Today in Beirut, one of the ex-militias of the war, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), usually referred to as ‘the nationalists’ in Arabic in Lebanon (not to be confused with most of the other parties that are basically various forms of nationalists as well), walked through the streets of Hamra, my former neighborhood, and chanted some chants that commentators say ‘evoke the civil war’.
Basically, they were celebrating the 1982 murder of Bashir Gemayel, then-president-elect and also head of another ex-militia, the Phalangists/Kataeb. Gemayel was elected a couple of months after the beginning of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and was assassinated by the SSNP’s Habib Shartouni.
The guys in that video were chanting that Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces (LF), will be next. In the following text, I am going to tell you a nice and uncomplicated story which would make all of these men’s supporters today, from the LF to Hezbollah and passing by the others, uncomfortable.
Why today? Because tomorrow is May 25, Liberation Day. The day we’re supposed to commemorate the liberation of southern Lebanon from Israeli occupation and glorify the Syrian occupation of the rest of Lebanon because there has to be some good reason for Hezbollah’s invasion of Syrian lands to crush the Arab Spring.
I can already guess that you have many questions. I won’t be be able to answer them all below, but I hope you enjoy the ride.
So first, some names.
The name Phalangists/Kataeb comes from the Spanish ‘Falange Española Tradicionalista y de las Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional Sindicalista’, the only party allowed under Franco. Their founder, Pierre Gemayel, was inspired by the order he witnessed as a football player at the Olympics in Berlin in 1936 – that’s the one with that Adolf guy – and wanted to emulate those wonders in Lebanon. What could possibly go wrong?
The Kataeb (which just means battalion in Arabic, a translation of the Greek ‘phalanx’) changed their name to “The Kataeb Party – Lebanese Social Democratic Party” a few months ago, and should not to be confused with the Lebanese Democratic Party which is headed by some Druze prince because nothing says democratic like ‘I’m a prince’. Today, the Kataeb are sort of center-right and have moderated some of their more overtly fashy stuff. They’re not as popular electorally as the LF or the FPM (I’ll get into those below). Neither is the SSNP for that matter.
Now, the SSNP. They believe in pan-Syrianism, not to be confused with pan-Arabism. Greater Syria is everything from southern Turkey to the Sinai and also Cyprus – because why not? Cyprus looks nice. You might start seeing why pan-Syrianists would make some of the Lebanese nationalists uncomfortable, and indeed the Kataeb was founded at least partly as a response to the SSNP.
But remember, when we say ‘the nationalists’ in Arabic, we’re talking about the SSNP, not the Kataeb.
I warned you.
So let’s recap: The nationalists (SSNP) hate the battalion (Kataeb) and the forces (LF). The forces (LF) came from the battalion (Kataeb) and were once basically the same thing, but now they’re not because men are neither good at naming things creatively nor good at sticking together.
They’re still sort of allies even though the Kataeb are also trying to be the third alternative and have been making good PR moves with regards to Lebanese civil society (with all the fun caveats that come with that). They have a sizeable influence amongst the diaspora, although even then I don’t know if it compares size-wise to the others. They seem to be better connected with (center-right) European parties.
Okay. Let’s move on and let me confuse things a bit more now.
The neighborhood those SSNP fellas were marching through is called Hamra as I already said. The reason why they’re in Hamra is that Hezbollah, their ally, did themselves a little civil war in 2008 and the SSNP, ever the opportunists, took over Hamra as a result. They’re good at tagging along what Hezbollah does. They tagged along all the way to Syria.
This is why if you walk today between two main universities, the Lebanese American University and the American University of Beirut, you’ll find black flags with a red not-a-swastika in a white circle. It’s really great to get your undergrad education with that flying over your head for three years.
The Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb are anti-Hezbollah, except when it’s convenient. (The Kataeb’s HQ is about a 8 minutes car ride away from Hamra, or about 4 hours if you’re stuck in Beirut traffic.)
Well okay, so some parties are in the pro Hezbollah camp and others are in the anti Hezbollah camp, right? Sort of, but that wasn’t always the case, and it won’t always be the case either (consider this a prediction).
So I’m about to make it more complicated. Don’t hate me.
That SSNP Habib guy I mentioned above was arrested by the LF in 1982 and was held captive in Roumieh prison until 1990.
That’s where I grew up, in a town near Roumieh. In 1990, the Syrian army invaded to force Michel Aoun out of the presidential palace in Baabda.
During that offensive, the one that also dropped a nice bomb over my family home, Shartouni fled to Syria, and Aoun went into exile to France to eat croissants for fifteen years.
During those fifteen years, Aoun accused Hafez and then Bashar Al-Assad of destroying Lebanon and killing Hariri, respectively (he wasn’t wrong).
When Bashar’s forces were kicked out of Lebanon following Hariri’s assassination in 2005, Aoun came back and founded the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), and then proceeded to ally himself with Hezbollah, the party that’s been in Syria for nearly eight years now killing Syrians to support Bashar on behalf of Iran.
So today, the SSNP are allies with the FPM and Hezbollah even though the FPM’s foundational myth rests upon Michel Aoun’s brave resistance against Syria.
Aoun’s failure (one of many more to come) to do much about Syria’s offensive in 1990 is what allowed the SSNP’s Chartouni to flee Lebanon and avoid trial for the assassination of the Kataeb’s Bashir.
(Yes there’s a Bashir and a Bashar. Stop complaining.)
Oh and Michel Aoun has been president of Lebanon since 2016. He lives in Baabda. His allies are the ones ideologically committed to save the Assad regime, the regime that exiled him and that he once described as having destroyed Lebanon.
Edit: as I was writing this supporters of Nabih Berri are shooting in the air in Zokak el Blatt and Chiyah because he is giving a speech. I didn’t even get into that guy yet. That’s for another time.