Beirut: Two Lebanese Maronite archenemies shook hands on Wednesday, burying a bloody feud that has lasted four decades. One of them, Sulaiman Frangieh, accuses the other, Samir Geagea, of personally killing his entire family back in June 1978. The rampage, known as the ‘Ehden Massacre’, was carried out in a mountainous town in the Zhorta district, fiefdom of the Frangieh family, early in the Lebanese Civil War. It , targeting Sulaiman’s father, mother, and baby sister, in addition to 28 bodyguards. Sulaiman Frangieh — aged 13 at the time — survived the massacre but never forgave Geagea, who was 26.
Prominent Lebanese analyst Fadi Akoum told Gulf News: “Overcoming family pressure was not easy for Frangieh,” explaining why the Maronite Church’s blessing was vital for the handshake. The two men have been at dagger’s end ever since, with Frangieh leading his father’s militia, Al Marada, in fighting Geagea’s Lebanese Forces (LF) as early as 1982. He played an instrumental role in the arrest of Geagea after the civil war, due to his excellent relationship with the Syrians, whose army was fully in control of Lebanon at the time.
Even after Geagea was released in 2005, Franghieh refused to meet him, although Geagea frequently denied that he shot Frangieh’s family, saying that though he took part in the “Ehden Operation” he had been was shot and hospitalised before he reached the Franghieh family’s summer home.
History aside, the rapprochement tells us plenty about the future ambitions of both leaders. Both aim for pan-Christian leadership and are looking for a new Christian ally after their relations soured with President Michel Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement (FPM).
Frangieh had relied on the Syrians to make him president. His relationship with Damascus goes back to his grandfather and namesake, President Suleiman Frangieh, who was at the helm of power when the civil war broke out in 1975. He was a good friend of president Hafez Al Assad, and sent his grandson to the safety of Damascus after the ‘Ehden Massacre’, where he reportedly grew up with Syria’s present leader, Bashar Al Assad.
In 1990, the Syrians rewarded him with a cabinet post — at the young age of 25 — and he was a member of every Lebanese government for the next 15 years. When Rafik Hariri was assassinated in February 2005, Frangieh was serving as Minister of Interior. In 1988, the Syrians tried to restore his grandfather to the presidency — with little luck — and did the same with Sulaiman Junior – in 1998 and more recently, when former President Michel Sulaiman’s term ended in 2014.
Frangieh was Syria’s eyes and ears in the Christian community, serving to counterbalance two powerful anti-Syrian statesmen – ex-President Ameen Gemayel and then-exiled former army commander (and current president), Michel Aoun.
Frangieh wanted to become Lebanon’s next president, a post that seemed guaranteed in 2016, but when it was time to choose, the job went to Aoun, at the request of Hezbollah. Frangieh felt backstabbed and betrayed, forcing him to start looking for friends elsewhere.
This created a permanent break between him and Aoun, and strained his relations with the Syrians. Hezbollah promised to accommodate him in the next elections, saying that he was still young and could wait, while Aoun was already in his early 80s and might leave the scene before he becomes president.
We thought such a rapprochement was impossible. They seem to have found common ground, given that their relationship with the president administration is not at its best.”
“One reason for this rapprochement” explained Akoum, was to “prevent any attempt at re-electing Aoun when his term expires.” Both Frangieh and Geagea have presidential ambitions, but they have decided that Frangieh will be the next president “so long as Geagea’s powers, and ministerial share, are protected and guaranteed”.
He added: “We thought that such a rapprochement was impossible. They seem to have found common ground, given that their relationship with the president administration is not at its best.”
Politically, Frangieh is sending an early warning to his allies in the March 8 Coalition — threatening to elope completely if his ambitions are not accommodated. His team won only three seats during last May’s parliamentary elections, entitling him to one cabinet post — at best – in the Hariri cabinet, when and if it is formed. Geagea’s allies won 15 seats, however, which will give them 4-5 portfolios, including the deputy premiership.
Their support would prove vital for Frangieh, who can now expand his powerbase in northern Lebanon and “share” the Christian community with Geagea.
For now, that cabinet seems to be on hold, after relations soured earlier in the week between Hariri and Hezbollah. They have refused to support him if he doesn’t name one of their Sunni allies in the March 8 bloc, thus breaking Hariri’s monopoly over representation of the Sunni community, which is presently led by his Future Movement.
Selling the Frangieh deal to Hezbollah will not be an easy task, given Geagea’s loud criticism of their military adventures in Syria and his frequent calls for the removal of Bashar Al Assad. “He doesn’t hide his historical relationship with the Syrians, and brags about it wherever he goes” says Akoum.
Geagea might tone down his criticism, however, if he decides to run for the presidency, either before Frangieh or after him, realising, just like Aoun did before him, that Hezbollah is a powerful player and that he needs Shiite support to reach Baabda Palace, given their demographic and military superiority in Lebanese domestic politics. He has quietly started his own rapprochement with Hezbollah recently, via Information Minister Melhem Riyashi, a member of the LF, who visited Hezbollah’s stronghold in south Beirut last year, attending a luncheon on behalf of veteran journalist Talal Salman, an ally of the Iran-backed party. He also telephoned a journalist with Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV, inquiring on his health after hospitalisation. Now, he too seems to be mending broken fences with the party, via Frangieh.