Did Ashraf Rifi’s Resignation inspire the Kataeb?

Kataeb Party leader Sami Gemayel announces the resignation of his party's two ministers from the Cabinet

Kataeb Party leader Sami Gemayel announces the resignation of his party’s two ministers from the Cabinet (Image source: The Daily Star / Hassan Shaaban)

This is the 22nd post in a series of monthly posts covering the presidential elections. This post is about the months of May and June 2016.

Six months ago, Lebanon watched in denial as the biggest two Civil War enemies became frenemies. As Geagea endorsed his archrival Aoun for presidency and as the Christian marriage sealed an alliance between the biggest two Christian parties, everyone else panicked and started acting weird: Instead of trying to win Geagea back, Hariri decided to widen the gap with the LF even further by officially endorsing Frangieh for presidency. Jumblatt awkwardly re-endorsed Helou, and even speaker Nabih Berri, Lebanon’s most experienced political tactician, struggled to distance himself from endorsing the FPM’s leader (spoiler alert: he eventually succeeded. He always does). The mainstream media started with its predictions, but back then it was way too early to know the impact of such an alliance on the Lebanese political scene. This month, however, saw the very first major consequence of that deal: Kataeb ministers resigned from a government in which they had one of the biggest shares in modern history.

Where do you campaign?

On the 14th of June, two Kataeb ministers resigned from government following a decision by the party’s leadership to leave the executive power. For 12 months, the Kataeb had criticized the government’s handling of the trash crisis without resigning. Last summer saw almost all of Mount-Lebanon and Beirut drown in garbage, but ironically, no Kataeb minister had resigned back then – they just kept voting against the awful solutions the government kept drafting – refusing to put more pressure on the government by resigning, even as tens of thousands of demonstrators protested in disgust against the trash crisis and the trashy solutions the government kept proposing. According to the Kataeb propaganda back then, it was crucial for them to stay in government in order to keep the public informed of the deals happening on the Grand Serail’s table, to be the opposition from within the cabinet, to preserve coexistence in the absence of a president, to prevent Hezbollah and their allies from controlling the cabinet, and last but not least, to be the shield that guards the realms of men, for this night and all the nights to come (Just like Jon Snow in Game of Thrones).

The thing is, Mount-Lebanon as whole, as well as the city of Beirut, are irrelevant for the Kataeb’s electoral policies. The Kataeb party is one of the smallest parties in parliament, and its members/supporters are scattered throughout all the constituencies (mainly the Christian ones), where they form small, irrelevant minorities to the constituency’s main voters. In Beirut III, it’s the FM that dictates the electoral terms. In Beirut II, it’s the Muslim and Armenian parties. In Beirut I, it’s the Tashnag and the LF-FPM alliance (There is no way the Kataeb can get a majority with the previous three parties allied with one another). In the Chouf, it’s everyone but them. In Aley, it’s Jumblatt.  In Baabda, it’s again almost everyone but them (Aoun and Hezbollah won the district comfortably all by themselves in 2009). The same goes for Kesserwan, that the Aounists held against all odds for the past 11 years, even without the help of the Lebanese Forces – so you can imagine the possible scenario now that the LF are by their side.

8 seats = 8 reasons to resign

There is only one constituency where the Kataeb can challenge everyone else in it, and it’s the Metn with its 8 seats. It has more seats than the Christian regions of Beirut, and has more than 50% of the Christian seats of Northern Mount-Lebanon. The Metn is Lebanon’s biggest Christian constituency in terms of MPs, has a very small Muslim minority, and has 4 types of Christian seats (4 Maronites, 2 Greek Orthodox, 1 Greek Catholic, and 1 Armenian Orthodox). Also, (a very known) fun fact: It’s also Samy Gemayel’s home district. The past two years saw Gemayel Jr rise in popularity, and the latest municipal elections are the proof that he will be a force to be reckoned with in Lebanese politics in the years to come. He is becoming more popular by the day, but he isn’t getting popular fast enough. By June 2017, if the kataeb can’t at least win/compete all by itself in at least one Christian district, the FPM and the LF are going to ignore the Kataeb’s demands for concessions in all of the Christian constituencies and they’re going to take control of everything they can take control of. They will treat the Kataeb in the parliamentary elections the same way they treated Dory Chamoun in Deir El Kamar during the municipal elections. After all, one of the obvious non-official goals of the Christian wedding was to create a Christian duality when it came to national politics and to eliminate everything not related to the FPM and LF from the parliament. The LF no longer need the Kataeb to counter the FPM, the FPM never needed the Kataeb anyway, and the Future Movement, the Kataeb’s last ally – at least on paper – isn’t exactly on good terms with Gemayel – blame his remarks against sukleen and the CDR – and has a new Christian bro called Sleiman Frangieh.

