Hezbollah’s grip on Lebanon must end, Christian leader says

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Maarab (Lebanon) (AFP) – Lebanon’s hijacked sovereignty must be restored after an election denied the powerful Shia movement Hezbollah a parliamentary majority, Christian leader Samir Geagea has said.

“All strategic decisions should return to the Lebanese state… and security and military matters should be handled exclusively by the Lebanese Army,” the head of the Lebanese Armed Forces Party told AFP.

“No one … should be able to transport missiles from one place to another without the permission and knowledge of the military,” the 69-year-old added, referring to Hezbollah.

Geagea’s campaign for the May 15 elections focused primarily on disarming Hezbollah, thereby cementing his role as the movement’s closest domestic rival.

The Iran-backed Shia group, which along with its allies had a majority in the outgoing parliament, is the only militia that did not disarm after the end of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war.

Hezbollah, whose weaponry surpasses that of the army, is described by its supporters as a bulwark against enemy Israel, but it has been blacklisted as a “terrorist” organization by the US and other western countries.

Critics argue that it undermines the state’s security decisions and exposes Lebanon to costly disputes as Hezbollah deploys fighters and weapons throughout the region.

“Nobody should be allowed to use their weapons inside the country,” said Geagea, who rose to prominence as a militia leader during the civil war.

“This is no longer acceptable,” he said during an interview at his residence in Maarab, northeast of Beirut.

Anti-Hezbollah Alliance

Lebanon’s recent elections produced a polarized and fragmented parliament that denied any bloc a clear majority.

Geagea’s party, which has strong ties to Saudi Arabia, won 18 seats, with one more seat going to an allied lawmaker who is not a party member.

To challenge Hezbollah, Geagea relies on alliances with other traditional powers that oppose it, including the Christian Kataeb Party and the Progressive Socialist Party led by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.

At least 13 independent lawmakers that emerged from an anti-government protest movement in 2019 could also strengthen their ranks, Geagea said.

“We are in intensive talks” with them, he said.

“We at least agree that there is a need to build a real Lebanese state… away from corruption, clientelism, quotas and private interests.”

Beginning Sunday, after the current assembly’s mandate expires, the new lawmakers must select a speaker, a position Nabih Berri has held since 1992.

Berri is expected to keep the post with the support of Hezbollah and his Amal party, which together make up all Shia lawmakers.

But Geagea urged the new lawmakers to embark on a new policy path by selecting a speaker who would work to “preserve” the state’s sovereignty.

“We can’t nominate Berri at all because he’s allied with the other team,” Geagea said, referring to Hezbollah.

Another hurdle for the new parliament is forming a government, which could take months.

Geagea said he opposed plans for a “national unity” cabinet.

“We support a majority government that can be effective … and that agrees to a unified project,” he said.

Allies of the IMF and Gulf

Lebanon is grappling with an unprecedented financial crisis, widely blamed on corruption and mismanagement by a fractious ruling elite that has ruled the country since the civil war.

The country has been plagued by triple-digit inflation, rising poverty rates and the collapse of its currency since a debt default in 2020.

International donors, including the International Monetary Fund, have called for support to implement important reforms.

Lebanon’s Gulf Arab allies have also withheld funds after a diplomatic row last year over Hezbollah’s growing dominance.

Saudi Arabia and its allies have long pushed for Hezbollah’s exit from parliament and cabinet, backing politicians like Geagea.

“Our ties with the Arab Gulf States will certainly be restored and Gulf aid will flow to Lebanon gradually” if a government “capable of inspiring trust and confidence” is formed, Geagea said.

The rapid formation of such a cabinet will also streamline the IMF negotiations, according to the Christian politician.

The IMF and Lebanon in April reached a conditional deal for $3 billion in aid.

Implementing reforms, including a fiscal recovery plan approved by the government on Friday, is one of many prerequisites for the package.

IMF talks are the “main entry point” for the financial recovery, Geagea said.

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