Is the Frangieh Scenario Possible?

Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri (R) chats with Lebanese Christian politician and leader of the Marada movement Suleiman Franjieh (L) as Head of Hezbollah's parliamentary bloc Mohamed Raad (2nd L), MP Assaad Hardan (C) and Lebanon's Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri listen to them during a new session of the national dialogue between political leaders at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, near Beirut April 15, 2010. (Photo: REUTERS/Dalati Nohra)

Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri (R) chats with Lebanese Christian politician and leader of the Marada movement Suleiman Franjieh (L) as Head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc Mohamed Raad (2nd L), MP Assaad Hardan (C) and Lebanon’s Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri listen to them during a new session of the national dialogue between political leaders at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, near Beirut April 15, 2010. (Photo: REUTERS/Dalati Nohra)

This is the 15th post in a series of monthly posts covering the presidential elections. This post is about the month of November 2015.

Accordingly, [Future MP] Shab foresees serious negotiations taking place within “weeks, not months” to agree on a candidate “who can navigate a Sunni-Shiite conflict and who has the confidence of both parties […] someone with a certain degree of legitimate representation, but who is also agreeable to both sides.”

Asked by NOW who might fit that profile, Shab cited the leader of the 8 March-aligned Marada Movement, MP Sleiman Frangieh. When NOW queried how Frangieh, a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, could be acceptable to 14 March, Shab hinted at a hypothetical agreement by which Frangieh’s presidency would be paired with Future leader MP Saad Hariri as prime minister.


Around the months of October and November of every year (since the presidential debate started in 2013) , Lebanon gets the impression that Sleiman Frangieh might be elected president. This year is no exception: On Wednesday, Frangieh said that “Change and Reform bloc MP Michel Aoun is the March 8 camp’s presidential candidate, but if the March 14 camp makes a proposal, then we are willing to consider it.”

In what might be the most exciting political event this year since Aoun was isolated in government and Roukoz was thrown outside the army, several events (since the twin suicide bombings happened) hinted at the possibility of Sleiman Frangieh being elected president:

(1) Hezbollah Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah, addressed local political forces “to search for a true political settlement” (Link)

(2) The Future parliamentary bloc Tuesday welcomed Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah’s call for a political settlement in Lebanon, urging a concrete plan to be put into action (Link)

(3) According to information also obtained by LBCI, a meeting over the issue of the presidential vote was held Saturday in Riyadh between Hariri, Mustaqbal bloc chief ex-PM Fouad Saniora, Deputy Speaker Farid Makari, Interior Minister Nouhad al-Mashnouq, and Hariri’s advisers Nader Hariri, Ghattas Khoury and Hani Hammoud.

Hariri had on Saturday described the vacuum at the presidential post as “the biggest insult to the Lebanese people on their national day of independence.”

According to media reports, the ex-PM held talks last week with Marada Movement leader MP Suleiman Franjieh, who belongs to the rival March 8 camp. (Link)

(4) Raad: Let’s debate and reach some understanding. (Link)

(5) Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi Monday criticized the idea of electing a candidate with links to Syrian President Bashar Assad as Lebanon’s next head of state. (Link)

(6) Change and Reform Parliamentary Bloc Member, Deputy Nabil Ncoula, stated Monday that “a full package does not imply the elimination of General Michel Aoun, but actually highlights the need for a genuine partnership based on respecting true representation.” (Link)

(7) Marada Movement chief MP Suleiman Franjieh stressed Monday that the country’s new president must “reassure” all of the Lebanese political and social components (Link)

(8) Head of the Change and Reform bloc MP Michel Aoun noted that Marada Movement chief MP Suleiman Franjieh has the needed characteristics to become president, adding that he is willing to back his bid for the presidency, reported As Safir newspaper on Tuesday.

His visitors told the daily that the lawmaker is “willing to give his blessing to Franjieh’s candidacy if he garners the necessary votes at parliament.”  (Link)

(9) Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his March 14 ally Kataeb leader Sami Gemayel have agreed that all efforts must be put toward electing a president, a statement released by Hariri’s media office said Tuesday (Link)

(10) The Future Parliamentary bloc on Tuesday held its weekly meeting chaired by its leader, Fouad Siniora, and called for doubled efforts that would lead to a comprehensive national compromise which could preserve the national pact, devotes the Taif as a reference and finally solves the crisis of the presidency. (Link)

The speculations started as soon as the Frangieh-Hariri meeting happened and the positive statements by Lebanon’s rival politicians made the possibility of the deal more likely. Both Hezbollah and the FM seem to be willing to settle the issue for good, and for the first time in three years, we could say that the presidential negotiations are finally – in a way or another – underway. Frangieh might seem as an odd choice to fill a consensual position, but then again he might be the best solution available for M8 and M14 as part of a bigger deal tackling the name of the next prime minister, the composition of the cabinet, and the electoral law.

 The Christian exception of Sleiman Frangieh

There are three types of Christian leaders in Beirut. There’s the Samy Gemayel type, willing to defy the greater (Muslim) ally in case the decisions aren’t in his party’s interests. Then there’s the Geagea/Aoun type, who usually stalls and negotiates, before (almost always) agreeing to a compromise with the greater ally. Finally, there’s the Frangieh type, who always – always – stands with the Muslim ally when things get messy. The last two years have been a perfect example: When the parliament’s term was extended in 2014, Frangieh was the only Christian leader -alongside Geagea – to approve of the extension. When Berri wanted to call for a legislative session last week, the only Christian leader who was willing to participate from the start was Frangieh. True, the FPM and the LF eventually participated in the legislation, but they were challenging to deal with. Frangieh also stood against Aoun several  times (although he was still supporting Aoun’s candidacy all the time): Note Frangieh’s criticism of (1) the Aounist 2015 demonstrations and (2) the latest legislative session which was the fruit of the FPM-LF cooperation.

In other words, and for Lebanon’s Muslim parties, Frangieh represents a rare type of politicians in Lebanon: Not only is he predictable, he’s also the better type of predictable: The one who will stand with you, not against you when things will matter. March 8’s problem with a consensual candidate coming from outside its ranks can be summed up by the example of Michel Sleiman, who stood with M14 in the second half of his term. True, the commander of the army might be the strongest consensual candidate right now, but Hezbollah and Amal need a politician they can trust, and Frangieh fits in that role perfectly. On the other hand, Frangieh is by far the most pro-Syrian Christian leader, which raises the ultimate question on how M14 might bring him into the presidential palace. Scroll up, and read quote number (6). That’s the FM’s way of saying that they might accept him as a candidate in exchange of a compromise: A staunchly M8 president means that the prime minister must be staunchly M14, which puts Hariri, the leader of M14, as the only candidate for the premiership. A staunchly M8 president also means that there would be a slight M14 counterbalance force in the government, hence guaranteeing M14 a majority (or at least the half – like in 2009) of the seats in the executive power. The only piece of the puzzle that remains is the electoral law, and it could be solved soon: There’s a committee in parliament that has been recently tasked with drafting it – the irony is that Geagea and Aoun were the ones that asked for it in exchange of their participation in this month’s legislative session, not realizing that they were unknowingly boosting Frangieh’s chances in the presidential war.

The Frangieh-Aoun conundrum

In 2013, Frangieh warned of a presidential vacuum as the conflict over Syria continues and suggested that Lebanon adopts the 50 percent plus one vote formula to secure the office. That (very dangerous political statement) meant that Frangieh was not only a natural presidential candidate (by being one of the Maronite Four), but that he was also somehow able to secure more that half of the parliament’s votes. Lebanon did not overthink that sentence back then, but since March 8 have less than the half of the seats, that was a clear sign that Frangieh had the support of the centrists (but probably under their terms – there was a different context back then, Sleiman was still in Baabda, there was a governmental vacancy and there were high tensions between M14 and M8).

Although Frangieh’s name was always on the table, he kept on denying that he was March 8’s first candidate for the elections. Aoun had the seniority, the bigger party in the coalition, and the official support of his allies. Every time he was approached on the subject, Frangieh insisted that he would run as M8’s candidate only if Aoun withdrew. Aoun’s candidacy was most likely doomed to fail, and Frangieh knew that standing against the candidacy of the president of his bloc and the leader of the biggest Christian party early on would turn M8 against him, perturb his alliance with the FPM, and discredit him within M14. His biggest ally was and still is time: The more the vacancy persists, the more his M8 allies would start looking – under pressure from M14 – for a candidate other than Aoun that might be accepted by M14. That moment seems to have arrived this week (But then again, we also thought that it had arrived in 2014 :-P ). The more Frangieh says he’s with Aoun, the more Aoun would be eventually forced to endorse him as his alternative/protégé, which explains why – even as the whole country speculates that Sleiman Frangieh has become the prime presidential candidate – Frangieh’s man in the cabinet (culture minister Rony Araiji)  still confirms that Aoun is still M8’s candidate.

