Nine Months Of Vacuum

Guess What I Found In a 1926 Newspaper?

Guess What I Found In a 1926 Newspaper?

Technically speaking, the ninth month of vacuum doesn’t end before next week, but the number of events that happened in these last twenty days is too damn high, so I decided to link them to one another  as soon as possible.

Behold, the glorious ninth month of presidential vacancy.

The Context

On the 28th of January, Hezbollah finally found the opportunity they have been searching for. Israel had launched a week earlier an airstrike in the Syrian Golan, killing an Iranian General and several commanders from the party, including the son of Imad Mughniyah, who was also killed by Israel in 2008 and was never avenged by the party. Whether the Israelis intended it or not, the strike was actually a very nice propaganda boost for Hezbollah. As I said in a post at the time, it would eventually help Hezbollah in their struggle to put the Syrian opposition and Israel in the same box. And I was right (Yay): A couple days after things calmed down on the southern border, Nasrallah made sure to point out how the Israelis and Jabhat Al-Nusra are both working together to “sabotage the resistance”. Hezbollah could have used the Israeli strike alone to strengthen this discourse, but not responding at the Israeli attack would have been a blow to the morale of the party. On the 28th of January, Hezbollah retaliated to the Israeli strike in the most calculated way possible: The attack happened from the Syrian Golan (where Israel had attacked the earlier), on a contested Lebanese-Israeli-Syrian territory (so not even Israeli), and the casualties were also relatively limited: 2 Israeli soldiers were killed while the Israeli strike killed an Iranian General and several Hezbollah commanders. For Hezbollah, the number was high enough to prove that they weren’t afraid of the consequences and that they wouldn’t let Israel target their men without retaliating anymore. But the number was also kind of low for Israel to respond: They were heading to elections in 40 days: The Israeli ruling coalition would have risked ending a failed military operation (like in 2006) right before the elections, and besides, the number was relatively low when it was compared to Hezbollah’s casualties a week earlier. By choosing the worst context for the Israelis to start a war (by launching the attack on disputed territory, by not kidnapping any IDF soldier, and by choosing the worst timing ever for Israel) Hezbollah wanted to send a message, not start a war. They gambled, and they won. Israel did not attack, and Hezbollah subsequently gained the upper hand – militarily in Syria, and politically in Beirut. (If you’re asking yourself how they won politically in Lebanon, look at how Jumblatt lauded Hezbollah’s ambush)

If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them (Part I)

If you follow Lebanese politics for several years, you’ll find that the Lebanese political parties are very predictable. In the aftermath of Hezbollah’s retaliation – and once it was sure that Israel wouldn’t strike back – the logical response from M14 would have been to constantly, frequently, relentlessly criticize Hezbollah’s “attempt at destabilizing the south, risking the destruction of Beirut’s infrastructure yet again, and dragging Lebanon into a proxy war between Iran and Israel while drowning the country deeper into the Syrian conflict”. Of course, if the Israelis had launched an offensive, M14 would have waited for the offensive to end to start criticizing Hezbollah, since it would make them look as if they’re standing with Israel if they’re too harsh on Hezbollah while the battles are raging. Anyway, what I want to say here is that the Future Movement and Hezbollah had the opportunity to start a political war because of Hezbollah’s military move in Israel, but neither of them took it, although Geagea tried to tun them against one another: He was giving a press conference the day the attack happened, and criticized the party’s move. Future Movement’s response was a clear indicator that they wanted peace with Hezbollah: Of course, Siniora criticized the party for his actions (you have to please your electorate after all), but that’s not what matters: Hariri was relatively indifferent about the issue (He didn’t even tweet about the events that week) and Future Movement’s minister in the cabinet said that Hezbollah did not break the ministerial declaration (yeah, it’s in bold because it’s important). That’s actually huge: Not only does it give Hezbollah an approval from the other side of the political spectrum, it also gives the impression that Hezbollah was acting within the legal limits established by the government. The cabinet’s ministerial declaration is very vague about the resistance (remember when the cabinet spent a whole month trying to write it?) and says that “Lebanese citizens have the right to resist the occupation”. This weird sentence was a compromise between M14 and M8 that was supposed to be midway between M8’s “The people, army, resistance equation” and M14’s desire to remove the previous sentence.

Anyway, the Future Movement made a wise decision here: By stating that Hezbollah’s move was actually within the boundaries established by the weird sentence in the ministerial declaration (Yes, I won’t stop calling weird, because it’s an absolute bullshit sentence that means nothing and could mean anything at all. Even “اكل الولد التفاحة ” would have been a better choice than ” الحق للمواطنين اللبنانيين في مقاومة الاحتلال الإسرائيلي ورد اعتداءاته واسترجاع الأراضي المحتلة”), Future Movement plays it smart and shows that the cabinet – that could be seen as an M14 one – is actually in control of Hezbollah’s actions with Israel (Actually it’s everything but that: The proof? The cabinet didn’t even meet the day the attacks happened). Anyway, Future Movement chose not to clash politically with Hezbollah – despite the LF and the Kataeb’s obvious desire to do so – and played it smooth: After all, they were having a dialogue, and there’s a vacant president seat out there that can’t be apparently filled unless both parties give the green light.

If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them (Part II)

A couple of days after the attack, there was yet another opportunity to start an all-out between M8 and M14. After Geagea’s failed attempt the day of the ambush, came a leaked video about Strida Geagea that was circulated by the M8 media (specifically the Christian M8 media). It shows the LF MP saying “Nchallah ya Rab” when Journalist Denise Rahme informed her about what happened in the South between Hezbollah and Israel. As it turns out, the video was genuine but cut off and MP Geagea was saying “Nchallah ya Rab ma yisseer shi”. Anyway, this was an attempt – this time by the FPM – to start an all-out war between M8 and M14. Just like the LF and the Kataeb, the FPM were desperately trying to break the Hezbollah-FM dialogue. I said it once, I said twice, and I’ll say it every time: The Christians parties fear an FM-Hezbollah agreement more than they fear one another. Because in the end, every time both parties jointly approved something, it passed, regardless of what the Christian parties thought of it. Hezbollah ignored the Aounists twice during the parliamentary extension sessions, and the Future Movement did the same with the LF when they decided in 2014 to go ahead and share the cabinet with Hezbollah while throwing their closest Christian ally alone in the opposition. If Hezbollah and the FM agree on the presidential matter, it would be the ultimate downfall for the Christian parties. It scares them so much that they actually tried to wreak the HA-FM dialogue, first by starting their own dialogue (and then trying to end it in order to end the M8-M14 dialogue as whole), and now by trying to start a political war between M8 and M14 that would eventually end the dialogue and any chance of finding a Hezbollah-FM consensual candidate.

And how did the members of the dialogue react to that attempt? Instead of arguing about Strida Geagea’s video, both parties simply ignored the Christian brouhaha and made their allies panic even more by removing all their political posters from the city of Beirut in order to “defuse tensions“.

If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them (Part III)

So let’s sum things up:

1) Hezbollah – Future Movement dialogue starts => Dialogue “making progress” => Christian parties panic. (That was last month)

2) Hezbollah retaliates against Israel => LF wants the FM to criticize Hezbollah => Instead the FM indirectly endorses Hezbollah => Christian parties panic more => FPM tries to start an all-out war => the FM and Hezbollah respond by signing a “poster removal peace treaty” => Christian parties panic even more.

How much more exactly? The Christian parties would panic so much, that when FM MP Khaled Daher made his faux pas last week and said the anti-Christian comments, the Christian parties were so much paranoid that even the Kataeb – who practically never publicly criticize their allies – asked the FM to throw Daher out. In a way, they were also indirectly asking the FM to up the tone against Hezbollah – after all the only way for Mustaqbal to repair the damage done by Daher would have been by criticizing Hezbollah’s sectarian foundations.

Surprise: The FM threw Daher out, and did not accuse Hezbollah of anything. And to make things worse? According to reports, Hezbollah was advancing in the Syrian south and launching one of the most violent campaigns since their intervention in Syria started. And the FM didn’t say a word about it => Panique Chrétienne Généralisée (Excuse my french)

That was it for the M8/M14 Christian parties. Hezbollah and the FM were serious about the dialogue, and for a while, it seemed that the consensual president would be “forced” on them. It was the apocalypse.

Except it wasn’t.

If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them, Then Beat Them (Part IV)

“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

After approximately three weeks of bonding with Hezbollah, Hariri threw this bomb on the 14th of February commemoration of the assassination of his father. 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.

Lebanese politicians, take notes. Because that’s one hell of a political maneuver.

Hezbollah were so embarrassed by Hariri that they needed to respond quickly in order to prevent him from taking advantage of what just happened: Not even 24 hours had passed after the Hariri speech when a Hezbollah drone flew over Israel (That’s the second one in three years). The drone wasn’t about Israel or Syria, It was a message destined to the FM: Hezbollah wanted to show that Hariri’s speeches, no matter how violent in their criticism, will have no impact whatsoever on Hezbollah’s military decisions. The proof? When Nasrallah gave his speech monday, he barely mentioned Hariri’s criticism. He only lauded Hariri’s anti-terror stance, using it to empower Hezbollah’s position, without even mentioning Hariri’s harsh criticism, as if the “insanity” part hadn’t happened in Hariri’s speech. That means two things: (1) Hezbollah wanted to undermine Hariri by ignoring him, and (2) they wanted to send a message to the Future Movement (by not escalating) that they were still ready to calm things down in order to ensure the success of the dialogue. After all, the road to Baabda goes through Beit Al Wasat and Hareit Hreik.

ِِAs the relation between the FM and Hezbollah is expected to quickly deteriorate now, don’t be too hopeful about breaking the deadlock soon. It seems that 9 months later, we’re back to square one.

Reminder: We still don’t have a president.

269 days since the 25th of May. 105 days since the 5th of November. Three million years till the next parliamentary elections.

The WikiLebanon Files (Part I): The Day Berri Called Lahoud a “Bastard”

U.S. official Jeffrey Feltman, left, meets with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011. (The Daily Star Photo/Mohammad Azakir).

U.S. official Jeffrey Feltman, left, meets with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011. (The Daily Star Photo/Mohammad Azakir).

