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The Evolving Patterns of Lebanese Politics in Post-Syria Lebanon

Fouad Ilias

2. An Alliance in the Making

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2.1 Lebanon after Syria

1Just before Syria’s withdrawal, parties and politicians in Lebanon began reviewing their alliances according to the changing political conditions. The numerous opponents to the Syrian role in Lebanon became emboldened by the new Western stance toward Syria and its growing isolation. In addition, former Syrian clients and allies shifted their positions and joined the ranks of those demanding an end to Syrian occupation. This trend grew increasingly stronger after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri. Almost all of the main political actors at the time joined the opposition to Syria in Lebanon, except the political representative of the Shia community. Shia parties such as Amal and in particular Hizballah had to adapt to the new context. Hizballah viewed the Syrian withdrawal as the end of comfortable backing. Unquestioned about its military arsenal until then, growing suspicion was felt within the Islamist party towards the positions of some in the opposition, especially those who had strong ties with a US administration eager to address the question of Hizballah armaments. Although not all of the parties in the opposition attached the same urgency to the question (some of them began downplaying UN Resolution 1559 and favored Ta’if), the Islamist party quickly felt threatened in post-Syria Lebanon. The trick consisted in maintaining strong ties with Syria while reinforcing a nationalist position and a Lebanese image to avoid being depicted as Damascus’ hand in Lebanon (ICG 2005, 17-19). The party therefore decided to run in the elections of 2005, and even entered the cabinet, holding the Ministry of Energy portfolio.

2Whereas the end of the Syrian presence in Lebanon challenged Hizballah’s position in the country, it allowed Aoun to return. Aoun’s supporters had already taken part in the huge demonstrations of 16 February and 14 March to signify their rejection of Syria’s policies and took to the streets of Beirut by the tens of thousands to greet the General on 7 May. One of the main Lebanese actors opposing the Syrian presence in Lebanon was back to work. However things quickly appeared much more challenging than expected for the Aounists and the FPM. Fearful of a potential rival, the anti-Syrian opposition (especially the Christian leaders of the March 14th Movement) refused to accommodate the newcomer, who would not only grab a sizeable portion of their votes, but would also be free to push for more accountability and reveal the extent of their maneuvers under Syrian tutelage. In addition, Aoun asked to reschedule the upcoming elections of June 2005, citing the need to reform the political laws that would give the Christians far more political power. After failing to form a common electoral platform between the Aounists and the March 14th Movement, the latter moved closer to the Shia parties within the framework of the quadripartite alliance to ensure a swift political victory in the coming elections. However, the Reform and Change Bloc, a coalition composed of the FPM and other formations and figures close to Damascus (such as the Marada of Sleiman Frangieh and Michel al-Murr) attained 21 seats in the parliamentary elections, a surprising 14 seats going to the FPM alone. This amounted to the same number that Hizballah held in parliament, although the FPM had no presence in the cabinet (ICG 2008, 6-7).

2.2 The Memorandum of Understanding, the July War and Sit-ins

3The quadripartite alliance fell apart at the end of 2005 when Shia ministers adopted an empty-chair policy to protest the treaty establishing an international court to examine the Rafiq Hariri affair (and whose competence was extended upon request of the March 14th Alliance to other attempted and successful political assassinations since October 2004).

4At that time, as previously mentioned, there were already strong suspicions within Hizballah about the agenda of several members of the March 14th Movement, especially their understanding with many western nations including the US regarding Hizballah’s arsenal and its position within the country. The rift over the international court was simply unacceptable for the Shia party who distrusted the entire machinery for the Hariri inquiry. The end of the quadripartite alliance would directly benefit the FPM, who had been isolated, since the ongoing discussions between the FPM and Hizballah would soon materialize politically. In reality, this unlikely dialogue was not new for many, but had been kept out of the mass media for a long time: “You know, we actually have had good contacts with them since 1990. At that time, when we were besieged by the Syrian Army and its allies in Eastern Beirut (notably the Lebanese Forces), I would personally go to the check points held by the Hizb and ask to open them to allow goods to enter, which they did” (Raffoul 2009).

5 Shortly after Aoun was exiled and his followers began to reorganize (as much as they could under heavy repressive measures), contacts were established and held regularly between members of Hizballah and people close to Aoun. These covered many subjects and themes “shared by all Lebanese.” These contacts would face hard times in the mid-1990s but consolidate after the strengthening of “the leftist” among Aoun’s followers over the debate (An-Nahar 2006). However, both movements could not move beyond the divisive issue of relations with Damascus. When Syria left Lebanon, Aoun came back and struggled to reach out to all the parties (including Hizballah) trying to form a national unity government:

  • 12 Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces
  • 13  Sleiman Frangieh, Christian leader in Zghorta and leader of the Marada movement

But the others rejected our calls: Geagea12 refused and wanted to keep Aoun out of the reconciliation process. He even refused to answer Frangieh’s13calls trying to mediate. It did not work with the Kataeb either. With Jumblatt, there was no debate, for two things: he refused to allow displaced Christians to go back to the mountains, and refused to give them their rights. Leaders of the Mustaqbal [Hariri’s movement] first wanted us to give up our agreements with Hizballah, then, according to them everything would be possible, even the presidency [for Aoun]. In August 2005, we were already debating about a rapprochement with the Hizb, the only one who agreed to talk and negotiations were hard. (Raffoul 2009)

6The tricky question was Hizballah’s weapons in Aoun’s view: “When we came back in 2005, there was the 1559 in the air. I realized that putting it into practice could lead to conflict, so I tried to find a way to accommodate Hizballah, I realized that there was a worry within Hizballah about these external and internal attacks against it” (A. Aoun 2009).

