Dossier: Fouad Malek
Former Chief-of-Staff of the Lebanese Forces (LF)
Gary C. Gambill and Ziad K. Abdelnour
One of the most arresting characteristics of Lebanon, bewildering to outsiders, is the propensity of its most prominent public figures to don and shed political positions like seasonal clothing when the temperature changes. Some are true political chameleons, like Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who has managed to position himself as the predominant interlocutor of the Druze community under periods of Israeli and Syrian hegemony in Lebanon. Others, like the late Elie Hobeika, learned only to mimic this art - selling out once and enjoying the fruits of power for a time, only to find themselves expendable to their patrons, discredited among their own constituents, and unable to revive themselves politically (or, in the case of Hobeika, assassinated in the course of trying).
Fouad Malek joins a long list of militia commanders who, like Hobeika, once violently contested Syrian control of Lebanon, only to switch sides and seek the patronage of Damascus in a bid to outflank political rivals. It is doubtful that Malek will ever achieve a powerful political post in exchange for revolting against his former boss, jailed Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea. But his pursuit of one has helped paralyze what was once the dominant Christian political organization in Lebanon.
Malek, a Maronite Christian, was born in 1934 in the village of Anan in the Jezzine district of south Lebanon. After completing his secondary education, he enrolled in the military academy and graduated as an artillery officer three years later. After training in France from 1959-60, Malek returned to active duty in the Lebanese army, eventually attaining the rank of major.
In 1975, Lebanon descended into civil war between Christian militias and a coalition of leftist and Palestinian forces. After the army split along confessional lines in January 1976, Malek and many other Maronite officers joined Christian militia forces seeking to oust Palestinian guerrillas from positions in predominantly Christian east Beirut. In a war characterized more by long-distance shelling than traditional ground combat operations, those who had artillery training were in hot demand. By the summer of 1976, Malek was commanding Christian militia forces besieging the Tal al-Za'atar refugee camp.
Whereas most army officers returned to their barracks after the initial phase of fighting ended, Malek pledged loyalty to Phalange (Kata'ib) militia leader Bashir Gemayel, who unified the various militias operating in the Christian enclave into the Lebanese Forces (LF). By the end of the decade, the LF had assumed all of the administrative functions of a government.
In 1979, Gemayel appointed Malek head of the LF office in France. During his stay in Paris, Malek remarried and obtained dual Lebanese-French citizenship. Upon his return to Lebanon, he slipped into relative obscurity (due in part to accusations, perhaps politically-motivated, that he stole funds from the LF office in France). In 1987, the new leader of the LF, Samir Geagea, reshuffled its military command and appointed Malek chief-of-staff.
After a period of conflict between the LF and the interim military government of Michel Aoun at the end of the decade, Geagea endorsed the Taif Accord, an American and Saudi-sponsored agreement signed by the surviving members of Lebanon's parliament in 1989. Following the US -sanctioned rout of Aoun's army units in east Beirut by Syrian forces in October 1990, the country settled into an uneasy calm. Assured by the United States that the Syrian occupation would be temporary, pending the "rehabilitation" of the Lebanese army under the new government, the LF disarmed in 1991 and became established as a political party. Malek was appointed head of its executive committee.
Over the next few years, Damascus refused to redeploy its forces as promised and hopes for the resurrection of Lebanese democracy quickly faded. Geagea refused to participate in a succession of post-war puppet governments and became a vocal opponent of Syrian control of the country. Throughout the early 1990s, LF supporters were subjected to a steadily escalating campaign of harassment by the authorities. Several outspoken members of the LF, such as Boutros Khawand, were abducted by Syrian intelligence operatives and carted off to detention centers in and around Damascus.
The Sayyidat al-Najjat Bombing
On February 27, 1994, a bomb exploded during Sunday Mass at the Sayyidat al-Najjat (Our Lady Of Deliverance) Church in Zouk Mikhael, killing ten people and sending shock waves through the Christian community. The next day, Geagea held a press conference and accused the government of failing to shoulder its responsibility to protect citizens. However, media leaks soon indicated that the investigation was focusing on suspects with alleged ties to the LF. On March 10, army units surrounded the LF headquarters and barred access to journalists and visitors.
