Wikileaks’ Five Consensual Candidates Of 2007

Lebanese Parliament 1950s

Since Lebanon’s presidential politics are now about finding the consensual candidate (with the ًexpected withdrawal of Samir Geagea that should be followed by a similar move from Aoun), I thought it might be interesting to take a look at who the “consensual” candidates were in 2007. So here’s a diplomatic cable (Thank you, Julien Assange) discussing the main five consensual candidates of the last presidential elections.

BEIRUT 00001424 001.2 OF 004 Classified By: Jeffrey Feltman, Ambassador, per 1.4 (b) and (d).
1. (S) As we have reported, March 14 leaders say that Nassib Lahoud is their first choice for president, with Boutros Harb the fall-back; March 8 leaders at least tactically suggest Michel Aoun is their only candidate. At the same time there is considerable talk by both sides about finding a consensus choice, an approach that presumably rules out those three as well as undeclared March 14 candidates Amine Gemayel and Nayla Mouawad. Yet we are not convinced that March 8 leaders seek genuine consensus. Their Syrian and Iranian backers probably hope to exploit the public yearning for a solution in order to dictate a presidential choice, who would be a consensus candidate in name only. Failing that, March 8 leaders — and Michel Aoun — would probably prefer vacuum or chaos to blame on March 14 stubbornness. Suggesting that acquiring trump cards is more important than achieving consensus, Nabih Berri insists that discussions toward a consensus president will begin only after March 14 agrees to conditions that ensure a March 8 veto.
2. (S) But let us assume that the two clashing political camps succumb to domestic and international pressure to discuss compromise figures. Each side has a different definition of who counts as a consensus choice (with Harb believing obsequiousness will lead Berri secretly to back him and Aoun deluding his cult-like inner circle that he occupies the halfway point between March 8 and 12). But, despite differences, there are five names mentioned frequently as potential consensus candidates: LAF Commander Michel Sleiman, Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh, MP Robert Ghanem, ex-Minister Michel Edde, and Maronite League head Joseph Torbey. We guess that Berri would add ex-Ministers Jean Obeid and Fares Bouez to the consensus list, and Patriarch Sfeir would include ex-Ambassador Simon Karam and ex-Minister Demianos Kattar. Minister of Justice Charles Rizk would add himself. Occasionally, bankers Francois Bassil and Farid Raphael are mentioned, as is, infrequently, Higher Judicial Council chief Antoine Kheir. Some even raise the unlikely possibility of luring Carlos Ghosn from Renault-Nissan to Baabda. The darkest horses in the consensus sweepstakes include beach resort owner Roger Edde and lawyer Chibli Mallatt.
3. (S) At this point — and until or unless other names emerge — Sleiman, Salameh, Ghanem, Edde and Torbey probably have the best chance of branding themselves as the consensus candidate of choice acceptable to both camps (albeit begrudgingly in the March 14 case, given March 14 leaders’ belief that they have the majority right to elect a president). We can’t at this point predict the odds of who might prevail, or even if the consensus approach prevails over March 14 being able to elect one of its own. But in comparing the current choices, we can make a few observations about the behavior of the candidates in question. Our biggest concern is that all of the leading consensus candidates with the possible exception of Torbey (whose political views are largely unknown) have either documented or rumored ties to Syria that might make them vulnerable to interference. We also note that UN Special Coordinator to Lebanon Geir Pedersen believes that Sleiman and Salameh are the only two candidates acceptable to Hizballah, rendering them suspect. — LAF Commander Sleiman: In the aftermath of Nahr al-Barid, Sleiman is the most popular choice. He is a useful tool in deflating Michel Aoun, as many Aoun backers, including powerful MP Michel Murr, are ready to shift support to Sleiman. But Sleiman’s record has been mixed over the past three years. On the one hand, in permitting (and even facilitating) the spring 2005 demonstrations including the famous March 14 rally, Sleiman defied Syrian orders. He also oversaw the historic LAF troop withdrawal to the south and (after initially blinking) the Nahr al-Barid fight. UNIFIL reports that he promotes active LAF-UNIFIL cooperation. On the other hand, his public statements have been among the worst of any GOL officials (going beyond what would be considered politically imperative), and the LAF under his command has done almost nothing to stop Hizballah weapons smuggling and transport. We cannot imagine he would be more
BEIRUT 00001424 002.2 OF 004
forceful as president in implementing UNSCRs 1559 and 1701, especially if he owes Hizballah and Syria for helping to create his presidency. He is suspicious of March 14 and dislikes Siniora, who is openly contemptuous of Sleiman. To be president, Sleiman would require the same constitutional amendment passed for Emile Lahoud’s first time, waiving the usual two-year cooling-off period before the army commander is eligible to become president. We cannot say with certainty what his current ties to Syria are, but we assume that they remain active. — Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh: Salameh enjoys an excellent international reputation in financial circles for having prevented Lebanon’s financial meltdown. If examined closely, his methods may raise bankers’ eyebrows, but they worked. His candidacy is pushed by Lebanon’s financial and business circles, who cite a pragmatic, non-ideological approach and connections to all parties in Lebanon. But the number of rumors about Salameh’s private life and his alleged cover-up of the Bank al-Medina scandal raise concerns about the potential for blackmail. Unsubstantiated stories circulate about trips to Damascus to advise the Asad family on banking and finance. Once a protege of Rafiq Hariri, in 2004 he was seen as having betrayed Hariri, when he secretly worked with Emile Lahoud to reschedule bonds in advance of their mature dates (and at higher interest costs that padded his banker friends’ pockets); Hariri had planned to use the approaching financial crisis as leverage in his quiet campaign to prevent Lahoud’s extension. Nevertheless, Salameh is very close to Rafiq’s widow Nazek. Common wisdom is that he, too, would require a constitutional amendment to become president, although he makes an argument that the cooling-off period does not apply. PM Siniora and Salameh loathe each other, with each bearing grudges that date back years. While friendly to us, Salameh demonstrates a certain opaqueness, an ability to mask what he is really thinking or doing. As with Sleiman, we assume he maintains active ties to the Syrians. — MP Robert Ghanem: A long-time MP from West Biqa’, Ghanem comes from a part of Lebanon that has long been subject to heavy Syrian interference. While he voted against Emile Lahoud’s extension in 2004 (as Ghanem wanted to become president himself), Ghanem sat out the spring 2005 demonstrations. Fellow Christian MPs who did join March 14 tended to forgive Ghanem at the time, noting that his district’s location next to Syria explained his absence. By the 2005 legislative elections, he had thrown his lot in with the March 14 movement, successfully defending his parliamentary seat on a March 14 electoral list. As March 14 fortunes have fallen over the past