Before the Christian Wedding: Aoun and Geagea on WikiLeaks

Samir Geagea (C-L) welcomes Michel Aoun (C-R) to his headquarters in Maarab, north-east of Beirut, on January 18, 2016. Aldo Ayoub, Lebanese Forces, AFP

Samir Geagea (C-L) welcomes Michel Aoun (C-R) to his headquarters in Maarab, north-east of Beirut, on January 18, 2016. Aldo Ayoub / Lebanese Forces / AFP

This is the 12th post in a series of monthly posts covering (forgotten/ignored) WikiLeaks cables about Lebanon.

Samir Geagea’s endorsement of Michel Aoun as the Lebanese Forces’ official candidate is Lebanon’s political development of the month – arguably the year. And while Lebanon’s biggest parties are yet to take the final stance on the issue, I thought it would be nice to look at the evolution of the Geagea-Aoun ties from a different point of view, via the WikiLeaks cables.

This post is a compilation of WikiLeaks cables where Aoun discusses Geagea, and Geagea discusses Aoun (there are far more cables of Geagea discussing Aoun for the simple fact that Geagea speaks to the American ambassador a lot more than Aoun). I have only kept the Aoun-Geagea parts of the cables (that I found by searching “Aoun Geagea” and then looking at the most 160 relevant results) and you can check the full cables by looking them up (using their canonical ID) on WikiLeaks.

If you think that it is useless to look at more than 30 outdated WikiLeaks cables where Geagea says that Aoun is arming the FPM and Aoun says that he was not March 8 and was forced to go there, let me correct you with one quote:

But, Geagea warned, if he has to choose between backing a weak figure like Robert Ghanem to preserve March 14 unity or preserving his Christian credibility by breaking with Hariri over a bad presidential choice, he will chose the latter. Geagea said that he would have no choice but to build an alliance with Aoun“- November 9, 2007.

Perhaps Hariri should have paid more attention to what his main Christian ally was telling the American ambassador…

FOCUS ON THE DATES – I organized the cables by chronological order. Enjoy.

LEBANON: JA’JA’ BRINGS IDEAS DOWN FROM THE MOUNTAIN
2007 January 18, 16:57 (Thursday)
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5. (C) One thing that would break the Christians and March 14 would be a compromise in the presidency, Geagea said adamantly. Why, he asked, should there be a compromise in the presidency, rather than a compromise speaker or prime minister? Geagea had given some thought to allowing Aoun to become president, but said that there is no way to know which way Aoun would go after reaching that overriding goal. He said that Aoun obviously prefers chaos to losing the presidency, and that he might push for violence without clearly understanding the results. Saying that he had been approached with the idea of allowing Aoun the presidency by both Jumblatt and Hariri, he had made it clear that he would not support it, and was assured that it would not be proposed by either without further discussion with Geagea. In this light he pointed out that paradoxically, Amal and Hizballah are currently “allies in non-violence.”

10. (C) Geagea reported that he is not talking to Aoun or his followers — he says that Aoun has no advisors, only followers — very much lately. This is because Aoun’s situation has become critical and Geagea does not wish to resuscitate Aoun’s declining political fortunes. Geagea believes that Aoun will find someone to run in the Metn by-election against former President Amine Gemayel, although it is difficult to see how Gemayel could lose. Aoun really believes that his candidate will win, which is further proof that his poor judgment carries a high risk for the country. As for Speaker Berri, he is “shy” and won’t meet, even declining a ceremonial visit by Geagea on the recent Muslim Eid holiday. Berri said he was not receiving visitors.

LEBANON: LEBANESE FORCES’ GEAGEA BELIEVES CIVIL WAR IS CLOSE
2007 February 12, 17:01 (Monday)
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9. (C) According to Geagea, Aoun can now go in either of two directions: one is to dialogue without street action; the other is to arm his people. Syria is telling Aoun that they could provide him the arms and officers to train and fight alongside his people. Aoun is inclined to stick to the first choice of dialogue, but will ask the GOL for a license for his supporters to carry arms. Aoun is said to have gathered his people after January 23 and to have told them they did not do their job adequately in rallying the masses. He then replaced a few of his top lieutenants, moving out some and putting in their places former military officers. Geagea described Aoun as uncompromising, uwilling to listen BEIRUT 00000229 003 OF 003 to his close advisors, and acting only on what he thinks will take him closer to his goal of becoming president. Aoun finds himself in the midst of his own Greek tragedy: he knows he will not become the next president, and yet is spending all his efforts in trying to reverse the current situation in a last-ditch effort to become president.

LEBANON:SAMIR GEAGEA ON THE TRIBUNAL, BOLSTERING MARCH 14, AND PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS
2007 April 27, 15:06 (Friday)
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9. (C) Geagea argued in favor of his getting together with Michel Aoun to discuss presidential candidates. Geagea noted that Aoun’s participation is perferable because, despite his waning popularity, Aoun will still have at least 20 percent support after the presidential election. Certain groups around Aoun will never support March 14 or the Lebanese Forces. He commented that the other sects could not oppose any candidate supported by both Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and the LF, the two dominant Christian groups. Geagea said his own people and Aoun’s maintain contact at a low level. He believes that some of the FPM members are not happy with Aoun’s policies. Both the Ambassador and Geagea agreed that Aoun is probably not getting from his own team a true picture of his diminished support. Geagea agreed that the chance for success in getting Aoun to pick another presidential candidate other than himself, in agreement with the LF, might be slim, but it is worth trying.

GEAGEA’S PLAN FOR SELECTING THE PRESIDENT

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10. (C) Geagea noted that while Maronite Patriarch Sfeir is likely to push for presidential elections, the Patriarch will not name his preferred choice nor help negotiate on candidates among the factions. Geagea plans to select one or two candidates * preferably people both he and Aoun can agree on * and then quietly vet the names with the Patriarch. Once Patriarch Sfeir knows (and approves) of the

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candidate, Sfeir will become even more vocal in calling for presidential elections, unofficially signaling his support. Geagea thinks this will have the dual effect of getting the Patriarch’s “unofficial” blessing for the March 14 candidate and, if Aoun is still allied with the opposition, embarrass Aoun. After Geagea has vetted candidates with the Patriarch he will discuss them with his 14 March allies, who will be unlikely to go against a candidate supported by the Patriarch.

10. (C) Geagea does not expect to implement his plan anytime soon because he wants to give Aoun time to switch alliances or negotiate candidates with Geagea before March 14 enters into its candidate selection process. He noted that, for now at least, it is unlikely Aoun would be willing to break with Hizballah and ally with March 14. Perhaps closer to the elections ) as Aoun realizes he will lose more credibility and support if he opposes presidential elections as Geagea expects the opposition to do – he may decide to join the majority as a last chance to maintain some political influence.

LEBANON: GEAGEA FOCUSES ON ELECTIONS WITH A/S WELCH
2007 May 17, 16:52 (Thursday)
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3. (C) Geagea has tried to discuss presidential candidates with Christian politician General Michel Aoun on several occasions, but the General refuses to engage in any dialogue that does not have him as the only potential candidate. The General, as president, is an “impossible” outcome for Geagea. He plans to continue pushing Aoun to agree on a (non-Aoun) candidate. Geagea commented that Aoun’s public attacks against him and Druze leader Walid Junblatt have become less frequent. He believes that Aoun’s criticism drew attention to Geagea’s prominent position in the March 14 coalition and debunked Aoun’s claim that March 14 Christians are subservient to the coalition’s Muslims (a rallying cry Aoun has used to scare Christians to his side). Asked about Aoun’s seemingly large financial base, Geagea claimed he has heard rumors of Qatari funding for the General’s nascent “Orange TV” station.

LEBANON: GEAGEA OUTLINES MARCH 14 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION STRATEGY
2007 August 6, 05:21 (Monday)
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4.(C) Under this scenario, there would be three declared candidates: two from March 14 and General Michel Aoun, the candidate of the March 8 opposition. Geagea urged that the U.S. treat all candidates, including Aoun, equally. For example, any USG official who comes to Lebanon during the election period should meet all three. Stressing the importance of not cold-shouldering Aoun, Geagea said this was the way for the U.S. to acknowledge that pluralistic democracy in Lebanon was functioning as it should. While it was important for the U.S. to publicly support Aoun’s candidacy, privately it could pressure Aounist MP’s by suggesting, for example, that they might be placed on the U.S. visa ban list. The U.S. should concentrate on building momentum for elections, leaving it up to March 14 MPs to ensure that a candidate committed to March 14 policies emerges as the winner.

LEBANON: GEAGEA CHARTS MARCH 14 ELECTION COURSE, HINTS AT DANGERS AHEAD
2007 August 31, 15:30 (Friday)
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5. (C) Terming Hizballah “the master of the game,” Geagea asserted that armed Hizballah members and their supporters were preparing for armed clashes should they see that March 14 is determined to proceed with the election with only a simple majority. Furthermore, according to Geagea, opposition candidate Michel Aoun’s supporters all over Lebanon were preparing themselves for confrontation, with about 1000 receiving military training in the Biqa’–a dangerous development, as it would be the first time Aounists resorted to arms.

SAMIR GEAGEA ON AOUN’S ARMS, PRESIDENCY
2007 September 18, 12:48 (Tuesday)
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3. (S) Geagea said that Hizballah is being careful to avoid direct military support to Aoun, which, if discovered, would discredit Aoun with the Christians and Hizballah (with its claims that its arms are directed against Israel only) more generally. Instead, Hizballah is providing arms to Franjieh. Franjieh then opens his arsenals to Aoun, making the arms transfers, if leaked, appear to be one Christian opposition leader helping another with personal protection. One of the main recipient of the arms from Franjieh is MP Selim Aoun, an Aoun bloc MP on Ily Skaff’s Zahleh list. Selim Aoun is charged with distributing the arms to others in the Aoun camp and has established strategically located cells of 50-70 fighters each. Franjieh is providing some of the training facilities and has recently opened Marada offices far beyond its Zghorta headquarters in order to serve as rallying and training points as well as safehouses. Zahar al-Khatib plays a key training role of Aounist fighters, again in order to keep Hizballah somewhat at arms distance from Aoun.

LEBANON: GEAGEA: WHAT IS HARIRI COOKING UP?
2007 September 30, 12:07 (Sunday)
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3. (C) Geagea explained Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) leader General Michel Aoun’s recent about-face (reftel) as an effort to win new allies after his first strategy, wearing his opponents down by force and threats of chaos, failed. Moral in Aoun’s circle is down, he said. Recognizing the writing on the wall, i.e., that Amal, Hizballah, and perhaps even Syria are looking for a consensus candidate for the presidency, Aoun realizes that to salvage any chance he has of becoming that candidate, he has to mend fences with March 14. He is therefore opening up “tous azimuts” — or in all directions. Aoun will only accept a candidate other than himself if he realizes he has no hope and March 8 is unwilling to go the route of chaos (i.e., a vacuum or two government scenario).

5. (C) Geagea dismissed the Ambassador’s last concern, noting that building bridges had never been Aoun’s forte; on the contrary, his constantly shifting alliances only revealed that he is willing to negotiate with the devil to achieve his personal ambitions. Geagea agreed, however, that over half of Lebanese Forces Christians would (despite decades of antipathy) like to see a reconciliation with the FPM as a way to build Christian strength and solidarity.

7. (C) Geagea, pondering for a moment with his chin resting in his hand, stated, “this is bizarre.” Why did Aoun see UN Envoy for Lebanon Geir Pederson three times this week? he asked aloud. The Ambassador responded that, according to Pederson, Aoun was “in love” with March 14. It’s the only way we can change him, Geagea countered, otherwise he will “float again.” As he had always told Saad Hariri, getting Aoun’s agreement on a consensus candidate would be a good thing for March 14.

13. (C) Moving to a one-on-one conversation with the Ambassador while pacing in his driveway, Geagea said that the real problem is that both Hariri (who genuinely wants Nassib Lahoud) and Syria (who hopes for LAF Commander Michel Sleiman as president) have zeroed in on Robert Ghanem as their fall-back choice. Both Hariri and Syria want a weak president, easily manipulated, and they will end up sharing Ghanem between them, Geagea said. Ghanem has no significant Christian support, meaning that independent Christians will once again feel cheated out of an office that is their right. This sense of alienation will drive them back into the arms of Michel Aoun, and the resurgent Aoun will humiliate and marginalize March 14 Christians, who will have gained nothing from their alliance with Hariri. Geagea admitted that his outreach to Aoun was in part designed to create a unified Christian veto against Ghanem.

