Lebanon’s Political Fouls on the Court
By: Charbel Krayem
Published Thursday, December 27, 2012
With the 2013 parliamentary elections in sight, Lebanon’s Sagesse basketball club is getting renewed attention as a popular political item. The Lebanese Forces and Free Patriotic Movement are both seeking to latch onto the club as a valuable support base.
When Elie Mechantaf, head of Lebanon’s basketball club Sagesse, visited the headquarters of Lebanese Forces (LF) chief Samir Geagea last year, he returned empty handed. He had failed to bring in the money that would cover the club’s deficit of seven years.
Most of the coveted donors refused to help Mechantaf. The only exception was Wadih al-Absi, a businessman who supports the head of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) Michel Aoun.
The financial support of Absi, who sponsors several basketball clubs and sports associations, contributed to the club returning to its former glory. Following the outstanding results achieved by the club this season, Sagesse became attractive once again to those who had previously ignored it.
This current round of enthusiasm for the team comes on the eve of 2013 parliamentary elections thus rendering all attempts to distance the club from politics a failure. When MP Nadim Gemayel appeared on the sport show “Dunk” on al-Jadeed last Sunday, this political future was solidified.
Gemayel announced that the March 14 coalition will utilize Sagesse as a political podium in response to the actions of the club’s benefactor Absi. The MP called for the removal of the head of the board of trustees Ziad Abs, an FPM activist and possible contender for a parliamentary seat in the Achrafieh district.
Recently, right before the start of their game with Champville, supporters of Sagesse ignored the requests of a television presenter to make the delta sign with their fingers, a symbol of the Lebanese Forces (LF). This was in addition to the fans’ timid rendition of the slogan “Bachir is alive inside us” when Nadim entered the stands. The slogan was a reference to Nadim’s father Bachir Gemayel, the former head of the LF who was assassinated in 1982.
LF General Secretary Imad Wakim does not hide his party’s intentions. Speaking to Al-Akhbar, he indicated that Absi’s financial support to the club “is a clear promotion for Abs’ electoral purposes.”
Since “Sagesse is an extension of LF,” he said, “it necessitated a move to create a balance.” Wakim maintained that this movement has already started their push-back by putting the logo of Radio Free Lebanon on the club’s t-shirts.
“Absi and Abs do not work in sports, only in politics. Our words will be confirmed following next year’s parliamentary elections,” he continued. “Changing the club’s political color will not be tolerated. They can purchase some of the supporters, but they cannot buy all the fans who are known for their allegiance to Achrafieh.”
Wakim proposed an agreement to the club’s administrative body, whereby he guaranteed the payment of $2.5 million. However, a legal study of the proposal by the administration (which has not yet been signed) showed that this could be a dangerous step.
If passed, the club could face removal from the rosters of the Ministry of Youth and Sports in front of the courts. Sports clubs are barred from receiving direct funding from any political side.
The FPM seems satisfied with the situation, especially after the latest meeting of the administration with Absi. Sources in the club informed Al-Akhbar that Absi told club president Mechantaf and the members of the board that he does not object to the proposal since it will benefit the team.
The team’s administration also agreed that the deal should be conducted according to the norms established by previous contracts. Sources in the club explained that Absi has already donated $880,000 and that the club owed Abs $40,000. Nevertheless, neither of the two men promoted themselves at the expense of the club, the sources said.
While the LF created a media buzz by declaring its willingness to support the club, nobody in FPM has mentioned the role paid by two of its MPs, Ibrahim Kanaan and Simon Abi Ramia, in allowing Julian Khazzouh to play with Sagesse. Khazzouh played in Israel using his Australian passport, a violation of the 1955 Boycott Law and BDS principles.
High-ranking administration sources in Sagesse confirmed that Absi has not exerted any pressure on them to detract them from signing the agreement with the LF. They call to mind Absi’s initiative two months ago and his meeting with Wakim.
The latter had confirmed to Al-Akhbar that Absi does not object if he or any other member of LF want to support the club.
He proposed a compromise whereby Abs will head the board of trustees for one year, with Wakim as deputy, and they will reverse role the following year, but Wakim rejected the offer categorically.
LF’s support is not rejected by important Sagesse stakeholders, but they say the party and its allies are to be blamed for not responding to Mechantaf’s visits and their empty promises.
It seems that the club’s administration faces the most difficult position. Its decision could mean one of two things: winning the Sagesse or losing everything.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.