There was an ominous postscript to the attempted assassination last week of Samir Geagea, the Lebanese Forces leader. It came in the form of an alleged revelation by “a former Lebanese security official living in Paris” published in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Seyassah.
The official’s comment went like this: “The moment the attempt [on Geagea’s life] was announced, hundreds of Lebanese Forces, Kataeb Party, and National Liberal Front fighters, as well as Lebanese army backers, headed to the regions around Beirut’s southern suburbs and the Shiyyah area, the strongholds of Hezbollah and Amal.”
Both the official—in all probability Johnny Abdo, the onetime head of Lebanese military intelligence—and the outlet, Al-Seyassah, leave plenty of room for us to question the veracity of the story. But as some observers have noted, the point was not to tell the truth; it was to issue a warning. Mustapha of the Beirut Spring blog wrote an astute analysis of the episode, referring to it as “deterrence by rumor-mongering.” By cautioning Hezbollah and Amal that there could be dangerous repercussions if Geagea were harmed, Abdo and March 14 hoped to prevent further attacks against the Lebanese Forces leader.
A rancorous mood did indeed circulate in Christian areas after the reported shooting. Had Geagea been killed, there would certainly have been hotheads willing to take matters into their own hands. The army would have been hard-pressed to restore order and ease tensions between the Lebanese Forces and the Aounists in particular, while one dreads to imagine what might have happened, let’s say, to Shia strolling through hard-core Lebanese Forces quarters.
For many years Geagea has carefully cultivated the impression that his followers could transform themselves into an armed militia if they were provoked into doing so. While the Lebanese Forces leader has repeatedly denied that his men are undergoing military training, he has also been deliberately ambiguous about their intentions.
For instance, in February 2006 Lebanese Forces officials in Beirut warned then-Interior Minister Hassan al-Sabeh that they would take to the streets with their weapons if he did not control Sunni Islamists demonstrating against the publication by a Danish newspaper of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. They burned the Danish Embassy in the mainly Christian Ashrafieh neighborhood, and when the protest turned into a riot, the participants began harassing Christians and throwing rocks at a Maronite church.
In May 2008, when Hezbollah and its pro-Syrian allies overran western Beirut, there was news that the Lebanese Forces would protect Christian districts if necessary. Perhaps this was again a case of deterrence by rumor-mongering. However, in such fluid situations, organized groups tend to fill the vacuum. That’s why it’s not especially difficult to imagine that Geagea would have been prepared to deploy his men had the army failed to defend eastern Beirut in the same way that it had failed to defend western Beirut.
The capacity and willingness to wage war remains very much a part of Geagea’s aura, and that of the Lebanese Forces. Do you recall all those March 14 rallies of recent years? Whenever you saw youths dressed in combat boots and fatigues, with black tee-shirts, you could be sure that they belonged to the party. They may have been in the minority, but they also had no inhibitions about flaunting the imagery of battle.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Geagea doesn’t seek an armed confrontation, but nor is he, temperamentally, the kind of person who will shrink from playing up his warrior persona when Hezbollah has spent years doing the same. In that sense his behavior contrasts with that of Walid Jumblatt, another former warlord. For Geagea, the Lebanese political system is one of natural equilibrium: If one coalition or religious community seeks hegemony over the others, then this requires a comparable counter-reaction to impose balance.
Last week, I suggested in this space that Geagea would attempt to play the failed assassination attempt in such a way as to improve his chances of success in parliamentary elections next year. Everything suggests that he is doing so, and that he has become the driving force of March 14, in the absence of Saad Hariri, the former prime minister. An element of brinkmanship was equally evident in Geagea’s speech to his coalition partners in Maarab on Wednesday. “March 14 is in the eye of the storm,” he was quoted as saying, before sounding the martial note: “The battle that the Syrian regime and its allies are fighting is a final battle of either killing or being killed.”
The Lebanese Forces leader is not reacting spontaneously. He has something in mind, a specific agenda, and it includes definite electoral calculations burnished by a noticeable military component. That doesn’t mean Geagea plans to go to war. Rather, he is positioning himself as a Christian champion, against those other leading Christian figures, Michel Aoun and Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai above all, whom Geagea would insist have betrayed the community’s ideals and traditions while ceding vital ground, geographically and politically, to the Christians’ enemies.
The political ambitions of Samir Geagea aside, it is disturbing when the pulsations of conflict make a comeback in Lebanon. We haven’t condemned this in Hezbollah to sanction it in the case of the Lebanese Forces. Most Lebanese still aspire to a civil order that keeps violence at bay. Maybe we’re naïve for thinking so, or soft. Or maybe we just don’t want fear to color how we vote in the coming elections.
Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon. He tweets @BeirutCalling.