Samir Geagea Image Credit: AP

Jeddah: Barring an assassination, the 61-year old leader of the Lebanese Forces (LF), Samir Geagea, is poised to become the next president of Lebanon. Notwithstanding his checkered past, Geagea enjoyed the comprehensive political backing of the March 14 alliance, led by the Future Movement’s Sa’ad Hariri, who favours a Geagea nomination.

While March 8 officials and Walid Junblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) may have reservations, chances are excellent that enough votes may be secured from both coalitions to ensure a solid electoral majority in parliament. Such an election would fit in the narrative of Lebanon’s more idiosyncratic developments, although it also promises to alter the body politic, restart a moribund institutional lives, deal with serious regional tensions and, more important, come to terms with the internal challenges posed by Hezbollah’s arms.

The Civil War Years

Whether Geagea’s birthplace, Ayn Al Rummaneh, was emblemantic of his future steps was impossible to know although the young man grew up in a neighbourhood that sparkled the 1975 civil war when Christian militiamen opened fire on a Palestinian bus killing several.

Geagea’s modest background is often overlooked though his father’s modest station in life, as a mere adjutant in the much maligned Lebanese Army, shaped the young man during his formative years. Remarkably, Geagea enrolled at the American University of Beirut in 1970 to study medicine though he interrupted his studies in 1975 at the start of the war. Whether he matriculated in, and graduated from, the Saint Joseph University remained murky although Dr. Geagea never practiced medicine.

At the start of the civil war, Geagea joined the Kata’ib [Phalange] Party, and became a trusted lieutenant to its commander, Bashir Gemayel. On several occasions, and in the midst of a power struggle within the Christian community, Gemayel ordered Geagea to undertake sensitive operations. Often, he and Elie Hobeika — whose parents were killed in 1976 in Damour by Palestinian militiamen and whose legacy included the horrible 1982 attacks on the Sabra and Shatila camps that resulted in the murder of nearly 3,000 refugees — launched dual assaults on rival clans. The most memorable was the attack on Ehden, the northern stronghold of the Franjiehs, where Geagea was wounded on his right hand which is partially paralysed. The Ehden massacres resulted in the murder of Tony Franjieh, the father of one of Geagea’s political foes, Suleiman Franjieh.

With the conscious separation by Bashir Gemayel from the Kata’ib in favour of the Lebanese Forces, Geagea was appointed head of the militia’s northern Front in 1982, with around 1,500 battle-hardened elements drawn mainly from his ancestral city of Bsharri and neighbouring villages.

In 1983, Geagea fought in the Chouf Mountains against Junblat’s PSP, although these battles were far less successful.

Bashir Gemayel’s assassination in 1982, allegedly authorised by the Syrian government, led to a power vacuum within the Lebanese Forces. Geagea and Hobeika orchestrated an internal coup in 1985 and formally broke away from the Kata’ib, now led by President Amin Gemayel.

In turn, Geagea sideline Hobeika in early 1986, ostensibly because he perceived Hobeika’s alliance with Syria as a treasonous act. What followed was remarkable, as the disciplined and widely respected LF imposed law and order over most of the Christian heartland of Lebanon, provided sorely needed public services that could no longer be supplied by the State, and established a working administration that, without exaggeration, displayed governance capabilities.

After Damascus ousted General Michel Aoun in October 1990 from the Baabda presidential palace, Syrian officials attempted to co-opt the last independent Christian leader, offered him a ministerial portfolio, and otherwise aimed to pacify the popular militia leader. He refused to accept Syrian tutelage, dismissed warnings to flee the country before his arrest, and assumed the burden of the Syrian-imposed justice.

Although President Elias Hrawai promulgated an amnesty law for all crimes prior to 1990, Syrian operatives accused Geagea of authorising the February 27, 1994 bombing at the Church of Sayyidet Al Najat (Our Lady of Deliverance), where 9 worshipers were killed and dozens injured. To this very day, the identity of the perpetrators of this bombing remained unknown, with some claiming that Syrian intelligence was behind the atrocity. In the event, Geagea was accused of the crime and, under Syrian pressure, Beirut dissolved the LF on March 23, 1994, and arrested Geagea on April 21, 1994.

In what Amnesty International concluded was a Kangaroo Court, various criminal charges were levelled against him beyond the church bombing, including the assassinations of former Prime Minister Rashid Karami and National Liberal Party leader Dany Chamoun. Even worse was his alleged machinations to undermine the authority of the state by “maintaining a militia in the guise of a political party,” which was fresh, given that Damascus was in effect an occupying power in Lebanon.

The politically motivated pro-forma trial acquitted Geagea of the 1994 church bombing but imposed on him four life sentences in civil war related deeds. Consequently, he was imprisoned for 11 years in solitary confinement at the Lebanese Ministry of Defence in Yarze, with limited access to the outside world. Only his charismatic wife, Sithrida Geagea, and close relatives were allowed weekly visits.

He was released in the aftermath of the 2005 Cedar Revolution when the UN-backed Resolution 1559 pressured Damascus to end its military occupation. Beirut concluded that Geagea’s trials and sentences were unjust.

Importantly, he remained the only individual leader who was punished, even is many others were equally guilty of similar crimes.

Shortly after Damascus pulled its army out of the country, a parliamentary amnesty freed Geagea on July 26, 2005, and in what was a comical development that pretended to maintain the country’s sectarian balance, three dozen Islamist militants were released simultaneously. After a brief sojourn in France, the head of the LF returned on October 25, 2005.