“He is Lebanon’s savior, the savior!”
Seated with friends at a snack bar on Zgharta’s mainstreet, Youssef, 70, is immediately roused. From the next table over, he heard the whispered mention of Sleiman Frangieh’s name. Unable to hold himself back, Yousef joined the neighboring table’s conversation in praise of his zaim, who in his eyes, is much more than a mere patron.
“I am proud of him and his family and of his father [Tony Frangieh], who since 1975 has defended the Christians. Geagea, Gemayel, Aoun, and the others are all thugs, scum who killed the Maronites,” he said.
Haunted by the Civil War, Youssef recalled the Ehden massacre of June 13, 1978, which claimed the lives of 40 people, including the son of Sleiman Frangieh senior, Tony Frangieh, along with his wife and young daughter.
In downtown Zgharta, where residents are known to be pro-Frangieh, the Marada leader’s run for presidency is a source of pride.
Abdallah, an employee of a restaurant in the town, reiterated the same sentiment.
“He is a patriot who has no blood on his hands,” he said. Originally from Tripoli, Abdallah said that the entirety of North Lebanon beyond Zgharta welcomes the idea of Frangieh as president. While Abdallah declared that he has never asked for the help of the zaïm, he said that anyone can knock on Frangieh’s door.
“His palace is open to everyone,” he said, in reference to Frangieh’s Swiss chalet in Bneshaai (about 10 km south of Zgharta).
‘The father of us all’
Ahead of the spring 2022 elections, Zgharta’s town square was covered with photos of MP Tony Frangieh jr., Sleiman jr. 's son. Today, the streets are void of such posters. Neither those of Frangieh nor those of Moawad, another potential presidential candidate who hails from another prominent clan like family that has for generations established itself in the town.
“There are no posters of Sleiman because he doesn’t need to mark his territory,” said a young man who spoke to L’Orient-Le Jour from the terrace of a nearby restaurant where he sat with three friends. In last May’s parliamentary elections, however, Tony Frangieh obtained less votes in Zgharta than opposition MP Michel Moawad and Michel Douaihy, who was on the protest movement’s list and won a breakthrough seat in the constituency.
“Sleiman is not only a good zaim, above all he is the father of us all. He always stands by us,” said Lodvic, a consultant who was enjoying the same restaurant. Those supporting Frangieh do not seem to hold Moawad in the same regard.
“He did not support Zgharta as much as Frangieh did. He has other calculations and receives his orders from abroad,” added the young man from the restaurant terrace. “Sleiman, on the other hand, is not influenced by the embassies.”
According to the young man and his friends, the relationship between their beloved zaim and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has “nothing to do with politics.”
“The two families have been friends for years. Thanks to that, Frangieh can come up with a solution to organize the return of Syrians to their homes,” said Ludovik. The others agree with him.
As in the rest of Lebanon, the repatriation of Syrian refugees has become the hot topic of the moment in Zgharta. L’Orient spoke to Anas, 26, who works at a vegetable store in the town. Originally from Homs, Anasarrived to Zgharta in 2009. He did not speak much, as if held back by fear. “My country is destroyed,” he said shyly. “I can’t even go back to my town. I would be forcibly conscripted into the army on the way.”
Anas said that Syrians would choose to return to their country if the conditions for living with dignity and safety were met. In Zgharta, he said that he is known to everyone and feels safe. While he avoided giving his opinion on the Syrian regime, the 26 year old praised the Marada leader, whom he would like to see become president.
“I have nothing against Michel Moawad, but Sleiman Frangieh is something else. People say he is more experienced, we all live under his wings here,” Anas said, before adding, “Not us, we get nothing from him, but he helps those in the village.”
‘His ties with Assad and Hezbollah bother me’
In the old quarter of town, more modest, the signs that once adorned the narrow alleys, especially those bearing the effigy of Moawad, were also removed since the 2022 elections. Charbel*, another Zgharta resident, said very little about Frangieh.
Despite his respect for the zaim, which he was quick to declare, he made it clear that he does not feel represented by Frangieh’s political line. “His ties to Hezbollah and Assad bother me. If Hezbollah asks him to leave the border open, Sleiman cannot refuse that,” Charbel said.
Charbel believes that there are better candidates out there, but does not think his favorite candidate, Michel Moawad, has a real chance of being elected. He mentioned that the René Moawad Foundation, a non-profit organization created in honor of the late president, is working tirelessly to help Zgharta’s population, which struggles under the weight of the economic crisis.
In this part of the town, which is more inclined toward Moawad, Rosette, 68, stood out. “Allah yirhamo,” she said in reference to Michel Moawad’s father, former President René Moawad, who was assassinated in 1989.
“I respect the father, but his son put his hand in the hand of the Lebanese Forces who killed Frangieh,” she said. Recently, Rosette’s son fell ill. She turned to Frangieh for help. “He told me, ‘If his hospitalization costs $1 million, I will pay it. And if it’s not about money, I’m ready to take a vein out of my neck to cure your son,’” she continued.
“My blood flows for the Frangiehs.”
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.