THE LEVANT – By Tom Perry – Samir Geagea is a leading candidate for the vacant Lebanese presidency but won’t even hazard a guess when there might be an election to fill the post, such is the political uncertainty overshadowing his divided nation.
It has been over five months since the Middle East’s only Christian presidency fell vacant, part of a wider crisis fueled by the war in neighboring Syria that has paralyzed much of the Lebanese state and triggered spasms of deadly violence.
“This goes beyond Lebanon. The issue of the Lebanese presidency is on the table for discussion in the bargaining over the entire Middle East,” Geagea said in an interview with Reuters at his home in the Christian village of Maarab in the mountains overlooking the seaside town of Jounieh.
“Therefore, unfortunately, I don’t see presidential elections in the foreseeable future,” he said. “We are waiting.”
The presidency has fallen victim to political deadlock rooted in Lebanese rivalries that have been complicated by competition between regional states, notably Iran and Saudi Arabia, which wield decisive influence over Lebanese politics.
As rivalry between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran helps fuel the Syrian civil war, Lebanon’s sectarian system of government is facing one of its biggest tests since being pieced back together from the country’s own 1975-90 civil war.
A government formed in February with Saudi-Iranian blessing has spared Lebanon from a complete vacuum in the executive arm. But that government has struggled to take even basic decisions. Meanwhile, parliament is barely function.
With no prospect of legislative elections, MPs elected more than five years ago are expected this week to extend their term until 2017.
Meanwhile, periodic bouts of political violence linked to the Syrian conflict continue to jolt the country’s stability. Eleven Lebanese soldiers died in the most recent spillover, killed in battles with Sunni Islamist militants in the north.
But Geagea, a top Christian politician who led a powerful militia in Lebanon’s civil war, sees a limit to how much deeper his country will slide into crisis.
“With everything that is going on in the region, look at Lebanon, it is holding together,” Geagea, 62, said.
“There is a political decision by all the factions not to play with Lebanon’s civil peace, and not to play with Lebanon’s existence as a nation,” he said. “But unfortunately they don’t believe in this decision to the degree necessary to establish an effective state in Lebanon,” he said.
“So Lebanon as a nation will remain, and civil peace will remain, albeit with the current disturbances that you see.”
“I am not more worried than that.”
RIVALRY WITH AOUN
Breaking the political deadlock will likely require regional states to broker a deal similar to one concluded in Doha in 2008 that resulted in parliament electing former army commander Michel Suleiman as head of state.
Fifteen parliamentary sessions called since May with the stated aim of electing his successor have failed to do so. In the absence of a deal, there has been no quorum for a vote.
Geagea is the candidate of the “March 14” alliance led by Sunni Muslim, Saudi-backed politician Saad al-Hariri.
His main Christian rival is Michel Aoun, part of the “March 8” alliance including the powerful, Iranian-backed Shi’ite Muslim movement Hezbollah. Aoun heads the largest Christian bloc in parliament and also wants to be president.
The Geagea-Aoun rivalry has been a recurrent theme in Lebanese Christian politics since the final years of the civil war. They fought a war in 1990.
Both were forced out of public life in the period of Syrian dominance that followed the civil war. Aoun lived in exile in France, and Geagea was imprisoned, the only Lebanese civil war leader to pay a judicial price for his actions in the conflict.
Geagea was released and Aoun returned in 2005, when Syria was forced to pull its troops out of Lebanon.
Geagea, whose 11 years in jail included eight in solitary confinement, blames Hezbollah and Aoun, 81, for the presidential vacuum. Geagea said he is ready for talks to agree on a candidate acceptable to both sides.
“I call on General Aoun to reach an agreement with us on a third candidate,” said Geagea. But he added: “I do not see General Aoun changing his political decision to obstruct the presidential elections. He will not retreat.”
Geagea is an outspoken critic of Hezbollah’s role in the Syrian civil war, where its forces are fighting Sunni Muslim insurgents who aim to topple President Bashar al-Assad.
He repeated his call for Hezbollah to pull out of Syria, saying its presence there was causing instability in Lebanon. Hezbollah says it is fighting in Syria to stop radical Islamist insurgents such as Islamic State from expanding into Lebanon.
Geagea said Hezbollah’s role in Syria was for Sunnis a grievance that had put their community “under great pressure”.
“The cause of this grievance must be removed so that the situation in Lebanon stabilizes in a deeply-rooted way and not simply because of a political understanding and a political decision not to ignite the situation,” he said.