How Rifi Destroyed March 14’s Comeback

ISIS Flag

The March 14 alliance excels at ruining political comebacks. When in October 2012 Prime Minister Mikati was on the verge of resigning due to pressure caused by the assassination of General Wissam Hassan, Nadim Koteich of the Future Movement had the brilliant idea of ruining everything by calling these seven words : “Ya Shabeb, Ya Sabaya, Yalla Yalla Al Saraya”What followed was an hour of Chaos, but most importantly five more months of M8 in power.

Justice Minister Ahsraf Rifi made a major political faux-pas yesterday when he requested to legally pursue a group of Lebanese who were seen burning an ISIS flag in Achrafieh.

The example of Faysal Karami

One has to keep in mind two important things: The parliamentary elections are theoretically in two months, and Ahsraf Rifi will likely run in one of the poorest and most conservative districts of the republic. And that’s not all of it: He will be running against a former Prime Minister (Mikati), millionaire ministers (such as Safadi), the nephew of the Sunni community’s most adored Prime Minister (Faysal Karami), and a handful of locally popular leaders. Tripoli will be a fierce electoral battle for Rifi which probably explains his recent moves. Most of Lebanon laughed when former sports minister Faysal Karami was about to take action against Jackie Chamoun who represented Lebanon during the Winter Olympics and happened to have some topless photos – Most of Lebanon laughed, but not most of Tripoli. Faysal Karami was starting his electoral campaign at the time, and that’s exactly the same thing Rifi is doing: By taking action against those who are burning a flag with Muslim scripture on it, Ashraf Rifi wants to look as the politician who is willing to go as far as saving ISIS flags in order to protect everything holy – even if it is on the flag of a terrorist organization.

Is it a long-term maneuver?

The M8 and M14 alliances were preparing themselves for a round of fighting on who gets to negotiate with Islamists who kidnapped the Lebanese soldiers in Arsal. Ashraf Rifi’s recent stance showed him as the less hostile Lebanese politician towards ISIS, putting him in the best position to negotiate with them. On the long run, ISIS will be more likely to concede to his terms than to those of Abbas Ibrahim, which will likely turn out to be a mini victory for M14.

Is it worth it?

The March 14 alliance was enjoying a month of political comeback after Saad Hariri’s return from Paris. M8 tried to counter this by focusing all the attention on ISIS and the concept of direct presidential elections. The maneuver wasn’t too successful until Ashraf Rifi gave them everything they needed, and more. Since the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb, (who usually in such sectarian moments have a talent of defending Christian interests) are silent because it’s their ally in question, the Free Patriotic Movement took advantage of this opportunity and showed himself as the sole protector of Christian interests. The Future Movement also successfully managed to turn himself in the matter of seconds from a moderate party giving a billion dollar to the army to fight ISIS into a party that is defending the Islamic State and its flag. Most importantly, if the elections are truly going to be in November, Hezbollah and the FPM are heading to polls with a huge card in their possession, likely to give them the upper hand in the Christian districts. Yesterday, Ashraf Rifi might have scored a small victory in Tripoli, but the March 14 alliance lost everywhere else.

Apparently, we live in a country where it is legal to extend the parliament’s term for the second time but illegal to burn ISIS’s flag.

 99 days since the 25th of May. 78 days till the 16th of November.

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Three Months Of Vacuum

Presidential Palace Sign

It has been a tough month for the March 8 Alliance. In the last week of July, the Maronite Patriarch launched four consecutive maneuvers against Michel Aoun and his party, taking stances even bolder than his anti-M8 predecessor Sfeir. And just when the Islamist-Lebanese army clashes in Arsal were starting to give a propaganda boost to Hezbollah, Hariri decided to come back to Beirut and turn this Hezbollah opportunity into an opportunity for his party and the March 14 alliance by showing himself as the moderate politician coming home to save the republic. He didn’t only come back to Lebanon at a critical time: He also managed to steal from Hezbollah the moment they had been waiting for. In the aftermath of the Arsal clashes, Hezbollah was supposed to look like the good guy and ISIS the bad one, hence justifying the Hezb’s intervention in Syria. Hariri’s comeback and the relatively quick and bold intervention by the army in the Bekaa threw Hezbollah out of the equation and showed Future Movement instead of Hezbollah as the good guy. The week after that, Hezbollah had to suffer another blow when the user behind the Free Sunnis of Baalbak twitter account was caught and turned out to be a sympathizer of the party. So in order to improve their position, the FPM and Hezbollah launched a political counter-attack on the March 14 alliance.

