Lebanese Christian leader calls for Hezbollah’s grip on country to end

MAARAB, Lebanon (AFP) — Lebanon’s hijacked sovereignty must be restored after an election denied the powerful Shiite terror group Hezbollah a parliamentary majority, said Christian leader Samir Geagea.

“All strategic decision-making should return to the Lebanese state… and security and military matters should be handled exclusively by the Lebanese army,” the head of the Lebanese Forces party told AFP.

“No one… should be able to transport missiles from one place to another without the permission and knowledge of the military,” the 69-year-old added, referring to Hezbollah.

Geagea’s campaign for the May 15 election centered mainly on disarming Hezbollah, cementing his role as the movement’s staunchest domestic rival.

The Iran-backed Shiite group, which held a majority in the outgoing parliament together with its allies, is the only militia to have not disarmed after the end of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war.

Hezbollah, whose arsenal outguns the army’s, is described by its supporters as a bulwark against enemy Israel, but it is blacklisted as a terrorist organization by the US and other Western countries.

Hezbollah supporters raise their fists and cheer, as they listen to a speech by Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah through a giant screen during an election campaign, in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, May 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Detractors argue it undermines the state’s decisions on security and exposes Lebanon to costly disputes, with Hezbollah deploying combatants and weapons across the region.

“No one should be allowed to use their weapons inside the country,” said Geagea, who rose to prominence as a militia leader during the civil war.

“This is no longer acceptable,” he said during an interview at his residence in Maarab, northeast of Beirut.

Anti-Hezbollah alliance

Lebanon’s latest election yielded a polarized and fractured parliament that denied any single bloc a clear-cut majority.

Geagea’s party, which has strong ties to Saudi Arabia, clinched 18 seats, with an additional spot going to an allied lawmaker who is not a party member.

To challenge Hezbollah, Geagea is counting on alliances with other traditional powers opposed to it, including the Christian Kataeb party, and the Progressive Socialist Party led by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.

A giant poster depicting Lebanese Druze Leader Walid Jumblatt hangs on the side of a building in the capital Beirut, Lebanon, October 15, 2019. (Joseph Eid/AFP)

At least 13 independent lawmakers who emerged from an anti-government protest movement in 2019 could also bolster their ranks, said Geagea.

“We are in intensive talks” with them, he said.

“We agree at a minimum on the need to build an actual Lebanese state… away from corruption, clientelism, quotas, and private interests.”

From Sunday, after the current assembly’s mandate expires, the new lawmakers will have to pick a speaker, a position Nabih Berri has held since 1992.

Berri is expected to hold on to the post with the backing of Hezbollah and his Amal party which, together, account for all Shiite lawmakers.

Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, in Beirut, Lebanon, May 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

But Geagea called on incoming lawmakers to chart a new political path by selecting a speaker who would work to “preserve” the state’s sovereignty.

“We can’t nominate Berri at all because he is aligned with the other team,” Geagea said, referring to Hezbollah.

Another hurdle set to face the new parliament is the process of forming a government, which could take months.

Geagea said he opposes plans for a “national unity” cabinet.

“We support a majority government that can be effective… and that agrees on a unified project,” he said.

IMF & Gulf allies

Lebanon is grappling with an unprecedented financial crisis widely blamed on corruption and mismanagement by a bickering ruling elite that has dominated the country since the civil war.

The country has been battered by triple-digit inflation, soaring poverty rates and the collapse of its currency since a 2020 debt default.

International donors including the International Monetary Fund have preconditioned assistance on the implementation of key reforms.

Lebanon’s Gulf Arab allies have also held off funds following a diplomatic dispute last year over Hezbollah’s growing dominance.

Saudi Arabia and its allies have long pushed for Hezbollah’s exit from parliament and cabinet by backing politicians like Geagea.

“Our ties with Gulf Arab states will certainly be restored and Gulf aid will gradually flow to Lebanon,” if a government is formed “that can inspire trust and confidence,” said Geagea.

Samir Geagea, leader of the Christian Lebanese Forces party, speaks to an AFP journalist during an interview at his residence in Maarab, north of the capital Beirut, on May 20, 2022. (Joesph Eid/AFP)

The swift formation of such a cabinet will also streamline IMF negotiations, according to the Christian politician.

The IMF and Lebanon in April struck a conditional deal for $3 billion in aid.

Enacting reforms, including a financial recovery plan which was approved by government on Friday, is one of many prerequisites for the package.

IMF talks are the “main entry point” for financial recovery, Geagea said.