The golden question: Why Frangieh is so important to M14

I explained it last year (when we had the rumors that M14 was about to endorse Frangieh), and I’ll explain it again: If March 14 endorses Frangieh, it would be highly tempting for Hezbollah and Frangieh to abandon the Aoun campaign. For Hezbollah, Aoun is silver but Frangieh is gold. Frangieh – unlike Aoun who has 18 MPs representing solely the FPM – doesn’t have a big bloc (4 MPs, including himself and Emile Rahme who is much more pro-Hezbollah than he is pro-Frangieh). Frangieh also has a limited electorate that he can rely on. And by limited, I mean it in a geographical, demographic, and sectarian way. Most (If not all) of Frangieh’s popular base is Christian, mostly Maronite, from the Zgharta Caza (Which is one of the smallest in terms of parliamentary representation with 3 MPs) and some of the surrounding villages in Koura. Frangieh doesn’t have foothold outside the North, belongs to a feudal family – and most importantly – faces continuous competition from other renowned political families established in Zgharta (Such as the Mouawads). In other words, Frangieh is too weak and can be manipulated by Hezbollah / Future Movement while Aoun (as a comparison) is much, much harder to keep under control. If Aoun switches sides, his ~ 22/23 MPs would be enough to change the status quo and throw a party outside the cabinet – be it Hezbollah, or even the FM. Frangieh can’t do anything with his 3 MPs (Yes, 3, because once he’s elected he loses his seat :P – And it’s actually 2 since you can’t really count Rahme as a loyalist). Frangieh won’t have his own base in the parliament to rely on, which means that he will fully be dependent on Hezbollah or the FM in everything concerning the legislation. Even if Frangieh wants to call for demonstrations, it wouldn’t have any impact unless Hezbollah joins him. Aoun wouldn’t need Hezbollah at all on the popular level (the 2015 summer demonstrations prove it) –  in fact it would hurt him since the counter-propaganda would make it look as if his supporters aren’t Christian – making him an “illegitimate” Christian president. Frangieh is also a lot more pro-Syrian than Aoun is, and the Frangiehs have historical family ties with the Assad family that are almost 50 years old. Which means that even if every single MP in M14 endorses Frangieh, he would always be a friend of Syria – and thus closer to Hezbollah. Aoun, on the other hand, is a lot more unreliable so he might be a pain in the ass in case he decides to switch sides or go against the Syrian regime.

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

Le piège (sowing discontent level: Future Movement)

If the FM allows and even supports the election of Frangieh, it would have given Hezbollah its golden candidate. It would have also looked like it would have won the elections, since it was the one who proposed Frangieh’s name first. The only problem here is that for Hezbollah, it would mean abandoning its now declared candidacy of Aoun or at the very least putting M8’s biggest two Christian parties, the FPM and the Marada, in direct confrontation. It would also mean that Nabih Berri’s opinion would be marginalized, and that the FPM would probably exit the March 8 alliance (and perhaps join a common Christian Front with the LF/Kaaeb who should also be in theory pissed because of the Frangieh election). In other words, Hezbollah would have won the presidency, but would’ve lost the integrity of the March 8 coalition. What’s the point of having a 100% loyal president if you can’t even influence 15% of the MPs when you want to form the government or vote for laws?

Hezbollah had a plan: Support Aoun till the end, and eventually settle – with Aoun’s blessing – on a non “Maronite Four” consensual candidate that has a friendly attitude towards Hezbollah, such as LAF commander Jean Kahwaji. Kahwaji’s election would have also been part of a bigger deal that should have been even more rewarding to the M8 alliance.

The only way for Hezbollah to keep the M8 coalition alive and make way for Frangieh would be if Aoun endorses him at the same time as M14 gives its green light. And that was what Frangieh – by his relentless support to the Aoun candidacy – has been doing for the past 2 years. Aoun had said many times that he would support Frangieh, but now things are starting to get serious, and an official stance from the FPM is still required to go forward with such a settlement.

As one of the blog’s readers suggested on twitter, the Frangieh scenario might in fact be back in play. We’ll have to wait and see…

550 days since the 25th of May. 386 days since the 5th of November.

Legislation of Necessity and the Excellent Bait

Aoun Geagea

Yesterday, we were on the verge of a Christian-Muslim confrontation in parliament. For the first time in Lebanon’s modern history, Lebanon’s biggest three Christian parties in the parliament were going to stick together on an important matter: Boycotting legislative sessions in the absence of  a president in power. Within  days, the Sunni-Shia (or Future Movement – Hezbollah) rivalry in the country was replaced with a Christian-Muslim one, bringing back the memories of the civil war.

But today is a different day: The FPM, LF and FM just made a deal to eventually participate in tomorrow’s legislative session. Welcome to the incredible world of Lebanese politics.

The bait worked…

Nabih Berri gambled and won. In order to secure the legitimacy and quorum for his “legislation of necessity”, the speaker tried to lure the Christian parties by adding to the agenda a draft law that would grant citizenship to the descendants of Lebanese expatriates. For ages, that was one of the main requests of the Christian parties (they believe that most of the expatriates are Christians which would strengthen their position ahead of parliamentary elections). But the Christian parties  (until today – November 11) were still planning on boycotting the session despite Berri’s “bait”, each for its own reason:

For the LF and the Kataeb, boycotting the legislative session means that they’re pissing off the leadership of the March 8 alliance and that they too – and not only the FPM – are ready to stand up for Christian rights (= the priority of electing a Christian president before legislating in this case).

For the FPM, their boycott of the session is probably a mini-retaliation on Berri for letting the extension of Kahwagi in the army command pass and for not standing with them on the Chamel Roukoz issue. Revenge is a dish best served cold.

But in the end, the FPM and the LF eventually decided to show up on Thursday’s session, probably because the speaker wasn’t intending on adjourning the legislative session and because the Muslim parties were going to participate in it despite the Christian uproar. The Christian parties – probably after working things out with the FM (The FM and the FPM all by themselves could form a parliamentary majority which means that the citizenship law would probably pass) – eventually decided to take advantage of the presidential vacancy and get a pro-Christian law in exchange of securing the legitimacy of the legislative session. It’s a practical deal: Berri’s session doesn’t get too questioned in terms of legitimacy (imagine laws passing in the absence of 2/3 of the Christian MPs and a Christian president), and in exchange, the two major Christian parties (the LF and the FPM) send a message of pseudo-Christian unity while strengthening their position ahead of possible parliamentary elections. If the Christians would have planned on continuing their boycott, the session would have probably happened anyway and then the Christian parties would have to confront their Muslim allies and explain themselves in front of their electorates on how they let their allies bypass them on such important decisions. Getting a law granting citizenship to the descendants of Lebanese expatriates via a deal is the easier/smarter solution for both the LF and the FPM, especially since the Muslim parties won’t oppose them because of the presidential vacancy which puts them in a stronger position. In other words, the FM, PSP, Hezbollah and Amal were successfully blackmailed by the LF and the FPM after trying to blackmail them.

…And everyone won..

By striking the deal with the FM, the FPM managed to send a message to its Muslim M8 allies that if they aren’t going to stand with them in the future on important matters (like the Roukoz crisis), a rapprochement with the FM isn’t out of the question. It’s also a mini-humiliation to the speaker since the agreement is being circulated by the media as an FPM-FM-LF deal that wasn’t sponsored by the speaker .

For the LF, the deal puts them in the middle (since they were the ones who brokered the deal), and finally gives purpose to the FPM-LF declaration of intent. For the first time since they exited the executive power in 2011, the Lebanese Forces seem to have a role, and it’s an important one. “We passed the most important law for the Christians” will be used before the parliamentary elections (I’ll remind you when it happens).

For the Kataeb, they send a clear message that they’re the only ones who care about the constitution and the Christian rights since they refused to compromise, although they suffer a mini-defeat by being abandoned/ignored – for the millionth time – by the LF-FPM duo. More than ever, the May 2015 declaration of intent seems to be directed at thwarting the slow but steady rise of the Sami Gemayel’s Kataeb.

Berri eventually wins since his plan on holding the legislative session eventually went through.

…Except the Constitution. The only loser seems to be the Lebanese constitution

Have you met article 75?

