The political shift in Lebanon’s Kataeb party started in June 2015, after Samy Gemayel took over the leadership of the party from his father, Amine.
That summer, the Naameh landfill had reached its capacity and closed on July 17. The contract with the Sukleen waste management company had come to an end the same day, and garbage started to pile up in residential areas, causing a wave of discontent.
Samy Gemayel, the 7th Kataeb leader since the party was established 1936, had called for a probe into the company’s performance. It did not happen.
When the calls for protests began, his party members joined the demonstrations under the #YouStink movement against the trash crisis that left Beirut and its suburbs reeking for months. Many of the demonstrations soon turned against corruption in the government, with protesters storming state institutions, including the Ministry of Environment.
After months of the garbage crisis and negotiations for a new waste management deal that Kataeb did not agree with, the party withdrew its two ministers from Tammam Salam’s government in 2016 and positioned themselves as the opposition in the Parliament.
“This is when the battle against the ruling class started, which we label as a mafia-militia alliance,” Serge Dagher, secretary-general of Kataeb told NOW.
“We stand against the militia that puts Lebanon on an axis and against the mafia that is fond of suspicious deals and personal interests. Only direct confrontation can bring about change. We are part of the opposition and aim to change the whole corrupted structure and we will surely participate in elections without working with the establishment parties,” Dagher explained.
Some of the new political groups that emerged from the October 17, 2019 protests movement accepted Kataeb as part of the anti-establishment opposition. The party is now in a political alliance together with several newly emerged reformist groups and they aim at putting together the electoral lists for the 2022 elections.
But many more radical political groups that aim at purging the Lebanese political scene of its old sectarian factions, refuse to recognize Kataeb as opposition, and continue to see it as part of the establishment. The reason, they say, is the party’s participation in the Lebanese civil war as a Christian militia and its later participation in several governments after the 2005 Syrian withdrawal.
Leaving the past behind
The Lebanese Phalangist Party, or Kataeb, is one of the oldest Lebanese political factions. It was formed in 1936 as a Maronite paramilitary youth organization by Pierre Gemayel, a pharmacist from Bikfaya, a town in the mountains outside of Beirut, together with former journalists Charles Helou (who later became president) and Georges Naccache, founder of L’Orient Le Jour daily, lawyer Chafic Nassif and Emille Yared.
The party emerged as a Lebanese nationalist response to the establishment of the pan-Arabist Syrian Social Nationalist Party in 1932 which saw Lebanon attached to its neighboring Syria. The founders of Kataeb militated for an independent Lebanon, free of any foreign interference, and especially non-aligned with the pan-Arab movement, which some Christians in Lebanon perceived at the time as a pan-Islamic movement.
Members of the party clashed with French troops and Pierre Gemayel was imprisoned in 1937 and in 1943, a year in which he was prominent in demonstrations against French rule.
In the early 70s, Kataeb, under the leadership of Pierre Gemayel’s son, Bashir, stood against the Palestinian Liberation Organization led by Yasser Arafat and opposed the Cairo Agreement that allowed the group to operate from Lebanon. On April 13, 1973, unidentified gunmen in a speeding car fired on a church in the Christian Beirut suburb of Ain el-Remmaneh, killing four people, including two Phalangists. Hours later, Phalangists killed 30 Palestinians in a bus in Ain el-Remmaneh, after gunmen on the bus had opened fire. Citywide clashes erupted in response to the Bus Massacre.
Just months into the Lebanese Civil War, in 1975, 25,000 fighters had mobilized on both sides – The National Lebanese Front formed by Christian leaders Camille Chamoun, Pierre Gemayel and Suleiman Frangieh and The Lebanese National Movement formed of pan-arab and Syrian nationalist parties that supported the PLO, including the Progressive Socialist Party.
In August 1982, Kataeb’s leader Bashir Gemayel was elected president. In mid-September, however, 20 days after his election, Gemayel was assassinated in a bombing at the Phalangist Party headquarters in Ashrafieh district of Beirut. In response, Christian militiamen entered the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, killing between 460 and 3,000 people, resulting in one of the bloodiest massacres of the Lebanese Civil War.