7Now that Syria was out, the main obstacle to a rapprochement was removed. Therefore, what at first appeared as an inconceivable entente happened on 6 February 2006, when Michel Aoun and Hassan Nasrallah (Hizballah’s General Secretary) signed the Memorandum of Understanding in a Church in Haret Hreik. In ten points, the Memorandum addresses the main points of agreement for both sides (see Annex 1), in what represents “the first cooperation agreement in Lebanon’s history” (Mrad 2009) and “the  only document that determines the relationship between two movements,” despite that “it is an understanding, not an alliance and therefore remains circumstantial” (Gamblin 2009). The thorny issue of Hizballah weaponry (and the implementation of UN resolution 1559) was addressed, and it was agreed that it should be subject to a national dialogue aimed at defining a national defense strategy that would include (and absorb) Hizballah’s arsenal. This provided the Islamist movement with a great sense of relief because it won them the support of one of the most important actors in the Lebanese political arena. Politically speaking, without Syria, Hizballah needed a cover to compensate for the loss of ministerial backing it used to enjoy. Before that, Hizballah had no need for alliances (Karam 2009). The MoU provided Hizballah with the confessional backing that it desperately needed since the killing of Hariri had deprived it of Sunni support and left it as a Shia movement or militia lacking any nationalist stance. In turn, Aoun gained the ability to influence events by joining an opposition made up of 56 deputies and curbing the attempts of other March 14th Christians to marginalize him (ICG 2008, 8-9).

8For a very brief period, tensions were reduced when a national dialogue regrouping all the main political parties and factions took place. However, the dialogue disappeared as quickly as the war in July 2006 began. I will not enter into the details of the conflict between Hizballah and Israel but rather provide some insights into the impact it had on the relations between Hizballah and the FPM, trying to focus on their constituencies.

9“The war was a life size test for the FPM and its popularity in following Hizballah waging a war with Israel. It was a test for the entente and the subsequent events proved it was right” (A. Aoun 2009). By this, Alain Aoun meant that the war tested whether the FPM public would follow its leaders’ decision to back Hizballah during the war, indeed many in the country considered the Islamist Movement responsible for the huge devastations that shook Lebanon. This could have endangered Aoun’s popularity and led him to depart from the entente. The political leadership of the FPM risked alienating a large section of its followers and Aoun made a risky calculation in order to strengthen the entente:

The war was the proof that crystallized the entente into an alliance. The decision was taken to welcome the refugees displaced from the south in our districts (regions where the FPM is well represented). Thus, the FPM welcomed 18,000 families, mainly Shia, and provided everything for them for 33 days. In addition, our members channeled aid (coming mainly from Arab countries, especially Syria) to another 11,000 families but not on a daily basis. People got to know each other, a lot of relations were built at that time between people. It proved that Aoun’s view was right, that the Christians were not standing with Israel, but that Aoun’s vision was patriotic [“watani”]. (Raffoul 2009)

10The conflict did trigger widespread awareness among FPM members of living conditions in the south of the country (a lot of them had never been to the south or to Shia-dominated regions such as the southern suburb of Beirut). As Zyad al-Abs  (2009) puts it: “...then began the 2006 war: people themselves opened their houses to refugees. This cemented the relationship; it was a practical experience of theoretical issues. After that, people came to visit each other and a lot of social relations were built... There was recognition among the Christians of the difficulties in the south. They understood why people were afraid of Israel.”

11In addition to the social efforts made by the FPM to help the refugees from the south cope with the war and its consequences, the political figures of the “Aouniyé” were vocally supporting Hizballah in its military activities against Israel. Aoun himself did not hesitate to back Hizballah’s actions and also to denounce those who were openly criticizing the Islamist movement for its “adventurous decisions” and policy. The General described the conflict as being directed against Lebanon as a whole, whereas other factions such as the Lebanese Forces saw the confrontation as a chance to get rid of Hizballah (ICG 2008, 10).

12More broadly, FPM leaders were concerned about American strategy in Lebanon, which entailed the smashing of Hizballah as well as the assimilation of the Palestinian refugees, which would compromise the Christians’ political assets. The Party of God, as part of the regional front comprising Iran, Syria, Hizballah and Hamas, is seen as a shield against American plans for the region (A. Aoun 2009). Their involvement in strengthening that link internally showed a willingness among FPM political leaders to join regional alliances. According to them, they are better positioned to protect the Christians in the Levant.

13At the end of 2006, Shia ministers resigned from the government to protest the attempts by the majority to force through the statutes of the international tribunal. The two movements staged strikes, huge demonstrations and sit-ins to oppose government policies. Over many months, supporters of the two movements would mix and coordinate their actions, resulting in day to day interactions and the building of social relations. “The result is substantive, social relations were built. People met, became friends. There was opposition on certain points, but they were not important. So there was a discovery of the other, a recognition of the other. Lebanon needs it very much” (Al-Abs 2009).


12 Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces

13  Sleiman Frangieh, Christian leader in Zghorta and leader of the Marada movement


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