Sheikh Jasem Al-Askar, head of the Arab Tribes Federation in Lebanon, is poised to play an outsized role in the country’s upcoming elections.
Leaders of Lebanon’s Arab Tribes are to participate in the country’s upcoming parliamentary elections alongside the right-wing Christian Lebanese Forces Party (LF), allegedly based on orders by Saudi Arabia.
Sheikh Jasem Al-Askar, head of the Arab Tribes Federation in Lebanon, is considered one of the most prominent players within the clans, and has strong relations with Saudi Arabia, to which his clan is affiliated.
Although his views often provoke controversy, he is backed by an extensive network of Arab tribes within various Lebanese regions, tens of thousands of whom were naturalized in 1994 by former prime minister Rafiq Hariri to serve his electoral ambitions.
Today, because of high birth rates, the tribes are more than half a million strong, have altered the demographic sectarian balance in various Lebanese regions, and could be the deciding factor in the country’s upcoming elections. Importantly, the tribes have grown to represent one third of the Sunni electorate.
The Arab tribes were launched into the national spotlight in July 2021 when some elements targeted and killed several members of Lebanese resistance movement Hezbollah, a group despised by Riyadh.
A few months later, the Lebanese Forces were also implicated in the killings of Hezbollah supporters and their allies during a peaceful protest on 14 October 2021 in Beirut.
According to reports, the Saudis have demanded that Arab tribal elders electorally support LF leader Samir Geagea in opposition to the Hezbollah political alliance that swept Lebanon’s last elections.
Together, the two parties would provide Riyadh with some clout in Lebanon’s next election, which the Saudis lost when relations with former PM Saad Hariri and his political party soured.
Sheikh Jasem Al-Askar and a number of tribal notables have now sought to adopt the LF’s lists for a number of candidates in the country’s heavily-anticipated May elections.
The Cradle: How do Arab clans see the current reality of the Lebanese state?
Askar: The current reality of the Lebanese state is not similar to the state we envision, we don’t believe there is a free state nor is there independent sovereignty. It is also not a state governed by constitution in accordance with the Taif Agreement. The Taif Agreement has not been implemented, and the problem is that not all Lebanese believe in implementing its provisions so that salvation can be achieved to build a civil state, as was attempted by the martyr, Prime Minister Rafik Hariri before his martyrdom.
From our point of view, when Hariri was assassinated, the Taif Agreement was assassinated with him along with the state. The problem is that democracy has become consensual between political parties, through which the state has turned into states with partisan and feudal militias exhausted by corruption. This has led to the dismantling of institutions amid looting, stealing and sharing them among political parties.
The name of the state remained and all its components collapsed while Hezbollah succeeded in every aspect for its own benefit and for the benefit of its axis, which is part of a regional project.
The Cradle: How did the Arab tribes interpret the withdrawal of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the suspension of his political work?
Askar: The views of the tribal federation does not necessarily represent the consensus of the tribes in Lebanon, but from 2005 until 2017, the federation was the most loyal in adhering to the project of Hariri, second only to his son, Saad in building the state. Unfortunately we did not meet with Saad when he was prime minister but we expected to meet him and involve us in decision making out of respect for our years of support.
We do not accept compromising on the vision of the martyr prime minister [Rafiq Hariri] from anyone, which we have endorsed and sacrificed and worked a lot for since 2005 – even if asked to do so by Saad Hariri himself.
What we have read in prime minister Saad Hariri’s announcement of stopping the political work of the Future Movement, is that there are differences between Hariri and Saudi Arabia on the political performance. We do not know any further details.
And I don’t agree on what was being circulated about a Saudi desire for a military confrontation with Hezbollah. If the decision to stop political action is an objection to Hezbollah’s dominance in Lebanon, then this is an explicit admission that Hariri’s resignation in 2017 was a correct decision. [Editor’s note: Hariri was forced to resign his prime ministership via television during a trip to Saudi Arabia, where he was reportedly ‘roughed up’ by his hosts. Lebanon’s president Michel Aoun refused to accept the resignation until Hariri was back safely on Lebanese soil].
President Saad was too late at that time. If this is the reason, I think that it is imperative for the [Progressive] Socialist Party (PSP), the Lebanese Forces party and the rest of the other political forces to follow in the footsteps of Hariri and the Future Movement.
The Cradle: Will you boycott the parliamentary elections if the Future Movement is reluctant to run?
Askar: On 15 January, the final statement of the fourth conference of the Arab Tribes Federation of Lebanon was issued. We announced our decision regarding the parliamentary elections and that we have great doubts about the postponement of the elections and the potential collapse of the state.
Last month we held a meeting through which we announced our position on parliamentary elections, by studying the stage in all its aspects and the benefit of running or not running in the elections, we will announce the outcome of the meeting for public opinion, God willing.
The Cradle: It is said that the Arab tribes will ally with the Lebanese Forces Party in different regions, what is the validity of this claim?
Askar: The Federation has not announced any alliance to date and the union’s president has not met with the head of the LP since 2016. All that is rumored remains just speculation, media talk and analysis.
The Cradle: Is it possible to ally with [Samir Geagea] the killer of Prime Minister Rashid Karami, who was one of the Sunni leaders of Lebanon?
Askar: To date, we have not allied ourselves with anyone, regardless of our position on the need to live together, build the state and forget the past.
We believe that at the moment this talk is just fuelling sectarianism and conflict and that it was better to ask this question in the face of the quartet in 2005. We were already within the March 14 alliance, and there were no objections to this alliance.
The Cradle: What are the objectives of the last conference you held at your home, and what message did you want to send?
Askar: Our goals and rewards have not changed since the announcement of the launch of the Federation in 2012; we in Lebanon are an independent political equation that believes in Free Lebanon. We are also Arabs and we believe in the Constitution and the principles of Taif, our moderate approach rejects terrorism and extremism and we dream of a free civil state based on social justice. We also acknowledge our Arab and tribal roots and our mission was manifested in the presence of the Grand Mufti of the Lebanese Republic, Sheikh Abdul Latif Deryan, for our last conference where we stressed before him that moderation is our approach.
The Cradle: Why are you standing today under the umbrella of Saudi Arabia?
Askar: We can confirm that we stand under the Saudi umbrella not only from today but from ancient times due to our Arab heritage. Saudi Arabia is also at the forefront of the Arab world, this loyalty is natural and is what connects us with the Kingdom of religion, nationalism and tribes. The Kingdom is the pole of Islam and the land of revelation and the land of the Two Holy Mosques and to which we are united.
The Cradle: Do you get money from Saudi Arabia?
Askar: From the first moment we announced our independence and political aspirations we were hoping and tried to convey our voice to develop our regions and villages to get service institutions like other political parties and forces. We hope that the Kingdom will provide us with material support, but today we can say that we have not received any development, service, relief or financial assistance.
The Cradle: What if Saudi Arabia tries to use you in sectarian fighting to confront Hezbollah?
Askar: Firstly we are moderate and we are doves of peace. In 2016, we brought together the tribes of Baalbek-Hermel and spoke out against sectarianism. However, we have already stated and repeat that when anyone attacks us we will defend ourselves, and those who fight us, we will fight them. We do not compromise on our dignity.
As for the question of Saudi Arabia’s attempt to use us in sectarian fighting, I will not answer such hypotheses because it is Saudi Arabia that has always worked to achieve the security and stability of Lebanon, and it is the one who rebuilt it and not those who destroyed it, so I will not answer illusions.