Old Christian rivalry moves into Lebanon streets

BEIRUT — Lebanon’s power struggle has resurrected an old rivalry between Christian leaders whose followers clashed on Tuesday during some of the worst unrest since a 1975-1990 civil war.

Supporters of Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun and Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea, who backs the government, scuffled in several Christian areas, recalling their leaders’ bitter rivalry in the late 1980s.

“Aoun went to war and destroyed the Christian community. Now he is doing the same,” Christian Tony Gemayel said.

A few metres away, Aoun loyalists had set ablaze tyres in the middle of a main road. They were manning one of hundreds of barricades set up across the country to press the opposition’s demand for veto power in government and early elections.

Aoun’s allies in the opposition include Shiite Hizbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran. “Is this civilisation?” Gemayel asked disapprovingly, covering his mouth to avoid inhaling black smoke from the burning tyres. “I swear they’re Syrians,” said one of his friends.

“Today, Christians must make their choice. They are either with Samir Geagea or they are with Michel Aflaq and Khamenei,” Gemayel said, in reference to the founder of Syria’s ruling Baath Party and Iran’s supreme leader.

War of elimination

Manning the barricade on the outskirts of a Beirut Christian district, Alex Abed Masih, said the opposition was exercising a democratic right.

Aoun — the biggest Christian force in parliament — represented the majority, he said, wearing an orange scarf to show his allegiance to the former general. Geagea supporters were “making turbulence to prove they exist”, he said.

“We lived through fighting. There’s nothing to be scared of.

“There will be no more war in Lebanon, just protests. It’s political — who can have more people on their side.” Lebanese refer to the Aoun-Geagea struggle as “the war of elimination”.

Aoun’s Lebanese army loyalists and Geagea’s militiamen fought fierce battles in the Christian enclave in early 1990, months before Syrian-led forces drove Aoun into exile, ending the country’ civil war. “It looks like a Samir Geagea-Aoun showdown again — each trying to assert their authority. This is another cold war between Aoun and Geagea to assert leadership of the Christian street,” political analyst Oussama Safa said.

The rival factions joined forces briefly to take part in anti-Syrian protests in the aftermath of the assassination of former prime minster Rafiq Hariri in February 2005.  They fell out again after Aoun broke with his anti-Syrian allies when he was excluded from government and joined forces with Shiite Hizbollah in early 2006.

Tensions between Aoun loyalists and Christians who back the government, including Geagea, were exacerbated by the killing of Pierre Gemayel in November. Some Lebanese blamed the slaying of Gemayel, a Christian cabinet minister, on Syria.

Gemayel’s father, former Lebanese president Amin Gemayel, urged an immediate end to what he described as “strife”. “Events, especially in Christian areas, look like internal fighting. This is very painful,” he told Christian channel LBC.

“We paid a heavy price in the past because of internal fighting and the war of elimination,” said Gemayel, a government ally. “The struggle must stop immediately and be moved from the street to the table of dialogue.”

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