Contre-attaque no.1

Hezbollah, like most of the time, decided to avoid entering in a direct media confrontation with the March 14 alliance and decided to shift the public’s attention to ISIS: The Islamic State was the main theme in Nasrallah’s speech on the 14th of August. The timing was perfect for Nasrallah: It was on the July 2006 ceasefire day, the target was ISIS, and in the background Israel was dropping bombs on Gaza. It couldn’t get any better than this for Hezbollah.

Contre-attaque no.2

This other counter-attack is courtesy of FPM leader Michel Aoun. While Hezbollah was busy redirecting the public’s attention to ISIS, Aoun was playing it smart by insisting on the only proposal the Maronite patriarch hadn’t violently criticized: The direct presidential elections. The constitutional amendment was proposed by the Free Patriotic Movement in early July but was quickly thrown off the table after almost everyone criticized it. The Free Patriotic Movement might have played a losing card yet one more time, but at least this time it would mean distracting the people from M14’s recent gains. And the M14 coalition fell right into the trap: They stopped mentioning Hariri’s billion dollar comeback and instead decided to get into a media war with the FPM regarding a constitutional amendment that has -1000% chance of passing. The importance of Aoun’s proposal is that it buys him some time: The parliament cannot discuss a constitutional amendment in an exceptional session, so the direct presidential elections bill will have to wait till October 15 (when the parliament starts to hold normal sessions). That date is only two weeks short from November. And what’s happening in November again? The parliamentary elections.

In other words, if Aoun decides to hang on to this bill and wait for it to fail in the parliament in late October it would mean that Lebanon will enter November with no president and a soon-to-be-expired parliament. If Aoun, backed by his allies, decides to vote against an extension of the parliament’s term (It’s highly unlikely that Berri or Jumblatt would give up their positions in the parliament so Aoun will have to ask help from the March 14 Christians to stop an extension of the parliament’s term) the Free Patriotic Movement would have put the M14 alliance in a tough spot: Vote for him president or face a total collapse of the president-less and parliament-less Lebanese regime (since most of the political class doesn’t want parliamentary elections before presidential elections). This direct presidential elections proposal is Michel Aoun’s passport and alibi of doing nothing till the 15th of October. The maneuver depends on the cooperation of the other Christian parties and it will most probably fail, but it’s Aoun’s last bullet in this presidential race.

Jumblatt. Walid Jumblatt.

While the March 8 and 14 alliances were acting normal again by escalating their stances against one each other, another politician was using his old techniques again:  On the last week of July, Walid Jumblatt met Nasrallah. On the first week of August, he met Aoun. On the 18th of August, he met Frangieh. And just when everyone thought that he was once again siding with the M8 coalition, he decided – on the same day he met Frangieh – to issue the following statement: “The Arab Druze must decide between a narrow and temporary sectarian affiliation that is being manipulated by the Syrian regime and a wider Arabic belonging”. And that, dear reader, is how you confuse everyone.

Is Ashraf Rifi the new Abbas Ibrahim?

September and October will be two very important months for the Lebanese parties. The fate of the general and presidential elections will depend on who will have the upper hand by the beginning of autumn. That mainly depends on what will happen with the Lebanese soldiers Kidnapped by the militants in Arsal. During similar events in the past, it used to be Sûreté Générale director Abbas Ibrahim who negotiated with the militants in order to release kidnapped Lebanese (Like in the case of the Lebanese who were taken hostages by Syrian rebels in Aazaz). Since Ibrahim was rumored to be closer to M8 than to M14, his successes were usually considered as mini-victories for the March 8 alliance. However this year the ministries of defense, interior and Justice are in the M14 camp which means that the M14 alliance will most probably use the security ministries  in order to negotiate with the militants instead of Ibrahim.

Here’s an early example:

Commenting on the Arsal clashes between army troops and jihadist militants earlier this month, Rifi assured that the kidnapped soldiers and Internal Security Forces members will be freed “without any exchange for detained Islamists.

(Link)

The March 8 and 14 alliances are likely to fight on who gets to negotiate with the militants. The party that succeeds in the negotiations gains the upper hand for the next few weeks, boosting the alliance’s position in the very critical months of September and October.

The dilemma

The main issue in Lebanon today is whether to (1) organize the presidential elections before the parliamentary elections or (2) the parliamentary elections before the presidential elections .