Bachir’s brother, Amin Gemayel, was elected president later in 1982 and served until September 1988. After the Taef Agreement that put an end to the civil war in 1990, the Syrian occupation of Lebanon maintained a strong grip over the country, and Amin Gemayel and his family moved to France, only returning to Lebanon in 2000.
March 14 and the breakup
In February 2005, after the Cedar Revolution broke out and Lebanon saw the largest protests in decades after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Syria withdrew from Lebanon and Kataeb became part of the anti-Syrian March 14 Alliance led by the Future movement, alongside the Christian Lebanese Forces.
The anti-Syrian stance cost lives. In 2006, Kataeb MP Pierre Amine Gemayel was gunned down in Jdeiddeh, a suburb North of Beirut. A year later, MP Antoine Ghanem was also assassinated in a car bomb explosion in the area of Sin el-Fil, North of Beirut. Like many other assassinations that happened during that period in Lebanon, neither of the two murders was ever properly investigated and no perpetrator was ever charged.
Over the years, however, despite the sacrifices of some of its most capable and prominent voices, the March 14 alliance disappointed many of its supporters, especially those who had taken to the streets in 2005.
Joelle Bou Abboud, lawyer and member of the Kataeb political bureau, says that March 14 as a political alliance failed to implement the required reforms and the political breakup was imminent, especially after Samy Gemayel was elected to take his father’s place at the leadership of the party in June 2015.
“At first it started as a movement against the Syrian occupation but when Syria was out, some [politicians] got involved in corruption, others gave in to Hezbollah, whether it was because of fear or for personal benefits,” she explained.
She said the disagreements deepened in 2016, when the Lebanese Forces endorsed Michael Aoun, the leader of the March 8 Free Patriotic Movement, as a presidential candidate after two years of negotiations. Another March 14 ally, the Future Movement, endorsed Aoun’s opponent Suleiman Frangieh.
It was the beginning of the end.
Kataeb left the government and, thus, the March 14 alliance in June 2016. The trash crisis in 2015 and the failure of the government to renegotiate a fair deal with a waste management company broke the camel’s back.
The government’s plan was to solve part of the problem in beirut by opening up a temporary trash dump in the Bourj Hammoud area in Beirut. The Kataeb Party refused this plan and 20 youths from the party blocked the entrance, preventing construction work.
“We joined the civil society protests as soon as they began, we were on the streets at the same time because we already rejected everything that was happening inside the government regarding the waste crisis,” Dagher stated.
The party remained in the parliament acting as opposition for the next three years. When the October 17 uprising started three years later, Kateb members joined the protests.
“We stood by the slogan “Kellun Yaane Kellun” (All Means All) and we wanted to help out by organizing the anti-system, opposition sentiment created by the revolution,” Dagher explained.
He said that the aim was to transform the revolution into an opposition force through unifying the demands and organizing the groups. The Lebanese Opposition Front was born out of these convictions, he explained.
The Lebanese Opposition Front
After the Beirut port blast on August 4, 2020, the party’s MPs resigned from the parliament and joined forces with groups that stemmed out of the October 17 uprising in 2019.
The Lebanese Opposition Front, announced in April 2021, has 12 members: Kataeb, Taqqadom, Khat Ahmar, Liqaa Teshrin, Rebels, Almiet 17 Teshrin, Collectif des Libanais en France, Thouwar Akkar, Independence Movement, Nabed Al Janoub Al Mostakel and Etihad Thouwar Al Shamal.
The new group has developed a political program and a plan of action the parties are planning to launch together with their candidates for the 2022 general elections. The Front highlights Lebanon’s sovereignty as a priority which requires limiting the arms to the Lebanese Army’s possession, building a non-sectarian state through reforms separating religion from politics, constitutional work that prioritized the Lebanese law, economic reforms by strengthening the Lebanese market and implementing a fair taxation system, creating social safety nets that covered all areas.