LEBANON: GEAGEA SUSPECTS A EUROPEAN PUSH FOR SLEIMAN
2007 October 23, 07:06 (Tuesday)
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6. (C) Geagea acknowledged that there is movement within the Aoun camp, with Michel Aoun reportedly “perplexed” (a word Geagea also used in describing others). Geagea reported that at the meeting with the EU foreign ministers at the French residence, Free Patriotic Movement leader General Michel Aoun appeared desperate for his own candidacy, speaking little and in a restrained voice. Given Geagea and Aoun’s shared disinterest in Sleiman, the possibility of Sleiman as the European choice prompted Geagea to dispatch LF vice-president George Adwan to meet Aoun the day after the meeting with the FMs. (Note: While Geagea has in the past several weeks used intermediaries to pursue contact with Aoun, sending Adwan is a marked rise in rank. End note.)

7. (C) Geagea maintained that Aoun still harbors hopes. He said that Aoun needed to be told directly that he will not be the next president, and that Aoun’s advisors will never do this. Geagea dismissed the oft-repeated rumor on the Beirut political gossip circuit that he had actually offered Aoun the possibility of naming the candidates, with March 14 electing one of Aoun’s choices (as long as it precluded Aoun himself). What he actually offered, Geagea said, was the possibility to Aoun that the two of them decide together who would be acceptable candidates. Parliament would elect a president off of a list determined by Geagea and Aoun, who represent an estimated 90 percent of Lebanon’s Christians. But Aoun refused to go along with this suggestion.

LEBANON: AOUN, CLAIMING THE ABILITY TO BOSS NASRALLAH AROUND, RELUCTANT TO DISCUSS FALL-BACK TO PRESIDENCY
2007 October 26, 14:05 (Friday)
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9. (C) Aoun predicted that these Aoun-March 14 contacts would not produce results. He expressed a willingness to deal constructively with Saad Hariri, but only after Saad “shows that he’s serious.” Describing at length a series of BEIRUT 00001678 003.2 OF 005 half-hearted and aborted attempts at an Aoun-Hariri face-to-face meeting, Aoun pronounced that Hariri “doesn’t know what he wants. When he does, he knows where I am.” As for Walid Jumblatt, Aoun said that he would not see him until he toned down his anti-Hizballah rhetoric. If Aoun saw Jumblatt now, he would harm his position in the Shia community and gain nothing in return. Moreover, Aoun said, “I am still waiting” for Jumblatt to visit him after Aoun’s May 2005 return from exile. “Let him come see me,” Aoun concluded. As for Samir Geagea, Aoun gave a wordless dismissive flick of the hand. The meeting earlier in the week with former President Amine Gemayel “was not serious.”

LEBANON: GEAGEA WARNS OF DANGEROUS GAMES, AND IS PLAYING ONE OF HIS OWN
2007 November 9, 14:21 (Friday)
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16. (C) Geagea said Aoun had called him the previous Saturday suggesting a meeting, to which Geagea replied he was welcome any time (i.e., at Geagea’s residence in Maarab). Aoun reportedly didn’t accept, suggesting the Patriarch’s residence in Bkirke instead. Geagea agreed, but then Aoun did an about-face and insisted on his residence in Rabieh. Suleiman Franjieh, meanwhile, told Geagea the week before that he was ready to meet at Bkirke, presumably as a knee-jerk reaction to Aoun’s meeting with March 14 MP Samir Geagea, his cousin and arch-rival. Franjieh then suddenly changed his mind, due, Geagea guessed, to Syrian opposition.

17. (C) Does Aoun recognize that he won’t be president, the Ambassador asked. Yes and no, Geagea replied; “he will fight until the end.” Then he risks losing everything, the Ambassador pointed out. That’s your calculation, Geagea responded, Aoun doesn’t calculate.

19. (C) But, Geagea warned, if he has to choose between backing a weak figure like Robert Ghanem to preserve March 14 unity or preserving his Christian credibility by breaking with Hariri over a bad presidential choice, he will chose the latter. Geagea said that he would have no choice but to build an alliance with Aoun, lest all of his followers shift to Aoun on their own. “You have to work on Saad,” Geagea said. “Convince him that he can’t ignore his Christian partners,” persuade him that, in the Sunni struggle against Hizballah, Hariri will need the Christians on his side. “Thank God for Walid,” Geagea commented, referring to Jumblatt remaining steadfast in his support of a strong, credible President. Geagea lamented that Hariri is so ready to abandon the “half plus one” electoral strategy, when that may be the only option to get a strong candidate with Christian credibility who is not Michel Aoun.

LEBANON: AOUN CLAIMS TO DROP OUT OF PRESIDENTIAL RACE
2007 November 10, 10:24 (Saturday)
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6. (C) Aoun, claiming he was more March 14 than many from March 14, said he did not need to defend himself. I want to be neutral, he claimed, saying he was not March 8; they forced him there. He had tried to build national support by finding a way to rein in Hizballah, but his attempts were misunderstood and now seemed like a bad move. Maybe I didn’t convince people, he said, if so, I assume the responsibility. Let Samir Geagea and Walid Jumblatt figure out to make Lebanon free and independent, he said, predicting that, with Aoun out of the picture, Hariri would need a minimum of understanding with Hizballah to avoid a confrontation.

LEBANON: GEAGEA AGAINST LAF COMMANDER SLEIMAN FOR PRESIDENT
2007 November 26, 16:45 (Monday)
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8. (C) In response to the Ambassador’s inquiry, Geagea said that head of Free Patriotic Movement Michel Aoun would not be able to discredit a president elected by a half plus one majority because such a president would be a strong president, assuming that the U.S. got the Arab and European states behind him so strongly that Syria and its allies would accept him as inevitable. In fact, Geagea added, a strong candidate would split Aoun’s bloc because its members place a high priority on getting a president in Baabda and some MPs could abandon Aoun to win favor with whomever is in power. If Aoun sees that March 14 is serious, he would be more concerned about securing his own role and that of his bloc in the cabinet, than about denouncing the president, surmised Geagea.

LEBANON: GEAGEA PUTTING THE BRAKES ON SLEIMAN PRESIDENCY?
2007 November 30, 07:58 (Friday)
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4. (C) Saad is naive, Geagea complained; he thinks if someone is friendly toward his family, they’re a good choice. If that better gets along with Hizballah, even better. Saad doesn’t want problems with Hizballah, he just wants to keep things as they are. You can’t play politics with this! Geagea exclaimed. Although Geagea agreed that electing Sleiman would diminish Aoun’s support, he warned that Sleiman would be too busy focusing on Christian-Christian relations to deal with important issues like border control and Hizballah’s arms. We want a commander who doesn’t meddle with us, he insisted, not someone who will use his position to build a political movement that will compete against us by bringing Aoun supporters on board.

LEBANON: WITH A/S WELCH, GEAGEA PRESSES HALF PLUS ONE
2007 December 17, 18:21 (Monday)
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14. (C) Geagea noted, however, that it was important to respect Sleiman, and therefore wait until after December 31 to pursue a half plus one majority. He said that March 14 leaders should communicate with Sleiman so that he understands that he cannot become president after that point. The next step, he continued, would be to elect a half plus one president and immediately move him into the presidential residence at Baabda. Such a move would prove invaluable in terms of securing Christian public opinion for March 14 and usurping public opinion from Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun. Geagea believed the Patriarch would welcome the new president and a majority of the population would follow suit.

LEBANON: GEAGEA PLEASED WITH 2/14 RALLY, PLEADS PLIGHT OF CHRISTIANS
2008 February 15, 18:47 (Friday)
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6. (C) Asked whether the Arab League initiative would succeed, Geagea responded with a short, “No.” Syria does not want a presidential election, he added. This was clear from Amr Moussa’s last meeting when Hariri asked whether, if March 14 accepted a 10/10/10 cabinet, the opposition would agree to holding the election. This surprised Aoun, whose answer was no, Geagea claimed, prompting Moussa to ask Aoun how he could say no when Berri had said yes. Berri and Aoun then spoke privately, after which Aoun said “maybe” if additional conditions on cabinet portfolios were agreed. Aoun’s position is rigid, Geagea agreed; it is not based on strategic calculations but rather on one his desire to be president.

LEBANON: GEAGEA PROPOSES REVAMPING GOVERNMENT WITH CHRISTIAN MINISTERS
2008 March 4, 16:13 (Tuesday)
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6. (C) Revisiting Moussa’s most recent attempt at negotiations, Geagea said electoral reform remains an obstacle, even within March 14. Geagea is calling for proportional representation, a system he argues would advantage March 14 Christians and break Hizballah strongholds. Moreover, he added, proportional representation would divide Free Patriotic Movement Michel Aoun’s opposition bloc by at least 50 percent. Another advantage could be the election of March 14 Shia MPs, he posited. However, he acknowledged, some of Saad Hariri’s MPs may lose and Jumblatt would need convincing, and requested that the U.S. urge them to support proportional representation.

LEBANON: WITH A/S WELCH, GEAGEA ADVOCATES EARLY PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS
2008 April 22, 13:58 (Tuesday)
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12. (C) Third, March 14 should convince members of the Armenian Tashnaq party to break its alliance with Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun. Geagea remarked that Aoun is in deep trouble because of internal dissent in his party and he is trying to do whatever he can to divert attention away from his problems. Geagea suggested that the Armenian Tashnaq are a way to counter Aoun, adding that since MP Michel Murr’s split with Aoun, it will be easier to move Tashnaq from Aoun. Nevertheless, Geagea predicted, it will not be simple because Tashnaq inexplicably clings to Aoun. Geagea quoted the Tashnaq as saying that “elections-wise, we are allied with Murr, and politically, we support Aoun.”

LEBANON: AOUN WILL GO TO DOHA; INSISTS ON NATIONAL UNITY GOVERNMENT
2008 May 15, 19:35 (Thursday)
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2. (C) Charge Sison, accompanied by A/DCM and DATT, met with Free Patriotic Movement leader General Michel Aoun at his office in Rabieh on May 15. Aoun confirmed that he would attend the National Dialogue meeting beginning May 16 in Doha, although he expressed unspecified concerns with the draft Arab League communique. Absence is never justified, he stated. Aoun further said that he did not like the formula of the Dialogue (involving the 14 top political leaders — the same formula used in the 2006 Dialogue), elaborating that he believed the number should either be increased or decreased. He complained that Christian leaders such as Phalange leader Amine Gemayel, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and Boutros Harb had little representation in parliament, and there should not be a majority of insignificant leaders present with only a few powerful opposition leaders. All the participants should have equal political weight, he argued. Nasrallah would not go to Doha, though he probably would send a representative, Aoun said. He was unsure whether Speaker Nabih Berri would attend, though Berri’s advisor later confirmed that Berri was going.

LEBANON: GEAGEA TELLS S/P GORDON MAINTAINING MARCH 14 MOMENTUM CRUCIAL AFTER DOHA
2008 June 4, 17:33 (Wednesday)
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5. (C) Geagea emphasized that PM Siniora really needs to appoint ministers that will solidify March 14 support, especially among Christians. Geagea said selecting “popular” Christians who will be seen as strong proponents for the Christian community is important. He pointed out that under the 16-11-3 cabinet agreed at Doha, (Ref A), the majority will get sixteen out of the thirty cabinet positions. Geagea asked, “why not make the selection of these cabinet positions count?” Geagea said now is the time to counter opposition MP Michel Aoun and his image as the “defender of the Christians,” and Siniora’s selection of strong Christians for the cabinet is the best place to start.

LEBANON: GEAGEA SAYS HIZBALLAH AND SYRIA DO NOT WANT FIGHTING IN THE NORTH
2008 July 2, 16:27 (Wednesday)
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10. (C) Recognizing that Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) leader Michel Aoun cannot “truly be broken” until the next parliamentary elections, Geagea was adamant that March 14 and President Michel Sleiman stop consulting with the opposition on the cabinet formation. Geagea, noting that Prime Minister Fouad Siniora fully agreed with him as of ten days ago, advocated that the majority move ahead with forming the cabinet, to include Aoun, without running every proposal by him.

