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Samir Geagea and guilt by manipulation.

Summary: During the first round of the presidential election last week, several parliamentarians put the names of prominent assassination victims on their ballots, implying that the leading candidate, Samir Geagea, had been responsible for their death.

During the first round of the presidential election last week, several parliamentarians put the names of prominent assassination victims on their ballots, implying that the leading candidate, Samir Geagea, had been responsible for their death.

That act raised a number of disturbing questions. Those who wrote the names knew what they were doing. They realized that Geagea saw the election as an opportunity to give himself new legitimacy, and they wanted to spoil that effort. It is questionable whether several of those they named were actually killed by Geagea, but somehow the Lebanese Forces leader, nine years after his release from prison, cannot seem to escape the stigma of his Civil War legacy.

Why is that? Why is the single former militia leader who has actually spent time in prison, who has apologized for his actions, held up as a distillation of all the evils of the Civil War, while other former warlords, many with a record as bad or worse than Geagea's, are regarded as pillars of the state?

And yet it is a tragedy that the Maronite community remains partly a prisoner of Geagea and of his rivalry with Michel Aoun. The two men who most contributed to the bloodbath that engulfed the Christians in 1988-1990 are still regarded as the community's principal de facto representatives.

It was this rivalry that pushed Geagea last year to back the odious Orthodox election law proposal. It was Geagea's assessment that if elections were held on the basis of sect -- with Maronites voting for Maronite candidates, Greek Orthodox for Greek Orthodox candidates, Shiites for Shiite candidates, and so on -- the Lebanese Forces would gain a much larger share of parliamentarians against Aoun than under the 1960 law, which allows Aoun to benefit from Shiite electorates in key districts.

How odd that a man who sought to promote an election law proposal that would have divided Lebanon further, that would have undermined the principle of elections as an instrument of common national interaction, today is presenting himself as a presidential candidate who can best defend the Lebanese state. Geagea seems lost between what he views as Lebanon's national interests and his own parochial political interests, which are often contradictory. What is good for Lebanon is not necessarily good for Samir Geagea, and vice versa.

But is Geagea alone in this? That formulation can apply to most of the country's politicians. That is why the tendency to place the Lebanese Forces leader in a separate category seems so absurd and unfair. Those who condemn Geagea on moral grounds forget that the political class approved an amnesty law in 1991. The government at the time was led by Omar Karami, who, along with other parliamentarians from Tripoli, has accused Geagea of killing Rashid Karami.

Karami may be justified in doing so, but he cannot ignore his role in passing the amnesty law pardoning most wartime crimes, even if technically his brother's assassination was not covered by that law. If the former prime minister wants to deny Geagea forgiveness, official or unofficial, he will find hundreds of thousands of Lebanese who will demand the same treatment for the killers of their relatives who remain unpunished.

There are two possible approaches to Samir Geagea: the political and the moral. A political approach involves assessing his public choices and political program; a moral approach involves deciding whether, ethically speaking, Geagea is entitled to aspire to the highest office in the land. Confusing the two is a bad idea, unless one is prepared to do so with all the wartime leaders and militia members. And, quite frankly, Lebanon doesn't have the institutions to do such a thing fairly, nor does the political context permit a reopening of wartime wounds.

Strangely enough, Geagea has rebuilt a replica of his prison cell in his home. He has sought to exploit his experiences for political reasons, to create a permanent exhibition highlighting his ordeal. Yet one couldn't imagine a Nelson Mandela, let's say, building a memento of his imprisonment at home. When the great man exited prison, his primary objective was to transcend that long interregnum, to say that the politicized guilt that had been forced onto his shoulders did not merit a backward look.

That's why a political approach to Geagea is much more useful. Today he seeks to be a "strong president." He has said that a consensual president would be the worst outcome for Lebanon, as he or she would seek to satisfy all sides. "The strong president is he who states clearly what he wants, he who enters the battlefield in front of the people, not in embassies or closed rooms," Geagea said a few weeks ago. It's a shame that the Lebanese Forces leader sounds like Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah when making such statements, and it is disconcerting that his view of the presidency involves the image of entering into battle.

Geagea is also wrong about the constitutional role of the president. As defender of the nation's unity the president must, by definition, seek a consensus. But being consensual does not necessarily mean being weak. All this talk of strength and doing battle suggests that the Lebanese Forces leader does not quite realize what the presidency today is all about.

But then let's judge Geagea by that standard, not whether he is a moral paragon. So few people are in our republic, which is why the discussion of Geagea's crimes can sound so contrived.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Date:May 1, 2014
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