Free Patriotic Movement protesters shout at soldiers in Downtown Beirut, Thursday, July 9, 2015. (The Daily Star/Mohammed Azakir)
It has been two busy weeks for the Christian leaders. Two very busy weeks. In September, and in case things stay the same, the second most important Christian-allocated post, the Lebanese army command, becomes vacant. And the idea of having the presidency and the command of the army vacant is making all the Christian leaders change their tactics this month with their political maneuvers.
The first “Christian right”: Surveys, polls and strong presidential candidates
One of the very first political maneuver we saw this month was the LF and FPM’s decision to go through with an initial deal of polling Lebanese Christians in order to see who is the most popular Christian leader. For a country that didn’t even do a census since its independence and that postponed its parliamentary elections twice in the last three years, the idea of a census is both ridiculous and useless: Parliamentary elections would be far more accurate, include all Lebanese, and actually produce a parliament that would fairly represent the Lebanese. The only thing a poll could give us are results that no one will trust and that will be used by the winning Christian leader to spam us with till the rest of his life (because, as Geagea and Aoun believe, the strongest Christian leader should become president). Both leaders think that they could use a win in the poll in order to pressure Lebanon’s parliament to elect them. You know, since a parliament that extended his terms twice, postponed democratic elections, and barely convenes, will be surely pressured by a 4600-person poll made by Statistics Lebanon.
“Marada Movement leader Sleiman Frangieh, an ally of Aoun, said that while he supported the poll, its outcome would not affect his voting choices. He said that he would vote for Aoun no matter what the result.”
So to be clear here, no one cares about the poll, and the poll doesn’t matter. In fact, quasi-replacing the elections with a poll is an insult to our intelligence.
The only relevant reason the poll was proposed by Aoun and endorsed by Geagea is that both leaders want to keep the monopoly of Christian leadership to themselves. The increasing threats of a new young influential president of the Kataeb and an aspiring feudal leader from the north probably pushed the two Christian leaders to go through with the poll. While the poll won’t get us anywhere regarding the presidential deadlock, it would be a smart maneuver by Aoun and Geagea to acknowledge the supremacy of one another as Christian leaders in their respective camps. So in other words, the agreement to ask the Christians “who is more popular, Aoun or Geagea” was actually a treaty between the FPM and the LF to confirm Sami Gemayel and Sleiman Frangieh as minor players. And how do we know that? Gemayel voiced remarks on the initiative.
The second “Christian right”: Federalism, decentralization and presidential elections
The Kataeb’s response came quick. The two major Christian leaders were trying to isolate Gemayel by using a Christian right known as “strong Christian president” as an alibi. Gemayel’s response was very accurate as he responded with another Christian right: “Federalism”. Gemayel played his cards well here: The two major Christian players have major ties with Lebanon’s main Muslim parties, and they cannot risk losing support from them by openly supporting such an initiative. One of the main characteristics of the Taef constitution – and in order to suppress the Christian wartime separatist sentiment – is that it confirms the unity of the state, indirectly forbidding any attempt of federalism, while on the other hand promoting “decentralization”. Like most of the articles of our clear constitution, you can interpret that word in many ways. Among Muslim parties, federalism is a big no-no. Sami Gemayel is offering the Christians something the FPM and LF could never support (If they would like their presidential candidacies to remain intact). Gemayel is quickly understanding the rules of the game: When to play the sectarian card, and when to keep it on hold.
Gemayel and Geagea also tried to undermine Aoun’s intiative of Christian polling by confirming that they were still allies on the second of July.
“We agree with Kataeb on 99 pct of matters“
(The 1% are probably the constitution, the electoral law, the presidential elections, the cabinet formation, the parliamentary elections and everything else that matters in this life and the other)
99% = Pissing off the FPM?
The third “Christian right”: Protests, sons-in-law and early deals
But the most important event this week was the FPM’s decision to take the streets in order to ask for Christian rights.
But what were the protests about? No one precisely knows. The parliament extension? The presidential elections? The new commander of the army? The fact that Salam is trying to be in charge? Christian rights? The poll?
According to Aoun,
“They are eradicating Christian existence in the East through the use of swords, and are trying to abolish our presence through politics.”
“For this reason we are preparing for a popular movement to confront all that is happening. What is going on inside the cabinet, as well as prolonging of the Parliament Council’s term, are actually intended for two aims, namely to take control of the government’s decision and to control Christian representatives’ positions, namely the Presidency and Army Command.”
I don’t know if that made things clearer, but Aoun’s protests, which turned out to be a big failure, and were accompanied by a mini-clash with the army and a faux-pas by Gebran Bassil in the cabinet – video – (although some might praise the FPM’s number 2 and consider standing up to the PM in the council and screaming on one another a great achievement) were intended for one purpose: Separating the presidential elections from the appointment of the new commander of the army.
As I said in a post last month, the appointment of Shamel Roukoz as commander of the army means that Kahwagi, who will no longer be commander of the army, will slowly lose momentum as a presidential candidate in favor of other candidates, while at the same time Roukoz seems the man to fulfill the legacy of Aoun. Once Roukoz becomes commander, he will likely be the FPM’s potential candidate for the presidency – while maintaining a consensual image. That would mean that if the FPM plays its cards well in the next general elections and Roukoz succeeds as commander, the FPM could be looking in 2021 at a party whose Roukoz is leading its men in the executive power as president, and whose Bassil is leading its MPs in parliament, while Aoun would remain the “Godfather of the party”.
The problem however for the FPM is that it does not wish to make concessions in order to bring Roukoz into the army command. The more the FPM waits till September (that’s when Kahwagi’s term expires), the more Kahwagi’s term is likely to be extended, and the more the FPM will be in a weaker position to appoint Roukoz. The FM will ask for concession in exchange for backing Roukoz, and we all know that the concession is going to be Aoun dropping his candidacy.
This is what all of these maneuvers have been about. Aoun wants the cabinet to discuss the commander of the army’s appointment from now, in order to avoid any deal that could be forced upon him in September. This is why he is also calling for the demonstrations, and trying to prove that he is the most popular leader with the Geagea polling deal. He wants the appointment of Roukoz as soon as possible and is playing the sectarian card by saying that Salam is abusing his powers via refusing to discuss the matter. 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 is no president right now which gives the FPM the chance to play a double sectarian card: The FPM leaders are arguing that the PM doesn’t want to discuss 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 (Ironically, it’s the Aounists who are boycotiing the election of the Maronite president). Anyway, Aoun doesn’t want to be put in a position where he’ll have to choose between his presidential candidacy and the appointment of his son-in-law as commander of the army, and the panic of these last few days is only a small sample of what we’re about to experience in the next couple of weeks (Aoun actually used the English word “unpredictable”).
With a double vacancy in the Christian posts on the horizon, expect the Christian parties to become hyperactive. Everyone wants to win the Maronite lottery, and they’re going to use every Christian right (whatever that means) they can find in order to maneuver and gain the upper Christian hand by mid-September.
Even Frangieh undermined his major ally’s demonstration, and that means a lot: (1) He wants a piece of the cake too, and (2) Aoun and Geaga were right to be cautious and contain their minor allies. The Maronite patriarch’s say should also be emphasized: He undermined the poll, and warned Aoun against the protests. A major inter-Christian fight on the Maronite posts is about to begin, and the Muslim allies’ opinions are surely going to matter: Just look how Berri remained silent on the stormy cabinet session.
Meanwhile in Arsal, terrorists were fighting over cherries.
413 days since the 25th of May. 249 days since the 5th of November.