The Chamber meeting to elect the President of the Republic shall be considered an electoral body and not a legislative assembly. It must proceed immediately, without discussion of any other act, to elect the Head of the State.

But then again, it seems that no one cares.

Maneuvers, maneuvers.

536 days sincwe the 25th of May. 372 days since the 5th of November. 82 days since the 22nd of August.

Legislation of Necessity and a Christian Boycott

How the parliament looked like before the war. Found on the internet.

How the parliament looked like before the war. Found on the internet.

The Chamber meeting to elect the President of the Republic shall be considered an electoral body and not a legislative assembly. It must proceed immediately, without discussion of any other act, to elect the Head of the State.

Lebanon, meet article 75 of the Lebanese Constitution. Article 75 of the Lebanese constitution, meet Lebanon. For this week, the parliament of Lebanon is answering the call of its speaker and is meeting – in the middle of a presidential vacancy – in order to legislate.

It is not the first time something like that happens. On the 5th of November 2014, the Lebanese parliament legislated and extended its own term. As if meeting to legislate wasn’t by itself contradictory to article 75 of the constitution (You really don’t have to be an expert to see that), the constitutional council considered that the extension law was unconstitutional. In other words, it’s like telling a little kid that he can’t eat pizza and that he can’t eat in his room, and the little kid proceeds to eat a pizza, in his room. And since the kid wasn’t grounded, he plans on eating the whole kitchen this week (38 draft laws are listed on the agenda of the Thursday and Friday sessions).

What is a priority?

For the past year, the Lebanese political system became a vicious circle. Most of the parties in power (except the FPM) are asking for the election of a president before early parliamentary elections. The FPM (as well as the protesters) have asked for early parliamentary elections before the presidential elections. For the FPM, it’s because they don’t have the majority necessary to elect Aoun, and for the Hirak (the Lebanese protests movement), it’s because the Lebanese parliament is a de facto unconstitutional non-elected one that doesn’t have the legitimacy to elect a president who will rule for 6 years. Now, once this debate is solved, and that all of Lebanon’s people and politicians agree on the identity of the priority (good luck), another problem arises: All of Lebanon’s politicians say that the current electoral law is bad, yet cannot agree on an alternative one. To make things even worse, internal struggles between different parties in the government have left Lebanon drowning in a garbage crisis since July. Even after four months of protests and outrage, there is still no solution in sight as the bickering in the cabinet continues.

To sum things up, Lebanon’s current political crisis is caused by the disagreement of the politicians on the timing of the parliamentary elections, the timing of the presidential elections, the electoral law, the name of the president, and on the way things work within the cabinet. That was until last week. This week, things become a bit more complicated: There’s a disagreement on a parliamentary session too. Is it a priority? What does the word “priority” mean in Lebanon anyway?

Muslim vs Christian

For the first time since the ice age, the biggest three Christian parties in the Lebanese parliament are sticking together. The Lebanese Forces, the Kataeb and the Free Patriotic Movement say that what Berri calls “legislation of necessity” isn’t the priority. The Christian parties consider the election of the president to be the first and foremost priority, and if the parliament should convene, it’s in order to elect a president (Ironically, the FPM are the ones denying quorum in the presidential elections). It’s for obvious reasons: The Christian parties want to keep the presidential elections alive, especially that the main candidates are current/former leaders of the FPM, LF and Kataeb. They consider that legislating in the absence of the president is considered to be unconstitutional, although all of those parties accepted ( = They still consider their MPs to be MPs) the results of a previous legislation in the absence of the president (the extension law of November 5, 2014)  even if they boycotted the session. The FPM and the LF have said that they would participate in case the electoral law would be on the agenda. This more friendly approach than the Kataeb’s absolute boycott stance is probably due to the fact that the presidential front-runners of M8 and M14 are still Aoun and Geagea.

But forget about being friendly right now. Once the main three Christian parties in parliament – they account to approximately the two thirds of the Christian seats –  boycott the session, a much bigger problem will arise: The Lebanese Muslim parties – planning on participating in the legislative sessions – will be (more or less) legislating in the absence of “Christian legitimacy”, which would permit the Christian parties to use March 8’s weapon of 2006: A vague constitutional principle from the preamble stipulating that There shall be no constitutional legitimacy for any authority which contradicts the ‘pact of mutual existence. Hezbollah used it to combat the Siniora government (whose Shia ministers all resigned) almost a decade ago, and almost anyone who claims to represent a sect can use it to veto anything. Another thing that the Christians parties and their electorate fear the most about legislating in the absence of a president is the idea of passing laws without having the highest Christian civil servant in power. True, the president doesn’t have a lot of say in the post-Taef era, but he can still challenge laws via the constitutional council or maneuver via his cabinet share (or via other ways). For the Christians parties (and electorate), passing laws without the signature of the Christian president is very scary.

In other words, all the Christian parties – in a historic moment – are joining up together to play the Christian sectarian card against their Muslim allies. That is a huge precedent in the modern history of Lebanon. And what is even more dangerous is that their Muslim allies seem not to care about this move, which might eventually lead in the future to a Christian-Muslim clash transcending the M8-M14 rivalry. You know, because Lebanon needs even more problems.

Revenge is a dish best served cold

Among the 38 draft laws on the table this week is a proposal that is supposed to lure the Christian parties and push them to take part in the legislative sessions: A draft law that would grant citizenship to the descendants of Lebanese expatriates. For ages, that was one of the main requests of the Christian parties (they believe that most of the expatriates are Christians which would strengthen their position ahead of parliamentary elections). So why aren’t the Christian parties participating?

For the LF and the Kataeb, boycotting the legislative session means that they’re pissing off the leadership of the March 8 alliance and that they too – and not only the FPM – are ready to stand up for Christian rights (= the priority of electing a Christian president before legislating in this case).

For the FPM, their boycott of the session is probably a mini-retaliation on Berri for letting the extension of Kahwagi in the army command pass and for not standing with them on the Chamel Roukoz issue. Revenge is a dish best served cold.

So as Lebanon’s Christian parties boycott a legislative session and as the Muslim parties say that the boycott doesn’t make the session any less legitimate, here’s a little lovely reminder: We still don’t have a president (and if we had one, we wouldn’t be discussing the pros and cons of legislating in the absence of a president).

535 days sincwe the 25th of May. 371 days since the 5th of November. 81 days since the 22nd of August.

Kahwagi, WikiLeaks, and the Ongoing Presidential Race

Former defense minister Elias Murr with Kahwagi


This is the 10th post in a series of monthly posts covering (forgotten/ignored) WikiLeaks cables about Lebanon. 

With all the events currently happening in Lebanon such as the trash crisis, the protests, and the intergovernmental chaos,  we tend to forget that we don’t have a president. Which is why, and in honor to the seventeenth month of presidential vacancy, this month’s WikiLeaks cables are about Lebanon’s (favorite) consensus candidate, the current commander of the Lebanese army Jean Kahwagi. He is rumored (1) to be close to Hezbollah, (2) to have a rivalry with Aoun (since they’re arguably the strongest two presidential candidates), and (3) to have the support of M14, probably because of the rivalry with Aoun (proof: The recent extension of Kahwagi’s term that happened without Aoun’s green light).

I picked four interesting cables for this post. The first one is about Kahwagi’s appointment as commander of the army in 2008 (why Aoun didn’t object, why Jumblatt didn’t veto him). The second one is about Kahwagi telling DM Murr before the elections, in 2009, that there would be a resignation en masse in the army if Murr wouldn’t be appointed as minister after the elections. The third and fourth cables are meetings with Hariri before and after the 2009 elections: Before the 2009 elections, Hariri said that Kahwagi “was too weak regarding Hizballah”. After the elections, Hariri said that Kahwagi “would never be fit to be President” (how awesome will this quote be in case Hariri would one day rule as prime minister under Kahwagi ? :-P )

(of course, everything is according to WikiLeaks)

Voila. Enjoy the cables.

Cable 1:

2008 September 4, 15:49 (Thursday)

12. (C) Murr reported that the cabinet would meet on Friday, August 29 to select the next LAF Commander. (Note: Cabinet approved Jean Kahwagi, whom Murr supported, on August 29. End note.) This is the first time that Murr has the occasion to have so much input concerning officer slating throughout the Army. Murr intends to present the candidates for LAF Commander to the cabinet based solely on their military qualifications and nothing to do with their political affiliations. Murr said he would present ten names to the Cabinet. Murr still believes that BG Jean Kahwagi is the best candidate for the job as he has been trained in the United States under the International Military Education and Training Program as well as in Italy and Germany.