(1) means that there should be an agreement on a president soon or else the parliament will have to extend its term for a second time until there has been an agreement on a president. That being said, the parliament will have to give free candy in order to pass the extension without any trouble (Free candy is what Lebanese politicians give to the people so that they ignore their mistakes. For example, when the parliament extended its term for the first time, the free candy was the law on domestic violence that the parliament  passed after the extension). In our case, the yummiest free candy would be approving the wage hike for the civil servants just after the extension. (That way calling the parliament illegitimate would mean calling the long-awaited bill illegitimate)

(2) means that the parliament – that couldn’t agree on an electoral law for the past 6 years – is going to agree on an electoral law in the matter of a month and a half and then we’ll happily head to elections in November. There’s only a few thousand problems:

a) It would be a miracle if they would agree on a law.

b) Even if that miracle happens, a president is still needed to sign the law.

c) constitutionally speaking, the miracle can’t happen because the parliament theoretically (that rule has been broken before) cannot legislate with no president in power.

d) The majority of the parliament refuses to the go to elections based on the 2008 modified electoral law.

e) That means that we need a new electoral law.

f) bringing us again to (a)

We’re now a country with no elections, with an expired parliament, with a caretaker cabinet, with no president, and whose students pass without official exams.

95 days since the 25th of May. 82 days till the 16th of November.

Hariri, Arsal, And A Billion Dollar Comeback

Hariri And Salam

Image Credits: Reuters

Future Movement is one weird political party.

Here’s why

August 3, 2014

Following a meeting for the National Islamic Gathering held on Sunday at the residence of MP Mohammad Kabbara, the latter called for a firm conscientious stand in front of God and nation because everyone will have to answer to the people.

The gatherers issued a statement stressing that what is happening in the heroic Sunni town of Arsal is only one link in the chain of the Syrian-Iranian plan to impose submission on the Sunni community.

(Link)

Kabbara claimed on Sunday that the developments in the Beqaa town of Arsal, where the Lebanese Armed Forces are clashing with Syrian Islamists, are meant to “subjugate” the Sunnis.

(Link)

The solution in Arsal is political and we must protect our northern Bekaa from the volcano’s lava and we must preserve coexistence,” Rifi said in remarks to MTV.

“The mission of protecting northern Bekaa is the mission of all of its residents and our salvation lies legitimate state institutions,” Rifi added, pointing out that “the statelet” of Hizbullah is to blame for the current situation in the country.

(Link)

August 4, 2014

Prime Minister Tammam Salam asserted Monday that there will be no political settlement with militants from Syria battling the Lebanese Army in Arsal, stressing that the rival political parties represented in the Cabinet vow unanimous support for the military.

(Link)

Former Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri, a Sunni leader with a large following, has accused al-Qaeda-linked rebel groups in Syria of taking Arsal hostage.

(Link)

In case you were wondering, those were one of the four most prominent members of Future Movement expressing four completely different stances on the Arsal clashes between the Lebanese army and the Islamist militants. Kabbara considered that the Lebanese army and Hezbollah were subjugating Arsal. Hariri however had the exact opposite stance: He accused Al-Qaeda of taking Arsal hostage. Now regarding the Future movement cabinet members, they were also supporting two different ways to solve the crisis. Minister of justice Rifi wanted a political solution while PM Salam was ruling this option out.

One doesn’t have to be an expert to realize that on August 5, 2014 the situation within the Future Movement had reached its worst level since Hariri left Beirut in 2011. The party was out of control, with every member saying something totally and somehow perfectly different from the other.

Here’s what happened next:

August 6, 2014

Saudi Arabia has provided Lebanon’s army, battling jihadists on the Syrian border, with one billion dollars to strengthen security, former Lebanese premier Saad Hariri told reporters in Jeddah on Wednesday.

(Link)

August 8, 2014

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, considered Lebanon’s most influential Sunni Muslim politician, returned unexpectedly to Lebanon Friday after three years of self-imposed exile.

His surprise return comes at a delicate time for the country after a week of bloody battles between the army and Sunni extremists from Syria have exacerbated the Lebanon’s own simmering sectarian tensions.

The seizure by the militants of Arsal, a mostly Sunni town filled with Syrian refugees and surrounded by Shiite villages, has further entangled Lebanon into Syria’s catastrophic three-year-old civil war.

(Link)

Let’s rewind 3 years

Hariri left Lebanon in humiliating circumstances. Just after his government collapsed, he was replaced with one of his former allies. He lost the majority in the parliament, and self-exiled himself in France. The self-exile part was horrible. As the FM MPs and officials grew stronger because of his absence, the Sunni void he left in Beirut was slowly being filled by rising Sunni figures such as Mikati and Safadi and by Sunni Islamists, such as Ahmad Al Asir (that everyone forgot about). By 2014, the small victory that was the nomination of Salam to the premiership backfired. While Hariri was skiing in the Alps, Siniora was starting to look like he’s in charge, Mikati and Safadi were becoming strong enough to beat Hariri in the North and Tammam Salam was suddenly one of the most successful Prime Ministers since the Syrians withdrew, successfully coping with an 11 months cabinet formation crisis, a vacancy in the presidency and keeping the middle-eastern chaos out of the country – while making everyone happy at the same time. And to make things worse, Hezbollah and its March 8 allies were getting this week the biggest propaganda boost they had ever dreamed of: (1) Syrian (2) Islamist (3) militants took control of the (4) biggest Sunni town in the Northern Bekaa and (5) attacked the Lebanese army. Meanwhile in the government, the Kataeb were striking power-sharing deals with the M8 coalition while the Lebanese forces were now tempted more than ever to distance themselves from anything that might even be hypothetically linked to ISIS and its Sunni background.