On March 23, Malek was seized from his car in the mountains north of Jounieh and hauled to the defense ministry for questioning. Following an emergency cabinet meeting that same day, the government issued decrees outlawing the LF, confiscating all of its assets, and prohibiting private television and radio stations from broadcasting news or political programs.
Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, who had met with Malek hours before he was taken into custody, protested the latter's arrest. After government officials visited Sfeir and presented him with evidence implicating Malek, however, the patriarch fell silent. The following day, two of Malek's aides were taken into custody. More arrests of LF members followed, after which Defense Minister Mohsen Dalloul announced that the Sayyidat al-Najjat bomb had been assembled at Malek's office in Jounieh. "The preparations took place in his office and it is impossible that this could happen without his knowledge."1
The authorities were not interested in Malek, though - he lacked the charisma to be a serious political threat to the regime. It was Geagea they were after and they wanted Malek to cooperate with the investigation. This did not take much encouragement - he reportedly had a nervous breakdown in prison. Family members who visited Malek a few days after his arrest said he was crying uncontrollably. In early April, the conditions of his detention suddenly improved and Malek instructed his lawyer to publicly declare that widespread media reports about his mistreatment in custody were false. In part because of Malek's readiness to cooperate, the authorities opened investigations into Geagea's alleged responsibility for several assassinations during the war. Other detainees were more reluctant to cooperate and were subjected to brutal torture, meticulously documented by Amnesty International and other human rights groups, to extract statements implicating Geagea. One detainee, Fawzi al-Racy, died in custody from what officials called a "heart attack" - the government refused to permit an independent autopsy, or even allow his family to see the body, which was reported to have been grossly disfigured by acid.
Geagea, who had gone into seclusion following the bombing, was said to have been contacted by sympathetic Christians in the government who were aware of where the investigation was heading and offered safe passage out of Lebanon. He refused, and on April 21 was taken into custody.
The government first tried Geagea on charges of ordering the assassination of Dany Chamoun in 1990 - apparently because they wanted to first ensure a conviction of Geagea before they gave Malek leniency in the Sayyidat al-Najjat bombing trial. Although he did not specifically implicate Geagea in court, he testified that the assassination of a major political figure would not have been carried out by LF operatives without Geagea's knowledge and affirmed that the LF leader would have been the sole beneficiary of Chamoun's death. In a trial that Amnesty International said was "seriously flawed" by the court's failure to disallow confessions extracted through torture,2 Geagea was convicted and given a death sentence, commuted to life in prison. Subsequent show trials led to convictions for the 1989 killing of LF official Elias Zayek, the 1991 attempted assassination of then-Defense Minister Michel Murr, and the 1987 killing of then-Prime Minister Rashid Karami. Ironically, Geagea was found not guilty of involvement in the Sayyidat al-Najjat bombing
Malek was rewarded for his cooperation. In May 1995, he was released on bail (a "perk" that was not granted to other major defendants awaiting trial) and immediately announced that his captors had treated him "very well" and pledged never to engage in politics again.3 The following year, he received a light 18-month sentence for "striving to form military brigades." After serving his time, Malek walked free in 1997.
Geagea, the only militia leader to be tried for crimes committed during the civil war, has remained in solitary confinement in the basement of the Defense Ministry - an indication of how dangerous the authorities deem this political prisoner to be. A statement released last year by his lawyers described the conditions of his imprisonment:
"He is subjected to ruthless, systematic, deliberate and devastating psychological torture in a narrow, airless and lightless underground dungeon . . . Jailers handcuff him and blindfold him whenever he is taken out of his cell and each week he is allowed to talk to his relatives, lawyers and priests for no more than 60 minutes . . . He is often shaken out of sleep to be randomly frisked in a degrading manner . . . He is not allowed to read newspapers or magazines and his requests to have a television set have all been turned down. He is allowed no incoming or outgoing mail.4
Geagea's confinement gave the government a powerful bargaining chip with which to intimidate his followers. It has become a nearly ubiquitous ritual in Lebanon for unnamed government sources quoted in the media to hint that a "political decision" to release the LF leader will be made once the Christian community has reconciled itself to the Syrian-backed political order. Some of Geagea's supporters, including his wife, Sethrida, have moderated their opposition to the regime at critical junctures over the last eight years because they were led to believe that it would help win his release. Geagea's incarceration also facilitated efforts by the regime to co-opt second-tier LF leaders anxious to jump back into politics. With Geagea in complete isolation from public life, those who were willing to accommodate the regime could do so without fear of being rebuked by the movement's leader.