13. (C) Murr said he will have to closely manage Kahwagi during the first year because Kahwagi does not know anything about politics. In fact, Murr believes there will be problems changing his image among some people. “Sometimes you have to use visual flight rules, sometimes you have to follow the instruments,” quipped Murr, a reference to both general and technical mentoring that will be required on the political fronts. (Note: Murr is very comfortable with Kahwagi on both the technical and political levels when it comes to USG programs. “He is hated by all political sides, but Aoun cannot veto him,” said Murr. Kahwagi’s battalion was nearly erased by a Syrian Special Forces battalion that attacked then-President Aoun in the Baabda Presidential Palace in 1989. Kahwagi lost 300 men in this battle while the Syrian Battalion suffered 750 killed. Aoun and his family safely escaped this dangerous situation because of Kahwagi’s efforts. End Note.)

14. (C) Murr assessed that the opposition to Kahwagi by Progressive Socialist Party Leader Walid Jumblatt, a March 14 stalwart, is part of Jumblatt’s initiative to achieve some level of rapprochment with Hizballah. Murr said that while negotiations regarding the LAF commander were ongoing, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a Shia ally of Hizballah, told Murr “You are going to nominate someone that is anti-Hizballah, so I am going to be with you.” In the cabinet vote on Kawhagi, Berri’s and Hizballah’s deputies expressed no reservations and joined the consensus approving him for the position.

(link for the full cable on WikiLeaks)

Cable 2:

2009 April 30, 16:57 (Thursday)

17. (C) Murr also expressed his intention to stay on as Minister of Defense in the new cabinet, “if” the majority, whichever side that may be, agreed. (Note: Although he was not explicit, he intimated that President Sleiman was on board with this plan. End note.) Murr expected, however, that Aoun would try to veto his selection. Murr told the Ambassador that General Kahwagi had paid him a visit because he had worried that Murr may not accept the position. Kahwagi told Murr that soldiers, including Kahwagi and the LAF Chief of Intelligence (G-2 General Edmond Fadel), would leave en masse if Murr were replaced.

(Link for the full cable on WikiLeaks)

Cable 3:

2009 February 17, 17:30 (Tuesday)


7. (C) Confirming his opposition to a post-election national unity government, Hariri said he would not be held accountable for actions taken by “the other side.” Assuming March 14 victory in the elections, Hariri said March 8 would be welcome in the new government, but would not receive a blocking third of cabinet portfolios. (Note: In a February 16 speech to commemorate the anniversary of the killing of Hizballah figure Imad Mugniyeh, Hizballah SYG Hassan Nasrallah offered March 14 a veto share in a future March 8 majority government. End note.)

8. (C) On potential U.S.-Syria engagement, Hariri said he did not oppose engagement as long as the interests of Lebanon were protected. However, he opined that the U.S. would learn quickly for itself that the Syrians were “a bunch of liars.” Hariri also expressed concern regarding LAF Commander Jean Kahwagi who, according to Hariri, was “too weak regarding Hizballah.” He asked the USG to “put (Kahwagi) on the spot” during the general’s upcoming visit to the United States.

(link for the full cable on Wikileaks)

Cable 4:

2009 June 26, 15:38 (Friday)

1. (C) Presumptive PM-designate Saad Hariri confirmed to the Ambassador June 26 that he had met with Hizballah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah the previous day. Nasrallah did not request any “guarantees” from the new government, and Hariri did not offer any, Hariri said. Although mandatory bloc consultations to name the new Prime Minister are still ongoing, Hariri said he was prepared to begin his own consultations as the Prime Minister-designate by June 29 and was confident that cabinet formation would not be a protracted process. He was not certain whether opposition Christian leader Michel Aoun would participate in the government, asserting that Aoun “does not know how to be happy.” Without Aoun’s participation, Hariri believed a cabinet of fewer than 30 seats could be a possibility. Separately, Minister of Interior Ziad Baroud was critical of Hariri’s management of his majority so far, and said he would decline to become a minister in the new cabinet if Aoun boycotted, due to concern that a non-participatory model would soon lead to public disorder. Hariri said he preferred both Lebanese Armed Forces Commander Jean Kahwagi and G-2 Brigadier General Edmond Fadel remain in their positions, but he was prepared to take a hard line with them. He advised the United States to push Kahwagi and Fadel a “little more.”

8. (C) Hariri characterized his relationship with President Sleiman as “excellent.” He said the “chemistry” between them was good, despite not agreeing on every issue. He advised the U.S. to encourage and “pull the ears” of LAF Commander Jean Kahwagi and G-2 Brigadier General Edmond Fadel. He reported that he had not met with Kahwagi since the elections, but had met Fadel. He claimed to have told Fadel that he needed “to work more and to shape up,” reminding Fadel (as he had with Nasrallah) that he was “not Fouad Siniora.” Specifically, he admonished Fadel for not forming a Special Security Directorate under the LAF G-2 under pressure or fear from Hizballah. Hariri affirmed that the creation of the directorate would occur under his premiership.

BEIRUT 00000715 003 OF 003

9. (C) On Kahwagi, Hariri postulated that Kahwagi’s alleged moves closer towards the March 8 opposition prior to the election may not have been genuine, but rather wrongly gaming the outcome of the June 7 elections. He believed that Kahwagi should remain as LAF Commander, but opined that Kahwagi’s relationship with Sleiman was “not very good.” Kahwagi, he said, would “never be fit to be President” but is thinking that way.

(Link to the full cable on WikiLeaks)

Chamel Roukoz and a Struggling Lebanese Government

Chamel Roukoz. the newcomer to Lebanon's crowded political arena

Chamel Roukoz, the latest newcomer to Lebanon’s already crowded political arena

This is the 14th post in a series of monthly posts covering the presidential elections. This post is about the months of August, September and October 2015.

If I haven’t written any monthly analysis post since July 2015, it’s for a reason: In the summer of 2015, Lebanese citizens decided to protest and ask for their rights. The parliament was unconstitutional, parliamentary elections had been cancelled twice, presidential elections had been postponed for lack of quorum for the past year, and the government was an epic failure. Lebanon was arguably facing one of the biggest refugees crisis since World War II, and as if the electricity and water shortages and the corruption weren’t enough, a new garbage crisis had become unbearable. And what was the cabinet fighting (and in a way, still fighting) about? If Michel Aoun’s son-in-law was going to become commander of the army or not. BECAUSE PRIORITIES. There was nothing to analyze there. September 2015 was almost the same, with the government not responding to the basic protest demands (such as an environmentally friendly trash solution) being the extra cherry on the top.

But this month was (politically speaking) awesome. Forget for a moment that there is a protest movement in Beirut today. Sit back and relax. It’s time to enjoy the complexity of Lebanon’s politics.

Ending the war for Chamel Roukoz

Perhaps the most important events these past few weeks were the ones related to Michel Aoun’s sons-in-law, Chamel Roukoz – the commander of the Lebanese Army’s special forces – and Gebran Bassil. For Roukoz, the matter might seem at first a bit complicated, but it’s actually quite simple: Aoun wanted to appoint Roukoz as commander of the army when LAF commander Kahwagi’s term was about to expire. At some point, there were rumors that Aoun would be ready to give up his presidential candidacy and discuss a consensual presidential candidate in case Roukoz would have been made as commander. The fact that Kahwagi was – and still is – the strongest consensual candidate out there (Lebanon’s last two presidents have been army commanders) only made the possibility of a deal more likely: (1) Kahwagi becomes president, (2) a vacancy happens in the army command, (3) Roukoz becomes commander of the army. Even some rival parties opposing Aoun’s FPM indirectly hinted about the possibility of a Roukoz-Kahwagi deal. Yet today, that very deal is history. At the time, the FPM felt that it had the upper hand: It could have kept blocking the presidential elections forever, and at the same time, the government wouldn’t have dared to keep Kahwagi for another year without consensus on the extension of his term, especially since Aoun had been playing the sectarian card and calling for “Christian rights” for some time now. At least that’s what the Aounists thought.

Yet motivated by an indirect green light by Berri and an absence of veto from Hezbollah (probably in order to avoid an unnecessary – especially in the current circumstances – political clash with an army command the party of God has no problem with), M14 responded to Aoun’s maneuvering by extending Kahwagi’s term. It was a clear message to Aoun that M14 weren’t going to succumb to his blackmail in the cabinet, that the FPM would only be awarded the army command in case they halt their presidential quest, and that the FPM would not see Roukoz appointed as commander without something else in exchange. M14 was trying to force the deal on Aoun: By then, the only way through for Roukoz was by vacating the army command and the fastest way to vacate the army command was by electing the commander president.