LEBANON: GEAGEA WARNS DAS HALE THAT ISRAEL IS STRENGHENING HIZBALLAH, DESCRIBES MARCH 14 DIVISIONS
2008 September 2, 09:56 (Tuesday)
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13. (C) At the close of the meeting, DAS Hale asked Geagea about General Michel Aoun’s popularity in Lebanon, and the nature of his relationship with Hizballah. Geagea said that Aoun is not as popular as one might think, that his popularity had actually reached a low. Nonetheless, he said Aoun will always have a base of supporters who will stay with him regardless of how he performs. Geagea said he thought Aoun was firmly allied with Hizballah. “I thought at first it was tactical, just to get the presidency, but now he is totally there.”

LEBANON: WITH DAS HALE, GEAGEA WORRIED ABOUT SYRIAN TROOPS AT BORDER
2008 October 8, 11:00 (Wednesday)
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8. (C) Geagea reported that his efforts at Christian reconciliation, following his September 21 rally and public apology, were being stymied by former minister and MP and Christian rival Suleiman Franjieh. According to Geagea, Franjieh insisted that the reconciliation talks include his ally, Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun. Scoffing, Geagea reported that he refused the request, saying, “Even Aoun does not want to be there!” He suspected that Franjieh requested Aoun’s presence to ensure there would be “another heavyweight” in the room.

LEBANON: GEAGEA REJECTS TALKS WITH ISRAEL, PUSHES FOR SHEBA’A WITHDRAWAL
2008 November 24, 16:37 (Monday)
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6. (C) Geagea said the university and professional association elections, while not a perfectly reliable representation of electoral trends, were still a valid indicator, and March 14 was doing well in them. He thought March 14 was making gains in public opinion, partly because Aoun was making speeches the Lebanese people could not understand, and making trips to Iran and Syria the Lebanese people do not like. Nevertheless, Geagea said his March 14 allies were causing problems. He alleged that Saad Hariri depended heavily on cash handouts to win influence which the public sees as bribery. Geagea also worried Hariri was too confident about his prospects in Tripoli, which Geagea said was “not locked up.”

LEBANON: GEAGEA DESCRIBES SLOW BUT STEADY PROGRESS
2008 December 30, 10:22 (Tuesday)
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3. (C) Geagea averred that rival Christian leader and head of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) Michel Aoun’s November trip to Damascus had sapped his popular support. “Aoun is weak. The Christians can’t digest his embrace of Syria, especially his returning from Damascus empty-handed.” Geagea speculated that Aoun may believe the Syrians will help him win Christian seats in the south (Note: Aoun is allied with Amal in the South. End note.) by pressing Hizballah and Shi’a Speaker of Parliament and Amal party leader Nabih Berri to include FPM candidates on their slates in districts such as Zahleh and Marjayoun. “But I don’t understand this trip to Damascus, and I don’t understand why Hizballah isn’t giving him better guidance. They’re smarter than he is.”

LEBANON: GEAGEA SEES “MONKEYNESS” HURTING ELECTION CAMPAIGNING
2009 January 29, 15:59 (Thursday)
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4. (C) Admitting that the March 14 alliance was struggling to agree on hich candidates would run in each district (Ref A) Geagea insisted that their rival Aoun has “more problems.” In Zgharta, he illustrated, Franjieh formed his own list at the exclusion of any Aoun candidate, yet Fares Karam, an Aounie, reportedly is insisting on running. Aoun does not have any candidates in Akkar, Geagea said, and is competing with the SSNP for a slot on the list in Koura (Ref B).

5. (C) Aoun’s son-in-law, Telecommunications Minister Gebran Bassil, has still not decided whether he will run in Batroun, Geagea relayed, where independent candidates might take votes away from Bassil. Geagea said that in Batroun, the population equally divides its support among LF, Aoun, and MP Boutros Harb of March 14. Geagea described Jbeil district as supportive of President Michel Sleiman, rather than Aoun.

6. (C) Geagea said that independent candidates in Kesarwan — “those monkeys” — threatened both his and Aoun’s popularity. He criticized Mansour Ilbon for publicly attacking the LF and Kataeb, and said that Farid Haikal el Khazen was confusing because he is “pro-Syrian, anti-Aoun, and wants to be independent.”

7. (C) Geagea remarked that March 14 does not have a credible candidate to run against Agriculture Minister Elie Skaff in Zahle, who is allied with Aoun. Zahle MP Nicholas Fattoush, elected in 2005 on March 14’s list, was again a possibility for March 14, Geagea said, but he was “not liked” in his own district.

LEBANON: AOUN SETTING THE STAGE TO CHALLENGE ELECTION RESULTS?
2009 January 29, 15:27 (Thursday)
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7. (C) Aoun said that despite a “rather negative” relationship with independent Christian leader Michel Murr, he believed he might be able to come to some sort of limited agreement with the Murr family on parliamentary seats in the heavily Christian Metn district. He based this belief on a special bond he said he had formed with Murr’s son Elias, the current Defense Minister, when, according to Aoun, he “saved Elias from being executed by Samir Geagea.” (Note: Elias Murr was reportedly with Lebanese Forces leader Elie Hobeika in 1986, when LF rival Geagea sent fighters against Hobeika for participating in tripartite talks in Damascus with the Amal militia and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. Aoun sent troops in to assist Hobeika and Murr. End note.) As a result, said Aoun, “we cannot be enemies.” While he stressed any accord would be very limited in scope, Aoun believed he could come to an agreement with Elias Murr.

LEBANON: MARCH 14 LOOKING STRONGER; OPTIMISTIC ABOUT ELECTIONS
2009 February 26, 17:32 (Thursday)
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12. (C) Geagea assessed that Syria and Iran were behind the BEIRUT 00000233 003 OF 004 recent souring of relations among Lebanese leaders. He accused Aoun of fomenting Christian fears of Sunni extremism, and generalizing the fear to the Sunni sect as a whole, in an attempt to sway Christian votes away from March 14.

LEBANON: GEAGEA STATES CONCERN ABOUT VIOLENCE TO AA/S FELTMAN AND NSC SR DIRECTOR SHAPIRO
2009 March 11, 16:03 (Wednesday)
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9. (C) Geagea also urged a solution to the issue of Lebanese prisoners in Syria. A A/S Feltman acknowledged that, of Geagea’s listed concerns, detainees was the only issue the U.S. envoys had not raised in Syria. Feltman asked Geagea whether movement on Lebanese detainees in Syria would be a victory for Christian opposition MP Michel Aoun, particularly before June elections. Geagea said Aoun, in fact, was “on the defensive” on the detainee issue, and positive steps by the Syrians would not benefit him. The transfer should occur between the Lebanese and Syrian governments, Geagea stressed.

LEBANON: GEAGEA ON GHAJAR, GENERALS, AND POST-ELECTION SCENARIOS
2009 May 5, 18:06 (Tuesday)
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8. (C) Geagea presented the Ambassador with the somewhat surprising prediction that Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun and his Change and Reform Bloc would win only 12-15 seats in the new parliament (compared to 21 currently), and therefore should not play a large role in any government formed. The Ambassador followed up, asking how March 14 would do in specific primarily-Christian districts. Geagea claimed March 14 would take three or four seats in the Metn (out of eight), as well as in Zahle (out of seven). He called Jbeil a “disaster,” implying that his alliance would lose all three seats because of independent Nazem Khoury’s refusal to run with March 14 SYG Fares Souaid. He believed FPM’s Gebran Bassil would definitely lose in Batroun, giving both the Christian seats there to March 14. He acknowledged that March 14 would lose seats compared to its 2005 numbers in Baabda, Zgharta, and Koura, but thought independents in Keserwan might take two seats. “We have made a lot of mistakes in preparing the elections, but I have never been worried,” he said. (Comment: Just in the districts BEIRUT 00000501 003 OF 004 mentioned — which exclude districts such as Jezzine, where Aoun will definitely win seats — using Geagea’s very optimistic estimates, Aoun’s bloc would win 14 seats. Most pollsters believe Aoun’s bloc will easily win more than 20 seats, and Suleiman Franjieh’s Marada Party — which sits in Hizballah’s parliamentary bloc — will take at least two formerly March 14 seats in Zgharta. End comment.)

LEBANON: WITH DAS HALE, GEAGEA FEARS HIZBALLAH WILL USE VIOLENCE TO GET VETO POWER
2009 May 11, 06:40 (Monday)
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7. (C) Geagea predicted that Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun’s decision to form a list in Jezzine that will compete against his March 8 ally, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, cost him Shia votes in Baabda and Jbeil. According to Geagea, the emergence of competing lists was a failure on Hizballah’s part to mediate between its Christian ally, Aoun, and its Shia ally, Berri. Geagea relayed that he recently joked with Hizballah MP Mohammed Raad, asking him if he was ready to “give Aoun to March 14.” Raad reportedly laughed and answered in the affirmative.

LEBANON: NASRALLAH SPEECHES COULD HELP MARCH 14 GEAGEA SAYS
2009 May 19, 16:03 (Tuesday)
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6. (C) Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun had also lost support as a result of Nasrallah’s speech, in Geagea’s opinion. Nasrallah’s speech had raised fears in Christian communities, some of which were overrun by Hizballah fighters in May 2008. Christian concerns, as a result of these speeches, would affect elections, Geagea said. Aoun’s statements and gestures proved he was “losing and nervous,” Geagea assessed. Although Aoun did not have the means for violence in the case of an unfavorable electoral outcome for the opposition, his allies did, Geagea opined.

LEBANON: GEAGEA ON ELECTIONS, SECURITY, AND CABINET FORMATION
2009 June 10, 12:34 (Wednesday)
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3. (C) Noting that Christian voters determined the results of the elections, Geagea opined on what caused the Christian voters to sway towards March 14. He explained that there are a plethora of factors that could have caused this phenomenon to occur, but believed that Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun made a strategic mistake by aligning with Hizballah. Historically, the Christians have been aligned with the state, noted Geagea, explaining that Aoun’s decision to ally with Hizballah instead of with President Sleiman or the Patriarch caused March 8 to lose the majority in the elections.

GOVERNMENT FORMATION DEADLOCKED OR DEAD END?
2009 August 21, 17:14 (Friday)
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4. (C) Geagea dismissed the possibility that President Michel Sleiman would possess the key to unblock the situation. “It will come from Riyadh,” he assessed. He urged that the U.S. to push the Saudis to talk to Syria, “but don’t let them in (to Lebanon’s internal affairs).” Geagea was unsure whether Hizballah was actively directing Aoun to play the role of the spoiler. “We don’t know if they are encouraging him, but for sure they are having fun with (the process),” he assessed in support of his conviction that Hizballah and Iran were satisfied with Aoun’s latest antics. “They get what they want, but without consequences,” he judged.

The Christian Wedding and the Presidential Elections

Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and former General Michel Aoun celebrate with officials from both parties Geagea's official endorsement of Aoun's candidacy for the presidency. Image source - Annahar

Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and former General Michel Aoun celebrate with officials from both parties Geagea’s official endorsement of Aoun’s candidacy for the presidency. Image source – Annahar. In case you were wondering, I’m calling this agreement the “Christian wedding” because of the cake.

 

Political maneuvers are Lebanon’s daily bread, but very few are the moments that will truly shape Lebanon’s modern history: The 8th and 14th of March 2005, the 6th of February 2006, the 7th of May 2008, the 2nd of August 2009 and the 12th of January 2011 were the main plot twists in Lebanon’s recent political history. That was until the 18th of January 2016 happened.

On the 18th of January 2016, Lebanon’s biggest Christian rivals since the civil war ended more than 25 years of confrontation, and made (political) peace: Samir Geagea, of March 14’s Lebanese Forces, endorsed Michel Aoun, of March 8’s FPM, as his presidential candidate. For the first time in decades, the biggest two representative parties among Christians had agreed on a major issue. It was an attempt to end what is soon to become a 2 years presidential crisis that has left the country’s main post vacant because of the deadlock caused by the March 8 alliance and March 14 alliance’s disagreement. While it is far too soon to know the impact of this agreement on Lebanese politics and its outcome on the presidential elections in particular, the Aoun-Geagea agreement was almost unthinkable 8 months ago, and is on the verge of shattering the March 8 and 14 alliances for good.

As Elie of the blog A Separate State of Mind points out, the move also comes to the backdrop of a 10 point agreement that the two forged over the past 6 months. It reads as follows:

Geagea Aoun Agreement

I will comment on those points afterwards.

