Franjieh-Geagea reconciliation bid a charade - analysts

Posted in Broader Middle East | 23-Oct-08 | Source: The Daily Star (Lebanon Edition)

BEIRUT: Recent talk of reconciling Lebanon's deeply divided Christian factions represents little more than maneuvering for electoral advantage in next year's polls, while personal animosity and the country's fractious history will continue to prevent any honest reconciliation among longtime rival leaders, a number of analysts told The Daily Star on Wednesday

Moves toward reconciliation faltered gravely on Tuesday, as Marada Movement head Suleiman Franjieh said he was "not in a hurry" to make peace with Lebanese Forces (LF) leader Samir Geagea and would reconcile only under Marada's conditions. Franjieh and Change and Reform Bloc head MP Michel Aoun, the March 8 alliance's leading Christian figure, have been sworn enemies of Geagea since the 1975-90 Civil War, long before Geagea wound up opposing them as part of the March 14 camp.

However, with general elections slated for next May expected to be a hotly contested battle, the political chiefs are using the latest talk of concord to cover their regular need to partition voters so as to maximize personal gain and yet keep traditional bosses in power, said Hilal Khashan, chair of the department of political science and public administration at the American University of Beirut.

The Christian leaders are "dividing the spoils of the system - they call it reconciliation," Khashan said.

Geagea has his eye on one of the three Parliament seats up for grabs in the Zghorta district, Franjieh's ancestral home, said Oussama Safa, executive director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. "Burying the hatchet with Franjieh would probably get [Geagea] one more seat," Safa added.

Franjieh, on the other hand, wants Geagea to acknowledge the Marada chief's status as the political leader of North Lebanon's Christians, Safa said. With Geagea unlikely to meet that condition and Franjieh loath to cede any political ground to Geagea, the reconciliation will probably fail to gather steam, Safa added.

"It boils down to recognizing Franjieh's leadership of the North," Safa said. "Right now it's not in Franjieh's interest to reconcile with Geagea, so it's not going to happen anytime soon."

"It's half-hearted from both leaders. It's not a genuine reconciliation," he added.

On the contrary, Franjieh is working to spin the reconciliation chatter to excite his Zghorta base against Geagea, said retired General Elias Hanna, who teaches political science at Notre Dame University. In general, Christian leaders of the March 8 coalition are plotting to wipe Geagea off the political map, with the LF leader's only certain victory being the two seats from his home district of Bsharre, Hanna added.

"Everybody wants the head of Samir Geagea," Hanna said. "They are trying to eliminate Samir Geagea as much as possible. If there is a 1-percent chance that [reconciliation] would help Samir Geagea, then [Franjieh] would say no. They don't want reconciliation. Why give [Geagea] a blank check?"

"It's mainly political, concerning the coming election," Hanna added. "This is the main issue.

The reconciliation charade will probably end with Franjieh pushing Geagea for more and more concessions until Geagea says no, Hanna said.

However, with the bruising campaign anticipated for the 2009 parliamentary polls and incidents already cropping up frequently in the North between Marada and LF partisans, the leaders also hope that repeating the reconciliation mantra will keep their supporters' passions under control, Khashan said.

"They are trying to make sure there would not be an outbreak of violence that could be uncontrollable," he said. With the mood in the region favoring a cooling of tensions, the reconciliation posturing might at least result in a deal on campaign etiquette, he added.

Aside from electoral calculus, the Franjieh-Geagea reconciliation drive also faces the towering hurdle of the killing of Franjieh's father Toni and other family members in the 1978 Ehden massacre, the analysts said. Geagea, at that time a member of the Phalange Party, has said he was one of those in charge of the Ehden assault but was shot before making it to the Franjieh residence and did not take part in the massacre.

Not only have the sides not forgotten the killings, but the slaughter was but one of the more glaring manifestations of the antagonism that divided and still divides various Christian factions, Khashan said.

"It happened yesterday," he added. "It's not really history. We are still living the impact of what happened."

"I just don't see any way that Franjieh and the Lebanese Forces could find" common ground, Khashan ssid. "The massacre reflected the depth of the divisions between the two factions. The tensions antedated the assassination of Toni Franjieh."

"No matter what Geagea would do, in Suleiman Franjieh's eyes he's the killer of his father, and you don't forgive the killer of your father."

But the deep-seated enmity is not limited to Geagea and Franjieh, and so many of the Civil War animosities continue to burn and to preclude reconciliation because the belligerents never confronted their deeds and engaged in reconciliation when the war ended, Khashan said.

"How could we reconcile unless the problem comes to the fore?" he asked. "We did not resolve the past. We cannot talk about the future until we bury the past. We did not properly bury the past.

"Not talking about the past does not eliminate it. Everybody has to admit what happened. That's why it's easy for the Lebanese to go to the streets and fight among themselves, because the past has not been dealt with. Having a leadership handshake would not mean much."

Beyond the Civil War scars, hostility among Lebanon's Christian factions might even spring from the historic basis for the country's emergence, Khashan said. With the rugged terrain of Mount Lebanon limiting the domination of Christian clans there by the Ottomans - and keeping the clans separated from one another - numerous power centers became entrenched, creating a natural source for friction among the various groups, Khashan added.

"The divisions are part of the feudal formation of leadership in Mount Lebanon," Khashan said. "Their pattern for leadership remained feudal."

"What people are calling reconciliation amounts to nothing more than feudal entente or tribal entente," he added. "I can't imagine the factions in Lebanon reconciling. This would no longer be Lebanon."