year, however, Ghanem has tiptoed away, and he was not invited to the August meeting of March 14 Christians. Our sense is that Ghanem — a decent man — is politically opportunistic rather than ideological, malleable rather than principled. With his political base in the Biqa’, he will naturally work hard not to offend the Syrians. If the Syrians said “boo,” he would be among the first to be rattled. — Former Minister Michel Edde: Now an octogenarian, Edde has sufficient wealth not to fall into the usual Lebanese temptations of using public office for private gain. A generous donor to the Maronite church and former head of the Maronite League, he has the “Christian weight” that most of the other consensus candidates lack, through a close, decades-long friendship with Patriarch Sfeir. The French are seduced by his happy gourmand profile, and he is generous and ecumenical with his private charity. He serves, for example, as the first non-Druse officer of the primary Druse charity in Lebanon, thanks to his financial support. But his attitude about Sunnis, and Palestinian Sunnis in general, verges on racism. He views most issues from a paranoid perspective of how to preserve the political powers of a diminishing and (in his view) embattled Maronite population. Perversely, this has led him to traditionally cozy relations with Hizballah and Syria (with rumored links to Mohammed Nassif Khayrbek), all of whom he sees as needed counterweights to Sunni power. His views of Sunnis approaches those of General Aoun, although the perpetually sunny Edde drops the vitriol Aoun applies. Infamously, he once said that he would throw his body down before the Syrian tanks to prevent them from leaving, leading to the current jokes that, after the Syrian withdrawal, when Edde comes to
BEIRUT 00001424 003.2 OF 004
visit, he can slip in under the door without knocking. — Maronite League President Joseph Torbey: Torbey was elected as head of the Maronite League in May 2007, in a surprisingly heated race seen to have promoted him into the ranks of presidential contenders. A banker, Torbey was for years head of the Lebanese Bankers Association and previously Chairman of the Arab Bankers Association. His political views are not well known. He is head of Credit-Libanais Bank, which is majority Saudi-owned, leading some politicians to muse that he must lean in the direction of the Hariris and March 14. Yet his winning slate for the Maronite League board suggests a slight bias against March 14 (including, for example, LBC Chair Pierre Daher — an enemy of Samir Geagea — and Abdullah Bouhabib, close to former Deputy Prime Minister Issam Fares). But most observers feel he is pragmatic rather than political. Patriarch Sfeir has mentioned Torbey as an example of the “neutral” figure, “equal distance” from both March 8 and March 14 that Sfeir sees as needed to heal Lebanon’s deep political divide.
4. (S) If we had voting power and were confined to these five consensus candidates, what would we think? Despite his current popularity, we would eliminate Sleiman immediately: After Emile Lahoud and the experience with Michel Aoun earlier, Lebanon could benefit from a civilian president. And, whatever Sleiman’s admirable actions over the past three years, we believe pursuing an end to Hizballah’s arms smuggling would be a particularly hard sell with him, especially given his (accurate) suspicions about March 14’s only reluctant support and trust of him. He sees Syria and Hizballah as more reliable allies, we believe. We would scratch Michel Edde’s name off next, as someone who is well past his sell-by date. Much as we enjoy Edde’s friendship and cuisine, it is difficult to pursue a constructive agenda with someone who does not pause to take a breath in his unending monologues on Lebanon’s Christian identity. Edde’s presidential ambitions are taken most seriously by those who wish a weak president or those who are counting on Edde’s advanced age forcing an early vacancy in the office.
5. (S) As Saad Hariri pointed out himself (reftel), Robert Ghanem poses a challenge. He would not provide the strong leadership Lebanon needs in the years to come. But, as a decent man who did back the Special Tribunal (despite pervasive Syrian influence in his neighborhood), he would be an improvement over the incumbent in Baabda Palace. Unlike Emile Lahoud, Ghanem is not a believer in Syrian hegemony. Rather, our worries would be that his natural susceptibility to Syrian pressure would make him a facilitator of Syrian interests by default. We guess that Ghanem would try very hard to avoid conflict with either Syria or with us, making the choice of a PM all that much more important: the premier will have to help fill the leadership vacuum Ghanem is not prepared to fill. While we would be unexcited by the choice, Ghanem would not be a disaster, and it would be difficult to object to his candidacy, if he emerges out of a genuine consensus.
6. (S) Of all the five, Torbey and Salameh are probably the most modern thinkers, by virtue of their broad exposure in international business and financial circles. They have both been part of the financial establishment here that has kept Lebanon afloat despite the common belief that Lebanon should have collapsed financially years ago. In fact, the financial concerns would probably keep both Torbey and Salameh leaning toward the west, despite Syrian pressures and whatever vulnerabilities they have, since neither would want to preside over Lebanon’s bankruptcy. Financial pressure, in other words, could be a useful deterrent on either from going too far with the Syrians. Besides rumors of Syrian connections and some unsavory personal and business practices, Salameh faces the additional burdens of a constitutional amendment (at least according to most observers) and the hatred of Siniora. But, with Torbey such an unknown figure, we would probably, and without enthusiasm, end up backing Salameh as the least risky of the five.
7. (S) Unfortunately, none of these five candidates are statesmen. The exercise of examining potential compromise candidates reinforces our first impression that none of the consensus names currently in circulation indicate the type of exciting, dynamic leaders that would be ideal to move Lebanon
BEIRUT 00001424 004.2 OF 004
forward. But the desire to pull Lebanon backwards, toward renewed Syrian hegemony, is surely what motivates Syria’s agents here to object so strenuously to candidates like Nassib Lahoud who are. Lackluster as candidates like Salameh and Ghanem are, they at least would not willingly participate in facilitating the return of Syrian occupation of Lebanon.
8. (S) Much can happen between now and the expiration of Emile Lahoud’s presidential term at midnight on November 23. But, for now, a consensus solution for the presidency appears able merely to prevent immediate chaos and violence, not to deal decisively with Lebanon’s long-term problems. A consensus president prevents the emerges of a new crisis but is unlikely to have the influence to solve the existing problems. If there is a consensus president from the list we have provided here, we should keep our fingers crossed that Lebanon’s next prime minister is a strong, decisive figure to help compensate for the weakness in Baabda Palace. We have a sinking feeling that, with a weak compromise figure as president, Lebanon would be no more able to resolve the issues facing it than under the current dysfunctional line-up.
FELTMAN
149 days since the 25th of May. 28 days till the 16th of November.
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Lebanon’s New Presidential Favorite?

