Can bitter rivals, both sons of murdered fathers, move Lebanon forward?

Lebanon's political vacuum threatens its stability and even an economic collapse. Now a power-sharing deal that defies the country's blood-soaked past has been proposed.

Aziz Taher/Reuters/File
A protester carries a poster on which the word 'Independence' is written during a rally to celebrate Lebanon's Independence Day and call for presidential elections, in Beirut, Lebanon November 22, 2015. Lebanon has been without a president since May 2014.

A paralyzing impasse has left Lebanon without a president for 18 months.

It has crippled the government’s ability to function, and many analysts believe Lebanon faces economic collapse unless a president can be elected and state institutions once again allowed to operate properly.

Now a power-sharing agreement between bitter political rivals – both sons of murdered fathers – could end the impasse.

That’s the easy part of this story. The rest is Shakespearean, with a touch of “The Godfather” thrown in.

The proposed pact, which would install the scion of one dynasty as president, with another becoming prime minister, has reawakened ghosts of murder, assassination, and revenge from Lebanon's blood-soaked past. It asks a universal political question, one that is felt acutely here: Can the past be put aside for the sake of the future?

Politics in Lebanon traditionally turns on the rivalry between a few powerful family dynasties who survive on patronage and compete over the spoils of governance. Power and prestige often passes from father to son; ancient feuds are also passed down and continue to fester. 

Navigating this tangled web of shifting alliances can be maddening, but it's necessary to understand how unexpected this proposal to end the impasse is.

The plan would see Suleiman Frangieh, scion of a Maronite Catholic dynasty, become president, while Sunni Muslim Saad Hariri, a former prime minister who has been living in self-imposed exile since 2011, would return to the Lebanese premiership. The arrangement became public late last month after Mr. Frangieh traveled to Paris for a meeting with Mr. Hariri.

Cardinal gives blessing

Under Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing arrangement, the presidency is reserved for the Maronites. Other candidates have criticized the initiative, even though its failure would perpetuate the country’s political and economic stagnation.

“The initiative is serious and the factions should benefit from it,” said Cardinal Beshara al-Rai, patriarch of the Maronite church, on Wednesday.

Since May last year, when President Michel Suleiman’s six-year term came to an end, Frangieh, a straight-talking, gray-haired 50-year-old with a passion for hunting, had stood on the periphery of the presidential contest, as other powerful Maronites stepped forward.

One leading contender is Michel Aoun, head of the Free Patriotic Movement and the official candidate of the powerful Shiite Hezbollah organization. He is also a political ally of Frangieh in the so-called March 8 parliamentary block. A boycott by Mr. Aoun and his allies in parliament has repeatedly prevented lawmakers from electing a new head of state since May 2014. 

Hariri, on the other hand, is a leading member of the rival March 14 block – the contrasting dates refer to rival demonstrations in 2005 – whose chief contender for the presidency is Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces, a party with roots in a Christian militia.

Audience with the king

It is in this context that the new proposal arose from discussions in October in Riyadh between the Saudi leadership, Hariri, and Walid Jumblatt, veteran leader of Lebanon’s Druze community.

“I met the king [Salman] and then Hariri and he asked what I thought of Frangieh” as president, Mr. Jumblatt says, adding that he responded favorably. “It [a Frangieh presidency] was in the Saudi mind and Hariri’s and it led to the meeting [between Hariri and Frangieh] in Paris.”

The sudden proposal caused a stir in Lebanon. It was all the more startling given that Frangieh is a close friend since childhood of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Hariri believes ordered the assassination a decade ago of his father, longtime Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Frangieh was interior minister of Lebanon’s pro-Syrian government at the time of Rafik Hariri’s death in February 2005.

For Saad Hariri, however, a deal with Frangieh would allow him to return to Lebanon as prime minister and help him to rebuild his political fortunes, which have waned during his exile. 

Past is Shakespearean

“It depends if you want to look at the past or the future,” says Sami Atallah, executive director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. “If you look at it from the past, it is totally Shakespearean – who did this to whom and so on.… But looking into the future, it’s way better for Hariri [as prime minister] to have Frangieh [as president] rather than Aoun.”

Frangieh, too, lost his father to political violence. In June 1978, three years into Lebanon’s 16-year civil war, when Frangieh was only 11 years old, gunmen from the Phalange, a rival Christian militia, stormed his family’s summer residence near the town of Ehden in north Lebanon. They killed his father, Tony, mother, Vera, his three-year-old sister, Jehane, a maid, a chauffeur, and the family dog as well as around 35 militiamen.

The young Suleiman then swore to avenge his murdered family in accordance with the traditions of vendetta in the Levant.

In one of the many ironies that color Lebanese politics, Frangieh’s bid for the presidency has put him head to head against Mr. Geagea, now Hariri’s ally, who as a rising star in the Phalange militia in 1978 played a key role in the raid in which Frangieh’s family was murdered.

A Frangieh presidency “must be in his [Geagea’s] nightmares,” says Mr. Atallah. “This is like his ghosts from the past holding one of the key positions in the country for the Maronites.”

In 2008, Geagea apologized for the Ehden killings but insisted that he was shot in the arm and returned home prior to the actual assault on the Frangieh family home. Frangieh rejected the apology as half-hearted, saying “I am not in a hurry to offer him gifts or to clear his slate.”

For proposed deal, more wrangling ahead

Another rival for the presidency is Amin Gemayel, a previous head of state in the 1980s whose brother, Bashir Gemayel, was the man who ordered the 1978 hit on Tony Frangieh. In September 1982, Bashir Gemayel, who had just been elected president but not sworn in, was killed in a bomb explosion for which Syria was blamed. At the time, Frangieh’s grandfather, also named Suleiman and a president in the early 1970s, said in response to Bashir Gemayel’s death: “Unhappily, I was not responsible for this act of vengeance.”

For now, the fate of the Frangieh-Hariri proposal hangs in the balance amid all the bargaining and brinkmanship. Jumblatt, whose own father was murdered in 1977 – allegedly on the orders of then Syrian President Hafez al-Assad – is pessimistic that the deal will survive the squabbling and rivalries of the Maronite candidates.

“They [the Maronites] will never change. They are the masters of self-suicide,” he says ruefully.

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