Over the past two years, I spent a lot of time on WikiLeaks, finding cables that were unheard of and that gave an interesting insight about Lebanon’s presidential politics (see here, here, here, and here for examples). The Lebanese mainstream media rarely publishes the cables, and even when they do, they use them as part of their media wars. This is why I have decided that every month, I will keep searching for relevant cables until I find something worth sharing that the media didn’t focus on.

Since we currently don’t have a president in office, I thought that it would be nice to take a look at some of the (behind the scenes) maneuvers that were happening during Lahoud’s days in office. Enjoy.

SUMMARY AND COMMENT
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1. (S) Describing President Emile Lahoud as a “bastard,” Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri used a 5/9 meeting with the Ambassador to seek USG help in derailing what Berri suspects is a diabolical Syrian-inspired plot Lahoud plans to implement to destroy Lebanon’s parliament. (Yes, gentle reader, the previous sentence is correct as written.) As if forgetting that he is the one holding the power to open Parliament’s doors, Berri outlined a scenario by which Lahoud, drawing on his insistence that the Siniora cabinet does not legally exist, will use a creative interpretation of the constitution to dissolve parliament unilaterally when it fails to meet in its ordinary session that expires May 31. At that point, Lahoud will argue that he is free to appoint a new prime minister and cabinet, without the need for parliamentary approval. And this sets up a scenario by which Lebanon is plunged into new legislative elections. The emerging pro-Syrian majority would then elect Lebanon’s new president, or the Lahoud-appointed cabinet would inherit the powers of the presidency. Describing the “plot” to destroy the constitutional institution he controls, Berri gave a very believable performance of vein-popping rage.
2. (S) As the new cabinet begins work, the March 14 majority would continue to recognize the Siniora cabinet and the existing parliament and proceed with its own presidential elections. Lahoud’s scheme as described by Berri would, at a minimum, set up two entirely parallel structures: two PMs, cabinets, parliaments, and presidents. But it would be more likely that Lebanon would be plunged into chaos, with institutions splitting and the army sitting on the sidelines as the two parallel structures battled for supremacy. To avoid this, Berri advocates a first step that we have long urged he grab: open the parliament, thus preventing Lahoud from dissolving it. He is now on board, but under limited conditions he seeks our help to impose with our March 14 contacts. We are inclined to do so, in order to avoid his worst-case scenario, but we have to consider carefully what tricks Berri himself has up his sleeve. When asked about the impact of potential Chapter VII approval of the tribunal, Berri threw up his hands: “approve it Under Chapter VII, Chapter 67, or whatever — I don’t care!” While Berri seemed to speak with far more candor than usual, we, of course, remain skeptical that the alliance he advocates to thwart a Syrian-inspired plot is a lasting one. End summary and comment.
SPEAKER SAYS LAHOUD TO DESTROY THE HOUSE OF BERRI — I.E., PARLIAMENT
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3. (S) Shooing the aides and Embassy notetaker from the room immediately after the television cameras had panned the ordinary-looking meeting, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri opened his 5/9 meeting with the Ambassador with what struck us as a self-evident observation: “Lahoud is a bastard!” Berri pronounced, jumping from his chair. Berri, who insisted that the Ambassador not share this information with anyone, said that he had belatedly put two and two together to discover a diabolical plot by Lahoud to destroy Lebanon’s parliament. At the last moment, Berri relized that he was being used by Lahoud in a scheme that would throw him out of his own position asspeaker and possibly thrust him into permanent irelevance. “Lahoud hates me, and he knows I hate him. He thinks he’s found a way to beat me.”
LAHOUD STARTS BY DECLARING SINIORA CABINET NULL AND VOID
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4. (S) oing into detail while thumbing through the Lebaese constitution, Berri explained that the scheme tarts with Lahoud’s repeated insistence, submittd frequently in writing and orally, that the Siniora cabinet does not exist legally at all — not ven in caretaker status. This establishes a recrd that there is a constitutional vacuum where te office of the Prime Minister and the cabinet as whole should be. Thus, the powers of those offices can be argued to revert to the President himslf.
NEXT, PREVENT PARLIAMENT FROM MEETING, AN USE CONSTITUTION TO DISSOLVE IT
BEIRUT 00000655 002 OF 004
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5. (S) The next step for Lahoud is to wait until May 31, when the ordinary session of the parliament expires, without the parliament having met in a single session. At this point, Lahoud invokes Article 65, which allows for the dissolution of the parliament if, “for no compelling reason, (the Chamber of Deputies) fails to meet during one of its regular sessions. . . . While Article 65 empowers the Council of Ministers at the request of the President to dissolve the parliament, if there is no Council of Ministers, then Lahoud will argue that he is solely responsible.
WITHOUT PARLIAMENT, LAHOUD IS FREE TO APPOINT PM, CABINET
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6. (S) Once the parliament is dissolved (and, more importantly for the purpose of this discussion, Berri is without a job or role), then Lahoud will appoint a new prime minister. While Lebanon’s parliament calls for mandatory consultations by which the president is bound to ask the candidate who receives the most support from MPs to try to form a cabinet, if there is no parliament, then there are no MPs to bestow their choices for PM in the president’s hand. Moreover, the new PM can choose whatever ministers he and Lahoud agree upon, as well as whatever government program they want, because there is no parliament to give a vote of confidence. “A coup d’etat!” Berri roared.
AND LAHOUD GIVES PRESIDENCY TO ANOTHER PRO-SYRIAN STOOGE
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7. (S) At this point, two scenarios emerge. Article 25 of the constitution calls for new parliamentary elections within three months, in the case of the dissolution of the parliament. While elections would by necessity be conducted under the discredited 2000 election law (as there is no cabinet and no parliament to approve a new law), a pro-Syrian majority would certainly emerge this time, given the near certainty that March 14 supporters would boycott both running and voting. That pro-Syrian majority in the new faux parliament would then be in place in time to elect Lebanon’s next president to succeed the stooge extraordinaire when Lahoud’s term expires November 24. The second scenario would be that no elections take place, and the cabinet appointed by Lahoud assumes the role of the presidency until such time as new parliamentary elections can be held.
‘PLOT’ EXPLAINS LAHOUD’S RECENT CURIOUS ACTIONS
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8. (S) Berri said that this “plot” explains two recent developments that previously he found curious. First, he wondered why Lahoud had not “taken the pressure off me” for a month, by invoking Article 59 of the constitution. That article gives the president the right to ask parliament to adjourn for a month. Berri said that he wanted Lahoud to use that, so that he was not the only person blamed for keeping parliament closed. But now he realizes that Lahoud, had he used Article 59, would not be able to invoke the constitution in dissolving parliament — there would suddenly be a “compelling reason” why parliament didn’t meet. The second strange thing is that, according to information Berri has, Prime Minister Siniora offered to Lahoud in a recent phone call to resign, once the tribunal was established, if Lahoud would recognize his cabinet as a caretaker cabinet according to the constitution. Lahoud reportedly refused. That struck Berri initially as strange, since Siniora’s resignation offer would normally be something Lahoud should seize. But, if Lahoud recognized Siniora’s cabinet as a caretaker cabinet, then the normal consultative process would begin, derailing the coup plot.
OPENING PARLIAMENT — BUT IN A LIMITED WAY
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9. (S) The Ambassador noted that there was one easy way to avoid the entire scenario: open parliament at once, as so many people have been urging. “I’m coming to that,” Berri said, stating that he needed our help. He said that he wanted to open parliament in such a way so as to avoid implying legitimacy on the Siniora cabinet and to prevent parliamentary action that could “split the country.” He said that the Speaker of the European Parliament was coming to Lebanon soon, and thus Berri was thinking about calling a session for MPs to hear the European visitor. He would have done the same for Speaker Pelosi, had he realized in April what Lahoud intended. This session to hear the visitor would count as an ordinary session, thus depriving Lahoud of the constitutional ability to dissolve parliament. But, to do this, Berri urged the Ambassador to help him convince the March 14 majority to send only MPs, not government ministers and not Siniora, and to agree to listen to the visitor and leave, without trying to force further parliamentary action.
10. (S) Help me convince them, Berri begged, to see that, even if they don’t like such a limited session, it is better than having no sessions. Berri clarified that he did not want the Ambassador to share with March 14 leaders the entire plot he described, just the fear that Lahoud could try to dissolve parliament if it doesn’t meet. “If I read about this in the papers, I’ll have to keep parliament closed completely.” (Comment: Berri was not explicit, but we think he was suggesting that he is under Syrian orders to deny any legitimacy to the Siniora cabinet. Having the ministers sit as usual on the dais behind the Speaker would do that, so he wants our help in avoiding such a scene. He is also under orders, presumably, not to allow controversial discussions such as Hizballah’s arms or the tribunal to reach the Chamber floor. But he does not seem to be under — at least not yet — an absolute Syrian order to keep the chamber completely shuttered. So, under the proposed session, Berri could tell the Syrians that he scrupulously followed their orders and had no idea that they intended the parliament to be closed entirely. We don’t doubt that Berri plays games even with the Syrians. End Comment.)
11. (S) The Ambassador asked Berri whether he really thought Lahoud was so clever as to come up with such a complicated scheme on his own. “Of course not!” Berri shouted. The Syrians gave him the basic outlines, and Lahoud’s legal advisor Selim Jeressaiti came up with the implementation plan. The Ambassador asked whether Michel Aoun would bring his bloc along. Yes, because the stereotype about Aoun being obsessed with the presidency is true. All the pro-Syrians have shown him how the status quo will never result in an Aoun presidency, whereas this situation might. “I am really worried,” Berri said.
BERRI EXPRESSES LITTLE CONCERN WITH UNSC ACTION ON TRIBUNAL
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12. (S) The Ambassador asked Berri how Chapter VII consideration of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon affected his thinking: if the UNSC established the tribunal now, would it be easier for him to call for a more normal parliamentary session? Berri said that the tribunal and the Lahoud scenario he described aren’t related at all. Throwing up his hands, he said of the tribunal that the UNSC should “approve it under Chapter VII, Chapter 67, or whatever — I don’t care!”
COMMENT
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13. (S) Talk of two cabinets has been buzzing through Lebanon’s political circles for weeks. But Berri’s scenario — which did not strike us as that far-fetched, now that we have been musing on it all afternoon — sets up two entirely parallel structures. The March 14 majority would continue to recognize Siniora’s cabinet and the existing parliament, as would most of the international community. But what would the Lebanese Armed Forces do, if Hizballah-filled mobs start to try to take over ministries or even the Grand Serail in order to install “their” ministers? And what happens when it comes time to elect a new president? We have only until May 31 to prevent such a scenario from unfolding, if what Berri suspects is what the Syrians and Lahoud actually have in mind.
14. (S) Taking it all personally, Berri struck us as truly infuriated that someone would tinker with “his” institution. He postured as if he had been left out of the Syrian scheming (or, more correctly, let in on only part of the Syrian scheming). If he now realizes that he was being used by the Syrians to destroy the institution he heads, maybe he can be a useful ally in denying Lahoud the pleasure of picking his own PM and cabinet. But it is not plausible that Berri told us everything he knows or thinks, about this or anything else. Maybe he was part of the planning but only belatedly realized that there is no guarantee he will be back as Speaker in what would be a far more Hizballah-dominated second parliament. Maybe he doesn’t want to be torn between leaving his current position upon Lahoud’s dissolution orders, when he knows that the March 14 rump parliament will continue to meet and enjoy international legitimacy. We tend to agree that it is better to have a parliament session even under Berri’s restricted scenario than to have no parliament session at all, but we must think about how Berri might be trying to enlist us in foisting his own ideas onto the March 14 majority. We cannot recall a more significant or interesting meeting with the Speaker. Stay tuned.
FELTMAN
Link to the original cable on WikiLeaks.

