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January 15, 1986: Geagea overthrows Hobeika to lead the LF

One day in Lebanese history

A year earlier an internal war began between the Kataeb party and the LF.

19/01/2019

It was 32 years ago, on Jan. 15, 1986, that forces loyal to Samir Geagea and the then president Amine Gemayel ousted Lebanese Forces (LF) leader Elie Hobeika. Three weeks before, Hobeika had signed an agreement in Damascus with Nabih Berri’s Amal movement and Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) aimed at ending the civil war. The tripartite agreement caused an uproar within the ranks of the LF and was strongly rejected by several Christian leaders, including Geagea, who believed it gave the Syrian regime power over Lebanon.

To understand how events unfolded at the time, here’s a look at the internal war between the Kataeb and the LF. The conflict began in 1985, but its roots stretch back to 1982, when Bachir Gemayel, founder of the LF, was elected president on Aug. 23.


After Bachir

On the eve of his assassination on Sept. 14, 1982, Bachir Gemayel appointed Fadi Frem as the head of the LF and his right hand man, Fouad Abou Nader, as his chief of staff. Both men were founding members of the LF’s elite troops, the “BG” (pronounced bejin, the phonetic initials of Pierre Gemayel, Bashir’s father). Two years earlier, Bachir Gemayel had gathered all of the Christian militias fighting against the Palestinian fedayeen and the Lebanese National Movement (a union of pro-palestinian and progressive parties led by Kamal Jumblatt) under the banner of the LF.

Fadi Frem, during the 40th day commemoration of the assassination of Bachir Gemayel, October 25th 1982. OLJ Photo Archive

Under Frem’s leadership, the LF suffered heavy losses during the 1983 War of the Mountain between Christians and Druze, who fought each other following the withdrawal of the Israeli army. With his men, Geagea tried to defend Deir el-Qamar from an onslaught by Walid Jumblatt’s Druze fighters. Thousands of Christians were massacred or fled en masse.

Following the defeat, a divide opened up between the political leadership of the LF and the Kataeb. Frem, who had already been criticized by President Amine Gemayel, elected after his brother’s assassination, now saw his leadership suffer from a lack of confidence. In 1984, the LF held internal elections, and Abou Nader, grandson of Pierre Gemayel and close confidant of Amine, won.

Fouad Abou Nader. OLJ Photo Archive

Geagea and Hobeika turn the tables

Some LF warlords resented Kataeb’s dominance within the alliance and were angered by Amine Gemayel’s rapprochement with Damascus. Elie Hobeika, the LF’s intelligence chief, and Samir Geagea, military chief for the Jbeil area in 1985, were among the dissenters. At the time, Geagea was in control of the Barbara checkpoint, a strategic access point to clandestine ports where weapons and goods could be smuggled. When President Gemayel ordered the checkpoint to be removed, Geagea refused. As a result, the Kataeb’s political bureau voted to expel him from the party on March 11.

Geagea quickly retaliated, holding an incendiary press conference in which he attacked President Gemayel. The next day, an armored column of LF militiamen, led by Geagea, Hobeika and Karim Pakradouni, left Jbeil and seized East Beirut.

From left to right : Karim Pakradouni, Samir Geagea and Elie Hobeika. Photo taken from the Lebanese Forces official website From left to right : Karim Pakradouni, Samir Geagea and Elie Hobeika. Photo taken from the Lebanese Forces official website

Abou Nader refused to get involved in the infighting and supporters of President Gemayel disarmed with little resistance. Geagea effectively took over the leadership of the LF, and Hobeika, responsible for liaising with the Israeli army, became second in command. The break between the military command of the LF and the Kataeb party became official, and the first clashes between the two groups broke out in March, with much of the fighting taking place in the Metn.

But the agreement between the insurgent forces of Geagea, Hobeika and Pakradouni wouldn’t last long.


A "pro-Syrian" Hobeika

The alliance began to fray when Hobeika, who believed that the balance of military power favored Syria, opened a secret communication channel with the Syrian regime, including Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam, who was in charge of Syria’s Lebanon policy. Geagea strongly opposed initiating dialogue with Syria. As a result, at a LF executive council meeting on May 9 headed by Hobeika, Geagea was officially labeled a dissident.

Months of negotiations between Hobeika, Berri and Jumblatt – leaders of the three main Lebanese militias – led to the signing of the tripartite agreement on Dec. 28, 1985 at an official ceremony in Damascus. The agreement aimed to bring the 10-year-old war to an end within a year. It also allowed for the continued presence of the Syrian military in Lebanon, established a special relationship with the Syrian regime and defined a new institutional structure for Lebanon, viewed as unfavorable to Christians.

