The new Independent Movement in Lebanon
BAABDA, Lebanon - In a large salon in an apartment in Baabda, a hilltop suburb of Beirut located close to Lebanon’s presidential palace, General Issam Abou Jamra sat, dressed in a navy blue suit, in a comfortable-looking armchair. A tray containing two cups of muddy Arabic coffee and a serving of sweet knafeh stood on a tray on a nearby table. Outside, the mid-morning sun shone over Beirut’s cityscape, reflecting off the gentle waters of the Mediterranean.
In early March Abou Jamra, 78, established the Independent Movement - a fledgling political party ostensibly opposed to foreign interference in domestic politics. But he is no newcomer to Lebanese politics.
Abou Jamra began a career in the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) in the 1950s before gaining notoriety as the deputy prime minister of a military government established in East Beirut by General Michel Aoun in September 1988, during the final years of Lebanon’s civil war (1975-90). At that time, the legitimacy of Aoun’s rule was disputed by a rival Syrian-backed civilian government in West Beirut that accused Aoun of extorting over $125 million in state funds.
Forced into exile in France in 1990 - in a deal brokered by former French President Francois Mitterand - Abou Jamra returned to Lebanon alongside Aoun 15 years later in 2005, following the end of Syria’s 30-year occupation of Lebanon. Together they established the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), a Christian political party that has since grown to become the second largest party in Lebanon’s parliament.
“The French wanted us to stay and set up a political party but I was against this,” said Abou Jamra, recounting his experience during the final years of the civil war. “I knew we would simply get arrested by the Syrian regime and put in jail.”
“We decided to go into exile, wait and return when the Syrian occupation had ended,” he said.
However, despite the success enjoyed by the FPM, Abou Jamra quit the party in 2010 in opposition to what he calls Aoun’s increasingly autocratic style of rule. The party’s affiliation with Hezbollah and its foreign affiliates - Iran and the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad - were also cited as motivating factors. The Independent Movement has the backing of a number of other former high-ranking FPM officials who have also split from Aoun.
Since the end of Syria’s occupation in 2005, Lebanese politics has come to be dominated by two political blocs - the American-backed, Saudi-funded 14 March coalition led by the Sunni Future Movement, and the pro-Syrian, Iranian-backed 8 March coalition, led by Hezbollah. In 2006, despite Aoun’s previous opposition to Syrian presence in Lebanon, the FPM joined the 8 March coalition.
“In the 2009 elections, Aoun nominated two candidates for ministerial positions from outside the party,” said Abou Jamra, elaborating on the reasons behind his split from the FPM. “I was number two in the party and I wasn’t even consulted. We had 70,000 followers - people had been to jail and demonstrated for us during our exile. We nominated people from outside the party!”
“He (Aoun) also established a TV Channel (OTV) in the names of his wife and daughter,” continued Abou Jamra.
“Now, I am starting up again where I left off in 2010.”
Abou Jamra argues that the current dichotomy between 14 March and 8 March that dominates Lebanese politics is divisive, as it makes political parties subservient to the particular interests of their foreign backers rather than prioritising the interests of the Lebanese state.
“There are political parties in Lebanon attached to foreign powers. This leads to divisions within the country because if you take money from foreign powers you ultimately have to serve their interests,” said Abou Jamra, gesticulating in incredulity.
“Some parties have more power than the state itself. I want to create a new line outside those offered by the March 14 and March 8 blocks, a line that professes dominion for the Lebanese.”
Hezbollah’s military intervention in support of the Assad government in Syria has exacerbated political tensions between the 14 March and 8 March blocs, and in particular the Future Movement and Hezbollah. Increased security threats posed by militant groups along Lebanon’s border with Syria - particularly since gunmen affiliated with the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra temporarily overran the Bekaa border town of Arsal in August 2014 - have forced the two groups to the dialogue table in the interests of national security.
However, tangible successes from the dialogue to date are limited to a campaign to remove divisive political imagery from demographically mixed neighbourhoods in Beirut and other major Lebanese cities.
Meanwhile, the country’s parliament has become defined by stasis.
Lebanon has been without a president for 10 months, due to the failure of the 8 March and 14 March blocs to agree upon a consensual candidate, whilst last November the country’s parliament extended its mandate until 2017, an act that Abou Jamra argues has compromised its legitimacy.
“At the start of the Syrian war the government made no effort to stop people going to fight,” exclaimed Abou Jamra. “We should have put the LAF on the border and asked for UN assistance. I have no problem with Hezbollah supporting the LAF along the border, under its command, defending Lebanese territory. But it is a problem if Hezbollah and also Lebanese Sunnis are fighting abroad.”
“Dialogue (between the Future Movement and Hezbollah) is nothing. MPs from these groups simultaneously fight with one another in parliament. They probably just argue over how to split the future profits from the country’s offshore gas and oil between them,” he said.
The current priority of the Independent Movement, noted Abou Jamra, is to establish offices in local municipalities throughout Lebanon ahead of the delayed parliamentary elections scheduled for 2017. Efforts will also be made to reach out to the Lebanese expatriate community living abroad - a tactic previously pursued by the FPM.
“We want them to feel invested in Lebanon,” said Abou Jamra. “In 2017 we aim to acquire seats in parliament and re-inject dynamism into Lebanese politics - like when the FPM was formed and people began to leave Ahrar (The National Liberty Party) and the Kataeb Party to join.”
Despite Abou Jamra’s proclamations that all Lebanese are welcome in the Independent Movement, critics have alleged that - like the FPM - the party will most likely appeal to Lebanon’s Christian demographic. This is disputed by Abou Jamra.
“There should be no religion in politics. So far I have had Sunni, Shiite, Druze and Christians contact me. Many know me from my time with the FPM and the LAF,” said Abou Jamra dismissively.
Turning to more pressing concerns, Abou Jamra observed that regardless of the aspirations of the Independent Movement, it is a necessity for the Lebanese parliament to elect a new president (a position constitutionally prescribed to a Maronite Christian) in order to vouchsafe the legitimacy of the state.
“There are other issues that will need to be addressed in the future, certain imbalances. For example in the constitution a president must step down after a six-year term but the parliament speaker (a position constitutionally prescribed to a Shiite Muslim) may immediately seek re-election after a four-year term. This makes it like a feudal position,” said Abou Jamra.
“However, the most pressing issue now is that we need to change the constitution so that when a president ends his term, he continues his basic role as head-of-state until the election of a successor.”
“This will create more dynamism because the objective of others will be to oust him. We have had these presidential vacuums in 1988, and in 2007, and again now. The political system should be critical, you should not give people a hole to go into,” he said.
Lebanon’s current presidential vacuum largely owes to the intransigence of the 14 March and 8 March blocs in sticking by the nominations of two polarising civil war-era candidates. Over 22 sessions to elect a new president have come and gone since May 2014. Neither of the current candidates is likely to gain the requisite number of votes to attain office. Aoun, Abou Jamra’s former ally, is the nomination of the 8 March coalition.
“These candidates are freezing the state,” noted Abou Jamra, declining to comment further on the matter.
Over the last month Abou Jamra has kept up a busy schedule of meetings and interviews with local and regional TV channels and newspapers, keen to promote the establishment of the Independent Movement. However, not all local media have been keen to offer the former general a mouthpiece. FPM- and Aounist- affiliated media networks have remained notably tight-lipped on the subject. Abou Jamra appeared nonplussed.
“Every single party in Lebanon has its own TV and radio channels and affiliated newspapers, so if they don’t want to talk about me then they don’t have to,” concluded Abou Jamra, a knowing smile appearing on his face.
“I will keep doing my thing.”