There are as many presidential candidates as the number of Syrian soldiers in this picture of Baabda Palace in 1990 (Photo: Nabil Ismail/AFP)
In the past 10 days, there has been a lot of talk about finding a consensual presidential candidate. Walid Jumblatt and Speaker Berri made an initiative in August and they were followed this week by a similar stance from the March 14 alliance. Since the presidential elections are not exclusively about Geagea and Aoun anymore, I thought that it would be interesting to publish the following WikiLeaks cable that discusses the main 26 candidates from 2007. Except for those who are deceased, the candidates are basically still the same ones. The cable separates the candidates into 8 categories: “March 14″ (Nassib Lahoud, Boutros Hareb, Amine Gemayel, Nayla Mouawad, Samir Franjieh), “the consensus candidates” (Robert Ghanem, Charles Rizk), “the perennial candidate” :P (Michel Aoun), “Amal’s favorite” (John Obeid), “the constitutionally challenged” (Michel Sleiman, Riad Salameh), “the octogenarians” (Michel Edde, Michel Khoury, Pierre Daccash), “the uninspiring” (Chibli Mallat, Fares Boueiz, Roger Edde, Demianos Kattar, Simon Karam, Joseph Torbey, Shakib Qortbawi, Charles Chidiac, Nabil Mechantaff, Farid Raphael) and “the dark horse” :P (Johnny Abdo).
1. (SBU) The list of candidates to be Lebanon’s president, by tradition a Maronite Christian, is growing longer as the end of current President Emile Lahoud’s term on November 23 grows nearer. With its October 23 session now cancelled, parliament is scheduled to convene on November 12 in a second attempt to vote for Lebanon’s next president. As of now, the gap between majority March 14 and opposition March 8-Aoun forces remains wide. The chances the two sides will agree on a consensus candidate is remote, although much could change between now and November 12. Following are snapshot descriptions of each of the (25 and counting) contenders, both declared and otherwise. End summary.
2. (C) NASSIB LAHOUD (declared): Generally acknowledged to be the best candidate, Lahoud is a cousin to President Emile Lahoud, but their politics couldn’t be more different. Nassib’s strong anti-Syrian position and his close ties with Saudi Arabia (his sister-in-law was once married to King Abdallah) make his candidacy an automatic red line for the pro-Syrian opposition. Lahoud’s only hope for the nomination is if March 14 proceeds with a half plus one vote, a controversial step that March 8 declares unconstitutional. Lahoud, who was an MP before losing his Metn seat to the Aoun bloc in 2005, voted against the 2004 constitutional amendment extending Emile Lahoud’s presidential term. Aoun bloc supporters speak with suspicion about Lahoud’s marriage to a Sunni, while Hizballah accuses Lahoud of overly warm ties to the U.S., given that Lahoud was one Lebanon’s ambassador to Washington. Lahoud is considered the “cleanest” candidate, having shut down all Lebanese operations of his successful engineering firm when he entered politics. Some people suggest, in fact, that Lahoud will never be permitted to become president because the Syrians could not bribe or blackmail him.
3. (C) BOUTROS HARB (declared): Flattered by Speaker Nabih Berri’s promises of support, Harb, in contrast with his March 14 partners, supports March 8’s call for a mandatory two-thirds quorum in hopes that it will help him become the consensus candidate. Should March 14 proceed with a half plus one vote, he claims he will support Lahoud. A long-time MP from Batroun, Harb voted against the Syrian-backed extension of President Lahoud and joined early opposition movements against Syrian control of Lebanon. As the one-time lawyer for Bank al-Medina chief Rana Qoleilat, Harb has not cleansed himself entirely of the whiff of scandal from Bank al-Medina’s spectacular 2003 collapse.
4. (SBU) AMINE GEMAYEL: As yet undeclared, the brother of assassinated President-elect Bashir and father of assassinated Industry Minister Pierre, Amine considers the presidency his due right. Leader of the Phalange party. In 1988 then President Amine appointed LAF Commander General Michel Aoun as acting prime minister when parliament failed to elect a new president, earning a death threat from Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea (now his ally in March 14) and splitting the LAF.
5. (C) NAYLA MOUAWAD: The only female candidate (and only the third woman in Lebanon’s history to serve in the cabinet), Mouawad is the widow of assassinated President Rene Mouawad and honorary president of the Rene Mouawad Foundation in the United States. She is Minister of Social Affairs in the Siniora cabinet and, as an MP from Zghorta, voted against the extention of Lahoud’s mandate. While recognized as being one of the hardest working political figures in the country, Mouawad herself recognizes that she has only slim chances of succeeding in presidential elections. She has told us that, if it’s clear she cannot win, she will vote for Nassib Lahoud.
