Sami Gemayel Image Credit: AFP

Beirut:  Stunned by the Lebanese Forces’ decision to endorse the Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun for the presidency of the republic, the Phalange Party leader Sami Gemayel announced on Friday evening that his grouping was not impressed by the political project presented by Samir Geagea on January 18, 2016 although he welcomed the reconciliation.

Gemayel spoke to a packed audience in his Bikfaya headquarters that mimicked the impressive Ma‘arab gathering in what was a veiled attempt to show that the Phalange Party could also put on a show.  His passionate presentation covered the i’s and dotted the t’s, as he acknowledged that Christian parties witnessed a major reconciliation between two leading groups.  This, according to the Phalange, was very important in and of itself for the future of Lebanon as Gemayel revealed that he and others encouraged precisely such a step for at least 10 years and requested everyone to think of the future together.

Still, while he welcomed the entente, Gemayel insisted that reconciliation was something and a political agreement something else.  “Reconciliation,” he said “is aimed at turning the page on the past and its disputes, ending a certain negative state and starting a positive journey towards the future.  A political agreement, however, must be built on a common vision,” he hammered.  Towards that end, he insisted that the Phalange wanted an accord to be based on sound bases that would move beyond an alliance.  In other words, what was called for was a complete reconciliation with everyone, among Christians, Muslims and, of course, between Christians and Muslims.

Any political agreement must be based on four main principles, he declared, so that the blood of many young men who sacrificed their lives for these principles would not be in vain.  These included (1) Lebanon’s sovereignty; (2) its liberation from regional struggles; (3) commitments to improve the country’s political system so that everyone was clear as to what would come next; and (4) clear pledges to return to institutions as well as an uncompromising support for the Constitution.

“If there is an intent to move the country along these lines,” said Gemayel, “then we are ready to join.”

With respect to the presidential elections, Gemayel announced the Phalange party’s outlook that, he claimed, examined every candidate’s program not only the face of a particular political leader.  Time and again throughout his 45 minutes long presentation, he repeated that the Phalange would never vote for any candidate that pushes the March 8 agenda, and that he and his backers insisted on a contender who was made in Lebanon.

Adding a particularly useful twist to his reservations, Gemayel asked Aoun and any other candidate whether they would come out and clarify where they stood on the country's foreign policy, especially vis-à-vis Syria?  “We heard from Samir Geagea,” intoned Gemayel, “but we need to hear from Aoun himself and we ask the same from Suleiman Franjieh:  are you with Bashar Al Assad, the opposition or do you believe in disassociation?”  Equally important, Gemayel raised a key question regarding the 10-point January 18 accord between the LF and FPM, one of which specified that no parties should transfer weapons across the borders.  He wondered whether Aoun would refuse Hezbollah to right to take arms in and out of Lebanon.

Gemayel concluded his announcement by stating:  “They have not persuaded us but they have time to do so until February 8, when parliament is scheduled to convene for the 36th time to elect a head-of-state.  “Aoun, Franjieh and Henri Helou can persuade us of what their plans are,” closed Gemayel who delivered an exceptional presentation even if he and the Phalange were clearly shocked by the Geagea-Aoun alliance.

Earlier in the day, Interior Minister Nouhad al-Machnouk, a Future Movement official, and Phalange Party deputy, Elie Marouni, met after which the lawmaker declared that former Phalange chief Amine Gemayel remained the party’s presidential candidate.  Sami Gemayel refused to divulge who was the party’s candidate and promised to reveal that in time.

Gemayel was not the only Lebanese official who was taken aback by the January 18, 2016 alliance between the LF and the FPM.  Walid Jumblatt’s Democratic Gathering Parliamentary (DGP) bloc, which should not be confused with the Democratic Left Movement that was founded by Samir Kassir in 2004 and that was part of the March 14 coalition, issued a murky response after their weekly meeting on Thursday.  Led by the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), the DGP welcomed the Geagea-Aoun alliance but continued its support for its own presidential candidate, Henry Helou.  It thus failed to offer a clear stance on the Aoun candidacy, which Jumblatt always rejected, even though his bloc affirmed that reconciliation among Christians is “an important step to reinforce national agreements.”

“Such a rapprochement could [have a positive impact] on the reconciliation [process] and national unity among the Lebanese, which is a pressing need,” the bloc’s statement read, although it believed that only Henry Helou represented “the course of moderation and dialogue.”  In other words, and typical of Jumblatt’s masterful skills of saying two things simultaneously without supporting either, the DGP valued the Saad Hariri initiative to potentially nominate Marada Movement leader Suleiman Franjieh while, at the same time applauding the Aoun nomination according to those specifications that rival politicians agreed to during various national dialogue discussions that have been held since mid-2015.  It was important to note that the PSP backed Franjieh in line with a Future Movement initiative before Geagea endorsed Aoun.

For its part, the Future Movement remained mum on the Geagea-Aoun alliance, although Interior Minister Nouhad al-Machnouk and Hariri’s chief of Staff, Nader al-Hariri, held a one-hour meeting with Speaker Nabih Berri in the presence of the latter’s advisor and Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil.  While few expected the generally discreet Nader al-Hariri to provide details, journalists were taken aback with the silence displayed by the usually verbose former journalist, Machnouk, who opined that “fewer words would be more beneficial.”

This meeting, like that of several others held amongst preoccupied politicians who were stunned by Geagea’s decision to withdraw from the presidential race in favor of his old-time rival Aoun, not only because the move effectively blocked Franjieh from reaching the Baabda presidential palace, but also because the maneuver ended, or at least permanently weakened, the March 14 coalition.  Franjieh, a March 8 pillar who announced his candidacy in mid-December 2015, was the Hariri nominee.

In its first official statement since Geagea's endorsement of Aoun, the Future Movement's parliamentary bloc welcomed the reconciliation between Geagea and Aoun on Tuesday, saying it is following up on the outcome of the matter.  “We are committed to Hariri’s recommendations regarding the presidential [elections], but Parliament will have the final word in this matter,” declared Ammar Houri as he read out the Movement’s weekly statement.

Geagea’s maneuver caught everyone by surprise, especially Hezbollah that, according to the LF leader now faced a “major test.”  He told the al-Arabiya television on Friday that “the party would lose its ally, Aoun, if it fails to vote for him as president.”

Reacting to lukewarm responses from all sides, the FPM’s Ibrahim Kanaan, a close aide to Aoun and a key player in the rapprochement between with the LF, met with Geagea on Friday after which he called on rivals to expand the LF-FPM agreement to include all Lebanese parties to elect a head-of-state around whom the Lebanese could agree.  Kanaan was optimistic and opined that the January 18 accord opened “a new page not only for Christians but for all of Lebanon,” although others were not so sure.  Sami Gemayel, for one, cried for a true leader who can and will put Lebanon first and last.