A choice Christians can't afford to make
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, October 05, 2006
In the increasingly small canvas that is Lebanese Christian politics, the last 10 days have been telling. Two Sundays ago, the Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea presided over a high political mass bringing together his followers in Harissa, in an effort to regain lost ground among his coreligionists. And last Saturday, Michel Aoun organized a spirited riposte at a gathering for the wartime displaced, in Hadeth, where he revived familiar tropes about Christian marginalization. That both men are fishing in the same pond was only half of what made their exertions interesting; the other is that they are moving their community in the wrong direction.
Take Geagea's Harissa speech. The Lebanese Forces leader reaffirmed the centrality of the Taif Accord as a way out of Lebanon's divisions, which was to his credit. He well knows that the document of national reconciliation was built on a redistribution of power away from the Christians, and that its abuse by the postwar Syrian-led apparat only made it more antipathetic to his own electorate, as well as to Aoun's. So it took, and will continue to take, audacity on his part to back Taif. The proof, however, will be in whether Geagea can help persuade Christians to move toward political deconfessionalism, at least in Parliament - with compensation coming elsewhere, perhaps through the creation of a confessional Senate.

But did Geagea really need to mention that, before Hizbullah's resistance in the South, the Lebanese resistance started in Ain al-Remmaneh? He was referring to how the Christian militias fought the Palestinians and their local allies there at the beginning of the Civil War in 1975. For the Lebanese Forces, or more accurately its predecessor militias, that moment was a seminal one. But Ain al-Remmaneh has a different meaning today than it did three decades ago. Today the quarter is a front line against the Shiite community, a place where Christians and Shiites stand across from each other with barely concealed distaste. In conjuring up that image, Geagea, intentionally or not, substituted the Shiites for the Palestinians.

This harshening of the ideological dividing line is to be expected from a leader who still evokes misgiving among many Christians. Geagea's war record, like that of the other former militia leaders, is one he will not easily break away from, so he has had to recast his past in light of present realities. In this, Geagea has benefited from the fact that he has been able to recruit among mostly young followers, with no memory of the war; that Aoun has lost support thanks to what many see as his unnatural alliance with Hizbullah; and that Lebanon's Christians are facing an existential crisis of historical proportions, with no clear sense of where they are heading.
Geagea's problem, however, is that those very same realities that feed Christian angst threaten to undermine the best means the Lebanese Forces have for alleviating them. Geagea's approach has been based on an alliance with the March 14 movement, but more specifically with the Hariri camp. In the sectarian political context, this has effectively translated into an alliance with the Sunnis; and, with Geagea so keen to mark off his territory and ways from Hizbullah, a de facto alliance against the Shiites.

Aoun has behaved in much the same single-minded way, though leaning in the other direction. His followers will applaud when the general describes himself as the custodian of a national project, however the sectarian rhetoric among Aounist supporters is as hardened as among other groups and communities. And it just so happens that it has been directed mainly against the Sunnis - or more specifically against what was deemed to be Sunni haughtiness under the late Rafik Hariri, helping prop up a Syrian order that marginalized both Aoun and the Christians. One can debate the accuracy of this interpretation, but it certainly did no good for Saad Hariri to back an election law last summer that confirmed the worst Christian fears in this regard - fears that Aoun later exploited to justify shifting his movement away from Hariri and closer to Hizbullah.

So, what we effectively have today is the two largest Christian parties disagreeing over many things, but most importantly over their relationship with the Sunni and Shiite communities. This is a recipe not only for ensuring that Christians are sidelined further, it shows an utter absence of clarity about where the community stands in Lebanon's future.

The irony is that when he returned to Lebanon, Aoun had a different view. It took months for him to heave himself into the "Shiite camp," and among his entourage he had at first made the sensible argument that Christians should not take sides when it came to the Sunni-Shiite divide. But like so much else the general has said in the past, this was forgotten when he concluded that his presidential aspirations required taking sides: Hizbullah suddenly seemed a necessary patron in the face of strong resistance to an Aoun presidency from the March 14 coalition and the Maronite patriarch.

But can the Christians remain neutral? Being neither here nor there, neither in March 8 nor March 14, is hardly feasible. Neutrality can often be an anteroom to irrelevance. There is also the fact that, for now, March 14 is the only serious domestic force denying a return of Syrian hegemony over Lebanon, while Hizbullah's agenda is too tied in with those of Iran and Syria to provide any real reassurance of Lebanese independence.

That's why any redefinition of a Christian role requires two steps: for all the parties, including the Lebanese Forces, to open systematic contacts with all political and religious groups, to the exclusion of none, even if the ride is a bumpy one. That includes Hizbullah. But also for the Aounists to terminate their Pollyannaish repetition that Syria has left Lebanon for good. Nothing in the behavior of Bashar Assad's regime in the past year suggests this is true. Lebanon as a sovereign entity from Syria remains in danger, thanks partly to the consent of Assad's local allies, notably Hizbullah. The aim of a Christian-Shiite dialogue should be, in part, to anchor Hizbullah in the national consensus on relations with Syria.

A second step requires defining where Christians expect to be in the coming decades. In seeking to remain equidistant from the Sunnis and Shiites, Christians need, first, to shape a philosophical underpinning guiding this. It must be defined by the community as a whole, through an exchange of ideas, a national Christian round-table, and probably some founding document that all can refer to. The high points of such a document must include a flexible interpretation of Taif, leaving the door open to consensual moves toward partial or total deconfessionalization; a statement of principle that Christians will be a bridge between Lebanon's other communities; and a broader vision for how Lebanese and other Middle Eastern Christians see their future in a region where religious intolerance is on the rise.
Such a multifaceted approach is far more advisable than what we have today: Christian mobilization through polarization, of which both Geagea and Aoun are guilty. But most important, Lebanon cannot long last as it is if the Christians feel they have to choose between Muslim partners. For them all Muslims are partners, and must continue to be.
**Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.