How it happened – Step 1

Although it was definitely unexpected, Geagea’s endorsement of Aoun was the most obvious of all political maneuvers – even too obvious to be true. Presidential elections are sacred to Lebanon’s Christian parties – the past 70 years of Lebanon’s history remind us of that every day. It is the highest post any Maronite can be elected to, and thus becomes the career goal of the Christian Zuamas. So when Hariri threw his political bomb in the last days of 2015 and hinted at the possibility of electing Sleiman Frangieh – the second in command of March 8’s Christians and one of the most pro-Syrian politicians in the parliament – while abandoning the candidacy of Samir Geagea, it was a political declaration of war.

Yet it was a rather smart gamble from Hariri: The Lebanese Forces were by far the most predictable party in Lebanese politics. For 11 years, they had stood with the Future Movement, while other alliances kept changing every year. In 2013, when the parliament was called to vote on the Orthodox gathering electoral law, they were the only Christian party that refused to do so – at the request of the FM, after they had drafted another electoral law draft together. In 2014, they stood alongside the FM once again and gave the parliamentary extension the Christian legitimacy it needed – the FPM and Kataeb had boycotted the session. In 2015, and while Lebanon’s Muslim parties – among them was the FM – were struggling to gather Christian legitimacy for a parliamentary session, it was the Lebanese Forces who saved the day once again, this time even bringing the FPM with them to the session. True, the Lebanese forces refused to participate in the 2014 unity cabinet, but that decision did not bring major harm to their long-term ally.

How it happened – Step 2

So when Hariri, as well as Berri and the PSP rallied around the candidacy of Sleiman Frangieh, the FM probably thought that the Lebanese Forces would at the very most oppose that move while insisting on the candidacy of Geagea, someone from March 14 or anyone else in the middle. But they were wrong, and should have paid more attention to the recent LF maneuvering in Lebanese politics. Every time a mini-dialogue between the FM and Hezbollah was starting, the FPM and the LF were responding  – because of the fear that Hezbollah and the FM might agree on someone other than Geagea or Aoun- by getting closer. The mini Hezbollah-FM dialogues eventually led to mini FPM-LF rapprochements (in fact, if you remember correctly, the fear of an FPM-LF alliance pushed the Kataeb, Michel Sleiman, and other minor Christian politicians to unite under one front in March). All in all, that led in the end to an agreement to agree on an agreement between Aoun and Geagea in June 2015. It was called “the declaration of intent” and was the two Christian parties’ way of saying to their Muslim allies “it’s either one of us, or we ally together against you”. The message was very obvious: If you read the June 2015 declaration, you’ll find out  that it revolves around one main idea: protecting the Christian interests, and at their core, the election of a” strong president”. And in case you still don’t know what a “strong president” means after 20 months of presidential vacancy, “Strong” = Aoun and /or Geagea.

How it happened – Step 3

The FM – unlike Hezbollah, who refused to support Frangieh – chose to ignore the message that was the declaration of intent, and supported Frangieh in a very intelligent attempt to blow up the March 8 alliance:

I explained it two years ago, last year, and I’ll explain it again: For Hezbollah, Aoun is silver but Frangieh is gold. Frangieh – unlike Aoun who has 18 MPs representing solely the FPM – doesn’t have a big bloc (4 MPs, including himself and Emile Rahme who is much more pro-Hezbollah than he is pro-Frangieh). Frangieh also has a limited electorate that he can rely on. And by limited, I mean it in a geographical, demographic, and sectarian way. Most (If not all) of Frangieh’s popular base is Christian, mostly Maronite, from the Zgharta Caza (Which is one of the smallest in terms of parliamentary representation with 3 MPs) and some of the surrounding villages in Koura. Frangieh doesn’t have foothold outside the North, belongs to a feudal family – and most importantly – faces continuous competition from other renowned political families established in Zgharta (Such as the Mouawads). In other words, Frangieh is too weak and can be manipulated by Hezbollah / Future Movement while Aoun (as a comparison) is much, much harder to keep under control. If Aoun switches sides, his ~ 22/23 MPs would be enough to change the status quo and throw a party outside the cabinet – be it Hezbollah, or even the FM. Frangieh can’t do anything with his 3 MPs (Yes, 3, because once he’s elected he loses his seat :P – And it’s actually 2 since you can’t really count Rahme as a loyalist). Frangieh won’t have his own base in the parliament to rely on, which means that he will fully be dependent on Hezbollah or the FM in everything concerning the legislation. Even if Frangieh wants to call for demonstrations, it wouldn’t have any impact unless Hezbollah joins him. Aoun wouldn’t need Hezbollah at all on the popular level (the 2015 summer demonstrations prove it) –  in fact it would hurt him since the counter-propaganda would make it look as if his supporters aren’t Christian – making him an “illegitimate” Christian president. Frangieh is also a lot more pro-Syrian than Aoun is, and the Frangiehs have historical family ties with the Assad family that are almost 50 years old. Which means that even if every single MP in M14 endorses Frangieh, he would always be a friend of Syria – and thus closer to Hezbollah. Aoun, on the other hand, is a lot more unreliable so he might be a pain in the ass in case he decides to switch sides or go against the Syrian regime.

La morale: If you’re Hezbollah, and have to choose between Frangieh and Aoun, you’ll choose Frangieh every time. Every time.

How it happened – Step 4

But that’s not how the party of God thinks, since Hezbollah decided not to fall in the trap of supporting the Frangieh deal and eventually stood with Aoun. Agreeing to the Frangieh deal would have probably meant that Hariri was going to become PM again, that March 14 would regain foothold in the cabinet, and that the alliance Hezbollah has with the only non-Shia party collapses (it would have discredited Hezbollah for the next decade). Frangieh was not worth shattering the March 8 alliance.

Hariri’s gamble was brilliant, but it failed. And the FM were too slow to end it. The fact that the LF were very predictable and had never moved against the FM probably made the latter party think that rumors about a possible LF support to Aoun in early January were just a bluff destined to put a halt to the Frangieh deal. Maybe it was a bluff and maybe it wasn’t, but when the FM did not respond to the rumors, insisted on Frangieh, and did not support Geagea again, the Christian wedding eventually happened.

How it happened – Step 5

2009 lebanese parliament seats

The most important table in Lebanon for the next few months. Number of seats for every party in the parliament. Note that there are 127 instead of 128 because an FPM PM has past away in the summer. Compiled with the help of Wikipedia.

(a candidate needs at least the absolute majority, 65 votes, to win the elections in the second round. In the first round the candidate needs the two-thirds of the 128 votes, and that’s 86 votes)

The Lebanese Forces had all the reasons in the world to deny support for both candidates – Aoun and Frangieh. Look at the table above: As far as everyone was concerned, Frangieh had the support of the Future Movement (as well as their closest allies (blue)?), Amal, the PSP, and himself (the Marada). That means 28+13+11+3 = 55 seats. Their close allies (in blue) are about 9 MPs, and the other centrists have around 7 votes. 55+9+7= 71. And that’s if EVERYONE approves and has no problem with frangieh. But as the example of Khaled Daher (Daher, of the FM, said he preferred Aoun over Frangieh) shows, definitely not everyone from the center and M14 is going to vote for Frangieh. It is even said – in the dark alleys of the republic – that Berri is giving his MPs the freedom to choose between Aoun and Frangieh. Moreover, the quorum needed to let the session proceed is 86 MPs, which means that you need 43 MPs to stop the elections, and Hezbollah, the (Marada-less) FPM, and their smaller allies have 23+13+2+2+1= 41 MPs. Providing quorum, without Aoun and Hezbollah’s blessing, in order to elect Frangieh, will be the most difficult task on earth.

And if the LF deny quorum, it will be an impossible task. So everything the LF could have done to thwart the election of Frangieh was to deny quorum. The absence of support from the biggest two Christian parties in parliament would have also had a huge moral impact on elections that concern the top Christian post. There was no need to go as far as supporting Aoun. Not participating in the elections would have been more than enough, and would have weakened both Aoun and Frangieh.

But the LF did not only refuse to support Frangieh: They fully endorsed Aoun, another candidate from March 8, and for several important reasons. Frangieh, for the LF, is the worst candidate that the FM could ever endorse. He is at the heart of March 8, will directly threaten Geagea’s stronger base in the North, and  – while being one of the Maronite four – is not even the top Christian politician of March 8. It’s as if there was a choice between Karami and Hariri for the premiership in 2023, and the LF choose March 8’s barely-known Abdul Rahim Mrad instead of Hariri. So you can imagine the humiliation the LF went through when Hariri endorsed Frangieh.

If you can’t beat them, join them

The endorsement of Aoun by Geagea is definitely an “eye for an eye” maneuver. But the new mini-alliance between the two Christian parties is also more than that: It makes Geagea the second-in-command of a Christian alliance whose leader is 81 year old, and who cannot constitutionally run for a second-term in six years. And while Bassil might be a natural “heir” to Aoun’s presidency, he is – until now – far less popular than Geagea (having lost twice in a row the parliamentary elections in his home district against Geagea’s candidate) who will also have the seniority. If Aoun makes it this time, Geagea is likely going to be his successor. True, it is not written in their agreement, but it’s a natural result of the deal.

The Lebanese Forces, after 11 years in parliament, have realized that they cannot defeat Aoun on their own, even with the full weight of a 40 MPs FM-led bloc. They have also probably come to realize that the FM can turn their back on them, just as every Lebanese party can turn his back on another Lebanese party. The Kataeb are a rival to their monopoly within M14, and the only real way to increase their influence is by increasing their number of MPs in parliament. In a parliament of 128, they have a bloc three times smaller than the FPM’s. An alliance with the FPM would mean total dominance of the Christian constituencies by the FPM-LF duo in the next elections, and the ousting of the Kataeb and Christian independents from the Metn, Achrafieh, and the North. Their alliance would also give them negotiating ground everywhere else, as they will probably claim that they could control and influence at least 80% of the Christian electorate. That means a lot more MPs for the two Christian parties in the next elections, and even more MPs for the LF in particular.

The ten-point agreement between the LF and the FPM, while not directly criticizing Hezbollah, is very, very similar to the Baabda declaration and calls for an independent (no sign of the word “neutral” in the article) foreign policy, more efficient border control, a new electoral law, no use of weapons, as well as other cliche sentences that have become irrelevant with time and are not even worth translating. The agreement can’t be more vague which is actually good for both political sides on the short-term. For example, the LF can say that “independent” implies “neutral”, and the FPM can say that it does not imply that. It works for both parties.

Geagea never had the support of March 8 and the center, lost the Kataeb’s support early on, and is now Future Movement-less. The LF have lost the presidential battle: That is more clearer today, that it ever was or will ever be. And this why they have opted to support Aoun’s candidacy. It’s a long-term investment that could definitely be worth the wait. For Aoun, the endorsment of Geagea is a huge moral boost, but has little impact whatsoever because of the small bloc the LF have in parliament. If Frangieh withdraws in favor of Aoun (no sign of that happening anytime soon), Aoun would have definitely secured his supremacy in parliament (the endorsement of three out of the four Maronite four) and would thus only need to find a way to secure the quorum in parliament (offering the premiership to Hariri would be an interesting thing he could try).

 The impact in parliament

The impact of the Christian wedding on Lebanese politics will be huge. If you look at the table above, the 42 MPs that were expected to deny quorum + the 8 MPs of the LF mean that Aoun now has at least around 50 MPs behind him. Without Amal’s support of 13 MPS, he doesn’t have the 65 MPs required for him to win, and even if support rises from the center (Mikata/Safadi), he will have only secured an absolute majority, which means that the other blocs could easily deny quorum and ironically use Aoun’s own weapon of denying quorum against him. And while Jumblatt withdrew his Frangieh support and is endorsing Helou once again (probably because he wants to keep a neutral stance between what seems to be a choice of the Christian-supported parties and another choice of a mainly Sunni-supported party, especially since his home district of the Chouf almost has an equal number of Sunni and Christian voters), that can only mean that the key player that will decide the outcome of the presidential elections is likely to be Berri. Amal have to choose between two Christian Zuamas who are the allies of its ally, and there are several scenarios of what might happen. It is said that Berri might even let his MPs choose freely. The FM is apparently sticking with Frangieh, although anything can still happen from now till the 8th of February – the date of the next presidential elections session. Some rumors are even hinting to the fact that Aoun might break with Hezbollah if Amal don’t support him, but that really doesn’t make a lot of sense since it would push Hezbollah towards Frangieh and effectively hand Frangieh the presidency.