In response to a question whether he blames Hezbollah for the army’s involvement with militants in Arsal, the Lebanese Forces leader said that he did not posses any information that confirmed such a possibility at the time being.

(Link)

That says it all for Geagea. And just when you think things couldn’t go worse for Hariri, Jumblatt was visiting Nasrallah and Aoun in the same week.

So to sum things up, Hariri was losing everything. His party was out of control, his coalition was slowly drifting apart, he was losing the centrist position of Jumblatt and most importantly, he was politically losing against M8 for the first time since he left the country. It was time to come home.

A brilliant comeback…

Hariri had to solve the multiple issues he was dealing with: He had to

(1) Remind everyone of his position in the FM leadership.

August 4, 2014 (4 days before Hariri came back)

Future bloc MP Samir al-Jisr indirectly challenged fellow party member Mohammad Kabbara’s controversial Sunday stance on Arsal, saying that certain “statements must be avoided” and adding that only Saad Hariri represents the Future Movement’s official line. [...]

The parliamentarian added that “the Future [Movement]’s stance is only expressed by party leader MP Saad Hariri. I personally cannot express the party’s stance, and I believe we all abide by this.”

(Link)

August 8, 2014 (The day Hariri came back)

“Defending the nation against all types of terrorism can only be through enlisting in the security and military forces that represent the state, whereas claims about supporting the Army through sectarian and factional militias can only lead to weakening the state and the Army,” Kabbara said in a statement.

(Link)

Mission accomplished.

(2) Confirm his position as the supreme Sunni leader in the country. His first stop was the Grand Serail.

With no prior announcement, Hariri arrived at the Lebanese government’s headquarters in Beirut in a Mercedes with blacked-out windows. He grinned widely as he walked into the building, where he met Prime Minister Tammam Salam.

(Link)

Mission accomplished.

(3) Make sure that M14 is still alive.

Les forces du 14 Mars ont tenu hier soir une réunion extraordinaire à la “Maison du Centre” à l’occasion du retour au Liban de l’ancien Premier ministre Saad Hariri. L’ancien président Amine Gemayel, l’ancien Premier ministre Fouad Siniora, l’ancien premier ministre Saad Hariri, le chef des Forces libanaises Samir Geagea, un nombre de ministres et de députés et toutes les composantes des Forces du 14 Mars y ont assisté.

(Link)

Mission accomplished.

(4) End the M8 propaganda by publicly endorsing the Lebanese army and removing the suspicions that Saudi Arabia might be backing ISIS by giving the army a 1 billion dollars grant from the Saudi authorities. (Also, temporarily making use of the rumors  suggested by a “Hariri source” that the United States was behind ISIS’s creation. The rumors don’t mention any Saudi role)

Mission accomplished.

…And fake hope?

There are always three parts in a political deadlock: The first one is just after the crisis. It’s the amount of time till we realize that we’re actually in an endless political deadlock (June 2014, for the current presidential deadlock). The second part is the biggest part of the deadlock . It’s when people forget that it even exists. For example, that’s July 2014 when the cabinet and the parliament ignored the priority of electing a president and carried on with their usual work (for the parliament, it’s doing nothing). This week it’s the happy phase of the deadlock (the third part). It’s when everyone is suddenly so happy because they think things are going to turn out like they want. As a small comparison, it’s like when everyone thought the cabinet crisis ended when there was an agreement to name Salam as a consensual Prime minister. We ended up waiting 11 months to see the cabinet formation. Anyway, here’s why it’s the happy phase:

1) Aoun thinks Hariri is coming home to elect him.

2) Geagea thinks Hariri is coming home to elect him.

3) [Inserts the name of any Lebanese Maronite] thinks Hariri is coming home to elect him.

3) Hezbollah thinks Hariri is coming home to strike a deal.

4) Future Movement thinks Hariri is coming home to reorganize the party.

5) The people who want to elect the commander of the army as president view the Arsal events as a powerful boost that makes him more acceptable, especially in these circumstances.

6) The people who don’t want to elect the commander of the army as president view the Arsal events as a powerful boost in order to keep him in the army where he is essential, especially in these circumstances.

7) Hezbollah views Hariri’s presence in Lebanon as a way of accepting Hezbollah’s de-facto political supremacy.

