Maarab, Lebanon

Samir Geagea is reluctant to speak much of the attempt on his life last month. It was here, at his home in Maarab, a fortified villa high in the mountains, where one or more snipers allegedly took aim at the head of the Lebanese Forces, a Christian majority party. But Geagea begins to open up, putting the episode in the context of a series of assassinations that began more than seven years ago, starting with the car bombing of the anti-Syrian member of parliament Marwan Hamade, which left him wounded and killed his driver. Next was the February 14, 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, for which the Special Tribunal for Lebanon has named Hezbollah responsible. “What is behind them all,” says Geagea, “is the idea of changing, by force, the political balance of power in Lebanon.”

Geagea is not an easy man to get rid of. Unlike the rest of the country’s political leadership, Geagea refused to compromise with the Syrian-Lebanese security establishment that presided over Beirut in the wake of the country’s 15-year long civil wars, and was imprisoned on a variety of charges. Released in 2005 after more than a decade in solitary confinement, he apologized to the country, in particular the Christian community that he led in war, including a fratricidal chapter of the conflict during which Christians killed each other. Many Christians refused to forgive him, and instead chose to align themselves with former head of the Lebanese Army Gen. Michel Aoun, now an ally of Hezbollah and an enemy of the country’s pro-democracy March 14 movement. With other once prominent March 14 figures now sidelined—Sunni leader Saad Hariri is temporarily in exile and Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt is weighing his options with the outcome of the Syrian uprising still up for grabs—Geagea is today the most vocal advocate of Lebanese democracy.

Unlike many Lebanese, Geagea does not seem overly concerned that the uprising in Syria will blow back negatively on Lebanon. Geagea agrees that “what goes on there will affect what happens in Lebanon,” but in a positive way. “As the Syrian regime gets more and more weakened,” he says, “there will be more freedom in Lebanon.” Nonetheless, he agrees that it’s probably useful to see the attempt on his life as a function of the political crisis that the Assad regime and its allies are now undergoing.

Parliamentary elections here in 2013 will come down to the Christian vote, as they did with the 2009 elections. The Shia community is expected to vote again overwhelmingly for the two Shiite parties, Hezbollah and its ally Amal; the Sunnis will again come down for Hariri and his Future party candidates. So it is the remaining third of the country—the Christians—that will decide the outcome. Right now, according to Geagea, polls show that his Lebanese Forces have gained ground and are running even with Aoun. Since the 2005 elections, Aoun has consistently won the majority of the Christian vote but, as Geagea explains, voters have found Aoun’s record wanting. “Aoun waged his career under the banner of fighting corruption, but once he got to power, he and his ministers turned out to be the most corrupt officials ever.”

If Aoun loses, the elections will signal that Hezbollah’s experiment in running the government has come to an ignominious end. And if Hezbollah, says Geagea, “sees that the 2013 elections are not in its interests, they might try to sabotage the outcome, by any means necessary, and they have all means necessary.” The assassination attempt, he agrees, might be an effort at pre-emptive sabotage.

In any case, he only sees good things at the end of Lebanon’s long turbulent road to democracy—and he sees the same thing for his neighbors next door in Syria, too. “There is not a chance the Assad regime will survive,” says Geagea. In spite of the apparent setbacks and lack of foreign support, he says, the uprising “is gaining momentum, not losing it. People asked, ‘What about Aleppo? When will it join the uprising?’ And now Aleppo is in and no one is out.”

Still, Geagea admits, he is “surprised the U.S. is not leading, as usual. This is the main reason there is a stalemate in Syria. Either the U.S. will lead, or no one will. Russia has taken a role only because America is not leading.”

I ask Geagea if the Obama administration should be arming and training the Free Syrian Army. “I won’t go into details,” he says, “but if the Americans decide to lead they won’t be short of ideas, or friends.”

Geagea says that, if the U.S. fails to help the opposition, it will have a negative impact on the region. But if it takes an active role, it’s a win-win situation. The U.S. does well by its friends and maintains its interests. But the uprising isn’t going away, says Geagea. “This time it’s not about the will of foreign powers, but the will of the majority of the Syrian population.”

For Geagea, it’s part of the trajectory of human progress. “There are truths in this world that nothing can conquer. In Europe in the Middle Ages, the Church represented absolute power, and then it was tumbled and it led to the renaissance. The Middle East is now at the beginning of that path and it will not stop until it reaches it. Maybe it will take 25 years, or 50 or a hundred, who knows?”

Against the skeptics, Geagea believes that the Arab Spring has brought welcome weather. “For sure the situation is not worse now than before the Arab Spring. And it’s not better either, but there’s a chance for it to become better. I see freedom and democracy winning,” says Geagea. “It is a rule of life.”

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