The curious case of the Kataeb

While it is very clear that the Muslim parties still do not know what they are going to do with the whole Aoun-Frangieh conundrum, the Kaateb are experiencing one of the most difficult periods of their recent history. While they might actually benefit from this deal (all the anti-Hezbollah Christians of March 14 now only have the Kataeb as party to support – note how the Kataeb are actually using this to their favor with Gemayel saying that he would never support an M8 candidate and criticizing Geagea for supporting March 8’s choice), their very small bloc in parliament,  as well as the fact that both the FPM and the LF have more support in the Christian areas, mean that the Kataeb risk total parliamentary annihilation in the next elections. The FM could always share with them a couple of Christian seats in Muslim-dominated districts, but the fact that they did not support the FM’s endorsement of Frangieh, that they stood against the FM when it came to the electoral law, to the parliamentary session of 2015, and to almost every major issue (except the cabinet formation) is not in their favor. Moreover, without the LF, the Kataeb cannot challenge the FPM in the Christian constituencies, reducing their margin of negotiation with the FM to an all-time low.

Finally, a lovely reminder that the Christian wedding did not end the trash crisis. We are still drowning in garbage. Thank you.

This post was the 17th post in a series of monthly posts covering the presidential elections. This post was about the month of January 2016.

 609 days since the 25th of May. 445 days since the 5th of November.

Lebanese Politics – 2015 In Review

The image that sums up 2015: A trash revolt and several crises in the cabinet

The image that sums up 2015: A trash revolt and several crises in the cabinet

2015 will probably be remembered as the first year in Lebanon’s history that was entirely spent without a president. But for what it’s worth, there was a lot more than that to it, which is why this post is a summary/compilation of all of Lebanon’s events for this year. The time has come to link 2015’s political events with one another. Happy New Year :-)

Aoun tasted Geagea’s truffles and we almost had a war with Israel (January 2015)

In the last months of 2014, Hezbollah and the Future Movement decided to have a dialogue. As soon as the rumors started, everyone panicked: Aoun agreed to sit with Geagea (and even tasted his truffles), Geagea agreed to support Aoun (if certain conditions were met), and Jumblatt decided – via Wael Abou Faour – to preemptively mark his electoral territory (remember the food health campaign of 2014?) But all the political maneuvering eventually ended when Hezbollah finally chose the “time and place for the retaliation” against Israeli aggressions. For the past 3 years, the party had been constantly criticized for participating in the Syrian civil war and  for directing its weapons away from Israel and towards Syria. So when Israel’s recent airstrike in the Golan Heights killed Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian General, the prefect time and place were found: Hezbollah fighters retaliated by  attacking an Israeli military convoy in the occupied Shebaa Farms, 45 days before Israeli elections, on a disputed Syrian-Lebanese-Israeli territory. The party of God wanted to prove a point without starting a war, and the aftermath was a political success*.

If you can’t beat them, join them, then beat them (February 2015)

It was a political success for the first two weeks*: A minister close to the FM in the cabinet said that Hezbollah did not break the ministerial declaration and Jumblatt lauded Hezbollah’s retaliation. Yet by the laws of Lebanese politics, March 14 was supposed to criticize Hezbollah which is why the Christian parties thought that the dialogue between Hezbollah and the FM was a serious one, and the fear of a deal on the presidency throwing them outside made them…panic. And when the FPM and the LF tried to start an all-out political war between the FM and Hezbollah in order to stop the possible deal, the two Muslim parties simply ignored the Christian brouhaha and made their Christian allies panic even more by removing all their political posters from the city of Beirut in order to “defuse tensions“. Then, after approximately three weeks of bonding with Hezbollah (and throwing Khaled Daher outside the FM’s parliamentary bloc), Hariri threw this political bomb on the 14th of February: “Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria is insanity and Hezbollah has brought this insanity to Lebanon. Tying the Golan Heights to south Lebanon is insanity as well. In 3 weeks, Hariri (1) gave the impression that he had no problem with Hezbollah’s retaliation and made it look as if Hezbollah was following the cabinet’s guidelines that were jointly set by M8 and M14. Then, (2) Hariri managed, whether he meant it or not, to cause confrontations between the members of M8, and between the LF and the FPM. He also managed to (3) undermine Siniora, (4) to throw Daher out and eventually attract a friendly Christian electorate towards M14 while (5) setting boundaries for his MPs, (6) to give the impression that Hezbollah lost him as an ally after they thought they were winning him over, while (7) showing that he is a moderate at the same time because he wants to have a serious dialogue, and (8) highlighting the fact that he is actually making a big sacrifice by negotiating with  Hezbollah, which would mean that he is (9) a patriot that values Lebanon above everything else. These three weeks were supposed to be about Hezbollah’s achievement. Instead, they became all about Hariri, who didn’t even have an achievement. It was – by far – the best political maneuver of 2015.

The two president’s men and a new bey in Mukhtara? (March 2015)

In the last half of February, PM Salam wanted to amend the cabinet’s voting mechanism after several cabinet members began exercising veto power, stalling several of the government’s projects. What happens next? 7 Lebanese ministers meet and decide to form a “consultative gathering”. The ministers are the ones who are loyal to Amine Gemayel and to Michel Sleiman. The rapprochement between the ministers was logical: They all either belong to one of the smallest Lebanese parties in parliament or represent a former president that no longer has any concrete power (not even one MP). That was Gemayel and Sleiman’s way of counterbalacing the FPM-LF’s recent dialogue: The Aounists and the Lebanese Forces were also about to reach an understanding. The process – whose unannounced intention was probably to slow down the Hezbollah-FM dialogue – could have meant two things: (1) That the two main Christian parties were trying to keep the president’s seat to themselves or (2) that no consensual candidate would become president unless the biggest two Christian parties agree on him. Speaking of consensual candidates, Walid Jumblatt’s decision to transfer his power to his son before the presidential elections (and not the parliamentary elections) could have meant that he didn’t want the transition of power to happen in Mukhtara while a president from the Chouf – did I mention that General Kahwagi  is from the Chouf – interferes from the Beiteddin palace.

Yemen, Yemen everywhere (April 2015)

Here’s a short summary of the three productive weeks we had between the 27th of March and the 17th of April: First, Hariri supports the “Saudi intervention” in Yemen. Then, Hezbollah condemns the “Saudi aggression” in Yemen. Then, the Future Movement supports the “Saudi intervention” in Yemen.Then, Nasrallah criticizes Saudi Arabia. Then, the Future Movement criticizes Hezbollah. Then, Hezbollah criticizes the Future Movement. Then, the Future Movement criticizes Hezbollah. Then, Nasrallah criticizes Saudi Arabia. Then, Hariri criticizes Nasrallah. Then, Hezbollah criticizes the Future Movement. Then, the Future Movement criticizes Hezbollah. Then, Hezbollah criticizes the Future Movement. Then, the Future Movement criticizes Hezbollah. This time however, it was Gebran Bassil who was responsible for April’s political bomb: he expressed support for “legitimacy in any Arab country, especially in Yemen”. Four days later, Bassil struck again: “We don’t wish to see Hezbollah fighting with the Houthis or see anyone from the Future Movement fighting alongside the Saudis”. For the second time in the same week, Bassil was indirectly criticizing the FPM’s key ally, Hezbollah. And it wasn’t a good month for Hezbollah: The upper hand that the party had in the two weeks after the January retaliation had disappeared: Jumblatt asked “What’s wrong with Nasrallah?“, the Prime Minister said that Beirut supported any move that preserves Sanaa’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity”, the speaker said he supported Oman’s efforts to solve the crisis, Michel Samaha confessed, Rustum Ghazali died, and the Patriarch said that the March 8 alliance was responsible for the presidential vacancy. So yeah, you can say that it was the worst month for March 8 in 2015.

The War for Shamel Roukoz (May 2015)

By the month of May, a new development had happened: The commander of the army’s term was supposed to end in September, and it was time to find a replacement. For Michel Aoun, March 8’s presidential candidate, the name of the next General in charge of the LAF mattered even more: His son-in-law, Shamel Roukoz,  headed at the time the army’s special forces (The Maghawir) and was a serious candidate for the post. If Roukoz became commander of the army and got the right political backing, he would have been in a position to be as influential as his father-in-law and ultimately succeed him as the party’s leader and idol.  So when The FM and the PSP realized how badly their Christian rival wanted the post, they played it smart. Instead of vetoing the appointment, they outmaneuvered Aoun by accepting the nomination (Here’s a link of Hariri saying yes to Roukoz, and another link of Jumblatt saying yes to Roukoz) while indirectly requiring some concessions from the FPM: (1) Someone not named Michel Aoun as president, (2) a gentler electoral law towards the FM and PSP’s interests, and (3) Hezbollah agreeing to some of their terms. But that’s not all of it. Giving Roukoz the green light comes at a price: The FM insisted on naming Roukoz commander after the presidential elections, making it a difficult task for Aoun to accept that deal: What if the next president didn’t want Roukoz to lead the army? It was a risky prospect for Aoun. For the FPM, appointing Roukoz as commander seemed like one of the two steps needed to secure the presidential elections of 2021 (since the commander of the army is usually the candidat-favori). For the FM, appointing Roukoz seemed like the easiest way to try to sow discontent between the FPM and Hezbollah. Anyway, the month of May 2015 ends with the hope of implementing a settlement including a Aoun withdrawal from the presidential race and a Roukoz appointment in the army.

The rise of the Christian parties (June 2015)

Surprise. For the first time since 2005, Michel Aoun and Samir Geagea met. Live. Face to face. Without having to shoot at one another like the good old days of the late eighties. After 6 months of speculation, the FPM and the LF finally agreed on a “declaration of intent”, which was basically an agreement to agree on an agreement between the two parties. The symbolism of the meeting was however very important, and if you read the declaration, you’ll find out  that it revolves around one main idea: protecting the Christian interests, and at their core, the election of a strong president (a “strong president” = Aoun and /or Geagea). Although the FPM looked like the winning party (since it was Geagea the one who visited him in Rabieh), the leader of the Lebanese Forces succeeded in bringing back the “strong president” rhetoric to life, thus pushing Aoun away from the idea of a consensual president (in case he was even tempted by it) and a Roukouz deal with the Mustaqbal and the PSP. At the time, it didn’t look as if a new pseudo-alliance between the LF and the FPM was genuinely starting: It looked more like the consensual candidate – Roukoz deal was being put off the table, At least for a while. Meanwhile, the transfer of power in the Kataeb was already underway: Samy Gemayel officially declared his candidacy for the Kataeb presidency on the third of June, and was officially elected to succeed his father on the 15th of June; it was always too obvious that the presidency of the Kataeb would eventually be given – even if by elections – to the eldest living heir of the eldest heir of Pierre Gemayel. With a temporarily weakened Kataeb in a succession period, one can only imagine the impact an FPM-LF pseudo-alliance might have on Lebanese politics.

Christian rights and political maneuvers (July 2015)

The appointment of Shamel Roukoz as commander of the army meant that Kahwagi, who will no longer be commander of the army, would slowly lose momentum as a presidential candidate in favor of other candidates, while at the same time Roukoz seemed the man to fulfill the legacy of Aoun. The problem however for the FPM is that the party did not wish to make concessions (such as Aoun’s withdrawal from the presidential race) in order to bring Roukoz into the army command. Aoun wanted the cabinet to discuss the commander of the army’s appointment from July, in order to avoid any deal that could be forced upon him in September. The early/urgent appointment of Shamel Roukoz as commander hence became the FPM’s main priority. For a little over than a month – empowered by the newly signed declaration of intent – Aoun took it upon himself to launch the most aggressive political maneuver of this year:  He called for the demonstrations and tried to prove that he is the most popular leader with the Geagea polling deal. He also played the sectarian card by saying that Salam was abusing his powers in his refusal to discuss the appointment of a new commander of the army: Constitutionally speaking, it’s the Sunni PM that sets the agenda in the cabinet meetings (article 64) although the Maronite president is allowed to “introduce, from outside the agenda, any urgent matter to the council of Ministers” (article 53). But there was no president which gave the FPM the chance to play a double sectarian card: The FPM leaders argued that the PM doesn’t want to discuss the appointment of the Maronite commander of the army, and is refusing to let the biggest Christian party in the cabinet use the authorities of the Maronite president. So when Bassil told the PM that he was the President in the absence of a President during a cabinet session, it was clear that it was going to end badly in the executive power: The pressure and paralysis in the government eventually led to rumors that the Prime Minister was going to resign. It was a clever maneuver from Salam: In case he leaves the premiership, his cabinet – that already assumes the role of the president – becomes a caretaker one, the parliament loses the remainder of its legislative power and the FPM’s demands in the government become useless (since a caretaker cabinet cannot theoretically meet). The FPM lose their chance of making a scene by throwing Salam outside like they did to Hariri in 2011,  and instead of showing themselves as victims, they become the ones responsible for literally everything: Every institution in Lebanon becomes paralyzed because of the M8 boycott of the presidential elections, and the only one who would still keep a bit of influence is Tammam Salam as president of the caretaker cabinet. Also if no solution was reached by September, the commander of the army will probably see his term extended, since a caretaker cabinet doesn’t officially have enough authority to discuss such an important post, especially that the country would become highly unstable once we cease to have a functioning government alongside a paralyzed parliament and a non-existent president. In the end, Salam didn’t resign and the Aounists didn’t appoint Roukoz as commander, but the FPM’s July jockeying will be remembered as a major turning point in Lebanese politics this year.