8) Future Movement views Hariri’s presence in Lebanon as a defiance to Hezbollah.

9) Jumblatt probably believes all of the above.

10) Berri probably doesn’t believe any of the above.

Every possible political party thinks it’s a win if Hariri’s home. Welcome to the happy phase of the deadlock.

Oh, and we’re apparently having our parliamentary elections on the 16th of November. (Yeah, right)

79 days since the 25th of May. 98 days till the 16th of November.

On The Maronite Patriarch And Presidential Elections

Paul Peter Meouchi

Maronite Patriarch Paul Peter Meouchi in a press conference (Image from the 1958 crisis)

On July 23, Patriarch Rai said something very surprising. I couldn’t find any English version of it, so I’m going to quote him in Arabic.

مرّةً أخرى نطالب، مع اللبنانيين المخلصين، رئيسَ المجلس النيابي ونوّابَ الأمّة الالتزامَ بالدستور الذي يوجبُ على المجلس أن ينتخب فوراً رئيساً للجمهورية، أي أن يلتئم يوميّاً لهذه الغاية ولا يكون إلّا هيئة انتخابية لا اشتراعية، بحكم المواد الدستورية 73 و74 و75 الواضحة وضوح الشمس. وكم يؤسفُنا أن يكون نصابُ الثلثَين، الذي لا يفرضه الدستور، بل توافق عليه اللبنانيون قد تحوّلَ عن غايته. لقد توافقوا على حضور ثلثَي أعضاء المجلس النيابي لانتخاب رئيسٍ للجمهورية بنصف عدد أعضاء المجلس زائد واحد، لكي تُعطى هالةٌ للرئيس المُنتخَب، وطمأنينةٌ للناخبين فأصبح نصابُ الثلثَين وسيلةً لتعطيل الانتخاب وحرمان الدولة من رأسها، من دون أن نعلم حتى متى، لكنّنا نعرفُ أن هذا يشلّ البلاد ويقوّضُ أوصالَها ويحطّم آمالَ الشعب ولا سيّما شبابه وأجياله الطالعة. ونتساءل أيُّ قيمة تبقى لنصاب الثلثَين؟ وهل النصابُ هو بعد في خدمة رئاسة الجمهورية، أم جعلها رهينةً له.

(Link)

What matters most in this paragraph is the part where the Maronite Patriarch says that there is no constitutional basis for the two thirds quorum required to elect the president.

Article 49 of the Lebanese Constitution says that “The President of the Republic shall be elected by secret ballot and by a twothirds majority of the Chamber of Deputies. After a first ballot, an absolute majority shall be sufficient. The President’s term is six years. He may not be re-elected until six years after the expiration of his last mandate. No one may be elected to the Presidency of the Republic unless he fulfills the conditions of eligibility for the Chamber of Deputies.”

There was always a huge debate whether there is actually a quorum regarding the presidential elections in Lebanon, since the Constitution stipulates that a first two-thirds majority is needed to elect a president on the first round, but doesn’t specify if the presence of 2/3 of the MPs is necessary to proceed with election of the president.

So what’s so important about Rai’s opinion on the presidential quorum?

1. It contradicts what his predecessor Sfeir said 7 years ago

August 29, 2007

“There are those who talk of boycotting presidential elections, this is unfair and disastrous for the country,” Sfeir said from Diman on Tuesday. “Elections must proceed in accordance with the Constitution, with two thirds of MPs in the first session, and after that maybe with half-plus-one of MPs,” Sfeir added.

He said if from the first electoral session a simple majority is adopted to elect a president the other side could claim this to be a violation of the Constitution which would prompt them to respond similarly.

“Thus we would get two presidents, two governments, two Lebanons and so on, which would be ruinous for the country as a whole,” Sfeir said.

Sfeir said that in Lebanon a constitutional amendment occurs at every juncture, a harmful process, adding that only the national interest should warrant an amendment.

(Link)

2. It can be bad for Christians

Political sources said Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai’s recent speech in which he said that the Constitution did not stipulate that a two-thirds quorum was required to elect a president was an attempt by the head of the Maronite Church to break the presidential deadlock. But the sources added that some legal experts had advised Rai to refrain from starting this debate, as electing a president with a quorum of absolute majority would allow Muslim MPs to impose their preferred candidate.

(Link)

The Maronite Patriarch, on July 23, supported an explanation of the Constitution that was contradictory to his predecessor’s interpretation, and that could in the future put Christian interests at risk (In case some of the MPs decide one day to elect a Muslim president it wouldn’t be possible anymore for the other MPs to block the elections even if they had more than 33% of the seats).