Empty frames (presidential vacuum)

Visual vacuum: Portraits of ex-Lebanese President Michel Sleiman at state-run facilities replaced with empty frames. (Image source: The Daily Star, Mohamad Azakir)

Other than the fact that we still don’t have a president and that the parliamentary elections are in a month, Lebanon had two very busy weeks. Let’s take a look at some of these stories.

28/09/2014 – Army Repels Jihadist Infiltration Attempt as Gunmen Try to Spread Chaos in Lebanon (Naharnet)

The Lebanese army clashed with jihadists trying to infiltrate Lebanese territories at dawn Monday, leaving many dead and injured among their ranks, Voice of Lebanon radio (93.3) reported.

The infiltration attempt was made on the outskirts of the northeastern border town of Arsal, which last month witnessed bloody clashes between the army and militants from al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State group.

28/09/2014 – Hariri: Syrian National Coalition Complaint on Army’s Arsal Raid Should’ve Mentioned Captive Troops (Naharnet)

Head of the Mustaqbal Movement MP Saad Hariri criticized on Sunday the Syrian National Coalition’s complaint to the United Nations Security Council over the Lebanese army’s treatment of Syrian refugees in the northeastern region of Arsal, deeming it as a “misstep” and saying that it disregards the ties between the Lebanese and Syrian people.

He said in a statement: “The Syrian National Coalition has the right to defend the refugees’ humanitarian rights … but the interests of the refugees and Syrian revolt also requires them to raise their voice and demand the release of the Lebanese soldiers and policemen abducted by Islamists in August.”

29/09/2014 – Saudi Arabia asks for clarification on weapons deal for Army (The Daily Star)

“For reasons that I cannot explain today, the Saudis have put conditions on the destinations of the arms,” Lebranchu said. When pressed what she meant by “destinations,” Lebranchu said that the already complex file would only be further complicated if she discussed the details publicly.

Moreover, the Saudis had not registered their specific concerns regarding the arms deal with the French by Friday evening as Lebranchu concluded her trip to Lebanon.

