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.