LF supporters were subjected to harassment and detentions by the security forces, prompting an estimated 1,500 to flee the country. The ban on the movement prevented those who remained from organizing collectively. The most glaring illustration of this has been the absence of any large-scale demonstrations organized specifically to call for Geagea's release. This demand is mainly expressed by the abundance of posters and signs bearing his image at religious and nationalist gatherings, such as annual commemorations of the 1982 assassination of Bashir Gemayel.
The ban weakened the movement by removing institutional mechanisms to elect an accountable leadership and adopt a specific political platform. However, it also helped prevent a power struggle between Sethrida Geagea and Malek, each of whom was careful to act only in an unofficial capacity.
After boycotting the 1996 parliamentary elections, the LF and other Christian opposition groups participated in municipal elections in 1998. Sethrida and Malek established an efficient and disciplined campaign management team and forged electoral alliances with a variety of different political factions in each district. Candidates affiliated with the LF were elected to nearly 300 municipal seats and gained control of over 30 municipal councils. In Geagea's hometown of Bsharri, the LF won all of the municipal council seats. In Beirut, LF candidate Joseph Sarkis joined the Beirut Accord list backed by Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, rather than the opposition list of his nationalist and leftist opponents, winning a seat on the most powerful municipal council in Lebanon. LF members "who at one time were not allowed to breathe have proven . . . that they deserve to be acknowledged" proclaimed Malek after the result. Throngs of LF supporters openly celebrated in the streets of east Beirut.
Sethrida and Malek drew different conclusions from the electoral success of 1998. Prior to the 2000 parliamentary elections, a bitter dispute erupted. Malek and several other former LF officials didn't want to join other Christian groups in boycotting the polls, arguing that it was the LF's refusal to participate in the political process that led the regime to arrest Geagea and ban the movement in 1994 - only by reversing this "historic mistake" could the LF hope to win Geagea's release and exert influence in the government.
Sethrida and Geagea's former political advisor, Toufic Hindi saw things differently. Because of district gerrymandering and other mechanisms put in place to orchestrate the electoral process, LF candidates would have been able to win seats only by joining the electoral slates of ruling pro-Syrian elites. And the price of admission to these "steamroller lists" was well known. Suspecting that Malek and like-minded LF figures were interested only in personal advancement, Sethrida and Hindi joined other Christian groups boycotting the polls.
After the elections, Malek and several other former LF officials began seeking accommodation with the regime. The members of this accommodationist camp, not all of whom were working in unison at the time, included George Kassab, former head of the LF in Kesrouan; George Abdelmassih, former head of the LF media department; Alfred Madi, the head of the LF information office in Washington until 1982, Robert Farah, the head of the LF information office in Washington from 1986 to 1999; Adel Saqr, former head of the LF in south Metn; Richard Jreissati, Geagea's former foreign policy advisor; Joseph Rizk, former LF deputy chief-of-staff; and Khalil Bassil, the head of the LF in Jbeil. Malek was reportedly told by Interior Minister Elias Murr that he would grant the LF a license to operate as a legal political party once the "moderates" had consolidated their leadership of the group and sidelined Sethrida. Lifting the ban on the LF would allow Malek's faction to claim the estimated $70 million in LF assets and properties seized by the government in 1994.
In December 2000, Damascus released several members of the LF who had been illegally detained in Syrian prisons for years, while carefully excluding Aoun's followers - a message clearly intended to convey that the "moderate" stance of Malek and others toward the regime would be rewarded. The head of Lebanon's Press Syndicate, Melham Karam, was allowed to visit Geagea in prison - the first time that anyone other than his close relatives, lawyers and priests had been permitted to meet with the LF leader since his incarceration.
The April 2001 establishment of the Qornet Shehwan Gathering, a loose coalition of Christian public figures opposed to the Syrian occupation and backed by the Maronite Christian patriarch, caused considerable concern in Damascus. Three LF officials backed by Sethrida and Hindi joined the coalition, in which Aoun's Free National Current (FNC) participated as an observer, unifying the mainstream and rejectionist opposition currents.