Dagher agreed that the party held an all-Christian image but that was due to the war, he said. It has been hard for any political faction to shake the Christian-Muslim divide and overcoming it is going to take time. But he also said that the party was now on a different path.
“We defended the Christians when they were in danger but we’d do the same for any other sect. We were always a patriotic party that believed in unity, not divisions. Prior to the civil war, we had Muslim members and we still do,” Dagher said.“We’re not ashamed of our past, we defended Lebanon when it was going to be transformed into Palestinian territories. We know where things went wrong and have learned from our shortcomings. There’s nothing bad about being a participant in political life,” he added.
Dagher also said that the party and its allies could form a serious force during the 2022 parliamentary elections because Kataeb had the experience, has organized and oiled electoral machines, and a large contingent.
Sovereignty above all
Kataeb considers Hezbollah its main political challenge when it comes to obtaining sovereignty, the highest priority on its political agenda.
“You definitely can’t feed people sovereignty, but if you don’t target the source of the problem the living circumstances won’t improve,” Bou Abboud explained. “More than half of the reforms can’t be done because they are not beneficial to Hezbollah. They control the smuggling at the borders and there is no financial liquidity in the country because of them,” she added.
Getting rid of Hezbollah’s weapons would strengthen the Lebanese army as their arms played a significant role in weakening the army, she said.
The government should then handle all state matters, including Israel-related issues, while Hezbollah should simply be a member of the government, no longer the dominant political force that uses weapons to assert its will.
For that to happen, the opposition needs to gain the majority in the parliament, to be able to then form a new government and also elect a different president and then topple the current power dynamic. But the elections are only one stop in this journey.
“First of all, we have to object to them using a strong political stance. But the issue is not only tied to Lebanon, since Hezbollah is strengthened by Iran, there’s a responsibility on the international community as well. Us, the Lebanese alone, can’t fix this major issue on our own,” Bou Abboud stated.
Confronting the issue of Hezbollah’s weapons has a national and international aspect, she pointed out.
“On a national level, we fight them wherever we can, through overtaking the syndicates, protesting against their decisions, and taking back the majority in the parliament. Internationally, there should be discussions done with an international committee and Lebanon’s political friends to help with the Iranian control over Lebanon,” Dagher also stressed.
The front aimed to put Lebanon in a neutral position, away from regional conflicts. Bou Abboud however, was concerned with the tactics Hezbollah and its allies might use to postpone the elections. One example would be a reoccurance of clashes framed as Muslim – Christian conflict, like the Tayyoune gun fight in mid-October that killed 7 and wounded over 30.
“They want to make it seem like there’s a sectarian fight but that’s no longer true,” Bou Abboud explained. “ During the civil war there was a clear division in Lebanese society where some sided with or against the Palestinian [Liberation Organization] but nowadays we can see that many Christians threw themselves onto Hezbollah’s arms and many Muslims are against the Party of God. They’re just too oppressed to express it,” Bou Abboud explained.
Strategies for 2022
A strategy for Kataeb was to have candidates that were successful in elections in all professional organizations in Lebanon. The party was successful in winning seats in the Order of Engineers and Architects. Its candidates united with other independent lists and formed a coalition, the Syndicate Rises, that earned 7,650 votes, effectively controlling six out of seven branches of the Order.
With more syndicate elections on the way, unity may no longer be possible, as some opposition groups have had a change of heart.
“In the opposition lines, there are revolutionary purists who still see us as members of the political class, other groups we simply don’t agree with politically and we believe that some opposition groups might have agendas to ruin any possible unity,” Bou Abboud explained.
She says that the party’s political position and anti-corruption drive has been clear since 2016. Kataeb was the only party that took a step back from the government, refusing to participate in the corruption practices.
“Once we saw that change was not possible at all and we couldn’t fight all the corruption we were seeing, we eventually had to leave,” she said. “Change was inevitable,” she added.
The party and its allies are still looking into choosing candidates for the next elections, a process that involves studying the data from each district, their chances at winning and negotiating with allies to minimize conflict.
“We hope to undertake the elections under the large form of coalition as it would maximize our chances at winning against the establishment,” Dagher said.