A coup in the cabinet and a garbage revolt everywhere else (August 2015)

Weakened by his failed July maneuver and by an expected succession crisis in his party, Michel Aoun suffered a major blow on the 6th of August when defense minister Samir Mokbel signed a decree to postpone the retirement of Army Commander General Jean Kahwaji. While the FPM ministers’ resignation seemed like the typical response to this “mini-declaration of war”, the fact that Aoun wasn’t on board with Berri that month (Berri lashed out at the FPM that same week, told us that he wouldn’t vote for Aoun in the presidential elections, that toppling the cabinet was a red line and that the government paralysis hurts citizens) meant that Amal’s 2.5 ministers wouldn’t have resigned along with the FPM officials. In other words, a Hezbollah-FPM double resignation wouldn’t have been enough to collapse the cabinet, and Salam was free to extend Kahwaji’s term. The move to throw Roukoz outside the army command and to isolate Aoun in the government was humiliating yet there was still one, and only one (fast) way left for Aoun to vacate the army command before the summer of 2016 (when Kahwagi’s new term expires): Agree to make Kahwagi president, which would leave room in the army command to bring in Roukoz. Deep down, March 14’s maneuver of extending Kahwagi’s term wasn’t necessary about ending any chance of striking a deal with the FPM. It was might have actually been their way of enforcing one.

By the second week of August, all the political maneuvering Lebanon had for years turned suddenly stopped: Lebanon turned into a dumpster and a garbage crisis – caused by the government’s inaction for 20 years and aggravated by the recent deadlock – was quickly threatening the authority of the Lebanese political class. For the next month, Beirut was at its most beautiful in years. Small demonstrations protesting corruption and oppression grew in size and on the 29th of August, as hundreds of thousands of Lebanese gathered in martyr’s square asking for solutions to the trash crisis, early elections and accountability, there was finally hope that this country might one day change for the better.

Another coup in the cabinet (September/October 2015)

While the protests were still ongoing to pressure the cabinet to solve the trash crisis, Lebanon was witnessing two important developments regarding the FPM: Gebran Bassil became the leader of the party, and Chamel Roukoz was thrown out of the army for good, raising several important questions: Who gives the orders in the FPM? Aoun? Bassil? Who does the FPM answer to? Bassil? Aoun? What to do with Roukoz? Bring him in since he’s too popular? (Or keep him outside since he’s too popular?) Can the FPM nominate Roukoz instead of Aoun to the presidency? What would that make of Bassil? The FPM also started changing their discourse into a more “Christian rights” – based one: The whole “reforming the system and rooting out corruption from within” wasn’t working so much anymore, especially with the recent waves of anti-government protests.  The crisis in the cabinet continued, and as everyone threatened to bring down the cabinet,  the premier, who probably knew – like everyone else – that no one was ready to bring down a government in which they thrive on the status-quo, took it upon himself to end the discourse and indirectly told everyone that if they won’t calm down and try (or at least pretend) to figure out how to solve the trash crisis, he will be the one who will bring down the government. Ironically, it might have been the fear of the trash protesters that prevented the government from imploding.

The boycott and the bait (November 2015)

November was weird. Lebanon’s Muslim parties wanted to legislate in the middle of a presidential vacancy (hint: It’s unconstitutional), while the Christian parties refused to do so and formed a brief yet historic tripartite alliance to dis-legitimatize the session by boycotting it. Among the 38 draft laws on the table was a proposal that was supposed to lure the Christian parties and push them to take part in the legislative sessions: A draft law that would grant citizenship to the descendants of Lebanese expatriates. For ages, that was one of the main requests of the Christian parties (they believe that most of the expatriates are Christians which would strengthen their position ahead of parliamentary elections). So why weren’t they willing to participate? For the LF and the Kataeb, boycotting the legislative session meant that they were pissing off the leadership of the March 8 alliance and that they too – and not only the FPM – are ready to stand up for Christian rights (= the priority of electing a Christian president before legislating in this case). For the FPM, their boycott of the session was probably a mini-retaliation on Berri for letting the extension of Kahwagi in the army command pass and for not standing with them on the Chamel Roukoz issue. So is revenge a dish best served cold? No, not really: The bait (citizenship law) actually worked and the FPM and LF eventually participated in the (theoretically unconstitutional) session after it became obvious that the Muslim parties were going through with their plans regardless of the Christian boycott. After passing the citizenship law, it seemed as if the declaration of intent had finally reached its purpose and both the LF  and FPM had won their first battle as half-allies. So everything seemed to be fine for the Christian parties that month…until the Future Movement hinted that they might endorse Sleiman Frangieh, the second-in-command among March 8’s Christian parties and a long-term ally of the Syrian regime as their presidential candidate. As you can expect, the Christian parties panicked: Frangieh had the right family name, the international support, enough “Christian legitimacy” (he’s one of the Maronite Four), and support from three powerful Muslim parties across the political spectrum.

Frangieh The Second? (December 2015)

As the seriousness of Sleiman Frangieh’s candidacy became evident, Lebanon’s traditional March 8/March 14 alliances were on the verge of collapsing. While the PSP, the FM and Amal rallied around Frangieh, the election of Frangieh was out of the question for the biggest three Christian parties (the LF, FPM, and Kataeb). Hezbollah stayed silent and as the FPM’s final say that they would stick with Aoun became more obvious, the party of God’s decision not to support the Marada leader (for the time being) will have saved Lebanon from a Christian-Muslim confrontation in parliament. Only time will tell if Frangieh’s candidacy was an M14 maneuver to blow up M8 or an M8 counter-maneuver to take the presidency, but for now, the future of the Frangieh settlement remains unclear: While the election of Frangieh as president is a long-term investment for Hezbollah and could reinforce the March 8 alliance till the next parliamentary elections, Aoun doesn’t exactly benefit from the Frangieh deal. A minor ally of his becomes a major rival that threatens the influence of the newly elected FPM president Gebran Bassil, and Aoun will have no guarantee whatsoever on what happens with the electoral law. If the FPM isn’t given assurances – the outline of the new electoral law, the FPM’s share in the new cabinet, or even bringing Chamel Roukoz (in a way or another) back into the army command – the deal is as good as dead: Hezbollah and the FPM control a little less than the third of the parliament’s seats making it extremely difficult for any candidate to secure the two-thirds quorum needed for the presidential elections.

You might also like 2013’s review and 2014’s review.

What Future for the Frangieh Settlement?

This is the 16th post in a series of monthly posts covering the presidential elections. This post is about the month of December 2015.

Is Frangieh going to be elected president? Until the second week of December, most of Lebanon thought so. However, several developments this month indicated that the deadlock is very likely to remain as there is still no unanimous agreement on Frangieh. Although the Marada said that the settlement still stands, the Frangieh-Aoun meeting as well as several other reports hint that things are not going very well for Frangieh’s candidacy.

International pressure and “local resistance”

In what might be the most desperate (yet obvious) attempt to obstruct the Frangieh deal, the Christian parties have tried during the past few weeks to make the Frangieh candidacy look as an imported international deal brokered by regional powers (the Hollande phone call, the Frangiehs close family ties with the Assads as well as the green light coming from Saudi Arabia have made it easier for them to launch this maneuver): On the 11th, Adwan said that the ambassadors’ stances won’t influence the LF’s decisions. Two days later, Gemayel stated that it was hard for outside to decide on the presidential file. The disproportionate coverage of Berri’s decision not visit Saudi Arabia (really, why do we even need to know?) perhaps highlights an attempt from the pro-Frangieh camp to undermine the allegations of an internationally-sponsored deal.

Frangieh Who?

On the other side of the political spectrum, the Future movement was acting very weird. On the 19th of December, one day after Frangieh officially declared his candidacy and sponsored himself as a moderate candidate during a televised interview, Khaled Daher (the rebellious FM MP from Akkar) said he would choose aoun over Frangieh for the  presidency. While that was rather expected from Daher, another northern MP, Ahmad Fatfat, said from Maarab that Frangieh’s name was…never ever considered in the first place (?!?!). However the FM’s highest ranking minister in the cabinet (interior, Mashnouk), said that Frangieh’s interview “showed sincerity” (also, look at Future newspaper’s front page). While it is yet unclear if there is a major disagreement on Frangieh’s name in the ranks of the Future Movement or if it is a maneuver to (re)strengthen Frangieh among M8 by making him look as a hated candidate in M14, it seems that the FM is trying to delay an official endorsement of Frangieh in order to maintain its ties with the Lebanese Forces.

Peace and love

One of the most awkward moments in Lebanese politics this year was perhaps when Saudi-Arabia decided to form an Islamic coalition to fight ISIS and included Lebanon in it. As expected, not everyone was happy with that decision: While Salam hailed the move and Hariri praised it, Mohamad Raad of Hezbolah absolutely refused Lebanon’s participation and Qaouk accused it of supporting takfiris. Even the Kataeb were confused, saying that it should have been named ‘Arab’ instead of ‘Islamic’ (you know, since Saudi Arabia cares about the Kataeb’s feelings). In another decade, Lebanon’s participation in such a coalition would have started a civil war, but it was not the time to start a fight (the Frangieh deal was apparently the priority), so the whole debate suddenly…disappeared (after Salam assured everyone that no one could have prevented him from taking a decision that he deemed appropriate). Even the death of Samir Qantar in Syria and the commemoration of Mohamad Chatah’s assassination were rather calmly handled by the Future Movement and Hezbollah: The speeches were (relatively) moderate towards the other camp – Siniora was a bit harsh, but then again, that isn’t something new. With Frangieh’s candidacy on the horizon, there seems to be an agreement to keep things “politically peaceful” at the moment. Even the death of Ali Eid – the Alawi leader who was wanted by the Lebanese judiciary over his alleged involvement the 2013 twin Tripoli bombings – almost went unnoticed last week: Lebanon’s politicians didn’t make any comments on what could have been the most important event this month. Did I also mention that there has finally been an agreement on a trash plan without a lot of objections in the cabinet? Too much silence in Lebanese politics could mean that there is indeed a deal in the making.

A comeback opportunity for the others?

The only positive (yet controversial) event that happened this year was the release of the abducted Lebanese servicemen. While it happened in the middle of the talks on the Frangieh deal, it was a very important boost for the (undeclared) campaign of the commander of the army: On the 9th of December, the strengthened army chief said there would be no safe passage for militants. On the 21st, Berri said that if the Maronite four weren’t going to agree on a candidate (Frangieh), then it would be possible for another candidate to run. He was probably pressuring the Maronite leaders, yet the Patriarchy’s hint that it is ready to support someone outside the Maronite four, followed the next day by the Patriarch’s praise of the army, puts back Kahwagi’s name back in the game.

Amine Gemayel’s recent plans to spearhead a joint Maronite project to end the deadlock can also be seen as an attempt by the last politician of the Maronite four who still hasn’t seriously proposed himself as candidate to do so in the wake of Frangieh’s recent mini-defeats.

So is Frangieh going to be elected president?