Let’s put things in context here. The coalition that is boycotting the presidential election sessions is the March 8 coalition which means that the Patriarch’s speech was mainly targeting Aoun’s camp. So  the patriarch was willing to give up what’s best for Christians and Bkirki’s long-term explanation of a controversial constitutional article in order to put the Free Patriotic Movement in  a weaker position. And the Patriarch’s implicit criticism of Aoun on July 23 was only the first move.

“Humanity is the only thing we share with you. Come let’s talk and reach an understanding on this basis … you rely on the language of arms, terrorism, violence and influence, but we rely on the language of dialogue, understanding and respect for others,” Rai addressed ISIS during a speech Wednesday at a dinner of the Episcopal Media Committee.

(Link)

It’s no secret that the biggest winner with the Islamic State’s rise in Iraq is the Free Patriotic Movement who is gaining from the propaganda more than anyone. The more the Christians will fear the concept of a Sunni Caliphate, the more Aoun would probably win seats in the next parliamentary elections. For a Patriarch who once equated terrorists with atheists, it’s a very weird idea to start talks with the Islamic State and it is probably a (failed) attempt to make the Christian electorate less frightened and thus less friendly to the FPM.

That was move number 2.

July 27, 2014

“March 14 doesn’t want a president aligned with March 8, and March 8 doesn’t want a president aligned with March 14, therefore there is a need to move toward a president who is outside both blocs,” Rai said during Mass in Diman, adding that “there are many Maronite figures who are worthy of the presidency.”

(Link)

To be clear here, “A president who is outside both blocs” ≠ “Michel Aoun”

As a reminder, Bkirki used to support the election of one of the Maronite Four. So in a way,  it’s a 180° change of policy.

That was move number 3. 

July 20, 2014

Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai Sunday said he wished the term of former President Michel Sleiman was extended until a new president is elected and urged the international community to help the Christians of Iraq.

Addressing Sleiman during a mass to commemorate the anniversary of Mar Charbel, a revered Maronite saint, Rai said he wished the former president would have stayed in office until a new head of state was elected.

“But what to do, those who support void rejected the suggestion,” Rai said in a veiled reference to the Free Patriotic Movement and Hezbollah. “They opted for shutting down the presidential palace after President Sleiman kept it open.”

(Link)

That was move number 4. (Actually it was the first move since it was on July 20, but you get the point)

So to sum things up, the Maronite Patriarch criticized the March 8 alliance 4 times in 1 week, using 4 different maneuvers, and even taking a more radical position than the anti-M8 Patriarch Sfeir.

If the Patriarch is truly siding with M14, it’s a big moral defeat for Aoun and Hezbollah. Let’s wait and see.

70 days since the 25th of May.

Two Months Of Vacuum

Image source: The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir

Image source: The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir

There’s nothing more lovable about these presidential elections than rumors. Every day Lebanon wakes up with no president, thousands of rumors see light. Five days ago, news reports suggested that Aoun might be elected as the next president. According to the possible deal,  Aoun leaves office two years after his election (a constitutional amendment shortens his term to two years) and he gets to name the next commander of the army.

Is it a viable deal?

Is it a humiliation for Aoun? Yes, it is. But it’s also a victory. Aoun would be elected as president in a very delicate situation: The Islamic State is making gains in Iraq, Syria is descending further into chaos, and the relative calm in Gaza is coming to end. If Aoun would have been elected in different circumstances, it could have been pure humiliation. Aoun would be forever seen as the man that has given up everything – even the two-thirds of his constitutional term – in order to become president. But in such circumstances, the FPM could be able to picture the deal as a sacrifice rather than a humiliation. Instead of becoming the next Mubarak, Aoun would look like Jesus for the Christian electorate: The politician that committed political suicide and humiliated himself in order to save the country and unify it: Not a political suicide after all. Aoun would reportedly get to nominate the next commander of the army (probably his son-in-law Shamel Roukouz) in exchange of serious efforts to put Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria under control. For Geagea and the Kataeb, it would mean getting rid of the strongest Christian leader and paving the way to the election of an LF or Kataeb politician after Aoun’s retirement ( humiliating Aoun in the process also seems like a nice goal, although Geagea is still vetoing any scenario involving the election of Aoun). For Hariri, it would mean establishing himself as a strong Prime Minister with legitimacy across the political spectrum. For Hezbollah, it would give the party two years to finish whatever they have to finish in Syria, and for Berri and Jumblatt, it would mean two more years as speaker and kingmaker (The parliamentary elections will likely happen right before Aoun leaves so that the new parliament would elect the new president)

Everybody wins. That’s why the deal is practical. What makes it even more viable is that Annahar reported in May that the March 8 alliance pushed for the deal and Al-Akhbar is now saying that  the Future Movement is pushing for it. The main objection to the deal is coming from the Patriarch  (Link). But no one listens to the Patriarch anyway.