From left to right : Walid Jumblatt, Nabih Berri, Abdul Halim Khaddam and Elie Hobeika, in Damascus, on December 28th 1985. OLJ Photo Archive

President Gemayel’s Kataeb, the Maronite Church and Geagea expressed their strong opposition to the agreement. Despite Pakradouni's attempts at mediation, Geagea only had one thing left in mind: take over the LF.

The L’Orient-Le Jour frontpage on December 29th 1985.

Geagea’s power grab

At the beginning of 1986, Geagea’s fighters launched an offensive against Hobeika’s positions in Keserwan and Metn. On Jan. 13, just a few hours after President Gemayel visited Damascus to tell Syrian President Hafez al-Assad that he would not ratify the tripartite agreement, Hobeika’s men attacked the Kataeb’s forces.

Pro-Geagea fighters retaliated two days later, on Jan. 15, by attacking Hobeika’s headquarters in the Karantina area of Beirut. Under siege, Hobeika was forced to surrender. The next day, he was evacuated by the then commander-in-chief of the Lebanese Army, General Michel Aoun. Hobeika fled to France and then Damascus before returning to Zahle in the Bekaa Valley. In the meantime, about 200 men died in the fighting and several hundred were wounded.

The tripartite agreement collapsed and Geagea took over command of the LF, naming Pakradouni as his second in command and ousting Hobeika’s supporters.

But Elie Hobeika, supported by Syria and his followers, wouldn’t give up. From Zahle, he prepared his revenge, eyeing East Beirut. His men launched an attack in September 1986, but were defeated by a unit of the Lebanese Army and Geagea’s fighters. Hobeika ended up founding the Waad party.

Samir Geagea (center) and Elie Hobeika (right), at the Kataeb 49th Anniversary Ceremony, 1985. OLJ Photo Archive


Separate destinies

The following years saw deep divisions between the various Christian factions. In 1989, Samir Geagea's LF were the target of the "elimination war" launched by General Michel Aoun, who, at the time, was leading a military government after being appointed by President Gemayel at the end of his term.

Geagea and Aoun were at odds over the “liberation war”, fought against the Syrian army on March 14, 1989, the Taif agreement, signed on Oct. 22 of that year, and Aoun’s order on Jan. 31, 1990 to disband the militia. Each leader also claimed to be representing the popular will of the Christian community. On Oct. 13, 1990, Syrian troops occupied the presidential palace in Baabda, and Hobeika, who sided with the Syrian Army against Aoun, formed a convoy to evacuate the general’s family to the French Embassy.

After the Civil War, Hobeika was appointed Minister of State in a government led by Omar Karame. In 1992, he served as Minister of State for the Displaced in Rachid Solh’s cabinet and was appointed Minister of State for Social affairs in Rafic Hariri’s government later that year. He went on serve as Minister of Hydraulic and Electrical Resources from 1993 to 1998 as well.

While Hobeika served in various governments, Samir Geagea went to prison. Courted by Damascus, the leader of the LF, which became a political party after the war, refused to be part of the government. The LF was dissolved in 1994. A month later, Geagea was arrested and accused of murdering four political figures, including former Prime Minister Rachid Karamz in 1987 and the leader of the National Liberal Party, Dany Chamoun, and his family, in 1990.

Geagea was sentenced to three death sentences, but the punishment was later commuted to life in prison. He was the only militia leader to spend time in jail after the Civil War. In prison, he was placed in total isolation in a 6-square-meter cell in the basement of the Ministry of Defense. He was released after more than ten years, in July 2015, following the adoption of an amnesty law and the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon after the Cedar Revolution.

Hobeika was eventually assassinated. He was killed by a car bomb at 9:40 a.m. on Jan. 24, 2002. The explosion occurred 150 meters from his home in Hazmieh. He had been scheduled to testify two days later in Brussels about the Sabra and Shatila massacres, carried on in September 1982, after survivors filed a complaint against Ariel Sharon. In a book published after Hobeika’s death, his former bodyguard blamed Syria for the assassination.

The Waad party is currently led by Elie Hobeika’s son, Joe, who took over after his mother, Gina, stepped down. Geagea still leads the LF, which is one of the two most popular Christian political parties in Lebanon.


(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 15th of January)


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