“If the Saudis have a problem [with the accord] … it would be helpful if they identified it quickly so that we could respond,” Lebranchu said. “We need to get this file moving.”

She was confident that the Saudis would express their precise concerns in the near future.

30/09/2014 – Iran to donate military equipment to Lebanese Army (The Daily Star)

Iran will donate military equipment to the Lebanese Army, a visiting Iranian official said Tuesday after talks with Prime Minister Tammam Salam.

“Given the role Lebanon is playing in fighting extremist takfiri terrorism in some border regions, Iran has decided to donate military equipment to the Lebanese Army, as a token of love and appreciation for Lebanon and its brave Army,” said Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran.

 

01/10/2014 – Jumblat Calls for Exchange between Arsal Captives, Roumieh Prisoners to End Abduction Ordeal (Naharnet)

Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblat called on Wednesday for a swift exchange between the Arsal captives and Roumieh prison Islamist inmates, holding former Internal Security Forces personnel responsible for the “self-rule” at the facility.

“The government and crisis cell should follow up any exchange process with the kidnappers,” Jumblat said in an interview with An Nahar newspaper.

He denied any previous knowledge of the conditions set by the jihadists, who kidnapped a batch of soldiers after withdrawing from the northeastern border town of Arsal in August.

Note: Jumblatt had previously refused the idea of an exchange deal on the 7th of  September.

05/01/2014 – Lebanon to get Russian helicopters, air defense (The Daily Star)

“There are talks on buying Russian arms and special equipment by Lebanon,” the World Tribune quoted Machnouk as saying during his visit to Moscow in late September to discuss weapons supplies to Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces.

He said a delegation from the army would visit Moscow later this month to discuss proposals.

Any deal would most likely be financed by the $1 billion Saudi donation that was announced by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri in August.

Political sources last month told the The Daily Star that Hariri was working to revive 2010 arms negotiations with Moscow. The Russian ambassador confirmed at the time that talks were taking place without going into detail.

08/10/2014 – Lebanese Army receives new US arms delivery (The Daily Star)

he United States delivered a new batch of aid to the Lebanese Army Wednesday as part of Washington’s efforts to bolster the military’s capabilities to confront Syrian border violence.

The National News Agency reported that senior Army officers were handed ammunition at Beirut’s International Airport in the presence of representatives from U.S. Office of Defense Cooperation in Lebanon.

The Army has received several deliveries of U.S. military equipment, including arms and ammunitions, in the past weeks under the U.S. military assistance program.

08/10/2014 – France says $3 billion Lebanon arms deal to go ahead (Reuters)

“All the work is done and the President (Francois Hollande) indicated yesterday to Mr (Saad) al-Hariri that the conditions to fulfil the contract had been met,” Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told parliament.

“This is a necessity. The Lebanese army is the last barrier that exists against the security threats this country faces.”

08/10/2014 – Envoy: Iran’s Military Gift to Lebanon Ready for Delivery (Fars News Agency)

thali made the remarks after a meeting with Lebanese Democratic Party Leader Talal Arslan, where he expressed the hope that the gift would be sent to the Lebanese army through legal procedures in the Muslim Arab state, the Egyptian al-Bawaba news reported.

The envoy did not reveal details or the nature of the aid, but said the gift would help Lebanon meet all its Army needs  in its current war on terrorism.

Iran hopes the weapons can support Lebanon in its fight against the terrorist groups, he reiterated.

Meet Lebanon’s Top Presidential Candidate

I think that I’ve made my point by now. In less than 10 days, every possible country in the world suddenly volunteered to arm the Lebanese army. Faisal Kassem’s media campaign backfired, and by the end of this week, Jean Kahwaji had become Lebanon’s man of the month. At the same time, the Lebanese army was also getting credit for its achievement in keeping a relative peace in the Bekaa and for taking control of the situation. The credit came from everyone, except Berri. Although the speaker had earlier expressed his “frustration and defended the army against critics” (30/09), on the third of October the speaker indirectly attacked the army’s command by blaming the army for the delay regarding the controversial wage hike draft law. The speaker knew what he was doing. The Lebanese army was getting stronger and stronger in the context of a presidential vacancy. On one hand, the world’s greater powers are (probably) competing to gain the sympathy of the LAF leader via the arms deals, and on the other hand,  most of the M14 forces are endorsing Kawhaji’s moves. Jumblatt’s endorsement of the exchange deal with the Arsal militants made M8’s initial veto on the issue meaningless. Kahwaji, who is traditionally seen by the Lebanese media as being sympathetic to the March 8 Alliance (and particularly Hezbollah), was becoming at the same time stronger and more popular among M14 (proof: Kahwaji headed to Washington, Riyadh to discuss support for Lebanese army). That makes it a lot easier for him to become Lebanon’s next president,  and a lot harder for Berri to enforce some of his demands in a possible deal on Kahwaji’s candidacy. After all, if everyone agrees on Kahwaji, Berri becomes as influential as Talal Arslan.

