BEIRUT: Rival Christian leaders Samir Geagea and Sleiman Frangieh Wednesday turned the page on a bloody 40-year-old Civil War feud in a reconciliation meeting held under the patronage of Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai.
The meeting between Geagea, who heads the Lebanese Forces, and Frangieh, the leader of the Marada Movement, took place in Bkirki, the seat of the Maronite Church, in the presence of members of both parties. It began with a long handshake and then kisses on both cheeks, to applause from those in attendance, and was followed by a closed-door meeting with Rai.
Frangieh’s father and Geagea had been political rivals since the Civil War, as the Frangiehs are a close Syria ally while Geagea is an outspoken critic of Damascus.
Geagea is accused of leading a 1978 attack on Zgharta’s Ehden that left 30 people dead, including the Marada Movement leader’s father, Tony, mother and toddler sister in one of the war’s most gruesome incidents, known as the Ehden massacre.
Frangieh survived as he had been spending the night at the home of his grandfather, former President Sleiman Frangieh.
The LF leader has denied responsibility for the killings, saying he was wounded in the initial assault, while Frangieh has requested an apology on multiple occasions that the LF leader has never explicitly given.
“We stress the reconciliation today, and we will move forward together with the Lebanese people,” Rai said in a speech before he and the two political leaders withdrew into the private meeting.
A joint statement from Geagea and Frangieh detailing the reconciliation was later read by a Maronite bishop. “The Marada Movement and the Lebanese Forces expressed their willingness to turn the page on the past and head toward a new future for Lebanon’s best interest,” the statement read.
Frangieh’s son, MP Tony Frangieh, told reporters that “martyrs fell for the unity of Lebanon, and it is our duty to maintain this unity.” Reconciliation was “the only way to turn the page [on the past]. This is a national reconciliation for all Lebanese people. And its timing shows that it was not made for a particular [political] reason,” the MP added.
But Sami Nader, a political analyst and director of Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, said the timing of the reconciliation had a definite political element to it. “Both Geagea and Frangieh are trying to contain the dominance of the Free Patriotic Movement as a major representative of the Christians,” he told The Daily Star. “In terms of timing, it comes after the FPM improved itself as the prime stakeholder – it also proves that the Maarab understanding did not achieve its objective, mainly when it comes to the Lebanese Forces’ representation in the government,” he said.
Nader was referencing a 2016 agreement between Geagea and then-presidential candidate Michel Aoun in Maarab, Geagea’s hometown, that resulted in Geagea endorsing Aoun’s candidacy and forfeiting his own presidential run. The deal had called for parity of representation between the LF and the FPM in government, but the LF says this has been broken by the FPM.
Asked about the alleged political element of the reconciliation as he was leaving Bkirki, Geagea responded, “Politics later.”
Political analyst Amer Mashmoushi said that, while Geagea and Frangieh had been working on reconciliation for years, “it was expedited by Geagea’s disagreement with Aoun.”
“The reconciliation was completed in the face of the president of the republic and his party, the FPM,” he told The Daily Star.
In a tweet Wednesday, FPM leader Gebran Bassil, who is also Aoun’s son-in-law, acknowledged the former Army general had influenced the meeting.
Bassil congratulated the LF and Marada on their reconciliation, “which came to heal 40-year-old wounds and to continue the path toward reconciliation that began with the return of General [Aoun to Lebanon] in 2005.”
Meanwhile Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri tweeted: “The reconciliation between the Lebanese Forces and the Marada Movement is a fresh page that turns past pages of pain, hostility and tension.”
Former President Amine Gemayel, the brother of slain Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemayel, also sent his congratulations to Frangieh and Geagea, “with hope that it establishes a general approach at the national level to heal wounded Lebanon and comfort its good and repressed people.”
The meeting is the latest postwar reconciliation effort, after the 2016 meet between Geagea and Aoun, and the reconciliation between the Druze sect and the Maronite Church in 2001. At that time, former Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir made a historic visit to Chouf, known locally as the Mountain, and met with Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Joumblatt.
In 1983, the LF and the PSP fought what would later become known as the Mountain War. The LF was driven out of the area, and hundreds of Christian civilians were slaughtered and thousands more in Chouf were displaced. Many returned after the 2001 reconciliation.