Hezbollah’s Retaliation: Is It The Perfect Time And Place?

A map of the Shebaa Farms (Shukran Wikipedia)

A map of the Shebaa Farms (Shukran Wikipedia)

In a very unexpected move, Hezbollah fighters attacked an Israeli military convoy in the occupied Shebaa Farms, in south Lebanon, killing two soldiers and wounding seven, in retaliation for Israel’s recent airstrike in the Golan Heights that killed Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian General.

A (Politically) Smart Move

Hezbollah needed to retaliate. For the past 3 years, the party has been constantly criticized for participating in the Syrian civil war and mainly for directing its weapons away from Israel and towards Syria. Even before Syria, Hezbollah faced a similar criticism in the wake of the May 7 events. “Hezbollah’s weapons are being used for political ends and are no longer directed at Israel”. M14 based its electoral campaign in 2009 on this discourse, and it eventually led to its victory in the 2009 parliamentary elections. M14 accused Hezbollah again of using its weapons in internal conflicts after the collapse of the Hariri government in 2011, and after Wissam Al-Hassan’s assassination in 2012. In 2011, it almost led to a fitna, and in 2012, it almost led to the downfall of the ruling M8 coalition.

Hezbollah tried to respond to this discourse by proving that it was still engaging in indirect combat with Israel, but it just wasn’t too convincing for the Lebanese public. The proof? almost no one remembers the drone that Hezbollah sent into Israel in October 2013. What everyone remembered however was Imad Mughaniyye’s assassination. Hezbollah didn’t respond to the attack properly back then, and it made them look weak. A lack of response over last week’s attacks would have made Hezbollah look even weaker (An Iranian General and Mughaniyye’s son were targeted), and it would have given the impression that Hezbollah cares more about its fight in Syria than its fight with Israel, even when Israel targets them inside Syria. Such loss of prestige would have been devastating for the party’s morale.

It was the time for payback. In fact, it was the perfect time for payback.

The Perfect Timing…

There’s a weird alliance going on between Middle Eastern rivals, with the United States and Hezbollah fighting together a common enemy called the Islamic State: Not long ago, the US provided actionable intelligence that probably saved lives in Dahiyeh. This indirect rapprochement was also followed by tense relations between Israel and the United States. Obama said that he will not meet with Netanyahu when the Israeli PM will come to the U.S. in March. One should not forget that for the United States, a possible deal with Iran is on the line here, and that the Israeli elections are in 45 days.  Should the Israeli army escalate, Hezbollah could drag Israel into two months of skirmishes, which wouldn’t be a perfect situation for Israel’s electoral process. No one wants to vote while Katyusha rockets are flying around the Israeli north. Even if Israel wants war, it would be a tough call in this particular timing: Hezbollah and Iran always said that “they would choose the perfect time and place” to strike back after every Israeli aggression (while M14 laughed at this sentence and accused them of cowardice). So if Hezbollah wanted to prove a point without suffering major Israeli consequences, now was the time. Such an opportunity doesn’t come twice.

… And A Perfect Location

Hezbollah chose the perfect place to strike. The attack happened in the Shebaa farms:

  • From the Lebanese point of view, Shebaa is an occupied Lebanese territory. By attacking Shebaa – and Shebaa only – Hezbollah is preemptively turning down an M14 political maneuver accusing Hezbollah of avenging the death of an Iranian General: Hezbollah could counter this maneuver by simply saying that they were not only avenging the death of their commanders, but also trying to pressure Israel into retreating from occupied Lebanese territory: A proxy battle suddenly becomes a liberation war.
  • From the Israeli point of view – Technically speaking – Israel considers the Shebaa farms to be part of the (annexed) occupied Syrian Golan, not Lebanon. So in a way, Hezbollah retaliated very accurately, in the Golan (from the Israeli point of view), where they were attacked in the first place. Hezbollah did not escalate, and only treated Israel like Israel treated the party. Hezbollah also did not make any abduction (like 2006) which means that it does not want to engage with Israel and start an all-out war. If there was a desire for war, you would have seen an abduction and probably an attack on the Israeli-Lebanese border, not on the Golan-Lebanese border or on disputed territory. Today was about deterrence. About red lines (assassinating Hezbollah’s leaders is apparently no longer acceptable). About changing the rules of the game. It was not a declaration of war (yet). Hezbollah wanted to send a message and at the same time strengthen its political presence in Lebanon while giving Israel the choice of not escalating (since the attack happened in disputed territory)
  • From an “international” point of view, the attack happened inside disputed Syrian-Lebanese-Israeli territory. So good luck trying to speak of a violation of U.N resolutions, or even accusing one side of hostilities clearly enough to justify an all-out war such as the July 2006 one.

M18/M14’s Discourse: What To Expect

For the next few weeks, M14’s propaganda would be mainly directed at demonstrating how Hezbollah dragged (or tried to drag, depending on the Israeli reaction) Lebanon into another proxy war, while at the same time criticizing Hezbollah for involving Lebanon in the Syrian civil war. But that, Hezbollah should be able to handle. It is the loss of prestige and the impression that Hezbollah was abandoning the Israeli conflict for good while slowly “moving into Syria” that was killing the party politically. Now the party would gain momentum (especially if Israel’s response isn’t strong enough) and most importantly would be able to put the Syrian opposition, the Islamic State, and the Israeli Defense Forces in the same box. It would force Lebanon to rally behind Hezbollah – at least momentarily while/if Israel responds – and it will eventually make Hezbollah look like a victor which should help M8 gain the upper hand  in Lebanese politics after eight months of political vacancy and deadlock. The Lebanese cabinet’s slow response to today’s crisis (seriously, why hasn’t the cabinet met yet?) is the perfect proof that there is indeed a political void in Lebanon. A political void that M8 could easily fill should Hezbollah’s Shebaa ambush turn into a military/political victory. Of course, everything depends of Israel’s reaction, and the aftermath of today’s skirmishes, so we’ll have to wait and see.

In the meantime, the only thing we can do is to be grateful we have a wise president guiding us in these times of trouble.

Eight Months Of Vacuum

Wael Abou Faour

December was by far – politically speaking – the most boring month of 2014. So Let’s take a look at the very first maneuvers of 2015, and see how they are linked to the events of the last months of 2014.

Abou Faour’s Health Campaign

Now as you can all remember, PSP minister of health Wael Abou Faour started a food health campaign in November, revealing to the Lebanese endless lists of restaurants and supermarkets which sell commodities that do not meet food criteria. While there are technical reasons for being skeptical about the campaign (the minister stakes this entire crusade on a very shaky foundation: Trust in government), this is not the subject of this post. Nothing isn’t political in Lebanon, and after all, Abou Faour is a minister representing a political party in the cabinet. Although there might be few exceptions of politicians who actually purely work for benefit of their citizens, I will not give Abou Faour the benefit of the doubt – almost everyone else has already given him that. In this post, Abou Faour’s food health campaign will be analysed as a political maneuver, and as a political maneuver only.

It’s All About Elections 

Two questions come to mind here:

  • Why now? (Jumblatt had ministers in almost every cabinet for the past decade, so why would the reforms start now?)
  • Why Abou Faour, and not Akram Chehayyeb? (the PSP-affiliated minister of agriculture)

Every Lebanese probably asked himself the two questions and subsequently made up a weird conspiracy theory including Shawarma, Taymour, and a nuclear war with Salmonella infected Falafels.

Now the first thing to know about Abou Faour is that he is not only a minister, but a member of the parliament too. And not only is he a member of the parliament, he is an MP representing the districts of Rashaya – West Bekaa. For those of you who don’t know that yet, Rashaya – West Bekaa might be the turning point in the next parliamentary elections.

Traditionally, when the PSP heads to elections, it has always 6 districts in mind: Only one of those districts, Aley (5 seats), has a Druze majority (53%). Jumblatt would always have to compete with Talal Arslan over there, but it should be an easy win even if the PSP decides to run without its allies. The next key district for Jumblatt is the Chouf, the third largest constituency in Lebanon with 8 MPs. In the Chouf, the Druze are around 31%, the Sunnis are approximately 28%, while around 40% of the electorate is Christian. The Chouf would become a fierce electoral battle if Jumblatt decides to run against Hariri in the elections. In the end, the outcome would depend on the Christian votes, but it is more likely for Jumblatt to win once he allies himself with 3 or 4 powerful local Christian politicians (most probably the mayors of the biggest towns). However, Jumblatt has a lot to risk here, especially if he’s not allied with the M8 Christians, and an LF-FM alliance could eventually outnumber him in votes in case he’s all by himself.