6. (SBU) SAMIR FRANJIEH: Also known as the “Red Bey” because of his leftist leanings and feudal heritage, Franjiyeh was
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instrumental in the creation of the Qornet Chahwan Christian opposition group that called for Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. He strongly advocates the implementation of all UN resolutions related to Lebanon, specifically UNSCR 1559 and 1701. Because of his leftist past, Franjieh appeals to a large number of Shia intellectuals. He is close to Walid Jumblatt and was a close associate to late PM Rafiq Hariri. Franjieh’s weakness is his lack of popular support in his Christian district of Zgharta, and because he was elected to parliament with the Muslim votes of Tripoli. Known in March 14 circles as “the good Franjieh,” he is strongly opposed by his cousin Suleiman Franjieh, the “bad Franjieh” and former MP and ex-minister who is close to Bashar al-Asad.
THE CONSENSUS CANDIDATES
7. (SBU) ROBERT GHANEM (declared): Ghanem, who hails from the Biqa’, denies being a member of March 14 and is seen by some as being too susceptible to Syrian political pressure. Indeed, with Syrian troops virtually at his doorstep, he failed to attend the March 14, 2005 Cedar Revolution demonstration, and voted for the 2004 extension of President Lahoud’s mandate following Syrian threats. A “decent” man according to our contacts from all sides, it is unclear how strongly he would stand up to the Syrians should he receive the nomination. His name was one of seven mentioned as potential consensus candidates in the October 22 issue of ad-Diyyar, a pro-Syrian newspaper.
8. (SBU) CHARLES RIZK: Currently Minister of Justice and in the past a long-time friend of President Lahoud, Rizk distanced himself from Lahoud following the 2005 assassination of MP Gebran Tueini. He played a crucial role in the creation of the UN Special Tribunal for the assassination of former PM Rafiq Hariri and has used this platform to promote himself as a presidential candidate. While appointed as one of “Lahoud’s men” to the Siniora cabinet, Rizk defied orders in refusing to resign in November 2006 with the Shia ministers. He has become broadly acceptable to March 14 because of his dogged pursuit of the tribunal. The French like Rizk for his impeccable language skills, which have made him Lebanon’s more or less permanent representative to the Francophonie. (With good English as well, Rizk has offered to represent Lebanon at what he jokingly calls the “Anglophonie.”)
THE PERENNIAL CANDIDATE
9. (C) MICHEL AOUN (forever declared): Nominally Hizballah’s one and only candidate (or so he would like to believe), the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) leader and former Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) commander insists he alone enjoys the majority of the Christian and popular vote and therefore deserves to be president. Often described as being mentally unstable, the opportunistic Aoun, realizing Hizballah’s support for him is perfunctory, recently began reaching out to March 14 in an effort to boost his dwindling prospects. He may have the highest single popularity ratings in the country of any Christian politician, but that is balanced by one of the highest negative ratings as well. Aoun is infamous for picking the wrong side of issues — as PM and interim (acting) head of State, he continued to support Saddam Hussein after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, and he opposed the Taif accord that even the Patriarch accepted.
10. (C) JOHN OBEID: A long-time pro-Syrian figure and former Baathist, Obeid shifted gears in 2004 when he refused to attend the cabinet session that extended President Lahoud’s term. Then Lebanon’s foreign minister, Obeid believed that he deserved the presidency himself. Obeid is nevertheless Parliament Speaker and Amal leader Nabih Berri’s preferred candidate. Despite Obeid’s renewed ties with majority leader Saad Hariri, Lebanese Forces Samir Geagea still vetoes his candidacy. Maronite Patriarch Sfeir acquires the expression of one smelling a very bad odor when Obeid’s name is mentioned. Obeid’s name was also touted in the October 22 ad-Diyyar story as an acceptable (presumably to Syria)
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THE CONSTITUTIONALLY CHALLENGED
11. (C) MICHEL SLEIMAN: Commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) for the last nine years, General Sleiman’s popularity soared following the September 2 defeat of Fatah al-Islam militants in the Nahr al-Barid Palestinian camp in northern Lebanon. Sleiman’s long tenure as head of the LAF entailed close ties with the Syrians, and it is not clear how strong these ties remain. Because he is a sitting government official, the constitution prohibits him from running for president without a two year interim period, though parliament (with a two-thirds majority) could vote to amend the constitution if it appears the General is the only candidate who can “save the country.” Ad-Diyyar newspaper did Sleiman no favors in including his name in the October 22 list of potential consensus candidates, inclusion that reinforces the March 14 impression that Sleiman, while basically an honest figure, is too close to to the Syrians.