The FPM saw it as a declaration of war and escalated their discourse while calling for protests in the name of Christian rights (For the FPM, that meant electing Aoun as president and appointing his son-in-law as commander).  When it was finally clear to everyone that Berri doesn’t care about the FPM interests in the army, that Hezbollah had bigger problems than a local feud about two generals, and that Aoun had no intentions of giving up the presidency for the army command, Roukoz – who had reached the age of retirement – did not see his term as commando regiment commander extended. In the  early days of October even potential compromises on keeping the status-quo in the army were dismissed. On the 15th of October 2015, only days after an FPM rally in Baabda, and weeks after another FPM rally in which Gebran Bassil was introduced as the new FPM chief, Chamel Roukoz spoke to a group of protesters that gathered  to support him at a rally and told them that he “was promoted to the rank of Lebanese citizen“. Congratulations, Lebanese citizens: Your politics just became slightly more complicated.

Divide and conquer

Rewind four months. By June, the FPM had  managed to maximize their dominance in Lebanese politics: The Lebanese Forces gave them the Christian upper hand when Geagea signed the declaration of intent in Rabieh, and the Kataeb, who had just finished a transfer of powers, were isolated by their exclusion from the declaration of intent talks and were in no postion to compete. The FPM had only one head, its second-in-command was the no.2 in the cabinet, and it was fighting to control the army command and the presidency.

Now the FPM has a godfather (Aoun), a president (Bassil), two vice presidents, an isolated nephew (Alain Aoun), a son-in-law who might as well be more popular than all of the above, and currently looks like a Neapolitan mafia (the amount of sons-in-law in the party is too damn high) where no one knows who’s in charge. For the FPM, October 2015 was one of the worst months since the 2009 elections: A potential negotiation card  for the presidency was lost, the war they had started in the cabinet ended in a humiliating defeat, a key asset in a key institution (army) was lost, the FPM’s most popular / influential ally in the Bekaa – Elias Skaff –  passed away last week leaving a vacancy that other parties in Lebanon’s west could quickly fill – especially that Skaff’s sons are young, and that Skaff himself had been already outside power for too long (6 years is huge for politician who served as an MP from 1992 till 2009). Elias Skaff had distanced himself from the FPM since the 2009 elections, but then again, he was the only local ally the FPM could have reached out to in the Bekaa before the upcoming parliamentary elections. To make things worse, instead of figuring things out in the summertime internal elections, the FPM is now in a pre-chaotic state. Who gives the orders in the FPM? Aoun? Bassil? Who does the FPM answer to? Bassil? Aoun? What to do with Roukoz? Bring him in since he’s too popular? (Or keep him outside since he’s too popular?) Can the FPM nominate Roukoz instead of Aoun to the presidency? What would that make of Bassil? These are dangerous times for the FPM. They are losing to M14, losing support within M8, losing to rival Christian parties, and – most importantly – facing the biggest administrative crisis in the history of the party (and they’re in denial about it). The pro-Roukoz protests happened way too early after his retirement, and that means that the former commander of the maghaweer might be onto something which would pose a threat to Bassil’s already weak fan base. Even the rumors – saying that Roukoz might be appointed as Lebanon’s ambassador in France – hint at a potential Roukoz-Bassil political clash. And the best way for Aoun – and the FPM – to avoid that clash would be by separating both men by thousands of Kilometers until Gebran Bassil gains a bit more ground within the FPM. So to sum things up, M14 didn’t just humiliate the FPM. By refusing to keep Roukoz in the army and in the shadows of Lebanese politics, they gave the FPM the ingredients necessary to start a succession war.

Changing the discourse

Another interesting thing about the transfer of power within the FPM is the change of discourse. For years, the Aounists have talked in a secular and “anti-corruption” way. Now they no longer focus a lot on the corruption talk and instead take a more sectarian approach. Deep down, it’s a natural transition: They can’t really blame the parties in power for the corruption with the same intensity – especially since they have been in power more than any party for the past 7 years and that the new FPM president wasn’t even elected and isn’t exactly what you call a role-model for an anti-corruption discourse (M14 keep accusing him of corrupt measures during his time in government) – so they had to take the sectarian way (“Christian rights”) in order to counter the rising threats from the LF, the Kataeb and from the more popular underdogs within or even allied with the FPM. The shift, that slowly started around 2013 (remember the Orthodox gathering electoral law?) became the cornerstone of the FPM’s new political strategy. In the end, the fastest way to win the heart of your sect (and party) back is by boosting your supporters’ ego and telling them you’re here for them (and their rights). The whole “reforming the system and rooting out corruption from within” doesn’t work so much anymore, especially with the recent waves of anti-government protests.

Bring the government down (or not)

Anyway, enough of FPM politics for today. Time to focus on the recent dynamics of Lebanon’s cabinet crisis. The Lebanese cabinet is made up of most of Lebanon’s parties, and hence sums up the awkwardness of Lebanese politics:

(1) The FPM clearly isn’t planning on ending the boycott on the government that refuses to comply to their demands and that threw Roukoz outside.

(2) Marwan Hamade of the PSP and the FM’s highest ranking minister (interior, Machnouk) in the government threaten to bring the government down after criticizing and accusing M8 of obstructing the cabinet’s work.

Then, (3) Hezbollah, via Nasrallah, tells the FM that they’re too cool to care about the Mustaqbal maneuvers, and defends the premier while also sending the following message to M14: “if you want to leave, leave“(♫♫♫)

Then, (4) Jumblatt, fearing on his kingmaker role that he might lose in case the government falls (Michel Sleiman is no longer in power which – if the cabinet resigns – leaves him all by himself in the so-called “Lebanese center”) sends Abou Faour on the offensive to undermine Hamadeh’s stance.

Then, (5) THE KATAEB CRITICIZE THE PREMIER. I would like to note here that the Kataeb’s share in the cabinet is the one of the biggest (if not the biggest) share they have ever had in a government – especially for a 5 MPs party – so throwing it all on the prime minister can be compared to digging your own grave. Oh, and they also undermined the FM by hinting that Mustaqbal adopted their “M14-ish” line of thought, and not the other way around. In a parallel universe, that was the Kataeb’s way of saying to the Christian electorate that they care about their feelings too and that they – unlike Aoun – are ready to piss off the Muslim boss (in the name of “Christian rights”?). Beat that, FPM!

(Meanwhile, the Lebanese Forces have decided to leave politics and focus on drug awareness campaigns, because Lebanese Forces).

Finally, (6) the premier, who probably knows – like everyone else – that no one is ready to bring down a government in which they thrive on the status-quo, took it upon himself to end this “my dad is stronger than yours which is why I will bring the government down” discourse and indirectly told everyone that (his dad is Saeb Salim Salam which makes him stronger than everyone) if they won’t calm down and try (or at least pretend) to figure out how to solve the trash crisis, he will be the one who will bring down the government. That wasn’t the first or even second time he made such a resignation threat. Maybe third time’s the charm?

Welcome to Lebanon’s rejuvenated politics: As the FM and Hezbollah start another round of political clashes, Jumblatt and Berri are trying to keep the cabinet – under pressure from everyone in power and everyone outside power – from collapsing. On the other side of the political spectrum, in the Christian autonomous political kingdom where the sun and moon never meet, things are changing fast: The FPM is the new LF. The LF is the new Kataeb. The Kataeb are the new FPM. And most importantly, the FPM lost their war and now plan on moving on with two heads and a different discourse.

Time will tell if their strategy will work. But for now, enjoy the deadlock (and the big dumpster the world calls Lebanon).

520 days since the 25th of May. 355 days since the 5th of November.

Media, Freedom of Speech, Protests, and Abdallah Machnouk

As the anti-government protests in Lebanon continue and the crackdown on activists and protesters intensifies, the freedom of speech myth is quickly disappearing. A mini Lebanese awakening made all of us realize that we live in a republic where oppression seems to be the daily bread nowadays. After almost every protest or sit-in, several activists are arrested and sometimes beaten. Even censorship in Lebanon is at an all-time high. The country found out last month that the editors of a comic-book were ordered to pay a fine of 20000$ because of a Joke. In fact, a Lebanese security official has probably already read this sentence before you (and although you might be smiling after finishing it, he probably isn’t). Lebanon’s political class isn’t only turning a deaf ear to the rightful demands (accountability, an eco-friendly solution to the trash crisis, and parliamentary elections – They were cancelled twice, in 2013 and 2014 and postponed till 2017), but it is also trying to silence its own citizens. The most symbolic example: After pro-Berri men assaulted a man who was holding a banner criticizing the speaker of the parliament at one of the protests, Nabih Berri filed a lawsuit against that man for slander and defamation.