The four other districts are minor ones for the PSP, where the Druze have only one MP representing it. In the Beirut III district, the Future Movement is in charge and Jumblatt would for sure lose Ghazi Aridi’s seat if he’s all by himself over there. In Baabda, the only way Jumblatt might dream of getting back the Druze seat is by allying himself with M8 (Christians≈52%, Shias≈24%, Druze≈17%, Sunnis≈6%). I know that it might look at first that the Sunnis and the Druze might together outweigh the Shias, but they don’t: If there was any chance for an LF-FM-PSP alliance to emerge victorious in Baabda, it would have done it in 2009. In Hasbaya-Marjeyoun, the Shias are 57% of the electorate. You all know what that means for the southern Druze seat (currently in the hands of Berri’s Amal Movement).

The only minor district that the PSP can effectively manipulate is the West Bekaa – Rashaya one. With 6 MPs representing it (two of them are members of Jumblatt’s bloc), this is the district that is likely to change the identity of the winning coalition in the next parliamentary elections: Walid Jumblatt’s political power is not only defined by his 7 or 11 MPs that are in the middle: It is also defined by the 14 MPs of the Chouf and West Bekaa-Rashaya that he is able to provide for the coalition that allies with him.

So Why Abou Faour, And Not Akram Chehayeb?

It’s because Aley is in Jumblatt’s hands no matter what happens. The West Bekaa – Rashaya constituency isn’t. Abou Faour represents the district of West Bekaa – Rashaya, one of the most mixed districts of Lebanon. The Sunnis are 48% of the electorate, the Shias and the Druze are each 14.5%, while the rest are Christians (around 22%). Now, although it might seem at first that a Sunni-leading party such as the Future Movement would always control this constituency (because of the large Sunni electorate), it’s not the case at all. In fact, in 2009, M14 – That included Jumblatt back then – only managed to win by a relatively small margin of (more or less) 5000 votes. Which means that M8 only needs 2500 ballots to switch allegiance in the next elections for them to win those 6 seats – provided (of course) that people would still vote for the same parties they voted for in 2009. This is where Jumblatt and the PSP votes come in. The 14.5% Druze votes are more than enough to provide a victory for M8. And the more popular Abou Faour is, the more the Christian electorate over there would be friendly towards him, the more it would be an easy win for M8. In the worst case scenario (Like a Hezbollah – Future Movement alliance), Jumblatt could always make use of a popular Abou Faour in order to strengthen his position among the Christians or the Sunnis of the Chouf and try to control his home district all by himself.

Abou Faour also represents the Bekaa which means that no matter how much Jumblatt “strengthens” him, it would be impossible for the minister of health to challenge Jumblatt’s  influence in the Druze heartland of southern Mount-Lebanon. The next few years are a transition period for the PSP as Taymour, Jumblatt’s son, is expected to become the first in command in the PSP. Strengthening any member of the old guard in this particular timing, such as the traditional MPs of Aley or the Chouf, would be a risky strategy for Jumblatt. Hence the choice of Abou Faour.

And Why Now? (The Hezbollah –  Future Movement Dialogue, You Fools!)

Abu Faour clearly loves the conflict. He describes his work as “battles” and the food scandal as an “invasion,” although he constantly reiterates that he could not have achieved this without the support of his party leader Walid Jumblatt. According to him, it was during their recent trip to Moscow, when he began to receive the results of their investigation that Jumblatt gave him the green light to go ahead.

It was his idea that we have to open this fight. He told me OK, go on. I’ll be with you, I’ll protect you.

(Taken from Abou Faour’s interview with the Daily Star)

Rumors of a Hezbollah – FM dialogue started in November, approximately at the same time when Abou Faour’s campaign had started. The meeting eventually happened in December, and was apparently successful. More sessions were scheduled, and the Christian parties of both camps also decided they wanted to have a dialogue of their own (I’ll come back to that later). Like I said earlier, the power of the PSP comes from their 11 MPs in the middle but also from the ability of the party to provide any of the two coalitions with a victory in two key districts: The Chouf, and WB – Rashaya. Jumblatt is only strong as long as the M8 – M14 conflict is strong. Once both rival coalitions strike a deal, they can easily dictate their own terms and throw Jumblatt out of the political equation. A Sunni – Christian (LF/FPM) alliance could easily control the Chouf by reaching out to the two-thirds of its electorate that aren’t Druze, and a Sunni-Shia-Christian alliance could also throw Jumblatt’s two Bekaa MPs outside the parliament. The only district that Jumblatt would control is Aley, and that’s only if the electoral law stays the same. Joining the districts of Baabda and Aley (like in the 2000 electoral law) would mean the end of the PSP’s presence in the parliament. Now of course, it is highly unlikely that any of the two coalitions – even if allied together – would take such drastic measures, but Jumblatt knows that his role will be marginalized after any kind of M8-M14 rapprochement. The size of his bloc has also shrunk from 16 MPs in 2000 to 7 in 2011 (although 4 MPs rejoined his bloc in 2014). Here are some images that illustrate the downfall of Jumblatt’s political power over the past few years. (Source)

Evolution of Jumblatt's bloc by district - WL Evolution of Jumblatt's bloc by sect - WL

Bottom line: Jumblatt knows that he is getting weaker. It is no longer 2000 for him, and he has to change his tactics. The stronger and more popular Abou Faour is, the more Jumblatt can manipulate both alliances with the battle of West Bekaa Rachaya (in case M8 is running against M14) and the more can Jumblatt hope to electorally defend his home district of Chouf (in case M8 and M14 make peace and eventually decide to curb his influence by throwing him outside of the parliament).

And I know what you’re thinking: It’s still too early for elections. But it won’t be too early once M8 and M14 strike a deal that might include an electoral law, a president, and early elections. No one likes the man in the middle. Especially when there is no middle anymore.

Lebanese Forces – Free Patriotic Movement

While Lebanon was busy these past two weeks tweeting #jesuischarlie or #jenesuispascharlie and discussing Mia Khalifa and Miss Lebanon’s selfie, it missed the event of the decade: Aoun was tasting Geagea’s chocolate truffles. The moment Hezbollah and the Future Movement wanted to start their dialogue, their Christian allies decided to do the same. Now the tricky part here is to know whether the inter-Christian meeting is to support the HA-FM dialogue or to hinder it. The Christian parties aren’t concerned with HA-FM agreements, as long as their Muslim allies don’t abandon them as candidates in the presidential elections. Which is why the Christian leaders are rushing to meet each other after it was said that the first HA-FM dialogue session was successful. Deep down, Aoun and Geagea’s biggest fear is that the Future Movement and Hezbollah agree on a consensual presidential candidate. And their maneuver to counter this possibility was smart: Geagea’s sources hinted that he was ready – if certain conditions are met – to vote for Aoun in the presidential elections. Geagea knows that it is impossible for Aoun to make it through – Aoun would never accept Geagea’s conditions, and even if Aoun accepts Geagea’s terms, we still don’t know if Berri and Jumblatt would provide quorum – but he eventually forces Hezbollah to stick with Aoun now that the FPM’s candidate is supported by the LF. In other words, he forces the Mustaqbal to stick with him, while appearing as a kingmaker. Aoun looks like the most powerful (yet not powerful enough) candidate, and eventually any consensual FM-HA candidate loses momentum – even if it’s for a short period of time.

Connecting The Dots

So in one paragraph, here’s everything that happened in the past two to three months: Hezbollah and the Future Movement decided to have a dialogue. As soon as the rumors started, everyone panicked: Aoun agreed to sit with Geagea, Geagea agreed to support Aoun, and Jumblatt decided – via Wael Abou Faour – to preemptively mark his electoral territory.

Reminder: We still don’t have a president. (It’s been eight months)

242 days since the 25th of May. 78 days since the 5th of November. Three million years till the next parliamentary elections.

WikiLeaks And The 1998 Presidential Elections

Outgoing President Elias Harwi (R) fixes the band of honor to President Emile Lahoud

Outgoing President Elias Harwi (R) fixes the band of honor to President Emile Lahoud

Lebanon’s presidential battle has been a bit quiet for the past few weeks, so I thought that it would be a good idea to start 2015 with a throwback to the 1998 presidential elections. Here’s an interesting WikiLeaks cable I found on the election of Emile Lahoud.

LEBANESE PARLIAMENT ELECTS ARMY COMMANDER EMILE LAHUD AS PRESIDENT
1998 October 15, 16:05 (Thursday)
98BEIRUT3820_a
CONFIDENTIAL
CONFIDENTIAL

1. (U) CLASSIFIED BY AMBASSADOR DAVID M. SATTERFIELD. REASONS 1.5 (B AND D).

2. (C) SUMMARY: RATIFYING THE NAME WHICH EMERGED FROM LAST WEEK’S SUMMIT BETWEEN LEBANESE PRESIDENT HRAWI AND SYRIAN PRESIDENT ASAD, THE LEBANESE PARLIAMENT TODAY ELECTED LAF COMMANDER EMILE LAHUD AS LEBANON’S ELEVENTH PRESIDENT BY A QUASI-UNANIMOUS VOTE OF 118 (AND 10 ABSTENTIONS). WHILE UNDER PRESENT CIRCUMSTANCES NO PRESIDENT COULD BE CHOSEN WITHOUT DAMASCUS’ BLESSING, LAHUD APPEARS TO BE A GENUINE NATIONAL CONSENSUS CANDIDATE — WITH MOST LEBANESE TAKING HOPE FROM LAHUD’S REPUTATION AS THE CORRUPTION-FREE REBUILDER OF A DECONFESSIONALIZED NATIONAL ARMY AND ABOVE ALL, A LEADER FROM OUTSIDE THE LARGELY DISCREDITED POLITICAL CLASS. WITH MONTHS OF FEVERED SPECULATION OVER THE IDENTITY OF THEIR NEXT PRESIDENT NOW ENDED, AN EQUALLY INTENSE FOCUS WILL NOW TURN ON LAHUD’S POLITICAL PROGRAM AND THE COMPOSITION OF THE NEXT GOVERNMENT. LAHUD AND HIS SOON-TO- BE COLLEAGUES IN THE TRIPARTITE PRESIDENCY, PM HARIRI AND SPEAKER BERRI, WILL UNDOUBTEDLY HAVE THEIR OWN IDEAS ABOUT THE NEW GOVERNMENT SHOULD RUN — AS WILL DAMASCUS. EXPECTATIONS OF POSITIVE CHANGE ARE RUNNING HIGH HERE, AS IS SKEPTICISM OVER WHETHER ANY OF THE PARTIES CONCERNED TRULY WANT TO SEE SUCH CHANGE TAKE PLACE. OUR CONTINUED PUBLIC AND PRIVATE EMPHASIS ON STRENGTHENING LEBANON’S INSTITUTIONS AND GOOD GOVERNANCE WILL BE IMPORTANT, BUT WHETHER LEBANESE (AND OUR OWN) HOPES WILL BE FULFILLED REMAINS VERY MUCH TO BE SEEN.