The Metn remembers?

To sum things up, the phalangists need to secure 51% of at least one constituency’s voters or they’ll lose everything in 2017. And the only place where that might be possible is the Metn, and it’s a big might. The FPM and the Tashnag won the district both in 2005 and in 2007’s by-elections. In 2009, they did it again, and this time even without the help of Michel el Murr. True, Samy Gemayel – alongside Michel Murr – was the only non-FPMer to make it to parliament in the Metn in 2009, but those were the days when the LF were Kataeb allies. One can argue that the FPM and LF didn’t do so well in their Metn municipal campaigns, but the fact remains that in the Metn, six parties will dictate the rules of the game in 2017: The FPM, the LF, the Kataeb, the Tahsnag, the SSNP, and Michel Murr. This is where it gets complicated: The FPM is friends with the Tashnag, the LF, and the SSNP. The LF is friends with the FPM. The Tashnag is friends with the FPM and Murr. The SSNP is friends with the FPM. The Kataeb, on the other hand, is the LF’s “March 14 Christian rival” (If you still believe in this whole M8/M14 duality), is the SSNP’s historical rival, is the biggest Christian party not supporting the FPM’s Michel Aoun right now, and is less friends with the Tashang than the FPM. The only politician who might stand with them if they face an FPM-LF-Tashnag-SSNP alliance, is Michel Murr (because the FPM and the LF will also probably try to isolate him as well). To make things worse, Murr is even less reliable than Jumblatt when it comes to stable alliances.

In 2017, the Kataeb know that they’ll be alone, with no allies, in a very hostile electoral environment because of an electoral law that currently favors bigger parties / alliances and that tends to eliminate political minorities from being represented in their constituencies (the Kataeb are going to regret their opposition to proportional representation soon enough). According to the laws of Lebanese politics, once you’re totally outside parliament, you hardly ever make it back: Only few politicians have ever managed to make a comeback after losing all of their party seats. Gemayel can’t risk losing it all, not while he’s still rising. The only way he survives the FPM-LF wedding is by securing the Metn, and the easiest way to secure the Metn is by giving the Metnis the impression that the FPM wants to turn the caza’s coast into a dump while the Kataeb were ready to resign their biggest government share ever in modern history just to protest that.

Mother nature?

According to Kataeb discourse, their resignation was about preserving the Lebanese environment – they took similar stances when it came to the infamous Jannah Dam. But in truth, it’s really more than saving mother nature, helping the Lebanese animal kingdom and taking care of the fauna and flora. It’s about electoral survival: The Kataeb ministers didn’t resign when two entire Mohafazas were drowned in trash, and aren’t really eco-friendly in some of their other stances (see here for not-so-eco-friendly dumps, and here for not-so-safe-dams). While it isn’t as “double-standardy” as the other politicians’ stances, the Kataeb are treating the Metn differently for a reason, and the timing of the resignation just isn’t right since if it was really for eco-friendly reasons, it should have happened months ago, not just after an FPM-sponsored dam was going to be built in a Christian region and after dumping was going to resume in the Metn coast. Constitutionally, and according to article 27, every member of the Chamber shall represent the whole nation, and by the laws of common sense, the cabinet serves the entire country, so the Kataeb can’t really say that they can only defend Metni interests because Gemayel represents the Metn. The Kataeb’s officials in parliament and government serve the entire nation by law, yet in a very “clientelistic Lebanese mentality (found in all mainstream Lebanese political parties), they behaved differently when it came to the districts that matter to them electorally .The Kataeb want (need) re-election, and are maneuvering with eco-friendly reasons, which really shows you the level of desperation (no Lebanese politicians has ever done that).

(But on the bright side, that means a struggle for more forests and less trashy trash solutions, just so you don’t say that I’m cynical all the time 😛 ).

Plot holes, plot holes

Another plot hole in the Kataeb’s maneuver is – like I mentioned earlier – that they convinced the Lebanese that they were the opposition from within the cabinet for the past two and a half-years, which is why they refused to resign time after time, especially that there was no Christian president in power. The biggest irony is that they eventually resigned anyway, for lesser reasons (trash crisis in Mount-Lebanon + Beirut > trash complication in the Metn), and in the middle of a debate on a Christian-Shiite rivalry in a Lebanese security apparatus, while there was still no president in power, and while being fully aware that the two caretaker ministers that will assume the Kataeb’s responsibilities in parliament are both Muslims. The Kataeb are definitely playing a long-term survival maneuver, and they’ll clearly let nothing stand in their way (this time, it’s Star Wars I’m quoting).

