Can This Man Alter Lebanon’s Political Landscape?

    Bilal Y. Saab

    Politics, Middle East

    The moon is seen among illuminated decorations near Al-Amin Mosque on the second day of the holy month of Ramadan in Beirut, Lebanon May 18, 2018. REUTERS/ Jamal Saidi

    Sami Gemayel has focused his entire electoral campaign on social, economic and environmental issues that affect every Lebanese household.

    The results of Lebanon’s free and fair parliamentary elections in May suggest that Lebanese society seems uninterested in pushing for real political change and maybe rocking the boat at a time of increasing regional turmoil.

    But one political party—the Kataeb—was quite vocal about its desire to break with the status quo. That it secured only three seats (down from five in the previous parliament) might indicate that its opposition to the way things are run in Lebanon is irrelevant, but that assessment would be shortsighted.

    The story of the Kataeb matters for three reasons: First, the party has been part and parcel of the Lebanese system since the country’s independence. So its decision to rebel against the establishment is intriguing and potentially significant. Second, the party may not have the size or political influence to reform Lebanese politics, but it can be an effective popular vehicle through which change could take place. Third, the party’s message of reform resonates well among the country’s youths, and while they do not represent a political force today, they most likely will in future electoral contests.

    To better understand why the Kataeb has apparently transformed and whether it can ultimately succeed in its quest for political change, one has to take a good look at its current young leader, Sami Gemayel. Unlike past Kataeb leaders, Sami’s political maturity did not form during the Lebanese civil war (1975–1990). For example, when pro-Syrian Druze forces notoriously carried out a siege of Deir al-Qamar, a Christian town in the Shuf Mountains in which twenty thousand Lebanese Christians took refuge, Sami was a toddler. When rival Christian forces fought viciously in 1990 following the signing of the Taef Accord, Sami was in the fifth grade.

    However, like many of his generation, Sami was not immune to the war’s horrors, as it influenced his political career and agenda years later. When he was two-years-old, his uncle Bashir, perhaps the most charismatic yet polarizing figure in Lebanon’s modern history, was killed by the Syrians for collaborating with Israel, whose troops had invaded Lebanon in 1982 to uproot the Palestine Liberation Organization and sought to make Bashir president.

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