Until the second week of December, most of Lebanon thought so. There was a parliamentary session to elect the president on the 16th, and most of late November’s statements had hinted that Frangieh could be elected before the end of the year. Three of the biggest four Muslim parties were in agreement on his candidacy, Frangieh has the necessary legitimacy by being one of the Maronite four, he’s close to Syria, has international approval (apparently), and managed to gather support from March 8 (Amal), March 14 (Mustaqbal), and the centre (PSP). The leader of the Marada was coming close to the 65 votes he needs to win, and all he needed was Aoun’s blessing followed by Hezbollah’s green light. Even if Frangieh had managed to secure an absolute majority in parliament, he still needed the necessary two-thirds quorum, and the Hezbollah-FPM alliance controls – on its own – around 30% of the seats in parliament. In other words, it is almost impossible for Frangieh – or anyone else – to be elected without a green light from Aoun, unless he can convince 95% of the other MPs to attend the session (Good luck persuading the Kataeb and the LF to vote for Frangieh). Reports that Frangieh has kicked off talks with independent figures (like MP Boutros Harb) might indicate that he is trying to gather as much support as possible to gather the 86 votes he needs for the quorum – especially that Hezbollah cannot veto his election by using the sectarian card now that Frangieh has Berri behind him.

While the election of Frangieh as president is a long-term investment (Frangieh is only 50 years old and will rule as president for 6 years) for Hezbollah and could reinforce the March 8 alliance – in case Aoun approves – till the next parliamentary election, Aoun doesn’t exactly benefit from the Frangieh deal. A minor ally of his becomes a major rival that threatens the influence of the newly elected FPM president Gebran Bassil, and Aoun will have no guarantee whatsoever on what happens with the electoral law. If the FPM isn’t given assurances – the outline of the new electoral law, the FPM’s share in the new cabinet or even bringing Chamel Roukoz (in a way or another) back into the army command -the deal is as good as dead (unless Hezbollah breaks the alliance with Aoun and we end up with a quadripartite Muslim alliance supporting Frangieh and a tripartite Christian one opposing him. But as Hezbollah refuses to do so, that scenario doesn’t seem very likely to happen in the near future). To quote speaker Berri, “The best scenario to resolve the crisis lies in an agreement between Change and Reform bloc chief MP Michel Aoun and Marada Movement leader MP Suleiman Franjieh.”

And to quote the FPM’s MP Ibrahim Kanaan, “Political competition is essential for democracy” (If you know what he means).

Brace yourself for a Frangieh-Aoun competition in 2016, Lebanon.

583 days since the 25th of May. 419 days since the 5th of November.

2015’s Epic Fail Quotes In Lebanese Politics

(No comment) Image source: https://stateofmind13.files.wordpress.com/2015/08/nabil-nicolas-michel-aoun1.png

(Welcome to the fascinating world of Lebanese politics) – image source

As 2015 draws to an end, it is time to look back on the wisdom and guidance of Lebanese politicians, which is why I made this mini-compilation of 25 “?!?!?!” quotes/headlines that miraculously saw the light in 2015. Enjoy.

1) Civil = مدني + Agitation = حراك. Because Google Translate = National News Agency. (13/9/2015)

Let civil agitation activists abide by the law by way of expressing their opinion in a civilized manner, the Directorate of Guidance in the Internal Security Forces (ISF), declared in today’s directive. (Link)

2) Apparently, Lebanon lives in a fridge (9/9/2015)

آلان عون: البلد يعيش في ثلاجة (Link)

3) That moment when actors became politicians (10/9/2015)

يوسف الخال: الدستور ليس منزلاً فلنعمل على تعديله ضمن آلية تتماشى مع الحراك الجديد (Link)

4) Inception begins (12/6/2015)

جريصاتي يرد: تعطيل التعطيل ليس تعطيلاً (Link)

5) Inception rises (18/8/1015)

جريصاتي: نحن نعطل التعطيل (Link)

6) Inception spreads (19/8/1015)

حكمت ديب: نحن نعطل التعطيل (Link)

7) Deep. Just too deep. Too deep to be true. (22/8/2015)

جريج: هل التشارك يعني التعطيل؟ (Link)

8) It’s in the eyes. You must look them in the eyes. (22/8/2015)

(Link) ميقاتي:لقد شعرت في عيون الشباب بأنهم يقولون لكل الطبقة السياسية “كفى، عندما تتفقون تريدون تقاسم الجبنة وسرقة البلد وعندما تختلفون تريدون تدمير البلد

9) The right to yell: A new human right. (23/8/2015)

Berri Says people have the right to yell (Link)

10) You can’t make this stuff up (12/1/2015)

Aoun Tastes Geagea’s Chocolate Truffles (Link)

11) [Which is why they have a cross as the party’s symbol] (12/12/2015)

اعلن رئيس حزب “القوات اللبنانية” سمير جعجع  أن القوات لم تكن في يوم من الأيام منظمة طائفية (Link)

12) (He’s 34, so the 20 years include the 4 spent as a teenager. Also, the confidence, like the parliament’s term, is expired) (23/6/2015)

Responding to the notion that he simply inherited the presidency from his father, Gemayel, a Metn lawmaker, stressed that he had worked hard to reach the post.

“I consider that I reached this place because of all the work I have done over the past 20 years of my life. I also know the level of democracy which characterized this election,” Gemayel said. “I also won the confidence of the Lebanese in parliamentary elections, even before the Kataeb elections,” he added, referring to the 2009 election to the Parliament. (Link)

13) No comment (27/8/2015)

“I kneel before you to give me your blessing, not to take your place, because no one can take your place “Because you have seen [Aoun], you have believed,” he [Gebran Bassil] told the crowd. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”” (Link)

14) So is this (1) racist, (2) sexist, (3) sectarian, (4) racist and sectarian, (5) racist and sexist, (6) sectarian and sexist, (7) sectarian, racist and sexist, or (8) just a Lebanese politician being a Lebanese politician? (7/11/2015)

باسيل: لن نقبل مقايضة اعادة الجنسية اللبنانية للبناني اصيل باعطاء الجنسية لفلسطيني وسوري (Link)

(He’s talking about the children of Lebanese women)

15) Reasons to keep a general in power (13/8/2015)

نهاد المشنوق من السراي: اذا استمرت الحملة على قهوجي فسيتم التمديد له للمرة الثالثة (Link)

16) So basically, occupation armies are like drugs? (2/5/2015)

Geagea called on parents “to keep an eye on their children and prevent them from falling into this terrible trap.” Addressing the youth, he said: “As you have refused subjection to any occupier, refuse subjection to any kind of drugs, be it hashish, pills, cocaine, heroin, needles or digital drugs.” (Link)

17) They wanted a solution to the trash crisis and early elections. They also wanted to be beaten. (17/09/2015)

Lebanon’s interior minister: Protesters want to be beaten (Link)

18) That moment when the Party of God criticizes sectarianism (13/9/2015)

Sectarian specificities, shackle anti-corruption attempts, Hizbullah parliamentarian Ali Fayyad exclaimed at a high school graduation ceremony of party pupils in Tallousa-South Lebanon today. (Link)

19) A minister representing a (theoretically) leftist party that was once supported by the USSR, criticized the “communist experience” (17/09/2015)

ابو فاعور: المنطق الطبقي الذي تحدث به البعض عن التجربة الشيوعية مرفوض، فليقرأوا جيداَ تلك التجربة (Link)

20) Those words are coming from a representative of a party that fought a civil war to implement proportional representation (17/09/2015)

أبو فاعور: طرح النسبية في لبنان يهدف لتغليب فريق على آخر (Link)

21) The anger. It’s real. (But it’s not too real. So don’t go too far) (19/9/2015)

“I can’t blame them at all. I respect their anger, because it is emanating from a reality,” Salam said, referring to the protesters. But he added that they “went too far by asking for the resignation of all members of Parliament and ministers.” (Link)

22) But the rivers of trash, unlike the anger, are fake. So why all the anger? (27/10/2015)

Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam said on Monday that the video showing rain-soaked streets in parts of Lebanon flowing with garbage was fake, the website of private Lebanese TV channel al-Jadeed reported. (Link)

23) Poetry. (12/7/2015)

Khalil: Constitution is no date to be devoured upon hunger! (Link)

24) Did I mention Walid Jumblatt has Twitter?

25) Yes. Walid Jumblatt has Twitter.

Is the Quadripartite Alliance Rising from the Dead?

 Lebanon's former president, Sleiman Frangieh (the grandfather), hunting in Syria. Found on the internet.

Lebanon’s former president, Sleiman Frangieh (the grandfather), hunting in Syria. Found on the internet.

In 2005, and as the Syrian army was retreating from Lebanon, a quadripartite alliance was formed between Lebanon’s four major Muslim parties (Amal, Hezbollah, the FM, and the PSP) ahead of the parliamentary elections. At the time, the 2000 electoral law was still in place, which meant that the quadripartite alliance could have easily won more than 100 seat in Lebanon’s parliament: The electoral map was engineered by the pro-Syrian elite in a way  to reduce Christian influence – only two constituencies had a clear-cut Christian majority, Keserwan-Jbeil and the Metn. The maneuver was obvious: It was a way of reassuring Lebanon’s pro-Syrian parties (Amal, Hezbollah) that they wouldn’t be excluded from the Lebanese equation following the Syrian withdrawal, while at the same time keeping the Christian newcomers in check: Michel Aoun had just come back from Paris, there was increasing pressure to release Geagea from jail, and both of them had been gaining momentum and threatening to challenge the dominance of the quadripartite alliance’s parties. The Kataeb and the LF eventually settled for a couple of seats they won alongside the quadripartite alliance in the Muslim-dominated districts while the FPM, on their own in the opposition, “tsunamied” in the two Christian-majority constituencies and even managed to partially make it through in Zahle. However with the 2006 memorandum of understanding between the FPM and Hezbollah, a new era began in Lebanese politics, shattering the 2005 quadripartite alliance into the March 8 and March 14 alliances: Amal and Hezbollah joined the FPM in the opposition, lost the 2009 elections, but eventually managed to reach power in 2011.

Then came the month of November 2015. For the first time since 2006, several events in Lebanese politics started putting in question the cohesion of Lebanon’s two main alliances, March 8 and March 14. If it wasn’t for a last minute-decision, the FPM and the LF were on the verge of standing against their Muslim allies in parliament. Regardless of the reservations coming from the Christian parties, the four parties in parliament were insisting on legislating in the absence of a president in power and were going through with their plans regardless of the opinion of all of their Christian allies – except Frangieh. This dangerous precedent of trying to isolate the biggest three Christian parties in Lebanon wasn’t going to be the first that year: The same four Muslim parties that allied in 2005 and isolated the Christian parties in early November are now talking about electing Frangieh as president, much to the dismay of the FPM, the LF, and the Kataeb.

The Maronite four

The presidential elections are the most exciting event for the Christian parties, and the failure of their Muslim allies to stand with them – even after one year and a half of vacancy – can be deadly for Lebanon’s two alliances. It was always a possibility that Lebanon’s Muslim parties would eventually support their own candidate to the presidential elections, which is why, and in a desperate preemptive move two years ago, Lebanon’s four Maronite leaders gave themselves the  title of “strong presidential candidate”, thus agreeing early on that only one of them would be allowed to be elected president. The maronite four knew that at least one of Lebanon’s Muslim parties would veto each of their names, and that candidates like LAF commander Jean Kahwagi were more likely to be consensual ones so they launched one of the most brilliant maneuvers of 2014 and restricted the acceptable candidates to a group of 4 persons: Themselves.

The Maronite one

So what exactly happened to the Maronite four’s solidarity campaign? It backfired: Samir Geagea ran in the first round of presidential elections and lost…to no one,  Amine Gemayel was replaced as president of his party by his son Sami while Gebran Bassil took his father-in-law’s position in the FPM. This transitional phase that suddenly hit two of Lebanon’s Christian parties – accompanied by Geagea’s humiliation in parliament, made Frangieh the second-oldest of the Maronite (de-facto) four and a serious candidate for the presidency. His rebellious attitude towards Aoun in the last two times the parliament convened in – unlike Aoun, he supported the parliamentary extension of 2014 while also dissociating his policy from the FPM’s one in the last parliamentary session – was very marking. His criticism of Aoun’s protests, as well as his commentary on  the FPM/LF’s latest achievement (the new citizenship law) did not go unnoticed.

Frangieh is also gaining momentum. Only this week, he received a phone call from the French president and got the blessing of the Maronite patriarch.

All that time – and while staunchly supporting Aoun’s candidacy – Frangieh was slowly stepping out of the Shadow of the Maronite Four. Only months ago, he used to be the youngest of the group. Now he’s the second oldest (official) leader of Lebanon’s Christian parties and is starting to pose a serious threat on both Geagea and Aoun. When those two leaders decided to start their rapprochement in May, we all thought that it was to counter the rise of Sami Gemayel in the Kataeb. Turns out that this mini-weird-alliance between the FPM and the LF was also made to contain a rising threat to Baabda coming from the North: Sleiman Frangieh.