This led the Syrians to accelerate efforts to create Christian vehicles of political support for Lebanese President Emile Lahoud. The authorities began promoting a bid to gain control over the Phalange party by Karim Pakradouni, formerly the number two LF political leader under Geagea during the 1980s, who had since aligned himself with the regime. A combination of sticks and carrots were used to intimidate the executive committee of the Phalange party into electing Pakradouni, effectively eliminating the party as an institutional expression of Christian consensus.
For the same reasons, the authorities began to quietly promote the idea of reincarnating the LF under a compliant pro-Syrian leadership. Malek and other accommodationists were now granted a direct meeting with the Lebanese president. "After years of boycotting the movement and its activities, the fact that the president agreed to meet with members of the LF and highlight this even in the media is a sign of breaking the ice," declared Kassab.5 Malek began hinting that he had a channel to Damascus - the ultimate arbiter of Geagea's fate - noting that he "has contacts in the government, who have contacts with Syria."
Malek faced competition in his pursuit of the regime's backing from Geagea's predecessor as head of the LF, Elie Hobeika, who had become a Syrian ally back in the mid-1980s. The regime was clearly divided over whom to support - Hobeika had the merit of having served Damascus unquestionably for a decade and a half, but had lost credibility among Christians. Malek was a more recent convert whose loyalties were untested, but lacked Hobeika's sordid wartime past and had support from other members of the LF executive committee.
In an effort to outflank Hobeika, Malek proposed to Sethrida that a general assembly of LF members be held to choose a new leadership, but she rejected the obvious ploy to seize control of the movement. As Malek's confrontation with Sethrida came into the open, some LF figures who had supported his initiative began to distance themselves. Rizk abruptly withdrew his backing, while Madi packed up and moved to Dubai, apparently giving up politics.
On June 1, several Lebanese newspapers carried a statement from Geagea, relayed to the press by his lawyers, which accused Malek of betraying the political doctrines of the LF and launching a "political coup d'etat" aimed at dividing the movement. "If these political doctrines do not suit Fouad any longer, he has to say so publicly or establish a [separate] political party to advocate his new doctrines," said the statement.
Malek quickly issued a rebuttal, questioning the authenticity of Geagea's statement. Lebanese Prosecutor-General Adnan Addoum then stepped in and issued a decree prohibiting the LF leader's attorneys from visiting him in jail "because they have overstepped their professional duties by carrying political messages to and from Geagea." The decree was revoked after protests by the Beirut Bar Association. A subsequent statement from Geagea, issued by his wife, accused Malek of being "a link in the chain that the regime is patching together to encircle and weaken the opposition."
Malek began to openly contest the legitimacy of Sethrida's leadership. "Our dispute surfaced because I am proposing a truce with the state while Sethrida is adamant in her continuous opposition," he told the daily Al-Safir in July. "The political command of the LF should have taken control of the party after the arrest of Geagea," he added. "It is not possible for the leadership of the party to go from Geagea to his wife."
Malek's rebukes of Sethrida did not go over well among LF supporters. "We are with Sethrida. We surely do not agree with Malek's views," declared the head of the LF Student Committee, Salman Samaha, noting that the executive committee members had deserted Geagea at his moment of need and sought to ingratiate themselves with the authorities. The LF, he said, cannot "form a relationship with the same government that is detaining Geagea." Malek's faction accused Samaha of abandoning the movement's political line by coordinating student protests with the FNC, which rejects the Taif Accord.
In August, the Lebanese security apparatus launched a massive crackdown on the anti-Syrian opposition, arresting nearly 150 members of the FNC and 40 LF activists loyal to Geagea, including Samaha, Hindi, and Elie Keyrouz, a prominent attorney. While the crackdown was condemned by most Christian public figures (and many Muslims, including Prime Minister Hariri, who was not consulted beforehand), Malek openly defended it, declaring that security agencies which made the arrests were "doing their jobs" and that the judiciary which indicted his LF colleagues "is above suspicion."