Berri’s Maneuver

This is probably why Berri made two very interesting moves this week: In the first one, the parliament speaker attacked the army and blamed it for freezing the wage hike efforts (and hence tried to make Kahwaji  unpopular). In the second one, he declared that he was going to vote against the elections in case the Future Movement takes the decision to boycott the polls. And since the FM already took that decision, it means that Nabih Berri will vote against the elections. Which also means that:

1) There’s now at least more than 65 MPs against the elections.

2) The speaker can still enforce whatever terms he wants regarding the presidential elections by effectively deciding the outcome of the extension law vote since he – as it seems – is now in control of the swing votes in the parliament (regarding the Extension/ Temdid law) and can change his decision at any time (He just proved to everyone that he is unpredictable).

The Lebanese Forces In Denial (Again)

58+8=64. That means that exactly half of the parliament wants to stay in the parliament, while the other half wants parliamentary elections (which means that we will go to elections since an extension law needs 65 votes to pass). As striking as it might seem, the decision to keep the same parliament or to change it lies within the Lebanese Forces .

Probably for the first time since prehistory, the Lebanese Forces are in a position where they are actually in charge of taking a major decision (Going to elections in the context of a presidential vacancy). And they can use this rare moment of power in order to force the M8/M14 coalitions into a deal that might be favorable to their interests.

That was the situation in September. But since Berri decided that he was going to boycott the elections after all, the majority in the parliament is now against elections – regardless of what the LF think. The Lebanese Forces hence lost their bargaining chip which might explain their recent aggressive stances and their very weird decision to sue regular citizens (If we were a normal country, such an irresponsible decision, especially in the context of an extension of the parliament’s term would have led to a revolution. Emphasis on normal.)

So in other words, this week Future Movement showed Berri that they were unpredictable and could still bypass any of his vetoes regarding the presidential elections by endorsing M8’s “hidden candidate”. And Berri responded by reminding them that he too is unpredictable and that no matter what happens, he still holds the keys to the Lebanese parliament and could postpone for them the elections in case they wanted to. And in the process, the Lebanese Forces discovered that they were yet again left alone with no real power.

 141 days since the 25th of May. 36 days till the 16th of November.

Four Months Of Vacuum

Baabda Palace during its construction, 1969

Baabda Palace during its construction, 1969 (Image source)

Four months is nothing. It took the Lebanese parliament 13 months to elect Rene Mouawad in 1989, and 7 months to elect Michel Sleiman in 2008. Before the Salam cabinet crisis (Lebanon’s longest governmental vacancy ever, 11 months), the longest period of vacancy regarding the executive power was 7 months (Rachid Karami, 1969). So, proportionally speaking, the next president should be elected in the matter of 13*11 /7 = 20 months (16 months from now). That’s January 2016. Cool, no?

The presidential elections are old news

No one cares about the Lebanese presidential elections anymore. It’s not a priority. ِAs it turns out, the Lebanese parliament is perfectly comfortable at legislating and the government is even more comfortable at ruling now that there is no president in power. A change or a vacancy in the presidency isn’t scary for Lebanese politicians. What’s truly scary is a change in the Lebanese parliament. Change the parliament, you change the status quo. So if you think that a president is going to be elected before  they strike a deal regarding the parliamentary elections (and the electoral law), don’t. The vacancy in the presidency is yet another alibi to use in case the parliament wants to extend its mandate (other than the 1960 law alibi that was used in 2013). It’s also a valuable negotiation card to use when things go bad for one of the two coalitions.

The Lebanese Forces en force (It’s payback time)

Rewind to February 2014. The only party that was left out of the Salam cabinet was Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces. True, it was their decision to stay out of the executive power, but the FM acted like they couldn’t care less at the time, which gave Michel Aoun a nice advantage two months before Sleiman left office.

The Lebanese forces have 8 MPs in the parliament (That’s more than what Jumblatt used to have in 2012). That number is relatively low and means nothing, unless you use it – à la Jumblatt – to manipulate both coalitions in order to serve the party’s interests. The Future Movement needs an extension of the parliament’s term now more than ever. The Lebanese Forces, on the other hand, have nothing to lose if they participate in the elections. Out of the 8 seats, 3 are from Zahle (friendly Sunni electorate), 2 are from Bsharri (Geagea’s hometown and the LF’s e stronghold), 1 is from the Shouf (friendly druze and Sunni electorates), 1 is from Koura (friendly Sunni electorate, although relatively less influential than in the other cases) and the last MP is from Batroun. So in the worst case scenario, under the 1960 electoral law, Geagea loses 2 seats out of the 8 (And he’s not even using the 8). Best case scenario: Geagea goes to elections, asks for more “sovereignty” from the Future Movement regarding the Christian seats in the constituencies where the Sunni electorate is present – almost 1/3 of the FM bloc are Christian MPs – and tries to control the Metn and Keserwan seats by defeating Aoun there. Although his chances are slim, it does seems tempting to defeat the main presidential contender (Aoun) in the middle of a presidential vacancy, no?