END SUMMARY.

CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT: WHAT A DIFFERENCE A DAY (IN DAMASCUS) MAKES

3. (C) MONTHS OF INTENSE SPECULATION AMONG LEBANON’S POLITICAL ELITES REGARDING THE IDENTITY OF THE NEXT PRESIDENT OF THE REPUBLIC WERE ENDED WITH THE ANNOUNCEMENT LATE ON OCTOBER 5 — FOLLOWING PRESIDENT HRAWI’S SUMMIT WITH SYRIAN PRESIOENT ASAD — THAT ARTICLE 49 OF THE LEBANESE CONSTITUTION WAS TO BE AMENDED TO PERMIT SENIOR GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS (LAF COMMANDING GENERAL EMILE LAHUD, FOR EXAMPLE) TO BE ELECTED PRESIDENT. WHILE HRAWI CERTAINLY WAS SEEKING ASAD’S APPROVAL FOR AN AMENDMENT TO ARTICLE 49, IN HIS CASE TO PERMIT ANOTHER EXTENSION IN OFFICE, THE GENERAL CAME AWAY THE WINNER.

4. (C) COMMENT: ARTICLE 49 WAS ADDED AT THE TIME OF THE TAIF ACCORD TO PRECLUDE THE POSSIBLE CANDIDACY OF THEN (REBEL) LAF COMMANDER LTG MICHEL AOUN. IRONICALLY, TODAY’S VOTE COINCIDED WITH THE ANNIVERSARY OF AOUN’S FORCED DEPARTURE FROM LEBANON’S PRESIDENTIAL PALACE AT THE HANDS OF THE SYRIAN MILITARY AND THEIR LEBANESE ALLIES (EN ROUTE TO ULTIMATE EXILE IN FRANCE) ON 13 OCTOBER 199O. AOUN TOLD THE PRESS IN PARIS THAT HE IS PREPARED TO RETURN TO LEBANON SHOULD LAHUD MAKE THE REQUEST — AN UNLIKELY SCENARIO. END COMMENT.

5. (C) ACTING IN RECORD TIME AND WITH A VIGOR USUALLY UNKNOWN HERE, PRESIDENT HRAWI AND THE COUNCIL OF MINISTERS PROMPTLY SENT TO THE PARLIAMENT THE REQUISITE AMENDMENT OF ARTICLE 49 WHICH WOULD PERMIT “FOR ONE TIME ONLY” AND ON AN EXCEPTIONAL BASIS THE CANDIDACY OF A SENIOR CIVIL SERVANT. MP BOUTROS HARB, A MEMBER OF THE JUDICIAL AND ADMINISTRATIVE COMMITTEE OF PARLIAMENT AND A DECLARED PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE, VOTED AGAINST THE AMENDMENT IN COMMITTEE. LEGAL ANALYSTS, INCLUDING A MEMBER OF LEBANON’S CONSTITUTIONAL COUNCIL, TOLD EMBOFFS THAT THE DEBATE CENTERED ON WHETHER THE ONE-TIME EXCEPTION CLAUSE PROPOSED BY HRAWI WAS SUFFICIENT TO NULLIFY THE REQUIREMENT, EMBODIED IN LEBANESE ELECTORAL LAW, THAT THE CANDIDATE MUST HAVE BEEN OUT OF ACTIVE MILITARY DUTY FOR AT LEAST SIX MONTHS. SINCE THE AMENDMENT WAS NOT SUBJECT TO REVIEW BY CONSTITUTIONAL COUNCIL, THE POINT BECAME MOOT (ASSUMING THAT, UNDER THE CIRCUMSTANCES, CONSTITUTIONAL SUBSTANCE AS OPPOSED TO FORM WAS EVER AT ISSUE) WHEN THE PARLIAMENTARY COMMITTEE APPROVED IT ON 12 OCTOBER.

6. (U) ON 14 OCTOBER THE FULL PARLIAMENT PASSED THE AMENDMENT BY A VOTE OF 113 TO 4 AGAINST (WITH 11 ABSTENTIONS — COMPRISED MOSTLY OF DRUZE LEADER WALID JUMBLATT’S PROGRESSIVE SOCIALIST PARTY AND ITS ALLIES). FORMER PRIME MINISTER, MP OMAR KARAME, CONTINUED HIS TWO-YEAR BOYCOTT OF PARLIAMENTARY SESSIONS AND REFUSED TO ATTEND THE SESSION DESPITE HIS PERSONAL SUPPORT FOR GENERAL LAHUD. (COMMENT: THE HASTY AMENDMENT PROCESS DID HAVE ONE POSITIVE OUTCOME: IT BROUGHT PM HARIRI AND SPEAKER BERRI TO TALK WITH EACH OTHER FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MANY MONTHS. THE UNVEILING OF A STATUE OF LEBANON’S FIRST PRIME MINISTER AND INDEPENDENCE HERO, RIYAD SOLH, ON 14 OCTOBER, ALSO PROVIDED AN OPPORTUNITY FOR THE TWO POLITICAL FOES TO COME TOGETHER, THIS TIME TO BASH THE TURKS (RECALLING OTTOMAN HEGEMONY AND OPPRESSION OF LEBANESE PATRIOTS SUCH AS AL-SOLH). END COMMENT.)

7. (U) MP NASSIB LAHUD, AN UNDECLARED CONTENDER FOR THE PRESIDENCY, ARGUED FOR SIMPLY ABOLISHING THE PROBLEMATIC CLAUSES OF ARTICLE 49 RATHER THAN ADD A “ONE-TIME ONLY” PROVISION WHICH IN HIS VIEW WEAKENED THE CONSTITUTION. “BY AMENDING THE CONSTITUTION FOR ONE TIME ONLY AND EXCEPTIONALLY ON THE EVE OF EVERY PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION, IS A STATE OF LAW AND INSTITUTIONS BEING BUILT?” HE TOLD THE PRESS (A SENTIMENT OTHER POLITICIANS AND ANALYSTS HERE HAVE EXPRESSED TO US PRIVATELY.) HOWEVER, LAHUD, ESTRANGED COUSIN OF EMILE, SUBSEQUENTLY INDICATED HIS INTENTION TO VOTE FOR THE GENERAL.

ELECTION DAY ATMOSPHERICS: A GOOD TIME HAD BY ALL

8. (U) THE DIPLOMATIC CORPS WERE SUMMONED TO ATTEND THE ELECTORAL SESSION OF PARLIAMENT AT 110O ON 15 OCTOBER. WITH ALL BUT TEN (MOSTLY ALLIES OF DRUZE LEADER AND MINISTER OF DISPLACED WALID JUMBLATT) OF THE 128 DEPUTIES IN THEIR SEATS, SPEAKER NABIH BERRI MADE THIS TRAIN RUN ON TIME. A SHOUT OF “WHY CAN’T WE JUST DECLARE THIS THING DONE” WAS MET BY MIXED LAUGHTER AND CRIES OF “GIVES US THE BALLOTS.” AFTER COLLECTION OF THE SEALED UNMARKED ENVELOPES CONTAINING THE MPS’ CHOICE, DEPUTY SPEAKER FERZLI OPENED EACH AND READ ALOUD (118 TIMES) THE NAME “EMILE LAHUD.” THIS PROCESS ELICITED STILL MORE GALES OF LAUGHTER AND BANTERING ON THE FLOOR, WITH BERRI AT ONE POINT ORDERING FERZLI TO “SPEED IT UP.” AT 11:25, EMILE LAHUD WAS DECLARED THE PRESIDENT- ELECT. AS THE DIPLOMATS AND DEPUTIES DECAMPED, FRENCH AMBASSADOR JOUANNEAU SUMMED UP THE PROCEEDINGS FOR THOSE PRESENT BY DRYLY NOTING “QUELLE SURPRISE.”

HOPES FOR LAHUD

9. (C) WHILE MOST LEBANESE RESENT SYRIAN DIRECTION OF THE ELECTORAL PROCESS AND THE HASTY CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT, THERE IS NEAR (AND TO US GENUINE) CONSENSUS SUPPORT FOR GENERAL LAHUD AS LEBANON’S NEXT PRESIDENT — AND AS A CATALYST FOR MUCH-NEEDED CHANGE. THERE ARE EXCEPTIONS AND CAVEATS IN THIS SUPPORT, HOWEVER. JUMBLATT AND HIS DRUZE ALLIES REMAIN DEEPLY SUSPICIOUS OF THE MILITARY AND HIS RELATIONS WITH LAHUD CAN BE EXPECTED TO BE (AT BEST) PROBLEMATIC. WHILE MOST MARONITES SEE LAHUD AS AMONG THE BEST OF THE POSSIBLE CANDIDATES (THEIR HEARTS WERE WITH NASSIB LAHUD OR BUTROS HARB) AND FAR SUPERIOR TO THE LIKES OF JEAN OBEYD OR ELIE HOBEIQA, THERE IS A RESERVOIR OF CONCERN THAT SYRIA WILL NOW DICTATE THE CHOICE OF LAHUD’S SUCCESSOR IN THE LAF AND WILL THUS HAVE BOTH THE PRESIDENT AND ARMY CHIEF BEHOLDEN TO THEIR WILL.