Jumblatt’s moves

Last week, Jumblatt mentioned three important stances: He opposed a governmental agreement between the FPM and the FM on the administrative appointments, he agreed with Berri on the need to stage the presidential elections before the parliamentary elections, and he finally said that he might consider withdrawing Helou’s candidacy if Geagea and Aoun agree to withdraw from the presidential race (Jumblatt later denied that he was willing to give up the Helou candidacy). The importance of these stances lies in Future Movement’s response: It was rather aggressive, accusing Jumblatt of trying to create a rift between the FPM and the FM. After all, the deal on the appointments was struck between Fouad Siniora and Abou Saab: If Siniora is reaching deals with the FPM ministers, that’s reason enough for Jumblatt to panic (Siniora is probably the least expected FM official to deal with the FPM – They wrote a book on his corruption when used to be in office)

Hariri’s comeback

However the most interesting stance in the few days was in Hariri’s latest speech (Link).

The first step in the former PM’s roadmap includes electing a new president and ending the vacuum at the country’s top post.

“This is a national priority,” Hariri considered.

“Secondly, (the roadmap includes) forming a new cabinet that is similar to the current one. The cabinet, alongside the new president, will rule in the coming phase and hold the parliamentary elections,” he added.

“Thirdly, Hizbullah’s withdrawal from the Syrian war. And fourthly, setting up a national comprehensive plan to confront terrorism in all its forms. This is a national duty that is the responsibility of the state, not of any sect or party.”

So what’s missing in Hariri’s roadmap?

Instead of focusing on what Hariri said, focus here on what Hariri didn’t say: Hariri says that Hezbollah should stay away from the Syrian civil war, but fails to mention anything regarding the disarmament of the party. In other words, Hariri is offering Hezbollah a deal where they get to keep the weapons (+ gain national and trans-sectarian legitimacy) in exchange of staying out of the Syrian conflict.

On the bright side, Lebanese parties are finally starting to seriously negotiate an agreement regarding the presidential elections.

Syria is bombing the Bekaa, Israel is shelling the south, we’re not having parliamentary elections anymore, and the parliament is having trouble agreeing on a president even after 2 months of vacancy in Baabda. In a parallel universe, this year could have been 1976 or 1989.

Just kidding, we’re still in the middle ages.

58 days since the 25th of May.

Is Walid Jumblatt Making A Move?

Walid Jumblatt Drinking Matte

Everyone is lazy in Summer, especially Lebanese politicians. In 2012, they were  too lazy to draft a consensual electoral law. In 2013, they were too lazy to form a government. In 2014, they’re too lazy to elect a president. But Walid Jumblatt is making an exception this month with his numerous statements and the PSP’s new maneuvers in the parliament and the cabinet. Take a look at them, one by one.

July 3

Cabinet members told Education Minister Elias Bou Saab that his agreement with the head of the parliamentary Future bloc, former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, over appointments at the state-run university was not enough and more discussion was required to finalize the issue, sources told The Daily Star.

Ministers allied with MP Walid Jumblatt and the Kataeb Party as well as Tourism Minister Michel Pharaon opposed Bou Saab’s agreement with the March 14 coalition, prompting the Cabinet to postpone debate on the issue to the next session, the sources said.

“The Cabinet discussed the issue of appointing deans at the Lebanese University and employing some members of the teaching board in it. It decided to continue discussing this issue at the next session next Thursday,” Information Minister Ramzi Joreige told reporters after a nearly five-hour session chaired by Prime Minister Tammam Salam at the Grand Serail.

(Link)

[Note: The debate was postponed again during the Thursday session]

July 5

“Speaker Nabih Berri agreed with Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblat that parliamentary elections shouldn’t be staged ahead of the election of a new president.

According to al-Akhbar newspaper published on Saturday, the two officials reject parliamentary elections amid the ongoing situation in the country.

Berri and Jumblat are reportedly preparing the extension of the parliament’s term for two years and a half or even three years.

(Link)

July 15

I don’t mind … withdrawing the nomination of [Democratic Gathering bloc] MP Henry Helou if the others withdraw their candidates to facilitate a settlement that would end the presidential vacuum,” Jumblatt said in remarks published Tuesday.

He urged the various political leaders to put national interests above their own.

“We should seek to fortify the country politically through putting national interests above all else and this translates into speedy concessions by everyone, all the way to the election of a consensus president who can manage the crisis,” Jumblatt told the local daily As-Safir.”

