Le Pen's visit confirms new political realities in Lebanon

Le Pen's visit confirms new political realities in Lebanon
Comment: Marine Le Pen's views on Syria and refugees are particularly appealing to the Lebanese establishment in helping them consolidate power, writes Kareem Chehayeb.
6 min read
23 Feb, 2017
France's far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen in Baabda, Lebanon, 20 February, 2017 [Getty]

Far-right French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen wrapped up her visit to Lebanon this week, the first country to formally receive her. 

Despite meetings with President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, MPs and other key political figures, statements made by some TV pundits about Lebanon being a key regional player for France, are untrue.

Claims that Lebanon is some sort of new, significant political broker in the Middle East, are simply a cover for Le Pen's visit as merely a launchpad for the far-right candidate to legitimise her presidential campaign, on at trip aimed at wooing Lebanese-French voters.

That said, there's more to Le Pen's Lebanon visit than meets the eye. Setting her campaign aside, it reveals - or at least confirms - political realities in Lebanon that appeared murky outside its borders.

The 8 March 2014 political era is over

After former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri's assassination in 2005, two new factions emerged: The pro-West and GCC March 14 Alliance, and the pro-Iran and Syria 8 March Alliance. The latter notably included Hizballah. Negotiations between Lebanon's political elite exposed the slow but sure withering away of this two-faction political era, with heated rivalries calming down.

There's more to Le Pen's Lebanon visit than meets the eye. Setting her campaign aside, it reveals the political realities in Lebanon

One notable example is Lebanese Forces Chief and presidential candidate Samir Geagea, who ended his campaign to endorse current president Michel Aoun - despite the latter's strong ties with Hizballah. The same applies to Saad Hariri, who for years accused Hizballah of playing a vital role in the assassination of his father, but who also eventually endorsed Aoun for the presidency.

Of course, not all political parties within the two factions have benefitted from these developments. For example, another right-wing Christian party, the Kataeb, is now part of a self-proclaimed political opposition.

But how do these internal political developments tie into Le Pen's visit? Well, the devil is in the details.

An Assad-friendly consensus on the refugee crisis

Since 2005, the pro-West 14 March political alliance has berated the Assad government, Hizballah and Iran for being behind some - if not all - of Lebanon's misfortunes. During the early stages of the Syrian uprising, they were certainly eager to see the Assad regime collapse, primarily hoping to weaken Hizballah.

Fast-forward to Marine Le Pen's visit and her take on the conflict in Syria and the refugee crisis. She blames this crisis primarily on the European Union, and has credited Assad and Russia for fighting extremist groups, specifically IS.

Le Pen blames the refugee crisis primarily on the European Union, and has credited Assad and Russia for fighting extremist groups, specifically IS

The Lebanese political establishment across the board echoes Le Pen's sentiments towards refugees. Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, son-in-law of President Aoun and leader of his own political party, said in 2016 that "integration of Syrian refugees fragments Lebanon's identity".

Setting the "economic burden" aside, Bassil refers to the Sunni Arab majority of those refugees, in an implicit reminder of the Lebanese political identity and system's reliance on sectarian balance.

President Michel Aoun's first speech as president, moments after his election, mentions that Syrian refugees need to return as soon as possible, citing the camps as security threats. Former ministers, both in the 8 and 14 March alliances have proposed and supported the ideas of gradually returning Syrian refugees to so-called "safe-zones," despite organisations including Human Rights Watch explicitly stating that no areas qualifying as safe-zones exist and that sending the refugees back would violate international law.

Le Pen's series of meetings in Lebanon included the head of the Kataeb, Sami Gemayel. He, too, supports sending refugees back to so-called "safe-zones" in Syria, and confirmed that this was a key topic discussed with Le Pen. The French presidential candidate also reaffirmed to the Lebanese press that Assad is the "more reassuring solution for France."

Lebanon is both a nationalist and sectarian state

Existing Lebanese discourse is binary. The establishment has modified its sectarian rhetoric to fit an ostensibly secular, nationalist agenda. This is designed to cater to growing anti-sectarian sentiment among the population, where nationalism has also been on the rise.

Let's look again at the ruling classes' two approaches to portraying the refugee crisis:  

With few or no jobs, and a state that still cannot supply electricity without cuts, who better to blame than foreigners?

The first is the security-based approach. Despite the plethora of homegrown extremists, Syrian refugees have been associated with the security problems within Lebanon.

President Aoun's primary reasoning for returning refugees to Syria was security, despite widespread talk among Lebanon's political establishment suggesting that the country's Christian population and identity were also a factor.

The second approach associates Syrian refugees with the country's economic woes. Lebanon is going through a major socioeconomic crisis, even if the economy hasn't yet crashed thanks to cautious policy at the Lebanese Central Bank.

With few or no jobs, and a state that still cannot supply electricity without cuts, who better to blame than foreigners? In fact, Energy Minister Cesar Abi Khalil has gone as far as to blame the lack of 24-hour electricity on the refugee crisis, despite the issue having existed for decades. 

The hiccups don't matter

Marine Le Pen's visit to Lebanon wasn't without its hiccups, such as her inability to come to a concise agreement with Prime Minister Hariri on Syria. It's possible that Hariri, who has struggled to keep his political career together since endorsing Aoun as president, wanted to flex his symbolic political muscles by towing his party's line. And what better subject than Syria - over which he has no control?

  Read more: Far-right Le Pen refuses headscarf to meet Lebanese mufti

There was also the incident that saw Le Pen cancel her meeting with Lebanon's Grand Mufti. Despite making the headlines, this too was a political stunt that satisfies both parties; Marine Le Pen resists a top Sunni cleric from a religion she has vilified throughout her political career, and the Grand Mufti tries to win admiration and support by not compromising with her.

All in all, these two hiccups were not enough to obscure the political realities. The writing is on the wall for Lebanon: Iranian influence has the upper hand over Saudi Arabia's, and the nationalist rather than sect-based approach towards Syrian refugees reveals that Marine Le Pen and the rising alt-right organisations in Europe have an appealing discourse for helping the Lebanese establishment to consolidate power.

Kareem Chehayeb is a Lebanese writer and musician based in Beirut.

Follow him on Twitter: @chehayebk

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.