 Did they really leave?

What makes the Kataeb move look even more like a complicated professional maneuver than an eco-friendly move is the fact that while their decision to leave the cabinet was unquestionable since they officially submitted their resignation to Salam, one of the kataeb ministers who resigned, Sejaan Kazzi, also told the world that there has to be a president who accepts the resignations in order for their resignations to become official (which isn’t true…), as if (at least a part of) the Kataeb leadership wants to give the impression that it wants to leave without actually leaving the cabinet. With the amount of  anger from the party base and leadership regarding Azzi’s remarks (check this hashtag on twitter), it shows you how unconventional yet popular Gemayel’s move is: The last time a minister (not called Rifi) tried to resign because of a government policy, it was Nahas in 2011.

Plot twist: Ramzi Jreij is still out there

Oh, and there’s still Ramzi Jreij in the cabinet, who is pro-Kataeb but not officially Kataeb (so he wasn’t forced to resign by the Kataeb political bureau). In other words, what happens in the Grand Serail will not stay in the Grand Serail – at least not for now – as Ramzi Jreij should still report to Bekfaya every once in a while.

The rise and rise of Ashraf Rifi

I can go on for hours in this blog post about what Amal Bou Zeid’s win in Jezzine means, and overthink the awkward Machnouk comments about Frangieh’s presidency, but May was an electoral month, so nothing really counts, and three huge events are everything one needs to remember from these past 60 days of political chaos: The FM lost Tripoli to Ashraf Rifi and almost lost Beirut to Beirut Madinati, Robert Fadel resigned from parliament, and two Kataeb minsters left government.

The beauty of Lebanese politics is that although it seems that the three events aren’t connected with one another, they’re actually directly related: When Ashraf Rifi politically clashed with Salam and Hariri, and resigned from cabinet earlier this year, everyone saw it as political suicide. And that included myself: “Rifi […] signed with this move his mini-political death warrant“, I said back then. But the Tripoli strongman outsmarted us all. The timing of  his resignation, the causes of his resignation, as well as his political intuitions were so good that he actually managed to defeat – as an underdog, and all by himself – a  huge (HUGE) alliance made of three billionaires (Hariri, Mikati, Safadi), two former prime ministers (Hariri, Mikati), and the heir to the most prestigious political family in the North (Karami). Three years earlier, Rifi was not even a politician, and yet against all odds the list he supported won the municipal council of a city that has more than 8 MPs in parliament, and that victory was partly due to the context in which he resigned.

Inspired by a true story

By their resignation moves, Fadel (more on that in this blog post), as well as the Kataeb, are trying to appeal to their electorates in the same way Rifi did – via resignations in critical moments important to their electorates. Even Mikati tried to do the same strategy in 2013: Remember when he resigned months before parliamentary election because Rifi was isolated?

If a charismatic (in his region at least) newcomer/underdog/micro-Zaim can defeat three billionaires, two prime ministers, and the heir to Abdulhamid Karami, than Gemayel can do the same to the FPM, LF and SSNP in his home district. Two things seem to work in this country: Resignations and sectarianism. If you use both correctly, nothing stands in your way.

How much are you ready to risk?

And if you think about it, the government will be considered resigned the moment a new president is elected and isn’t currently doing much right now, so it shouldn’t be the end of the world even if the Kataeb give up their highest ministerial quota in Lebanon’s modern political history. The Kataeb’s maneuver is a risky gamble tough, especially if the presidential vacancy keeps on getting longer, but the Kataeb party has no choice but to give up its ministers in order to at least try to win more parliamentary seats in the next elections, or Sami Gemayel will soon be as influent as Michel Sleiman is right now. The Kataeb ministers had the perfect excuse/context to resign this June, and they did it smoothly, without making anyone feel it was a maneuver, literally advertising their move on every social media outlet there is (cc the hashtag mentioned earlier). Now we wait 12 months and see if the maneuver will succeed.

1960 or 2016?

The fun/weird part in this whole story is that Robert Fadel’s resignation meant that there might have been electoral redistricting in sight (with the possibility of transferring the Greek Orthodox seat from Tripoli to a wider Northern constituency under PR), while the Kataeb resignations mean that the Metn should remain unchanged in the next elections since the maneuver is adapted to the 1960 (2008) electoral law constituencies. This contradiction is the ultimate proof that even our politicians have no idea what’s happening with the electoral law debate.

757 days since the 25th of May (presidential vacancy). 1116 days since the 31st of May (parliamentary extension) .

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