The sit-in protesters were treated like animals. One of YouStink’s best photographers, Hassan Chamoun, was recently beaten after being dragged from his car. Apparently, in Lebanon, you can be a photographer as long as you don’t photograph protests. Unless you want to end up with a black eye. The list goes on: Tear gas, water cannons, arrests, and many more. An activist was even held because he wrote “You Stink” on a Lebanese flag.)

That’s not all of it. The media – that is mostly controlled and owned by the political class – is waging a propaganda war against the protests. Future newspaper said on its 30 August front page – The day after the historic 29 August protest – that the “people wanted to elect a president and that “muchaghibin” wanted to bring down the regime” (الشعب يطالب برئيس.. والشغب يريد إسقاط النظام). In fact, electing a president wasn’t even one of the movement’s four priorities. Parliamentary elections – not a priority for the Future Movement – on the other hand, were. Another front page from Future newspaper in July said the trash crisis was over, and that Beirut could now breathe (أزمة النفايات حُلّت.. وبيروت «تتنفس» الصعداء). I would like to confirm that more than two month later, the trash crisis isn’t over and I’m currently smelling the lovely perfume of burned garbage while writing this sentence. The Al-Joumhouria’s front pages weren’t any better: ِThey accused some of the activists of being CIA agents, the source being a conspiracy theory blog that was closed the next day. Very professional, no? Another front page mentioned how “Thugs occupied Beirut” ” الزعران يحتلّون بيروت “(during one of the protests on the 8th of October, some chaos happened and a hotel’s glass was shattered. You Stink volunteered to fix it back. However, for the media, because a glass was shattered after protesters were hosed down, beaten, and suffocated with tear gas, the protesters all became thugs and our political class should thus be allowed to keep postponing elections and ignoring the trash crisis). Annahar also complained how the Journalists couldn’t get to their work in Down Town anymore because of the protests (don’t miss Elie’s criticism on the article).

Again, the list goes on. Oh, and that was just the print media.

I don’t think there are other ways from the media or the political class to insult our intelligence (or maybe there are, we’ll have to wait and see).

Anyway, and since it seems to be the all-time low of professionalism for Lebanon’s media outlets and since the crackdown on freedom of speech is getting more important by the day, here’s an article Abdallah Machnouk – Mohammad Machnouk’s father – wrote in Assayad after Fuad Chehab’s death in 1973. Machnouk talks about how Chehab asked for him in 1956 and questioned him because he added “…” (literally three points) after a sentence. He made him apologize for writing the “…”, and then kept on bullying him with the “…” even after he was elected president.

I’m republishing the “…” story for two reasons:

  • Abdallah Machnouk was clearly a victim of Chehabist oppression – he waited 16 years for Chehab to die in order to tell the story –  and now – the irony – his son is a minister who belongs to a political class that could teach methods of oppression and propaganda in universities.
  • In the end, Chehab died, and Machnouk told the story in what was supposed to be Chehab’s eulogy in Assayad. You can censor as much as you like, but it will eventually strike back at you: It’s an 1956 story that was told in 1973 and is being retold today, 60 years later, in 2015.

Freedom of speech always wins, and when it does, the story sticks even more.

Here’s the article (sorry, no English version. If anyone would like to translate it and post it in the comment section, please do.)


One of the readers of the blog kindly translated the article in English and posted it on the post’s comment section on Facebook. Here it is:

I have met president ” Shehab” the time he was chief commander of the Lebanese army .
He summoned me upon writing my article in which I stated that the Lebanese army was adamant in preserving the 1948 ceasefire with Israel ( probably that was in 1956 after the triple attack ( France Britain and Israel ) on Egypt ) and followed these words with three points …
When I walked into his office accompanied by the head of the ” deuxieme bureau” (The name of the Army Mukhabarat at the time) he asked me about what I meant with the ” three points” or etc..
My reply was that I respect and value the Lebanese army and its leader and I did not mean a thing other than what I have mentioned otherwise I would have written it in words not in punctuation.
That is to begin with, secondly the editor and the worker can add  whatever they want in the printing including as many points as they want to which I am incapable of explaining.
Then he assured me that the Lebanese army will remain a defendant of Lebanon and will participate with fellow Arab countries in doing so. The meeting ended and I left and I didn’t meet with him until after he was elected as president of the Republic, and upon king Mohamad the fifth’s visit to Lebanon .
I was then invited along with my wife to attend a reception at the host’s house, Dr Feghali. As we were waiting in queue to meet and greet the president and his guest , president ” Shehab ” gestured for me to approach and when I did he told me that he shall introduce me to the king as the editor in chief of a Baathist newspaper published in Beirut where an article was published in that very same day attacking the Moroccan system and the monarchy .
I implored not to do so and that I will not repeat the mistake of the extra points. I went back to my place in the queue and when our turn was up he asked me : ” so mr abdallah? Are there any points ? ” so I smiled . Then he told the king ” I present to you mr abdallah el mashnouk the editor in chief of “Beirut El massa ” newspaper.
Time went by and I got elected as a deputy, then later I’ve become a minister for a period of 18 months in which I saw him once weekly at the cabinet session for a period of 6 hours each time. And even after his term ended, I visited intermittently at his house in Jounieh.
– And your impression about him ?
– Honest, objective, a great reader and doesn’t lack a sense of serious humour .. A bit withdrawn, tough and self-controlled which was fairly demonstrated during the incident of his cousin’s ” Henry Shehab ” death at the barbir’s hospital entrance during the events of 1958.. And despite all that he kept a neutral position preserving the unity of Lebanon .
– How do you explain his withdrawal from the public?
– I asked him once about the reason of him not inviting people over to his house and not throwing parties, he replied that he can’t come to a mutual understanding with exploiters and flatterers and bootlickers and I believe with this description he ruled out the majority of people.


Abdallah Machnouk Article

Abdallah Machnouk Article 2

WikiLeaks, Drugs and Lebanese Politicians

This is the 9th post in a series of monthly posts covering (forgotten/ignored) WikiLeaks cables about Lebanon. 

The Lebanese have been circulating a video – The Lebanese Forces supporters seriously, almost everyone else sarcastically – of the Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea warning the youth about drugs and their repercussions on society [note the inspirational soundtrack in the background and the “Samir Geagea” at the end. We’re definitely going to win the Oscars this year] . Since there hasn’t been a lot of political breakthroughs recently (the past three months have basically been about protests, the government not responding to protests, unfruitful dialogues – who knew, right? – and epic fistfights in the Lebanese parliament), I thought it would be interesting to unearth WikiLeaks cables mentioning drugs and Lebanese politics. I’m publishing three cables. The first one is from the war and ironically mentions how the drug exportation trade isn’t working out for the Lebanese Forces finances. The second one quotes Michel El Khoury (the son of Lebanon’s first post-independence president and a former minister of defense and central bank governor)  saying that “Hariri’s judgment might be impeded by some kind of narcotic addiction”. The third one is a conversation with the PSP’s second-in-command, Duraid Yaghi, in which he says that “increased cultivation of illegal drugs is feeding into Hizballah’s strength in the Bekaa region” and that “The sale of the crops feed into Hizballah’s weapons network”.

Take a look at the three cables. In case you’re too lazy, the drug parts are in bold.