12. (C) RIAD SALAMEH: The 2006 Central Banker of the Year according to the U.S. finance magazine Euromoney, Salameh is considered to be a capable central banker and technocrat. Although he argues that he is not a government employee and therefore needs no constitutional amendment, most believe he faces the same obstacle as Sleiman. Also like Sleiman, it is not clear where his loyalties lie; Salameh is rumored to be a close economic advisor to Syrian President Bashar Asad. His name, too, was in the October 22 ad-Diyyar article.
13. (C) MICHEL EDDE: A prominent figure in Lebanon’s Maronite community, happy gourmand Edde emphasizes the protection of the Lebanese Christians and the need for Maronites to maintain a role in government. Edde was close to former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. While privately supportive of the Special Tribunal, Edde has remained quiet publicly on most contentious political issues. Resolving the Palestinian refugee issue is at the top of his agenda, and he believes that the time is ripe to find a solution — any solution — as long as that means the Palestinians (who are mostly Sunni) do not stay in Lebanon to further dilute the Christian demographics. Edde was close to former Surete General chief Jamil as-Sayyid, now in prison at UNIIIC request for possible involvement in the Hariri assassination. Edde is the butt of jokes about his comments several years ago that he would throw his body down to prevent Syrian tanks from leaving Lebanon. Like many of the other candidates, Edde professes disinterest but will accept the presidency if elected, and demonstrated his nonchalance by being abroad on a trip when parliament was scheduled to convene October 23. Edde, too, was on the October 22 ad-Diyyar list of potential compromise candidates.
14. (C) MICHEL KHOURY: The son of Lebanon’s first independence president, Bechara Khoury, and a member of the March 14 alliance, “Sheikh” Michel has close links to the Vatican. While strongly March 14 in views, he privately suggesting dropping the formation of the Special Tribunal in an attempt to break the political deadlock and stop the political assassinations. Though quick to protest at suggestions that he could become Lebanon’s next president, the always elegant Khoury would, in our view, be a good choice, though he probably is too pro-March 14 to be a consensus candidate. If he would emerge as a serious candidate, we are certain that he would accept our request that he strongly back the Tribunal. 15.
(C) PIERRE DACCASH: Daccash ran unopposed as a so-called “consensus” candidate for a Baabda-Aley seat after the death (unusually by natural cases) of March 14 MP Edmond Naim. Since his election, however, Daccash has towed closely to the Aoun line and is seen around town frequently with former Minister Youssef Salameh (known as “Pumpkin head,” both for his appearance and his allegiance to Emile Lahoud). Now, Daccash is touted again as a “consensus” candidate, this time for the presidency. He is from a predominately Shia area, Hadath, and is considered by some to be a weak president, if
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elected. Pro-Syrian newspaper ad-Diyyar included him on its October 22 list of seven acceptable candidates.
16. (SBU) CHIBLI MALLAT: An active member in the Cedar revolution, Mallat co-founded and coordinated organizations for democracy and judicial accountability in mass crimes in Iraq (formed the Indict Saddam Association) and conducted judicial action leading to the indictment of Libyan President Muammar Kaddafi for the disappearance of Shiite Imam Mussa Sadr.
17. (C) FARES BOUEIZ: The long-winded Boueiz endorsed Syrian foreign policies during the mandate of his father-in-law (1989-1998), late President Elias Hraoui. Boueiz has forged strong relations with then Syria’s Foreign Minister Faruq Shara. Boueiz boycotted the cabinet session that extended President Lahoud’s term in September 2004, voted against Lahoud’s extension in parliament, and joined the Bristol opposition group that formed in autumn 2004. Since then, however, he has drifted back into the Syrian orbit, garnering him a place on ad-Diyyar’s October 22 list of potential consensus candidates. Boueiz is widely considered the most corrupt of the candidates, at the opposite end of the cleanliness scale from Nassib Lahoud. According to reports, Boueiz, when foreign minister, sold honorary consul positions and made other decisions based on bribes.
18. (SBU) ROGER EDDE: An international financier and prominent project developer, Edde is the owner of the popular Edde Sands Beach Resort. He supports a strategic peace between Israel and Lebanon, and between Israel and Syria, with a solution for the Palestinian issue. He supported Free Patriotic Movement head General Michel Aoun politically and financially while Aoun was in exile in Paris, but he broke from the group in 2005 after Aoun failed to include Edde on his parliamentary list and joined March 14. Edde is critical of Aoun’s “memorandum of understanding” with Hizballah.
