Lebanese Crisis (III): Christian Rapprochement or Just a Game?

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Patriarchate insists that it does not get involved in electoral politics, and that “any claims of support for particular candidates are incorrect.” (Photo: Haitham Moussawi)

By: Lea al-Qazzi

Published Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Maronite Patriarchate is pleased; The Maronite Patriarchate is displeased. The view from Bkerke, the village that houses the Maronite Church’s headquarters, varies in accordance with the twists and turns of Lebanese politics.

The self-styled “national bastion” doesn’t think the country’s rival Christian political parties agreed in advance to join together to oppose the contract workers’ law passed by parliament last week – or at least it wasn’t aware of any such prior agreement.

But it hopes their resultant rapprochement is serious, and can help improve the climate between them, which it says the Christian public can no longer bear. Bkerke has been dismayed by their disputes, which have intensified as the domestic political crisis has deepened, and hopes their newfound cooperation will last, and extend to other thorny issues.

The Church thus welcomed the accord that took place between the Christian parties in parliament. “It will reflect positively on the national unity project and on the Christians in light of the bad circumstances sweeping the region,” says one senior figure.

But the magic effect was short-lived. The bastion was “disturbed” by their subsequent quarrels over the alleged assassination attempt on MP Boutros Harb, and the accusations levelled at a “certain Christian party” in connection with it. This prompted three Maronite organizations - the Maronite General Council, the Maronite Diaspora Institution, and the Maronite League – to intercede in a bid to defuse any tensions between Christian political leaders.

Bkerke’s current priorities include strengthening its relations with the presidency of the republic “regardless of who the president is,” and ensuring that the issue of administrative appointments is handled in a way that “upholds Christian rights in the state.” It also espouses more generally the need to fortify the domestic front against foreign interventions, and establish the foundations of a state that deals with its people responsibly and equitably.

But the Patriarchate insists that it does not get involved in electoral politics, and that “any claims of support for particular candidates are incorrect.” The senior figure affirms that the Church is “a national reference-point, which draws a roadmap but does not oblige anyone to follow it.”

Sources in the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) say their relationship with Maronite Patriarch Bishara Rai is cordial, and that he “encourages the rapprochement that has been underway” between the Christian political parties. They add that the FPM and other groups confer regularly with him over a range of political issues, including administrative appointments, the Christian “presence” as a whole, and the election law.

Accordingly, MP Ibrahim Kanaan and Minister Gebran Bassil were dispatched to Bkerke “to clarify matters with the Patriarch” following a telephone conversation on Monday between him and General Michel Aoun. The FPM draws strength from the recent statement issued by Maronite bishops, which “took an even clearer and stronger position on the contract workers’ issue than we did.”

Sources in the March 14 coalition Christian parties describe their ties with Bkerke as “strategic.” Coordination between the two sides is “constant and essential” and their “convergence of interests is clear.” They say it has most recently been focused on two issues: the National Dialogue, and the contract workers’ issue.

The sources say Bkerke favors dialogue between all Christian sides, “especially when there is political antagonism”, and was therefore encouraged by their understanding over the contract workers’ law. It urged them to continue talking to find solutions to other contentious issues.

The sources say Bkerke tends to take a hard line on issues that concern “usurped Christian rights in the state sector.” The Church is not opposed to the permanent employment of state contract workers, provided that is done equitably across all public institutions. As things stand “the Christians are being denied their rights to appointments in the administrative sectors.”

The sources add that agreement between the Christian parties is also close on a new election law. “This is the start of a new era of Christian accord on many issues,” they maintain.

But while Aoun and the FPM may have won favor with their Christian rivals, and shown erstwhile foes in the Phalange and Lebanese Forces (LF) that it shares their concerns, not all Christian politicians are impressed by the rapprochement between their sect’s three big parties.

One March 14 Christian heavyweight, whose support base is local, dismisses it as a “lie.” He likens it to the “tripartite alliance” formed by rival Christian leaders in the late 1960s to counter Chehabism, “but in different times and circumstances.” Today, the cause is “Michel Aoun’s battle against Nabih Berri.”

“Things got tangled,” the senior politician says, explaining that separate considerations prompted the different players to engage in this “game.”

They say that within the Phalange party, Sami Gemayel had been keen to extend backing to the FPM, thinking this would outmaneuver his allies in the LF, only to find that they had decided to “hitch a ride on the reformist train” too. So the Phalangists’ bid to “score a point” against the LF failed, and Aoun ended up managing to “line the opposition parties up behind him, and portray his son-in-law as a hero. They all lost, Aoun alone scored a success.”

An independent Christian politician in March 14 doubts all the newfound talk of Christian unity will come to much. He attributes it to “electoral one-upmanship,” remarking: “You cannot talk about Christian accord when there is no agreement on the main problem, namely Hezbollah’s weapons.”

As far as he is concerned, such accord is unreachable, and this is simply “the last chance General Aoun will have to try to get to the chair [in the presidential palace] in Baabda.”

Objections have also been voiced within the secretariat of March 14. A colleague of the coalition’s secretary-general, Fares Soueid, remarks that he has the most to lose from any rapprochement between the Aounists, Phalangists and LF. “He would no longer have any role to play.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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