Tripartite alliance vs Quadripartite alliance?

If the Muslim parties that isolated Aoun in 2005 come back together to elect Frangieh without getting the blessing of any of Lebanon’s Christian parties, it would set a dangerous precedent – perhaps the most dangerous one since Taef: For the first time, Lebanon’s Muslim parties – aka the quadripartite alliance – would be voting for Frangieh and will be – in a way or another – pushing Lebanon’s biggest three Christian parties (FPM, LF, Kataeb) to form a counter-alliance to resist Frangieh’s election. The last time a Frangieh was in power and that the Christians and Muslims were siding against one another was in 1975, so  it’s not really good to have that same combination again.

How the Maronite four treaty will backfire

The biggest three Christian parties will count on the fact that their boycott of the election of the top Maronite post will be enough to force the hand of their Muslim allies. You can’t expect the Christian parties to simply let the Muslim parties decide the outcome of the presidential elections without their approval: This would raise questions on the legitimacy of a Christian president “abandoned by his won sect” (That’s the propaganda the three Christian parties would use). Frangieh might be weaker than the others (he’s a local Zaim who only commands three MPs in parliament and who has been overshadowed by Aoun for the past 10 years), but then again, he doesn’t need to prove his legitimacy to anyone: He is one of the Maronite four, and he will use this weapon against the bigger 3 parties every time he can. For Lebanon’s four Muslim parties, Frangieh represents the most legitimate candidate that could be elected without the consent of Geagea, Aoun and Gemayel. When the Maronite four restricted the post to one of them, they had probably never thought that the Muslim parties would eventually support one of their own. Yet in a way, they led the Muslim parties straight to Frangieh: He has the right name and he’s part of the Maronite four. At only 55 50 years old, he’s one of the oldest-serving MPs in the Lebanese parliament (1992-2005, 2009-2017), he’s local (<=> weak <=> even better since he won’t be as defiant as the others), he’s reliable, he doesn’t suddenly change sides, he did his time in the executive power and thus has the experience to rule (unlike Geagea), and he was the only Christian leader to stand by his Muslim ally throughout most of the events. Frangieh was close to winning the game, and his three rivals – while thinking they were protecting themselves from kahwagi or Salamis nomination – gave him the winning cards. Or so it seems.

An M8 conspiracy theory?

According to many of M8’s supporters, Frangieh’s nomination is considered to be a hidden “Aoun” one. They say that Aoun is stalling in order to give the impression that Frangieh is not his candidate thus making his name more popular across the FM. Although everything can be possible in the realm of Lebanese politics, I’m not a fan of conspiracy theories and reverse-conspiracy theories, and only time will tell if this an M14 maneuver to blow up M8 or an M8 counter-maneuver to take the presidency. Aoun might eventually endorse Frangieh as his protege in order to minimize his loss, although one thing is for sure: A new chapter in Lebanese politics is opening up, and Gebran Bassil should be ready to face a serious threat to his power within M8.

Hezbollah’s green light to the Frangieh candidacy is also yet to be given, so almost all scenarios are possible at that moment.

The biggest of all ironies here is that Frangieh (the grandfather) counted on the support of a “Christian tripartite alliance” (consisting of Chamoun, Edde and Gemayel) to be elected president in 1970, while the biggest obstacle currently facing his grandson seems to be another Christian tripartite alliance. For the Frangiehs, the only thing that is constant seems to be the support they receive from the Jumblatts during the presidential elections.

559 days since the 25th of May. 395 days since the 5th of November.

What Would It Take To Get Aoun To Renounce His Presidential Ambitions?

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, right, receives FPM leader Michel Aoun in Beirut, Wednesday, June 4, 2014. (The Daily Star/Lebanese Parliament Website, HO)

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, right, receives FPM leader Michel Aoun in Beirut, Wednesday, June 4, 2014. (The Daily Star/Lebanese Parliament Website, HO)

This is the 11th post in a series of monthly posts covering (forgotten/ignored) WikiLeaks cables about Lebanon. 

Last week, all of Lebanon started speculating on the outcome of the presidential elections. For the first time since 2013, it finally seemed that Hezbollah and the Future Movement had agreed on a name to fill the vacancy, and that Sleiman Frangieh would eventually make it to Baabda. Yet the candidacy of the Zgharta MP still faces two major obstacles: Reservations coming from M14’s Christian parties, and – more importantly – the absence of an official green light coming from his long-term ally and president in the Change and Reform Bloc, Michel Aoun. Which is why this month’s WikiLeaks cable is about a dialogue that happened 8 years ago – when Aoun was running for the 2007 presidential elections – between speaker Nabih Berri and the American ambassador, on what it might have taken to get Aoun to renounce his presidential ambitions back then (spoiler: Berri says that it might be certain ministerial portfolios).

Also, (according to the cable) Berri called Aoun  “an…eunuch”.

Enjoy.

LEBANON: BERRI URGES U.S. TO WORK ON AOUN
2007 November 6, 15:36 (Tuesday)
07BEIRUT1736_a
CONFIDENTIAL
CONFIDENTIAL
— Not Assigned —
SUMMARY
——-
1. (C) Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri lamented the absence of parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri from Lebanon, which he said prevented efforts to reach a consensus presidential candidate on time. If no consensus candidate is named before November 12, Berri said he would set a new date for the election, probably on either November 19 or 20. Berri was optimistic that the recent discussions with the Syrians in Istanbul and continuing French diplomatic efforts in Lebanon could lead to a consensus candidate, but warned the U.S. to stop supporting a half plus one president. Privately, Berri told the Ambassador that the U.S. should work on Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun to find out what it would take to get Aoun to renounce his own presidential ambitions. With Aoun conceding the office to others, Berri said that he he would work to see a consensus candidate elected who is closer to March 14 than March 8, with Boutros Harb and Robert Ghanem mentioned as possibilities. End summary.
HARIRI’S ABSENCE COSTING TIME
—————————–
2. (C) The Ambassador, accompanied by Pol/Econ Chief, met with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and his advisor Ali Hamdan at Berri’s office in Ain el-Tineh on November 6. The Ambassador opened the meeting asking when majority leader Saad Hariri would return to Lebanon. An exasperated Berri complained that Saad’s frequent and prolonged absences were causing them to lose time. We lost the October 23 election date because of Saad’s extended stay abroad, Berri said, and now the timing is even more delicate; Saad is out and about meeting with the French in Paris to hear about Istanbul when he should be here dealing with the situation in Lebanon. If he had to postpone the electoral session again, Berri said, it would probably be November 19 or 20. (Note: President Lahoud’s mandate expires on midnight November 23; November 22 is Lebanese National Day. End note.)
THE FRENCH CONNECTION
———————
3. (C) Berri said he had heard the day before from Fares Boueiz that Sarkozy advisor Claude Gueant would visit Beirut later in the week and had requested a meeting with Berri for November 8. Gueant reportedly planned to stay in Lebanon afterwards to help encourage progress towards electing a new president.
4. (C) Sharing his readouts from the Istanbul meetings, Berri said the French representatives reportedly told the Syrians they wanted a consensus candidate and a new relationship with Syria, and that France would work on the Europeans and U.S. if Syria played a constructive role in the Lebanese election. There were no differences between the French and U.S. up until November 14; but after that France feared that March 14’s election of a president with a half plus one majority would be a problem. The French reportedly asked about possible candidates, to which President Asad replied that Syria also wants consensus and has no candidate in mind. Asad reportedly pushed the French to talk to the Patriarch, Saad Hariri, and Nabih Berri, telling them that if they were successful in reaching a solution, Syria would be on board.
5. (C) The Ambassador, noting that this echoed reports he had heard that the Syrians had proposed to the French a mechanism for resolving the impasse, wondered whether the Patriarch would play along, given his fear that people would not accept his candidates. Berri, agreeing that the names currently believed to be on the Patriarch’s short-list (Demianos Kattar, Joseph Torbey, Shakib Qortbawi, Michel Edde) were not acceptable to either side, said there were many names between the March 14 candidates (Nassib Lahoud, Boutros Harb, and Robert Ghanem) and Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun (“an eunuch,” Berri said, beseeching us not to share his comment). So, he added, “I think we can arrive at a consensus…with the help of the U.S.”
FOCUS ON CANDIDATES, NOT PROGRAMS
———————————
6. (C) While acknowledging that the U.S. supported consensus in its public statements, Berri said the U.S. should stop telling March 14 privately that the U.S. would support a half plus one president. “I know the private messages you are passing,” he said, adding that Saad was convinced of consensus. “I know you have your opinion, but don’t interfere; it is your duty to help.”
7. (C) The Ambassador, as in many meetings before with the Speaker, told Berri the U.S. was not opposed to compromise, as long as it was not on principles. Berri retorted, “We are with 1701,” adding that since UN Special Envoy for UNSCR 1559 Envoy Terje Roed-Larsen downplayed 1559 in Rome, he saw no need to reference it either. When Saad raised UNSCR 1559, Berri stressed that he supported UNSCR 1701. After the election, it would be the first duty of the new prime minister to discuss Shebaa farms and Hizballah’s arms, he said; otherwise he, as Speaker, would have to finish what he started in the National Dialogue. If Hizballah disagreed with the government’s position, it could stay out of the government, Berri said, adding that he himself might withdraw if his party (Amal) were not given enough cabinet seats.
8. (C) Berri said he had told Saad in their meetings that there was no need to discuss principles and programs, only candidates, since the opposition would support the principles outlined in the spring 2006 National Dialogue (i.e., support for the Special Tribunal, good relations with Syria, including the exchange of diplomatic ties, and the rejection of Palestinian arms outside the camps and limited timeline for their removal inside the camps). The opposition also supported Lebanon’s Paris III commitments, he said; different elements within those commitments might have to be reviewed, he added, citing the government’s recent efforts to privatize Lebanon’s cell phone networks.
U.S. SHOULD WORK ON AOUN
————————
9. (C) Pulling the Ambassador into his side office for a private word, Berri urged the U.S. to work on Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun to find out what Aoun would need in return for renouncing his own presidential aspirations. If Aoun agrees to concede the presidency, Berri said, then it makes possible for a solution — a president who is closer to March 14 than March 8. As long as Aoun remains in the running, Berri said, his hands are tied. But if Aoun agrees to accept certain ministerial portfolios, then Berri would be willing to support someone like Boutros Harb or Robert Ghanem. The Ambassador asked for confirmation that he would support Harb. Yes, Berri said, if Aoun will agree to step aside. Berri said that his only red line was Nassib Lahoud, as someone “too Saudi.”
COMMENT
——-
10. (C) In what seemed to the Ambassador and Pol/Econ Chief like an endless lunch the day before with presidential hopeful Robert Ghanem, Ghanem did not sound very March 14-like in his statements in support of a two-thirds quorum and his lenient approach to Hizballah. We find it slightly worrisome that Berri has now placed him in this camp, suggesting that he may no longer be viewed as a potential consensus candidate.
11. (C) Berri’s continuing mantra of “the presidency will solve all of Lebanon’s problems” also is not comforting, especially combined with his dismissal of UNSCR 1559. We find it difficult to believe Berri would strike a deal with Saad without some sort of guarantees on the makeup of the new cabinet or the government’s program. That is unless, as many have warned us, Berri’s real goal is to install a weak president along with Saad as prime minister, both of whom would serve as easy prey for the opposition’s efforts to undermine March 14 and its objectives.
12. (C) Berri, fingering Saad’s absence and what he deems to be U.S. “interference,” while at the same time applauding French and Syrian support for a consensus candidate, seems to be absolving himself of any responsibility should parliament be unable to elect a president on November 12. Rather than take the bull by the horns, however, he is content to postpone the crisis until the bitter end. His appeal to us to work on Aoun is not surprising, given his apparent disdain for the General, though we can’t help but wonder, if not Aoun or Ghanem, whom the speaker has in mind as a consensus candidate. Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) Commander Michel Sleiman’s name, notably, did not come up in this meeting, suggesting that either the pro-Syrian opposition has given up on his candidacy or perhaps is merely waiting to see how things play out over the next critical days, ready to pull Sleiman back out of the hat when it seems no other solution is possible.
13. (C) Whatever Berri’s motivations, he is right that working on Aoun is something, however unappealing a task it may be, worth doing. We agree with Berri that, if Aoun would accept the inevitability that he is not going to be president, a solution to Lebanon’s presidential crisis becomes easier to achieve. End comment.
FELTMAN