A possible deal

Here’s the situation, as of this week. Hezbollah is still relatively silent about the parliamentary elections (Nasrallah spoke last tuesday, but only about ISIS – willingly ignoring the subject of parliamentary elections). However Berri and his party want elections, and the same goes for Michel Aoun and his party. Which means that we should assume that their common ally, Hezbollah, is likely to go to elections should both of them head to polls. To sum things up here, M8 has around 58 MPs who are in favor of the elections and are likely to vote against extension. The centrists (Jumblatt & co)  are likely to vote against elections.  In M14, the FM and its proxies are against the parliamentary elections, and the Kataeb seem to have a similar opinion. The FM have even threatened to boycott the elections. The only party that is going against the current here is the LF. According to the LF’s George Adwan, they are going to vote against the extension. 58+8=64. That means that exactly half of the parliament wants to stay in the parliament, while the other half wants parliamentary elections (which means that we will go to elections since an extension law needs 65 votes to pass). As striking as it might seem, the decision to keep the same parliament or to change it lies within the Lebanese Forces .

Probably for the first time since prehistory, the Lebanese Forces are in a position where they are actually in charge of taking a major decision (Going to elections in the context of a presidential vacancy). And they can use this rare moment of power in order to force the M8/M14 coalitions into a deal that might be favorable to their interests.

So let’s sum things up: We’re a country that has no president, no elections, no functioning cabinet, a self-extending parliament that doesn’t meet anyway, and whose students pass without official exams.

Also, Samir Geagea might be the new Walid Jumblatt.

127 days since the 25th of May. 50 days till the 16th of November.

Are We Heading To Parliamentary Elections?

نعم للتمديد لاني خروف

Found in the streets of Ashrafieh

In the last ten days, the Lebanese media was mainly preoccupied by two stories.

Here’s the first one, published by the pro-M8 newspaper Al-Akhbar:

US President Barack Obama surprised his visitors, the delegation of Eastern Christians patriarchs, on Thursday when he told them that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “protected the Christians in Syria.” Obama met with the delegation in the White House for 35 minutes, during which the patriarchs presented a paper in which they exposed the situation of Christians in the Middle East and the threats and challenges they are facing, due in part to the expansion of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group.

Sources told Al-Akhbar that the highlight of the meeting was when Obama said the following phrase: “We know that President Bashar al-Assad protected Christians in Syria.”

Obama then used the term “the Syrian government” instead of “regime,” which is usually used by the US to describe the government in Syria.

Here’s the second one, published by the pro-M14 newspaper Al-Mustaqbal:

Hezbollah has established a new largely Christian armed group in Jezzine that has been compared to the Resistance Brigades in Sidon, drawing members from the party’s ally, the Free Patriotic Movement, security sources told The Daily Star. The Christian Resistance Brigades, as they have been dubbed, was created on the pretext of preparing for the threat posed by ISIS to Christians in the Levant.

However, the sources insisted that Hezbollah deliberately recruited Christian youth from the FPM in order to create an acceptable façade for the group, which is in fact controlled by Hezbollah.

Jezzine MP Ziad Aswad, a member of the FPM, couldn’t be reached for comment.

According to the sources, more than 60 members have been trained and divided into subgroups tasked with discreetly guarding the towns of Jezzine, Ain Majdaline and others at night.

Each member reportedly receives a monthly allowance of $500 and is supplied with a rifle, military clothing and ammunition.

Until now, between 60 and 70 rifles have been provided for the members of the Jezzine Brigades, the source said. Hezbollah is reportedly aiming to recruit at least 200 members, who are expected to patrol the Christian towns and villages of the area.

The decision to establish the brigades was made during a series of bilateral meetings between Hezbollah and the FPM at the house of an FPM official, identified only by his initials as N.N.

The two parties, according to the sources, have agreed that the FPM-affiliated brigades would take the responsibility for guarding the district’s Christian towns.

(Daily Star)

Is There A Media War?

Although contradictory statements and random arming procedures shouldn’t be something alarming in a country like Lebanon, the two stories are most probably closer to fiction than reality because

(1) If – according to Al-Akhbar’s suggestion – Obama was going to change stances vis-à-vis the Syrian regime, then why is it that he refused to cooperate with it against ISIS? Even if Obama became so protective of the regime, how is it that the M8 media previously helped circulating information that the U.S. armed ISIS? Something’s not right here, and it is highly unlikely that out of nowhere Obama would reveal that he is pleased  with Assad’s policies in Syria.

(2) Let’s take the second story from a completely different point of view. Imagine that tayyar.org wrote an article with the following sentence: “Future Movement handpicked 200 members of the Lebanese Forces, from Bcharre, to patrol the villages in case something goes wrong. They are even arming them with 70 rifles.”

So what’s wrong with the story of Hezbollah arming Jezzine’s Aounists? Everything.

(a) Hezbollah is arming his Christian ally in the region where it is the least needed. Hezbollah is already in control in Jezzine and his decision to share power with someone else would only complicate things for him.

(b) Hezbollah is arming the FPM with 70 rifles. I’m no expert here, but 70 rifles are relatively easy for anyone to buy in the Lebanese black market. So why would the FPM need Hezbollah in order to arm itself with 70 rifles? It’s not as if they were buying Katiouchas or Khaibars…

(c) There is no relevant reason to why the FPM would arm themselves, especially in Jezzine. Most of the Muslims in the caza are Shias, and if Hezbollah truly wanted to arm them in order to benefit from their help afterwards, it would have been smarter for him to arm the Christians of a region were he doesn’t have any foothold such as the North or the Chouf.