(Link)

I don’t like to speculate, and there’s still nothing (yet) to analyze, but Jumblatt is planning something here (Perhaps giving up the Helou candidacy and the cabinet deadlock in exchange for the extension of the parliament term). As demonstrated by his three stances, he currently holds the keys to the presidential elections, the extension of the parliament term, and the administrative appointments. And he’s going to use these three negotiation cards very carefully in order to take full advantage of his kingmaker position.

Reminder: We still don’t have a president – 52 days since the 25th of May.

Double Standards And A ‘Limited’ Constitutional Amendment

Article 49 Lebanese Constitution

“I suggest a limited constitutional amendment that allows the presidential election to be decided by the people directly over two rounds,” Aoun said Monday at a news conference.

Aoun suggested that Christians would vote in a first round, with the top two vote-getters then facing a vote by all of the Lebanese public.

Aoun said a direct election would prevent a presidential vacuum from occurring in the future. Most importantly, Aoun explained, Parliament would need neither a two-thirds majority vote nor a two-thirds quorum with an absolute majority to elect a president.

[...]

Aoun also called for a new electoral law under which each religious group would elect its own members of Parliament, saying that under the current law, Christian MPs were being elected by Muslims.

(Link)

New Month, New Maneuver

For the past 10 months, FPM leader Michel Aoun was negotiating with Hariri. The deal – as shocking as it might seem – probably consisted of electing Michel Aoun as president in exchange for naming Saad Hariri as the new Prime Minister. The result would have been the collapse of the March 8 and March 14 alliances and the creation of a new coalition that includes the FM, the FPM, and the Shiite duo. Walid Jumblatt would become as influential as Wiam Wahab, and the M14 Christians wouldn’t dream of entering the parliament again with the current electoral law.

The deal might be logical, but as I said earlier, It’s highly controversial. Hariri would have to abandon his Christian allies after a decade of struggling, he would have to risk losing certain members of his bloc to the opposition, and more importantly, he wouldn’t be the coalition’s new leader. He would only be its Prime Minister – something that might even change after the parliamentary elections. Hariri would have looked like the man that would risk anything and everything in order to sit on a chair in the Grand Serail. Not a brilliant idea after all.

Michel Aoun’s plan of negotiating with the FM was smart enough to form a government, but it won’t lead to his election as a president – At least that’s what it seems after 10 months of talks. For a man who spent half a year trying to prove that he is a consensual figure, his proposal to elect the president by universal suffrage – making it impossible to have consensual winners – indicates a 180° change of policy.

Double Standards?

The problem with Michel Aoun’s suggestion is that it contradicts itself: Aoun is embracing at the same time the Orthodox Gathering electoral law and a constitutional amendment that permits the president to be elected by universal suffrage. In other words, Aoun wants maximum Christian representation in the parliament (Only the Christians would be entitled to elect the Christian MPs), while abandoning the country’s top Christian post to an electorate that is 62% Muslim – Currently the electorate is the parliament, that is 50% Christian 50% Muslim. True, the Christians in the first round would narrow down the candidates (and hence prevent a surprising arrival of a Muslim Candidate to the last round) but the final decision in the second round would be within the hands of an electorate that is predominantly Muslim.

Michel Aoun knew what he was saying. The March 8 alliance got 55% of the votes in the 2009 elections, that’s why universal suffrage would most probably lead to his election. And since the electorate is mainly a Muslim one, he had to give the impression – at least to the Christian audience – that he wasn’t planning on “giving up” the top Christian post. That’s why, in his “plan to salvage the presidential elections”, he spoke of something completely irrelevant to the presidential elections: The only parliamentary electoral law that allows the Christians to elect 50% of the deputies.

Limited Amendment?  

Imagine for a moment that the Sunnis ask for two parliamentary consultations in order to name the Prime Minister:  The first round of consultations is exclusively with the Sunni MPs, the second with all the others. Imagine changing the rules of electing the speaker of the parliament: In the first round, the voting is exclusively a Shia one. In the second round, all the MPs would vote and choose the new speaker from the list of the remaining candidates. What I’m trying to say here is that Aoun’s constitutional amendment will open a Pandora box of amendments, and will eventually complicate the system even more. And there’s nothing limited about that constitutional amendment: When you elect the president with universal suffrage, you have to change the article related to the presidential elections. Such a move also compromises the whole Taif system since the parliament loses its ability to elect the president and hence becomes weaker and less legitimate, which means that the parliament would have to give up some of its powers to the president too . But the president is not elected by a 50-50 assembly anymore, and he isn’t consensual, while still being a Christian. So how do you solve this riddle without starting a civil war? And there’s also the part where every sect elects its own MPs. And the part where a constitutional amendment needs to be signed by the president. (Reminder: We still don’t have one)

This is not a limited constitutional amendment. This is a change of regime.

41 days since the 25th of May.