In November, LF leaders abroad held their annual conclave in Washington DC and announced that Malek was expelled from the group. The vice-chairman of the LF Political Council (which groups LF chapters outside of Lebanon), Rashid Rahmeh, accused Malek of attempting to "liquidate the LF cause and the whole LF program."6
In late 2001, the leadership structure of the new LF was announced, with Malek as president, Jreissati as deputy president, Kassab as secretary-general for internal affairs, Farah as secretary-general for political affairs, Saqr as secretary-general for developmental affairs, and Bassil as chairman of the organization's honorary council. That same day, Samaha and Keyrouz were released by the authorities - an apparent message to LF supporters that recognizing the leadership of Malek and other LF "moderates" would lead to softer treatment by the government.
In January 2002, Malek's faction held its first political conclave at a monastery north of Beirut. At the gathering, which drew only several dozen LF members, Malek indirectly apologized for the movement's opposition activities in the early 1990s, saying it had "departed from the political position" it assumed when it accepted the 1989 Taif Accord, and called for "reason and logic" in its future positions. A document drafted by the participants of the conclave outlined the party's support for President Lahoud and called upon the movement's rank and file to "get ready to join" the soon-to-be legalized party.
However, despite a continuous flow of media reports suggesting that official recognition of Malek's LF faction was imminent, the much-awaited political license did not materialize. By the middle of 2002, several figures who had been squarely in Malek's camp began appearing less often with him in public, or not at all.
Malek sought to encourage defections from the group's student committee - the heart and soul of grassroots LF activism - but was rebuffed. One prominent member of the committee who met several times with Malek but declined to switch sides may have paid a very heavy price for his stance. In May, Ramzi Irani was abducted in broad daylight in the streets of Beirut by unknown assailants who tortured him mercilessly and dumped his body in the trunk of his car. The conspicuous reluctance of the authorities to investigate the murder cast a pall of fear over the Christian community.
Desperate to secure the government's stamp of approval, Malek adopted increasingly exaggerated expressions of solidarity with Damascus. When Lebanese Christians from around the world convened in June at the International Maronite Congress in Los Angeles and voted overwhelmingly to endorse the Syria Accountability Act (SAA) under consideration in congress, Malek obediently condemned the event. In September, days before a US congressional subcommittee began hearings on the SAA, Malek's faction participated in an anti-American rally organized by the regime that was not only boycotted by most Christian groups, but failed to attract any representatives from several leftist and Muslim groups that had been invited to send delegations.
A few weeks later, Malek's faction held a meeting at its new office in the Sahel Alma neighborhood of Kesrouan and named the heads of the party's chapters in Beirut, Bsharri, Marjayoun, Baabda, Metn, Kesrouan, Jbeil and Koura. LF supporters were not impressed, however, particularly when the man designated to head the Koura office, William Aql, released a statement saying that he had neither accepted nor been informed of his appointment.
The interior ministry continues to withhold the official recognition that Malek so desperately seeks. The decidedly unenthusiastic response of the movement's supporters to Malek's initiative may have led Lahoud to question whether the LF can be reincarnated as a vehicle of political support for his presidency. Despite the fact that Malek has been allowed to openly organize and canvas for support in the name of the LF - privileges denied to Sethrida - he has been unable to mobilize LF supporters behind him.
Indeed, Malek has even lost the support of some LF figures who advocate accommodation with Syria because of growing suspicions that the regime never seriously entertained the idea of granting him a political license - that the limited freedom to operate he has been given was intended from the very beginning only to weaken and divide the LF. This quasi-legal status is indicative of a time-honored strategy used by Damascus to secure the allegiance of its Lebanese proxies. Political "carrots" are most effective in eliciting desirable behavior when they can be easily revoked. Allowing Malek's LF faction to hold press conferences and open offices, but without according it any formal legal rights, ensures that the former army colonel will not deviate from his scripted pronouncements of support for the Syrian occupation. Denounced as a traitor by the majority of LF supporters, Malek cannot now return to the fold - he is destined to remain a mere pawn in Syria's efforts to divide the Christian community.
1 Al-Diyar (Beirut), 31 March 1994.
2 Amnesty International, "'Lebanese Forces' Trial Seriously Flawed," 24 June 1995.
3 Nida'a al-Watan (Beirut), 19 May 1995.
4 Al-Nahar (Beirut), 27 July 2001.
5 The Daily Star (Beirut), 28 April 2001.
6 Al-Nahar (Beirut), 24 November 2001.
© 2002 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin.