Lebanon presidential election: pick your killer candidate

Meet the three most popular candidates to take over the presidency – and pray that MPs find an alternative

Column LAST UPDATED AT 12:07 ON Wed 30 Apr 2014

BEIRUT - Britons might find the Cameron-Clegg–Miliband-Farage quartet uninspiring. But sometimes, just sometimes, you thank your lucky stars that British politicians are so straight down the line that the merest whiff of a spliff or a fiddled expenses claim is cause for national concern.

In Lebanon, things couldn't be more different.

After a failed second attempt by Lebanon's parliament to elect a new president – the lack of a necessary quorum was the reason today - the country's politicians, religious figures and, ahem, interested parties have been plunged back into negotiations to find someone they can all agree on come the next attempt on 7 May.

And the range of options to choose from is scintillating compared with Britain: murderers, warlords, turncoats and militia leaders, alongside a few beige alternatives such as a lawyer and an economist.

Let’s first welcome the only properly declared presidential candidate: Samir Geagea.

The 61-year-old leader of one of three main Christian parties, the Lebanese Forces, Geagea has the unique honour of being among the very few key players from Lebanon’s brutal 15-year civil war to have been held accountable for his wartime crimes. As all presidential hopefuls in Lebanon must be, he’s a Maronite, the dominant Christian sect in the tiny Mediterranean country.

In a highly politicised trial forced through by Syria - his adversary and Lebanon’s then-occupier – Geagea was jailed in 1994 over the murder of several high-profile figures: former Prime Minister Rashid Karami, killed by a bomb planted in his helicopter; Dany Chamoun, shot dead along with his second wife and two young sons; and former Lebanese Forces member Elias Zayek.

Whether the charges – which remain controversial and which Geagea totally refutes – are true is almost beside the point; judged on these murders, or indeed others, he is nationally accepted to have blood on his hands.

This point was further driven home during last week’s abortive first round of the presidential ballot. Geagea won the votes of 48 MPs out of 128, far from the two-thirds majority needed. Several of the votes cast against him were spoiled ballots featuring the names of his alleged victims, among them Karami, Chamoun and his elder son Tareq, and a seven-year-old girl called Jihane Franjieh, who was murdered in 1978 along with her father and mother in a notorious incident known as the Ehden Massacre.

So far so gory.

The only other man to sort-of-but-not-quite announce his candidacy is 72-year-old Amine Gemayel, a former Lebanese president and head of the Christian Kataeb Party, better known in the West as the Phalangists.

If that name sets off your spider senses, then you're on the right track. The Phalangists, previously part of the umbrella Lebanese Forces group, are famous for being the ones who went into the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila following Israel's invasion of west Beirut in 1982 (famously overseen by the late Ariel Sharon).

The attack followed the assassination of President-elect Bashir Gemayel, Amine's brother, and the immediate appointment of Amine in his place. 

The assassination had been blamed - erroneously - on Palestinian militants, and the Phalaingists visited unspeakable violence on the camp's residents with Israel's full knowledge. Between 800 and 3,000 people were brutally murdered, most of them women and children. Amine must have been in the know.

The six years of Amine Gemayal's presidency, 1982-88, saw a deterioration of relations between the various Christian parties as Lebanon spiralled ever deeper into war.

The third strong presidential contender is Michel Aoun. Now 80, Aoun's name is synonymous with the orange colour adopted by his Free Patriotic Movement party, and with war.

As the hugely contested prime minister of Lebanon during the civil war's two final fraught years, he initiated what is known as the War of Liberation in an effort to shake off Syria's military presence, an act that involved the bombardment of west Beirut.

That was quickly followed by brutal intra-Christian fighting with Geagea's Lebanese Forces. Thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands forced to flee from the affected areas.

Previously so staunchly against Syria and its occupation of Lebanon that he sent himself into exile for 15 years to protest it, Aoun has since done a volte-face and allied himself with Hezbollah, Damascus's main Levant ally.

Geagea, Gemayel and Aoun are not the only presidential candidates, but they are by far the most popular. And though the search is on for a consensus candidate, the trio's lingering presence is a twisting knife in the side of all the Lebanese who want their country to move on from its darkest days.

"The legacies of Aoun, Geagea and Gemeyyel [sic] are the hundreds of thousands of killed and wounded during the Lebanese civil war," Maya Mikdashi wrote in a recent poignant piece for Jadaliyya.

"Their legacies are massacres and sieges and mortars and snipers and kidnapping and millions of dollars stolen and embezzled from citizens and the treasury ... Everyone and anyone who was residing in Lebanon during that war have stories and memories of these men and their wartime exploits/crimes.

"However, civil war is also a war for memory, and while for many (myself included) these men are murderous criminals, for others they were and continue to be protectors and legitimate political leaders."

The Cameron-Clegg-Miliband-Farage circus doesn't seem so bad, after all. · 

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