19. (C) DEMIANOS KATTAR: A former Minister of Finance (in the Mikati government), Kattar has distanced himself from political figures he worked with but has remained close to Maronite Patriarch Sfeir. He openly says that he is the favorite presidential candidate for Bkirke – the seat of the Maronite Church. Kattar considers that he has built “executive experience” having served for ten weeks in the Mikati-led Cabinet in 2005 as Finance Minister and Economy and Trade Minister. In 2003, he became advisor to President Emile Lahoud, but then distanced himself from Lahoud around 2004 and became close to Mikati. Kattar has built a successful career as a management consultant in the Gulf region. Citing Kattar’s proclivity to talk rather than do, Najib Mikati tells us that the appointment of Kattar was his sole mistake in forming his cabinet.
20. (SBU) SIMON KARAM: Rumored to be the Patriarch’s favorite, Karam’s vocal criticisms of Berri and Hizballah almost certainly rule out his chances. The Syrians evicted him from his position as Lebanon’s Ambassador to the U.S. in 1992 because he attempted to lobby for a gradual Israel withdrawal from Lebanon gradually. Karam strongly supports the disarmament of Hizballah and all militias in Lebanon, and he supports the Special Tribunal. He further advocates changing the mandate of UNIFIL to deploy it along the Syrian-Lebanese border. While agreeing with March 14 principles, he opposes March 14 practices, believing (with some justification) that March 14 has not expended sufficient efforts to win independent Shia support.
21. (SBU) JOSEPH TORBEY: The newly elected president of the Maronite League, Torbey is an expert in Lebanese and regional banking and financial issues. He is the longtime chairman and general manager of Credit Libanais group, which includes a variety of local and regional companies specializing in investment banking, insurance, real estate, IT, and tourism. Formerly head of both the Lebanese and Arab Bankers Assocation, he has been active recently in visiting the various political leaders in an attempt to bridge the gap between the opposition and pro-government.
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22. (SBU) SHAKIB QORTBAWI: The former head of the Bar Association of Beirut, Qortbawi has been a fervent advocate for freedom of expression and brought to the forefront cases of human rights abuses during the Syrian era. A former member of the executive committee of the National Bloc party, Qortbawi was among the first people to join the Qornet Shahwan Christian opposition group during 2001. Though not a member of Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, he espoused all of Aoun’s anti-Syrian policies and stances. He ran on Aoun’s list for the parliamentary elections during 2005 but lost to Jumblatt’s candidate.
23. (SBU) CHARLES CHIDIAC: The president of the Republican Reform Party, Chidiac’s campaign platform primarily rests with defeating Hizballah’s strength in Lebanon and reining in Syria, through building a coalition of non-Hizballah Shia and providing economic incentives. Claiming not to particularly want the presidency, which he started considering when Lahoud’s term was renewed in 2004, Chidiac is running now because he feels there is no one else. When pushed, he will acknowledge that he is March 14, but not explicitly. He says that if it comes to a compromise candidate, Jumblatt would support him.
24. (SBU) NABIL MECHANTAFF: Nabil Mechantaff is a lawyer from the Shouf district and currently serves as chairman of the Lebanese Movement party. He shifted gears several times in his political life, starting as a staunch supporter of Lebanese Forces head Samir Geagea during the civil war, then becoming an Aounist during Aoun’s era, and now he is flirting with the Gemayel family. He presented himself as a presidential candidate several times in the past. He strongly opposes Hizballah’s arms and supports the international tribunal.
25. (SBU) FARID RAPHAEL: A banker, Farid Raphael was appointed Minister of Finance during the seventies under former President Elias Sarkis. He is currently the CEO of Banque Libanon-Francaise and was head of the Bankers’ Association. He was close to the late PM Rafiq Hariri. In the nineties, Raphael set up a holding company that purchased the cargo carrier TMA. It is alleged that Raphael acted as the frontman for Hariri, who later pulled out from the holding company. Raphael took over TMA and is now trying to sell it. As a businessman, Raphael has little involvement with current political groups.
THE DARK HORSE
26. (C) JOHNNY ABDO: A former LAF G-2 Intelligence Director, Abdo is said to be the dark horse for Hariri and March 14, in the event elections are held with a half plus one majority. Geagea is supportive because Abdo was close to Bashir Gemayel, and, as a former LAF officer, Abdo also enjoys support from the military. He is on Hariri’s payroll and it is believed that Jumblatt would not oppose him (despite Abdo’s assassination attempt on Jumblatt in 1983). Abdo and Michel Aoun are bitter enemies.
(Link to the cable on Wikileaks)
103 days since the 25th of May. 74 days till the 16th of November.