(d) According to this Wikileaks cable, a similar story from 2007 tells us that Hezbollah would never directly arm Aoun.

SAMIR GEAGEA ON AOUN’S ARMS, PRESIDENCY

Date:

2007 September 18, 12:48 (Tuesday)

Canonical ID:

07BEIRUT1435_a

2. (S) The Ambassador met privately with Samir Geagea in the Lebanese Forces stronghold of Bsharre, a town in north Lebanon, on 9/17 before a lunch with local officials attended by both. Geagea, with his usual intensity, zeroed in on what he insisted were tangible plans, training, and weapons distribution by pro-Syrian forces for a forcible military take-over of Lebanon. Claiming to have inside sources, Geagea said that Michel Aoun, Hizballah, Marada chief Suleiman Franjieh, Druse opposition figures Talal Arslan and Wi’am Wihab, and other pro-Syrians like Zahar Khatib were preparing their followers for militia-type street action to cut March 14 strongholds off from one another. Many things could spark putting this plan into action, Geagea said, but the election of a March 14 president without the presence of two-thirds of the parliamentary members would be the most likely.

HIZBALLAH ARMS ALLEGEDLY GO TO AOUN VIA FRANJIEH

3. (S) Geagea said that Hizballah is being careful to avoid direct military support to Aoun, which, if discovered, would discredit Aoun with the Christians and Hizballah (with its claims that its arms are directed against Israel only) more generally. Instead, Hizballah is providing arms to Franjieh. Franjieh then opens his arsenals to Aoun, making the arms transfers, if leaked, appear to be one Christian opposition leader helping another with personal protection. One of the main recipient of the arms from Franjieh is MP Selim Aoun, an Aoun bloc MP on Ily Skaff’s Zahleh list. Selim Aoun is charged with distributing the arms to others in the Aoun camp and has established strategically located cells of 50-70 fighters each. Franjieh is providing some of the training facilities and has recently opened Marada offices far beyond its Zghorta headquarters in order to serve as rallying and training points as well as safehouses. Zahar al-Khatib plays a key training role of Aounist fighters, again in order to keep Hizballah somewhat at arms distance from Aoun.

So why Is There A Media War?

the M8 media wants us to think that Obama likes Assad, and the M14 media wants Saida’s Sunnis and Jezzine’s M14 Christians to panic and become paranoid of scary rifle-armed FPM proxies. And they are both probably making up stories that help their strategies. This brings us to the main question: If the parliament is going to smoothly postpone the elections and re-extend its term, why on earth are we witnessing one of the most aggressive media wars since 2012? Why would the media outlets be bothering themselves with bashing the other side of the political spectrum if it leads to nothing? I mean, Obama is about to join the Baath party and 200 FPM members from Jezzine are about to invade Saida with 70 rifles, so there must be something worth this.

Are We Heading To Parliamentary Elections?

The sudden aggressive stances attributed to the parties’ mouthpieces tell us that we might eventually be having parliamentary elections (Here’s the full list of candidates by the way). After all, October 2014 is nothing like May 2013.

May 2013:

The political maneuvering Michel Aoun has done with the Orthodox Gathering Law for the past few months clearly made him more popular among Christians than the Christian M14 parties. If 2000 to 3000 votes change side in each Christian district, the FPM will have the ability to win several more districts than 2009 like Batroun, Ashrafieh and Koura. 10 extra MPs on M8’s side mean that the majority changes in the parliament. And that makes one understand why the Future Movement are currently Ok. with an extension of the Mandate. Hezbollah doesn’t have time for elections with what is happening at Qussair, and an extension to the mandate also means that Berri gets to stay speaker for 6 extra months and even 2 extra years (Who knows). And why the big No from Jumblatt to elections? 68 MPs on the side of M8 without the Jumblatt votes make Lebanon’s kingmaker as powerful as the Kataeb. The man who was responsible of the last two governmental changes in 2011 and 2013, will not stay as influential as he is now if the Status Quo changes and an alliance gets able to hold more than 64 MPs without him.

October 2014 is different. The rise of the Islamic State and Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria boosted M8’s popularity in Lebanon, especially among Christians. Michel Aoun – who used the Orthodox Gathering Law in May 2013 to gain the upper hand in the Christian scene – is now using ISIS’s presence for the same reasons. Unlike 2013, if M8 wins the elections it will probably get to choose the next president – making it worth it this time for the Shia duo to proceed to elections. Things aren’t so messy anymore for Hezbollah in Syria, and Berri – with M8’s probable win – would probably stay speaker anyway, and this time for 4 years. And how can we be sure that M8 has the upper hand? Saad Hariri was perhaps one of the first politicians to publicly back the parliament’s extension, the Future Movement is panickingour FM minister of interior doesn’t want elections and is handling the issue very badly, Hezbollah is suspiciously silent on the matter while Michel Aoun actually made the effort and visited Jumblatt in Clemenceau, probably in order to ask for his support. And the fact that Aoun met Jumblatt might suggest that everyone else in M8 is already Ok with the idea of elections.