10. (C) ALTHOUGH FORMER PRESIDENT CHARLES HELOU TOLD THE AMBASSADOR ON 14 OCTOBER THAT HE VIEWED A LAHUD PRESIDENCY WITH GREAT OPTIMISM, MANY FROM HIS POLITICAL GENERATION RECALL THE REIGN OF PRESIDENT FOUAD SHEHAB (ALSO LAF COMMANDER BEFORE HIS ELECTION) WHOSE USE OF THE LAF G-2 TO MONITOR AND SHAPE POLITICAL DECISIONS WAS WIDELY RESENTED AND FEARED. DESPITE SUCH RESERVATIONS, FROM HIZBALLAH TO THE MARONITE LEAGUE, LAHUD HAS A WIDE BODY OF SUPPORT ACROSS CONFESSIONAL LINES AND AMONG THE CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY. KEY LEADERS IN THE PRESENT GOVERNMENT, NOTABLY PM HARIRI, HAVE BEEN QUICK TO PLEDGE PUBLICLY THEIR DESIRE TO COOPERATE WITH THE NEW PRESIDENT.

ITS THE ECONOMY, STUPID (AND THE SOCIETY, AND POLITICS)

11. (C) THE UNANSWERED QUESTION HERE IS WHAT, PRECISELY, THE NEW PRESIDENT INTENDS TO DO WITH THIS SUPPORT. LEBANON FACES A VARIETY OF SIGNIFICANT CHALLENGES: THE NEED FOR URGENT ECONOMIC REFORMS, AN ALMOST WHOLLY DISCREDITED AND CORRUPT SPOILS SYSTEM OF GOVERNMENT AND CONTINUING DRIFT IN SEARCH OF A NEW, POST-CIVIL WAR IDENTITY AND SENSE OF NATIONHOOD. NOT ONE OF LEBANON’S MANY POLITICIANS, ECONOMISTS OR JOURNALISTS CLAIM TO KNOW WHAT IS IN LAHUD’S MIND OR WHETHER, IN FACT, HE HAS A PROGRAM FOR GOVERNANCE. THE ROLE AND AUTHORITY OF THE POST-TAIF PRESIDENT IS ITSELF AMBIGUOUS. UNLIKE THE PRIME MINISTER AND SPEAKER OF THE PARLIAMENT, WHO HAVE CLEARLY DEFINED EXECUTIVE AND LEGISLATIVE POWERS AND PREROGATIVES, THE PRESIDENT — BY THE TEXT OF THE CONSTITUTION — PLAYS A LARGELY SYMBOLIC ROLE. PERSONAL CORRUPTION, LACK OF INTEREST AND LIMITED CREDIBILITY AS A NATIONAL OR INTERNATIONAL STATESMAN RENDERED CURRENT PRESIDENT HRAWI UNFIT OR UNABLE TO TAKE ON ANY LARGER, MORE EFFECTIVE RESPONSIBILITIES. MANY HERE ARGUE THAT LAHUD CAN INDEED ASSUME A SIGNIFICANT ROLE AS AN EXEMPLAR OF PERSONAL ETHICS IN GOVERNMENT AND, BUILDING ON HIS SUCCESS WITH THE LAF, IN REBUILDING AND REINFORCING THE INSTITUTIONS OF GOVERNMENT.

12. (C) ASSUMING THAT LAHUD DOES HAVE A CONCEPT OF WHAT HE WISHES TO DO AS PRESIDENT (THERE ARE SOME WHO ASSERT THAT LAHUD WANTS VERY MUCH TO BE PRESIDENT, BUT DOES NOT HAVE A CLEAR VISION OF WHAT HE WILL DO ONCE THERE), HE WILL FACE A FORMIDABLE CHALLENGE IN THE PERSON OF PM HARIRI — WHO IS VIRTUALLY CERTAIN TO CONTINUE AS PRIME MINISTER — TO ANY ATTEMPT TO ACT IN A MANNER WHICH HARIRI WILL VIEW AS THREATENING HIS OWN PREEMINENCE. FOR ALL HARIRI’S TALK OF SUPPORT FOR LAHUD AS “A STRONG PRESIDENT,” THE CLEAR SUBTEXT IS “STRONG PRESIDENT, YES” BUT AS AN ASSET FOR HARIRI’S USE TO COUNTER SPEAKER BERRI. THE PM TOLD AMBASSADOR SHORTLY BEFORE THE ELECTION THAT “I HOPE LAHUD WILL BE AN ALLY. BUT IF HE THINKS HE CAN DICTATE TO ME ON HOW A NEW GOVERNMENT WILL BE FORMED OR TRIES TO BLOCK ME, I WILL CRUSH HIM.”

13. (C) FOR HIS PART, BERRI WANTS A NEW GOVERNMENT COMPOSED OF PARLIAMENTARIANS. FORMER SPEAKER HUSSEIN HUSSEINI — NO FRIEND OF BERRI BUT LOYAL TO THE PARLIAMENT AND ITS ROLE — TOLD THE AMBASSADOR ON 14 OCTOBER THAT HE, TOO, FAVORED A GOVERNMENT OF DEPUTIES REPRESENTING ALL CONFESSIONS “IN THE SPIRIT OF TAIF.” THIS IS IN CONTRAST, HUSSEINI SAID, TO THE KNOWN INTENT OF THE PRIME MINISTER TO CREATE A CABINET OF “TECHNOCRATS.”

SYRIA: WHAT DOES ASAD WANT?

14. (C) EMBASSY DAMASCUS’ EXCELLENT DISCUSSION (REFTEL) OF THE VARYING INTERPRETATIONS POSSIBLE FOR SELECTION OF LAHUD MATCHES OUR OWN (AND OUR INTERLOCUTORS) UNCERTAINTY WHETHER DAMASCUS SEES IN LAHUD A STABILIZING FORCE IN THE BEST SENSE (STRENGTHENED POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC SITUATION) OR THE WORST (LAHUD AS YET ANOTHER PLAYER TO BE MANIPULATED IN ORDER TO PREVENT EMERGENCE OF ANY INDEPENDENT AND THUS THREATENING — TO SYRIA — LEBANESE POLITY). THOSE WHO BELIEVE THE LATTER, E.G. MINISTER HOBEIQA, STATE FLATLY THAT THE SYRIANS WILL CONTROL THE OVERALL PROCESS OF FORMING A NEW GOVERNMENT — WHICH WILL MERELY BE A “RESHUFFLING” OF THE MINISTERIAL DOSSIERS RATHER THAN ANY FUNDAMENTAL CHANGE IN APPROACH TO GOVERNANCE IN LEBANON. HOBEIQA TOLD THE AMBASSADOR ON 9 OCTOBER THAT HE RECOGNIZED THAT “THINGS HAVE CHANGED IN SYRIA,” BUT BELIEVED THAT IS PRECISELY WHY THE SYRIANS WANT A PRESIDENT LIKE LAHUD WHO HAS PROVEN HIMSELF PREDICTABLE, AND RELIABLE AS AN ALLY TO ASAD’S SON BASHAR IN DAYS TO COME. HOBEIQA (SPEAKING HERE FOR A WIDE SPECTRUM OF LEBANON’S POLITICAL CLASS) DID NOT THINK LAHUD HAD THE EXPERIENCE NEED TO BRING ABOUT CHANGE. “WHO MAKES CHANGE HERE?,” HOBEIQA ASKED SARCASTICALLY. “I HOPE THE GENERAL IS A GOOD TACTICIAN. I AM SURE HE IS NOT. PEOPLE SAY HE IS A GOOD GENERAL. WHAT DOES IT MEAN? HE NEVER HAD TO FIGHT, AND HE WILL FACE TESTS AHEAD.”

15. (C) MOST LEBANESE HOPE LAHUD’S LEADERSHIP WILL MARK AN END TO THE SQUABBLING, INEFFECTIVE GOVERNMENT OF THE “TROIKA” (I.E., THE PRESIDENT, PRIME MINISTER, AND SPEAKER). INDEED, REPORTS ARE CIRCULATING HERE THAT THE SYRIANS, PARTICULARLY ASAD HIMSELF, DO NOT WANT TO CONTINUE RECEIVING STREAMS OF LEBANESE VISITORS PLEADING THEIR CASES AND PROBLEMS IN DAMASCUS. LAHUD MAY WELL PUT AN END TO SOME OF THIS ACTIVITY (JUST AS HE FORBADE JUNIOR OFFICERS TO HAVE CONTACT WITH THE SYRIANS OUTSIDE OF LEBANON). BUT HERE AGAIN, THERE IS A DARKER READING OF SYRIAN INTENTIONS FROM SOME OF LEBANON’S MOST ASTUTE ANALYSTS, INCLUDING EDITORIALIST SARKIS NAOUM AND FORMER FOREIGN MINISTER FOUAD BUTROS. THEY ARE CONVINCED THAT BEYOND HIS PROVEN RECORD AS A DEPENDABLE PARTNER TO SYRIA AND AN ASSET FOR THE FUTURE, SYRIA CHOSE LAHUD BECAUSE HE REPRESENTED THE MOST POTENT COUNTERWEIGHT THAT COULD BE POSED AGAINST HARIRI — WHOSE PERCEIVED INDEPENDENCE NEEDED A MORE EFFECTIVE BALANCE THAN HRAWI COULD PROVIDE. THEY ASSERT “LAHUD IS SEEN BY THE SYRIANS AS AN ANTI-HARIRI.”

16. (C) COMMENT: WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN FOR US? LAHUD REMAINS A POLITICAL ENIGMA AND SYRIAN INTENTIONS IN PERMITTING HIS ELECTION — ALBEIT TO POPULAR ACCLAIM — ARE EVEN HARDER TO READ. MUCH OF THE SKEPTICISM PREVALENT HERE IS WORTH TAKING ON BOARD, BUT LAHUD WILL STILL HAVE SOME TIME TO NAME A NEW GOVERNMENT AND ELABORATE HIS PROGRAM. WHETHER THIS WILL AMOUNT TO THE FORMATION OF A “THIRD REPUBLIC” CHARACTERIZED BY MORE EFFECTIVE GOVERNMENT AND LESS VENAL POLITICAL LEADERSHIP, OR MORE OF THE SAME SORT OF TURF BATTLES BETWEEN MEMBERS OF THE TROIKA REMAINS TO BE SEEN. WE CLEARLY HAVE AN INTEREST IN THE FORMER. THE DEPARTMENT STATEMENT WELCOMING LAHUD’S ELECTION AND EXPRESSING OUR HOPE THAT GOOD GOVERNANCE AND STRENGTHENING OF INSTITUTIONS WILL MARK HIS TENURE MAKES THE RIGHT POINTS. WE WILL BE PRESSING THOSE SAME THEMES IN OUR OWN DIALOGUE WITH LAHUD AND IN OUR ONGOING DISCUSSIONS WITH HIS FUTURE COLLEAGUES BERRI AND HARIRI. END COMMENT

SATTERFIELD

Link to the original cable on WikiLeaks.

