fault lines between the thawra groups.
“The Kataeb resigned from the government and used the institutions to fight their battles,” said Laury Haytayan, president of Taqaddom.
“We may have some remarks about their actions, but this is not the time to battle against Mr. Gemayel and his party, but rather for the opposition to join ranks against the political caste,” she added.
Marc Daou, also a member of Taqqadom and a candidate in the Chouf-Aley electoral district, said, “Priority today should be given to confronting Hezbollah and all the parties that continue to provide cover for its weapons, and this is not the case of the Kataeb who have taken clear positions [in this regard].”
Six years after decisively opting to position his party among the opposition', Sami Gemayel can perhaps finally reap the benefits of this choice in the elections scheduled for May 15.
Winning a larger number of seats in Parliament would validate his strategy of striking a balance between modernizing the party and respecting its identity and traditions.
However, securing fewer than the three seats his party has now could cause him to revise his calculation, so as not to be caught in a vice between the LF on the one hand and the thawra movements on the other.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.