1985 April 4, 14:34 (Thursday)
— Not Assigned —
2006 July 7, 14:00 (Friday)
— Not Assigned —
BEIRUT 00002291 001.2 OF 004
Classified By: Ambassador Jeffrey D. Feltman for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d ).
1. (C/NF) The current weakness of the “March 14” parliamentary majority — and the deleterious effect this has on Prime Minister Siniora’s ability to govern — has become a matter of great concern for supporters of Siniora, such as former Central Bank Governor Michel el Khoury. At a 7/3 dinner he hosted, Sheikh Michel el Khoury worried about disorder within the Hariri family and the supposed weak personality traits of majority leader Saad Hariri (who, he claimed, may even be suffering from a narcotic addiction). Sheikh Michel proposed that “March 14” be headed by a (non-Hariri-associated) Secretary-General. Better organization within “March 14” is necessary to counter a massive flow (Sheikh Michel estimated it at USD 100 million per month, over half from Iran) of external funding for Hizballah.
2. (C/NF) Summary, continued: Siniora’s Telecommunications Minister, Walid Jumblatt-allied Druze politician Marwan Hamadeh, called for using Saudi petrodollars to neutralize Iran’s financial support for Hizballah and its allies. Hamadeh suggested that there is even a bright side to the threat of Sunni-Shia strife in Lebanon, in that it helps to restrain Hizballah’s behavior. Prime Minister Siniora, who eventually joined Sheikh Michel’s dinner at which these exchanges took place, expressed frustration with his government’s current “standstill,” but expressed determination to forge ahead, particularly on privatization. End summary.
3. (C/NF) Former Central Bank governor Michel el Khoury gathered the Ambassador and emboff at a dinner with Prime Minister Siniora, Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh, and Siniora’s chief advisor, Mohamad Chatah. While waiting for Siniora — who was detained at the office by a meeting on transportation policy that lasted well past 9 PM — to arrive, Sheikh Michel explained that the purpose of the dinner was to map out strategies for bucking up Siniora’s government and the flagging “March 14” parliamentary majority that makes up its base of support.
4. (C/NF) Sheikh Michel goes back a long way with Siniora, himself a former Central Bank official. He insisted that despite the slow progress Siniora’s government has made and the multiple obstacles it has faced in its nearly one year of existence, Siniora was an “irreplaceable” leader. “I would do anything to help him,” Sheikh Michel said, “not just because he’s my friend,” but because Siniora’s success was the only hope for the country.
5. (C/NF) Sheikh Michel spoke of the need to translate Siniora’s personal popularity into political support for “March 14.” This was of particular importance within the Christian community. Among Christians, Siniora remains personally popular — even if not at the same high levels as initially — while support for “March 14” had plummeted under what Sheikh Michel described as a demagogic assault by Michel Aoun and his supporters.
6. (C/NF) To this end, Siniora’s most recent meeting with the Maronite Patriarch had been very useful, according to Sheikh Michel. (Comment: Siniora likewise was very positive in describing his relationship with the Patriarch during a separate meeting with the Ambassador, claiming that he and the Patriarch had “agreed on every issue” in this last meeting. See reftel. End Comment.) Sheikh Michel said that he was working with the Patriarch and others in the Maronite community to build grassroots support for Siniora.
BEIRUT 00002291 002.2 OF 004
7. (C/NF) One constraint on Christian political support for Siniora has been the unpopularity of the parliamentary majority leader, Saad Hariri. As they waited for Prime Minister Siniora to arrive, Sheikh Michel, Minister Hamadeh, and Dr. Chatah all expressed frustration with the susceptibility of Christians to anti-Sunni Muslim sentiment, much of it directed against Hariri. Sheikh Michel expressed frustration with the fact that the same Christians who approved Aoun’s alliance with Hizballah have been ready to entertain the worst possible suspicions about Hariri and his Sunni Muslim supporters, seeing them as a Trojan horse for Saudi-style Wahhabism in Lebanon.
8. (C/NF) In part, Sheikh Michel and his Lebanese guests agreed, this has much to do with poor organization within “March 14,” and within the Hariri family as well. For a start, Saad Hariri’s relationship with Siniora has been rocky, although Hamadeh suggested that there had been improvements recently. Beyond that, Saad Hariri arguably has political responsibilities equal to those of his father, Rafiq Hariri, with all the financial implications — given the importance of patronage in Lebanon — that that entails. Yet Saad had only a fraction of the wealth that Rafiq had to draw upon, as Rafiq’s fortune had been divided up, following his assassination in February 2005, among a number of family members, with Saad, Rafiq’s second-born son, being only one among them. Other family members, such as Saad’s reputedly miserly stepmother, Nazek, were unresponsive to the patronage needs of the Hariri-led Future Current and its “March 14” allies.
9. (C/NF) All the while, Iranian money continues to pour into Lebanon, funding the political and social activities of Hizballah and, according to some reports, those of pro-Hizballah, pro-Syrian groups in predominantly Sunni areas of the country, such as the rural and impoverished Akkar region in the North. Sheikh Michel, citing contacts in Lebanon’s banking sector, claimed that the amount of revenue Hizballah brings in from abroad each month equals approximately USD 100 million. Of this, some USD 60 million comes from Iran; the remainder comes from other external sources, such as pro-Hizballah fundraisers in West Africa.
10. (C/NF) As a result, we are seeing the “tashyi’i” (“Shia-ization”) of many predominantly Sunni parts of the country, Hamadeh complained. (Comment: Another term used to describe this seeming surge of Iranian influence — one that, from all appearances, annoys Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah to no end — is “tafris,” “Persianization.” End Comment.) Hamadeh could not explain Saad Hariri’s ongoing cash-flow problem with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the royal family of which reportedly has been slow to pay Hariri-owned business enterprises the billions it owes them. Even so, the only antidote to Iran’s relentless policy of cash-for-“tashyi’i” was to neutralize it with an equal flow of Saudi petrodollars, Hamadeh said. This had been a topic of discussion when he and Druse leader Walid Jumblatt met with Saudi King Abdullah in Jeddah recently.
11. (C/NF) Hamadeh said that he and Jumblatt had emphasized to King Abdullah that they were not asking for money for themselves. Rather, they wanted the KSA to play a direct role in alleviating poverty, supporting economic development, and bolstering its friends on the Lebanese political scene. Part of this could be accomplished by donations for charitable institutions, but part of it also had to be “political money,” Hamadeh said. He expressed confidence that Lebanon could absorb an influx of Saudi cash while keeping it out of the hands of radical Sunni Muslim groups.
12. (C/NF) Patronage aside, Sheikh Michel and his Lebanese
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guests saw Saad Hariri as no match for Nasrallah politically. The Hizballah leader took advantage of the young, reluctant politician’s inexperience and seemingly weak personality. In an aside with the Ambassador, Sheikh Michel also expressed concern about the possibility that Hariri’s judgment might be impeded by some kind of narcotic addiction. He understood that Hariri had used drugs as an undergraduate at Georgetown University to the extent that it seriously impaired his studies. He wondered whether Hariri had ever actually quit. (Comment: If so, this might explain some of the personality traits that we have noticed in our interaction with Hariri, such as a very short attention span. End Comment.)
13. (C/NF) Those present at the dinner noted that one reason behind Saad Hariri’s caution in dealing with his opponents is a sincere belief that Lebanon is in danger of experiencing Iraq-style sectarian strife between Shias and Sunnis. Hamadeh suggested that Shia-Sunni conflict was in fact a two-edged sword. While it frightens the country’s foremost Sunni leader, Hariri, it surely must also frighten the foremost Shia leader, Nasrallah. As such, Hamadeh argued, the threat of Shia-Sunni conflict could be used to pressure and restrain Hizballah; it did not make sense to try to wish the threat away.
14. (C/NF) Sheikh Michel suggested that one thing “March 14” needed was a better organizational structure. The appointment of a Secretary-General for the movement, one with real authority, could help in this respect. In order to deflect paranoia and anti-Hariri sentiment in the Christian community, it would be important that whoever filled this position not be a Sunni Muslim from the Hariri-led Future Current political party, Sheikh Michel said. SINIORA REMAINS DETERMINED ————————–
15. (C/NF) Prime Minister Siniora finally arrived after 10 PM, a little worse for the wear after an exhausting day, but still displaying confidence and energy. While his government was working to make progress on several fronts, he admitted that things were currently at a standstill. Even so, he was determined to forge ahead, particularly on privatization. Here, he was targeting the largely state-owned Intra Investment Corporation, which he derided as a “symbol of corruption.”
16. (C/NF) When the Ambassador and emboff described the concerns of international elections experts about the draft electoral law recently submitted to Siniora (reported septel), Siniora was unfazed. If there were problems with the draft, they could be worked out in due time, he insisted. He gave the impression of being receptive to comments on the draft law from IFES and other international elections experts.
17. (C/NF) Siniora cautioned Sheikh Michel and his guests that he had to pick his battles carefully. At one point in the dinner conversation, one of the guests pointed out that General Georges Khoury, chief of the Lebanese Armed Forces’ intelligence wing, was less than reliable. This was true, Siniora replied, but Khoury was also very close to the Maronite Patriarch, an ally whom Siniora could not afford to antagonize.