Lebanese Politics – 2014 In Review

Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam casts his vote to elect the new Lebanese president in the parliament building in downtown Beirut on April 23 2014 (AFP-Joseph Eid)

The two most important political events of 2014: A new cabinet, and presidential elections. Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam casts his vote to elect the new Lebanese president in the parliament building in downtown Beirut on April 23 2014 (AFP-Joseph Eid)

2014 was a very busy year in Lebanon. It started with no cabinet in power, ended with no president in power, and saw a postponement of the parliamentary elections. But there’s a lot more than that, so I decided to make a compilation of all of Lebanon’s political events in 2014, while linking them to one another. Voila.

After 8 Months Of Pressure, M8 Yields (Well, Not Really): Introducing The 8-8-8 Formula (January 2014)

(And yes, I’m aware that there are five eights in the sentence above)

2013 ended very badly for M8. In the last two weeks of December, and after several months of “divorce with M8″, the president threatened to form a neutral independent cabinet excluding M8 and M14. In the same time frame, one of Future Movement’s most prominent politicians was assassinated. With every step forward in Syria, Hezbollah was facing increasing pressure in Lebanon. The designated prime minister  could have been seen as an M14 member or as a centrist, but one thing was for sure: He was definitely not a member of the March 8 alliance. By the first week of January, it was too much to handle for the party: The March 8 alliance conceded to M14’s demands and accepted M14’s 8-8-8 government formation even though they had previously vetoed it. By January 2014, M8 hadn’t only lost its Mikati government: It was now deprived – and via the 8-8-8 formula – from the blocking third in the executive power. The president was at the time getting closer to M14, which means that the 8-8-8 deal had one consequence for M8: they were theoretically out of the executive power. However, and since Jumblatt was still closer to them at that point, it would have seemed like a smart maneuver for M8: They would give all the responsibilities to M14 by granting them an indirect majority (Sleiman and Salam would be considered centrists) while at the same time keeping a certain degree of control (one of the centrists was supposed to be mutually pro-Berri and Sleiman and the Jumblati share among the centrist seats was sort of an “M8 garantee”. And in the end, even if M14 had won the government, it would have been still accountable to a pro-M8 parliament – Jumblat was aligned with March 8 at the time: Win-Win for everyone. But something else was also developing at the time: The Free Patriotic Movement had already started a slow but steady transition towards the Future Movement, hoping to strengthen Aoun and to declare him as a consensual presidential candidate 6 months before Sleiman left office.

Two things to remember from January: M8 were (not really) losing the battle for the government, and its seemed for a while that a tripartite Hezbollah-FPM-FM alliance was in the making.

Lebanon’s Longest Governmental Vacancy Ends (February 2014)

After 11 months of stalemate, and weeks of sectarian discourse, the government was finally formed on the 15th of February. The FPM finally managed to turn the ministerial rotation into a weird victory: Gebran Bassil was proudly transferred from the energy ministry to the ministry of foreign affairs, and the defense and interior ministries were officially out of M8’s influence. Rifi became minister of justice, and Berri’s aide got hold of the ministry of finance. The Kataeb were thriving with 3 ministers in the cabinet (even more than the FPM) while the boycotting Lebanese Forces were abandoned by their M14 allies and were left all by themselves in the opposition. And Walid Jumblatt was still holding on to his kingmaker position: Officially, the cabinet was an 8-8-8 one. But in reality, it was more like a 9-8-7 cabinet or even a 13-11 one. After all, Salam and Sleiman’s ministers were closer to M14, and Hannawi was a common Berri/Sleiman representative, making Jumblatt’s rather small share an equally important one for everyone. And speaking of the president, he was given 3 portfolios but only 2 votes: In other words, the political class was trying to reinforce his prestige while at the same time denying him any power after the post-Sleiman era. ٍIt was an early sign that the six-year term that started in 2008 was ending.

The cabinet formation had a clear impact on the presidential elections: the biggest winners of the all-embracing cabinet were the FPM and the Kataeb: Strong with their big shares in the executive power and their “moderate” decision to participate with the rival parties in the same cabinet, Amine Gemayel and Michel Aoun would soon seem as the most likely candidates among the Maronite Four to win the presidential elections.

The War For The Policy Statement (March 2014)

The cabinet had been formed, but it wasn’t yet functional. The M8 and M14 alliances managed to split the cake but still had to agree on a common ground for the cabinet: The policy statement. After weeks of bickering, an agreement was finally reached at the last moment between the two coalitions: M14 abandoned their “commitment to the Baabda declaration” clause and replaced it with a vague “commitment to all the decisions of the dialogue committee”. In exchange, Hezbollah agreed to remove the famous “Army, People, Resistance” clause and put instead of it a very weird sentence about “the right of Lebanese citizens to resist the occupation”. The rest of the policy statement was particularly normal – involving calls for unity among other things – except for the part where a plan for a decentralization law was mentioned. Michel Sleiman was trying to achieve something / anything at all before the end of his term. And out of the five cabinets he formed, he chose the cabinet with the least life expectancy to start the reforms.

Forget About The Cabinet – The Presidential Elections Have Begun* (April 2014)

By April, Lebanon felt the presence of a functioning cabinet for the first time since ages. But the new government’s decrees were overshadowed by a war starting in the parliament: The main four Maronite candidates (Aoun, Gemayel, Geagea, Frangieh) met and decided than no one other than them was entitled to become president. The maneuver was clear: The Christian parties of M14 and M8 don’t trust their allies so they decided to preemptively meet and put a Maronite veto on any other “weak” candidate the Muslim parties might nominate (They were trying to keep Kahwaji and Obeid and everyone else out of the race).  The Christian parties didn’t want anyone but the Maronite Four – while not agreeing on any one of them. Each Muslim party vetoed half of the candidates, and Jumblatt vetoed them all. In an attempt to end any Hariri-Aoun rapprochement before it even happened, Samir Geagea nominated himself very early as a presidential candidate, ending any hope that he had of winning, but at the same time ending the possibility of a Mustaqbal-Aoun deal. It was a smart maneuver.

But M8 were even smarter. At first, they spread rumors that Emile Rahme, a very minor pro-Hezbollah Maronite from Aoun’s bloc would be facing Geagea in the first round. Then, they realised that it would even be more humiliating for Geagea to lose the first round without having a candidate competing against him: There were more white ballots than Geagea ballots. The first round of the presidential elections gave us an idea about M8’s strategy for the next few months: They had destroyed Geagea’s candidacy and were now intending to sponsor and elect Aoun as a consensual candidate, or else they would not let the parliament meet again by denying quorum. At the same time, Jumblatt was reuniting his bloc, “the democratic gathering” (That collapsed in January 2011) and fielding his own “centrist” candidate, Henri Helou.

*And The Presidential Elections Shall Never End (May 2014)

By the end of April, there were three things to keep in mind: Jumblatt was yet again confirming his Kingmaker position, M8 had won a symbolic victory, but M14 had time on their side: The longer M8 postponed the elections, the longer the people would turn against them. M8 had no problem shutting down the parliament as long as it didn’t lead to the election of an anti-M8 president, and M14 had no problem letting them shut down the parliament since they knew that eventually the trick would make Aoun very unpopular ahead of the parliamentary elections in November. May ended with no president in power and four warlords aspiring to fill the empty spot.

Meet Our Old Friend – The Presidential Vacancy Is Back (June 2014)

Aoun’s presidential victory in April did not last long enough: In June, the leader of the FPM made a major strategic mistake by suggesting that he – alongside Hariri and Nasrallah – represented a triangle of salvation that could not be broken up. Naturally, March 14 would start the Summer of 2014 with an original propaganda : “Aoun wanted to give up the 50-50 Christian-Muslim representation in exchange of his elections as president.” Nasrallah quickly countered M14’s offensive by (1) reminding Aoun that the triangle included Berri, (2) throwing this controversy on the French, and (3) confirming that he had vetoed the 33% Christians -33% Sunnis – 33% Shia representation deal when the Iranians asked Hezbollah about it. Once again, Nasrallah saves the day.

Aoun Wants To Change The Constitution And The Patriarch Wants To Explain It Differently (July 2014)

July was weird. Aoun, who had previously spent a whole year getting closer to the Future Movement while trying to fashion himself as a consensual, all-embracing candidate, suddenly decided – and probably because of the M14 June maneuver – that it wasn’t worth it anymore, and threw in a political bomb: He wanted to amend the constitution and let the president be elected by universal suffrage. The irony here is double: Aoun, who had spent the last two years lobbying for an electoral law maximizing Christian representation in the parliament, was now letting a Muslim majority decide the fate of the top Christian post. Moreover, it would also mean that the winning candidate would in no way be a consensual one, showing Aoun as a political opportunist that would do anything to become president, even if it meant being a consensual and a non-consensual candidate at the same time. While M8 tried to show him as a politician that believed in true democracy, M14 described him as an opportunist that would easily change the constitution and his convictions to win the elections. So it was a tie in July between M8 and M14 – and Jumblatt was taking advantage of this tie and maximizing his political gains. Rumors about a deal including a two-year presidency for Aoun started circulating in Beirut. Finally, the tie between M8 and M14 ended in late July, when the Maronite Patriarch launched three maneuvers against the M8 alliance. M14 were eventually right in their long-term maneuver: The longer M8 freezed the presidential elections, the faster it would lead to their downfall. July 2014 saw Rai’s first violent stances against M8. And for a Patriarch that has been for long considered as pro-M8, that’s not something good at all for M8: Rai’s first move was considering the boycott unconstitutional and declaring that a half+1 vote would be enough to elect a president. Rai then decided to undermine Hezbollah’s anti-ISIS propaganda by calling for dialogue with the group. Rai’s third move was saying that the president should come from outside M8 and M14. For the first time since March, M8 was starting to lose the presidential race.

Hariri Is Back, Arsal Is On Fire, And Rifi Ruins M14’s Comeback (August 2014)

With M8 having their first major setback since Mikati resigned, Hariri decided to rise to the occasion and maximize M14’s gains. In the beginning of August, Islamist militants from Syria seized the border town of Arsal. The Lebanese army hence started a campaign to regain control of the town. There were two consequences: a political one, and a military one. Militarily speaking, the commander of the army was proving once again that he was capable of handling tough situations. In a way, Arsal 2014 was for Kahwaji what Nahr El Bared 2007 was for Sleiman in 2008. Politically speaking, the chaos on the border was a huge asset for Hezbollah: The Syrian civil war was no longer only across the border, and Hezbollah had now a legitimate reason to crush the rebels on the other side of the mountains. In the same week, four FM politicians – in confusion – revealed four completely different stances regarding Arsal. For a while, it seemed like a propaganda boost for M8. Until Hariri decided to seize the moment, and returned to Beirut with a billion dollar to arm the army. In 48 hours, the rhetoric would completely shift: Hariri was yet again the moderate, the chaos among the FM disappeared, and Hezbollah’s presence in Syria – now with a Lebanese army that should be more capable of defending the border – was no longer justified (at least from M14’s point of view). What would’ve been a massive win for M8 turned out to be whopping political victory for M14. At least until Rifi decided at the end of the month to make a very stupid decision of banning the burning of ISIS flags because they had religious scripture. M8’s propaganda would thrive because of this story and M14’s short yet powerful comeback would end.

Forget About The Presidential Elections – We’re Heading To Parliamentary Elections (September 2014)

September began with the following dilemma: What is the most important priority, the presidential elections, or the parliamentary elections?

And September ended with the following answer: We should head to parliamentary elections.

So what happened in September? For the first time since ages, the Lebanese Forces realized that they were not in a weak spot. And they decided to manipulate everyone – including their allies.

In early September, M8’s parties were all in favor of parliamentary elections – after all, what do they have to lose? On the other hand, the Future Movement was struggling with the idea of heading to parliamentary elections: Hariri warned that the FM would boycott the elections should they happen, while at the same time the FM minister of interior handled the idea very badly and made sure no effort was spared to prevent elections. Hezbollah’s anti-ISIS propaganda would have won M8 the parliamentary elections and made the presidential battle far easier for Hezbollah and their allies. But there was one slight problem for the FM: They didn’t have enough votes to pass a parliamentary extension in the parliament. The FM and the PSP were the only parties embracing the parliamentary extension at the time, and the FM badly needed the Lebanese Forces’ votes to make sure that Lebanon wasn’t going to parliamentary elections. The LF were for the first time in control. For a while, it seemed that they decided the fate of the parliamentary elections. So they decided to manipulate everyone, including their own allies. Their early decision to vote for elections meant two things: They were willing to punish the Mustaqbal for leaving them on their own outside the cabinet in February, and they were willing to strike a deal without the O.K. of their allies. After 10 years, the Lebanese Forces had finally understood how to play the game of Lebanese politics. With the parliamentary elections getting closer, Lebanon also witnessed a media war between Al-Akhbar and Al-Mustaqbal.

Lebanon Has A New Presidential Favorite: The Rise of Jean Kahwaji (October 2014)

In October, the commander of the army’s (undeclared) candidacy was gaining momentum. After the Arsal clashes in August, Everyone suddenly wanted to arm the army: Iran was going to donate military equipment to the army, Lebanon was going to get Russian helicopters, the army received a new U.S. arms delivery, and France/Saudi Arabia confirmed Sleiman’s 3 Billion $ deal. This meant two things for the commander of the army: He was locally getting very popular, and he was also gaining the trust of the international community. And for an officer that was rumored to be “Hezbollah’s hidden candidate”, the support he got from the United States and Saudi Arabia made him look like Lebanon’s most likely candidate to fill the presidential vacancy. Berri – whose secret rumored candidate is Jean Obeid – had to counter any possibility of electing a relatively stronger president. The result was a couple of days of bickering with the LAF commander about the wage hike details regarding the officers, and a change of stance by Berri regarding the parliamentary extension: With Berri’s decision not to go to elections, The Future Movement didn’t need the LF votes anymore which meant that yet again the LF’s decision to vote for elections was meaningless (and they would eventually go with the flow and vote with the FM since their decision didn’t matter in the end).

They Were Just Kidding. We’re Not Heading To Parliamentary Elections (November 2014)

By the end of October: M8’s official candidate, Michel Aoun was no longer an option. Hezbollah’s “hidden candidate”, the commander of the army, was the favorite, and Berri’s “hidden candidate”, Jean Obeid, was at the bottom of the list. Meanwhile, M14 was still recovering from M8’s attempt to shatter it by turning the LF and the FM against each other regarding the matter of the parliamentary extension.

It is in this context that most of the political parties headed in early November to the extension session. Now that Berri’s bloc was voting Yes, the Lebanese Forces felt that the wise thing to do (since they now needed the FM more than the FM needed them) was to vote alongside their Sunni ally. The Kataeb, who usually always go against the flow, did the same again and voted No. On the other side of the political spectrum, Hezbollah decided to go against the FPM on this matter and pleased the FM by voting for the extension: It was an indicator that Hezbollah were avoiding – at any cost – any possible Sunni discontent in Lebanon. The direct consequence of the extension session would eventually be a rapprochement between Hezbollah and the FM. Rumors of a dialogue between the two parties would soon start circulating and the meetings would eventually start in late December.

But 10 days after the extension session, M14 was preparing its counter attack and intended to sow discontent among M8’s members, the same way M8 tried a month earlier to manipulate the FM – LF relations. Suddenly, and out of nowhere, Frangieh became an acceptable candidate for the Future Movement. The irony here is that Frangieh was far more pro-Syrian/pro-Hezbollah than Aoun. In other words, this was a trap for Hezbollah: Once Hezbollah accepts the Frangieh candidacy (instead of Aoun), the Hezbollah-FPM relation should end, and the M8 alliance would eventually be shattered. The victorious FM would have gained a president, who – while being pro-M8 – was the weakest among the Maronite Four. But Frangieh saw the trap, and so did Aoun: Frangieh was quick to confirm that he would only run if Aoun withdrew. Aoun, on the other hand, had a smart response: He invited Geagea to a face-off in parliament: M8 would allow the parliament to convene only if the two candidates were Geagea and himself: Aoun was trying to preemptively end Frangieh’s hopes, while effectively destroying Helou’s candidacy. Jumblatt’s natural response was to call Aoun undemocratic, and it helped us learn something very important: M8’s biggest fear was that M14 would go to parliament in order to elect Geagea, and eventually elect Helou instead of him. After all, the centrists and M14 together controlled more than 50% of the seats, and Helou did leave Jumblatt when Jumblatt abandoned Hariri in 2011. It wasn’t Geagea that scared Aoun. It was Helou. And it wasn’t the presence of an M14 president by itself that scared M8. Once an M14 president would be elected, M8 would lose the only power it has (The power to deny quorum in the presidential elections). M14 could then form a government on its own, and vote for an electoral law that might be terrible for M8.

So, to sum up November in 8 words: M8 wants a deal, and Aoun fears Helou.

Total Vacuum (December 2014)

In December, nothing happened. Seriously, nothing. Not one political maneuver. Any hope to end the deadlock depends now on the Mustaqbal – Hezbollah dialogue.

You might also like 2013’s review.

See you in 2015!

Seven Months Of Vacuum

A Christmas tree is set in front of the Baabda Presidential Palace, Friday, Dec. 13, 2013. (The Daily Star/Dalati Nohra, HO)

A Christmas tree is set in front of the Baabda Presidential Palace, Friday, Dec. 13, 2013. (The Daily Star/Dalati Nohra, HO)

6 months. That’s all it took for the previous parliament to elect Michel Sleiman president. Now that we’re finishing the seventh month of presidential vacancy, I think it is safe to say that we are now living in a historical era: This is officially the second longest presidential vacancy the republic has ever seen (and the longest post-Taif one!). Hooray!

The record is 409 days. It’s a lot of time, but hopefully our politicians would be wise enough to guide us through 7 more months of vacancy. After all, breaking that record might be the only achievement this parliament has made since 2009.

2014 is clearly not 2008. Because seven months have already passed, and we still don’t have a president. Actually, it gets even better. Seven months have passed, and the political class forgot* about the presidential elections.

*completely forgot:

Unlike the past six months that were full of political maneuvers and surprises, December was most probably the calmest month among them all (Here’s a compilation of the monthly events for June, July, August, September, October, and November in case you’re interested). In December, nothing – relevant to the deadlock – happened. Other than the fact that Gemayel tried to fashion himself as a consensual candidate by paying a visit to the South (Gemayel’s a bit late for that phase of the game, since the battle is now about choosing a truly consensual candidate rather than one of the Maronite four), the only other political activities of this month were the government’s (epic fail) negotiations to end the Arsal fiasco alongside the attempt at distracting the people from the fiasco, the parliamentary extension and the presidential deadlock with the health ministry’s food campaign whose timing is suspicious: Food is not a political priority (actually, it is, but you get the point). The Islamic State is on the gates of the Bekaa, Israel is threatening from South, the hypocrite parliament extended its term without showing any intent to solve the presidential deadlock, and the government should be acting like a caretaker cabinet but instead, and as they say in Arabic, اخد مجدو.

And the Hezbollah – Future Movement dialogue that was supposed to be held “soon” last month, is also supposed to be held “very soon” one month later. So by this rate, should we expect a press conference in January telling us that the dialogue will be held very, very, very soon? (although it is supposed to kick off today :P)

Dear Santa, we want a president.

213 days since the 25th of May. 196 days left to break the 409 days record.

48 days since the 5th of November. 900 days till the next the parliamentary elections.