18. (C/NF) Fears of Sunni militancy have combined with suspicion and resentment of the Hariri family and its wealth, particularly in the Christian community. Consequently, a great deal of Christian opinion about Hariri and “March 14” is skewed to the point of irrationality. Aoun can strike an alliance of convenience with Hizballah and yet be perceived among a sizeable portion of Christians, probably still a majority, as the most effective defender of communal interests. Christian politicians who align with “March 14,”
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on the other hand, find themselves upbraided as sellouts and “inauthentic” representatives of their own community. In this situation, Sheikh Michel — son of Lebanon’s first president, Beshara el Khoury, and a Maronite patrician — deserves praise for the unconditional backing he is giving the Sunni Muslim Siniora.
19. (C/NF) Comment, continued: Even so, Hariri, Siniora’s government, and “March 14” seem never to miss an opportunity to increase Christian fears about a militant Sunni threat. The past few weeks have witnessed the sudden, inexplicable legalization of the ultra-extreme Hizb ut-Tahrir, which had been banned since the early 1960s (and which has been banned more recently in the United Kingdom on security grounds). On June 30, Mahmoud Qul Ahgasi (also known as Abu al-Qa’qa), leader of Ghuraba al-Sham, a mysterious Syrian-based Sunni Muslim group that is at once jihadist and pro-Asad regime, appeared on a television broadcast from the Beirut studio of the pan-Arab “al-Arabiya” channel, his back to a picture window in the studio that, embarrassingly, looked out on Siniora’s offices in the Grand Serail. Given all this, opening the valve of a massive Saudi petrodollar pipeline — assuming one really exists — would not be without risk. Still, we agree with the basic thrust of this dinner conversation: given the patronage system that still prevails in Lebanon, and given the evidence of huge amounts of incoming Iranian money, “March 14” needs to find some funding sources of its own, with Hariri and/or the Saudis still the most likely source.
End comment.
Classified By: Ambassador Michele J. Sison for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).
1. (C) Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) Vice President Duraid Yaghi said September 19 one-third of the population of his hometown of Baalbek does not support Hizballah, although it is in an area of strong Hizballah influence. However, according to Yaghi, continued unemployment and increased cultivation of illegal drugs is feeding into Hizballah’s strength in the Bekaa region. Yaghi, a Shia, suggested Lebanon donors should consider funding an illegal drug crop eradication and substitution program. Furthermore, he admitted that the March 14 coalition had made several mistakes in May, but said what was more worrisome was that the coalition had not yet agreed on a unified electoral platform or even begun planning for the 2009 parliamentary elections. We believe there may be an opportunity for a USG-sponsored crop substitution project in Baalbek and will explore further options. Separately, anti-Hizballah and prominent Shia businessman Abdullah Bitar told the Ambassador he will take on Hizballah by running in the elections for a Nabotieh seat, and hopes to join forces with other key players in forming a list. End summary.
2. (C) Former Shia MP and current Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) Vice President Duraid Yaghi estimated to the Ambassador on September 19 that 30-35 percent of Baalbek’s population does not support Hizballah. Baalbek, situated in the heart of Hizballah’s stronghold in the Bekaa Valley, contains “brave voters” who overwhelmingly supported PSP and other parties in the majority over Hizballah in the most recent municipal elections, he said. However, Baalbek lacks any significant presence of state institutions, such as the Internal Security Services (ISF) or the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). According to Yaghi, the state “is not there.” Without these visible signs of state authority or other state-provided social services, Yaghi worried Hizballah was gaining greater support. Baalbek’s residents, he said, often “turn to Hizballah before going to the police or the courts.” Generally speaking, said Yaghi, Hizballah buys its loyalties from residents by providing them $200-$300 per month, offering educational scholarships, and providing health and social services.
3. (C) According to Yaghi, the incidence of hashish and opium cultivation continues to rise in Baalbek. Lack of employment opportunities, he believed, is driving greater numbers of Baalbek residents to plant the illegal drug crops. The sale of the crops feed into Hizballah’s weapons network, as well as provide valuable income to families, he said. The drug problem, Yaghi said, is not new. In May 1996, while he was MP, Yaghi and then-Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri drafted Decree 8666, which allows for the creation of a government eradication program, with the use of international donor assistance, for the Bekaa region, especially in Baalbek and Hermel. The decree still exists, Yaghi said, but nothing ever came of it. (Note: ISF Counternarcotics Unit head has told Embassy INL Director that the ISF and LAF conduct eradication campaigns on a yearly basis, with the exception of 2007 when the program was not carried out because of the Nahr al-Barid conflict. End Note.) Yaghi requested assistance from the U.S. and other donors to revive the drug eradication effort, suggesting that any success with such a program could sway support away from Hizballah and towards the March 14 coalition as the 2009 parliamentary elections BEIRUT 00001389 002 OF 003 approach. (Note: INL funding will provide training in December for 50 ISF officers in counternarcotics tactics. The course will be taught by DEA instructors. End Note.)
4. (C) Yaghi admitted that the March 14 coalition to which his party belongs made several mistakes in May. First, he said, March 14, and specifically March 14 leader Saad Hariri’s Future Movement miscalculated the extent of Hizballah reaction when Future Movement pushed the Druze leaders Walid Jumblatt and Marwan Hamadeh, who was minister of telecommunications, to close down Hizballah’s communication networks. After the ensuing takeover of West Beirut by Hizballah, and the subsequent agreement reached in Doha that paved the way for election of President Sleiman, Yaghi believed March 14 should have publicly admitted its mistake, while articulating a vision. Neither has happened, Yaghi said, and “we find ourselves in a bad situation.”
5. (C) Furthermore, he warned, the re-districting agreement reached in Doha for the 2009 parliamentary elections that placed Baalbek and Hermel into one district exacerbates March 14’s problems. Baalbek by itself, he said, probably would produce two Sunni and two Christian candidates to counter Hizballah’s four candidates. However, both MP slots in Hermel will go to Hizballah candidates, he predicted. As one district, if Hizballah wins the majority, all ten MP seats will go to Hizballah. Yaghi said he planned to talk with Hariri “soon” about his concerns for Baalbek and to secure Hariri’s assurances that tangible assistance would be forthcoming to Baalbek’s voters, and not just words of support.
6. (C) Yaghi was also visibly concerned about the lack of a unified March 14 message. He fretted that if another two months pass before the platform is decided, then March 14 should not expect favorable election results. In Baalbek, he said, Hizballah has been preparing for the elections for the last six months, while March 14 has not started. In addition, Yaghi envied the fact that Hizballah speaks “with one voice,” while March 14 has many parties and many different voices, he said.
7. (C) Yaghi did not believe the 2009 elections would be delayed, as “everybody thinks they will win.” He did not foresee Hizballah initiating any type of military action that could put the elections in jeopardy, and opined that Hizballah’s backers, Iran and Syria, would not support such a scenario. Yaghi supported President Sleiman’s decision to launch the National Dialogue, but did not believe any serious discussion of Hizballah’s weapons would occur until after the elections.
8. (C) In a separate September 22 meeting with the Ambassador, anti-Hizballah prominent Shia businessman and head of the Nabatieh Traders Association and the Economists Union Abdullah Bitar (Ref A) stated his intentions to take on Hizballah and run in the elections as a candidate from his hometown (and current residence) in Nabatieh, a Hizballah stronghold in southern Lebanon. Alone, he anticipated he could win approximately 5,000 votes from Nabatieh proper, and 10,000 votes from its surrounding areas. Believing that Lebanon’s southern residents would be willing to vote for non-Hizballah candidates, said he hopes to join forces with anti-Hizballah figure Ahmad al-Assad (Ref B) (who Bitar noted had distanced himself from him in the last few months), Hariri, and the Communist party to offer an alternative to Hizballah.
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9. (C) Despite losing his last contest for an MP seat, Yaghi remains actively involved in politics. He is also president of Baalbek’s Bar Association. Independent Shia organizer Lokman Slim and others have encouraged Yaghi to consider running as a candidate in the 2009 elections, but Yaghi says he is reluctant due to the personal risks. (Note: In May, his house was set on fire by unknown assailants, but presumably the attack was politically motivated. An investigation is currently underway. End note.) The picture Yaghi paints of the March 14 coalition’s prospects for electoral success in 2009 is disheartening, but echoes the message we have carried to our March 14 interlocutors that a unified platform is very important to winning the elections.
10. (C) Although USG projects in the Bekaa are limited, we believe there could be an opportunity for an USG-sponsored crop eradication and substitution program. A similar project located along Lebanon’s northern border was considered previously by UNDCP, but did not get off the ground. However, we will explore the feasibility of resurrecting such a project for the Bekaa. If feasible, such a project could used an effective tool of the GOL to blunt expanding Hizballah influence in Baalbek. End comment.