And here’s the cherry on the top: The March 14 Alliance is actually giving up its parliament boycott after a meeting between Berri and the LF’s Adwan. In other words, M8 probably blackmailed them into giving up some of their stances (and in exchange, agreed to the parliament extension?)

We might or might not go to parliamentary elections, but if we go to elections, M8 will probably be in command, and if we don’t, M8 will still probably be in command.

Reminder: We still don’t have a president.

117 days since the 25th of May. 60 days till the 16th of November.

WikiLeaks’ Quick Guide To The Presidential Candidates

Baabda Palace in 1990 (Photo: Jamal al-Saaidi)

There are as many presidential candidates as the number of Syrian soldiers in this picture of Baabda Palace in 1990 (Photo: Nabil Ismail/AFP)

In the past 10 days, there has been a lot of talk about finding a consensual presidential candidate. Walid Jumblatt and Speaker Berri made an initiative in August and they were followed this week by a similar stance from the  March 14 alliance. Since the presidential elections are not exclusively about Geagea and Aoun anymore, I thought that it would be interesting to publish the following WikiLeaks cable that discusses the main 26 candidates from 2007. Except for those who are deceased, the candidates are basically still the same ones. The cable separates the candidates into  8 categories: “March 14″ (Nassib Lahoud, Boutros Hareb, Amine Gemayel, Nayla Mouawad, Samir Franjieh), “the consensus candidates” (Robert Ghanem, Charles Rizk), “the perennial candidate” :P (Michel Aoun), “Amal’s favorite” (John Obeid), “the constitutionally challenged” (Michel Sleiman, Riad Salameh), “the octogenarians” (Michel Edde, Michel Khoury, Pierre Daccash), “the uninspiring” (Chibli Mallat, Fares Boueiz, Roger Edde, Demianos Kattar, Simon Karam, Joseph Torbey, Shakib Qortbawi, Charles Chidiac, Nabil Mechantaff, Farid Raphael) and “the dark horse” :P (Johnny Abdo).

LEBANON: A QUICK GUIDE TO THE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES
2007 October 23, 14:14 (Tuesday)
07BEIRUT1659_a
CONFIDENTIAL
CONFIDENTIAL
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TEXT ONLINE
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SUMMARY

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1. (SBU) The list of candidates to be Lebanon’s president, by tradition a Maronite Christian, is growing longer as the end of current President Emile Lahoud’s term on November 23 grows nearer. With its October 23 session now cancelled, parliament is scheduled to convene on November 12 in a second attempt to vote for Lebanon’s next president. As of now, the gap between majority March 14 and opposition March 8-Aoun forces remains wide. The chances the two sides will agree on a consensus candidate is remote, although much could change between now and November 12. Following are snapshot descriptions of each of the (25 and counting) contenders, both declared and otherwise. End summary.

MARCH 14

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2. (C) NASSIB LAHOUD (declared): Generally acknowledged to be the best candidate, Lahoud is a cousin to President Emile Lahoud, but their politics couldn’t be more different. Nassib’s strong anti-Syrian position and his close ties with Saudi Arabia (his sister-in-law was once married to King Abdallah) make his candidacy an automatic red line for the pro-Syrian opposition. Lahoud’s only hope for the nomination is if March 14 proceeds with a half plus one vote, a controversial step that March 8 declares unconstitutional. Lahoud, who was an MP before losing his Metn seat to the Aoun bloc in 2005, voted against the 2004 constitutional amendment extending Emile Lahoud’s presidential term. Aoun bloc supporters speak with suspicion about Lahoud’s marriage to a Sunni, while Hizballah accuses Lahoud of overly warm ties to the U.S., given that Lahoud was one Lebanon’s ambassador to Washington. Lahoud is considered the “cleanest” candidate, having shut down all Lebanese operations of his successful engineering firm when he entered politics. Some people suggest, in fact, that Lahoud will never be permitted to become president because the Syrians could not bribe or blackmail him.

3. (C) BOUTROS HARB (declared): Flattered by Speaker Nabih Berri’s promises of support, Harb, in contrast with his March 14 partners, supports March 8’s call for a mandatory two-thirds quorum in hopes that it will help him become the consensus candidate. Should March 14 proceed with a half plus one vote, he claims he will support Lahoud. A long-time MP from Batroun, Harb voted against the Syrian-backed extension of President Lahoud and joined early opposition movements against Syrian control of Lebanon. As the one-time lawyer for Bank al-Medina chief Rana Qoleilat, Harb has not cleansed himself entirely of the whiff of scandal from Bank al-Medina’s spectacular 2003 collapse.

4. (SBU) AMINE GEMAYEL: As yet undeclared, the brother of assassinated President-elect Bashir and father of assassinated Industry Minister Pierre, Amine considers the presidency his due right. Leader of the Phalange party. In 1988 then President Amine appointed LAF Commander General Michel Aoun as acting prime minister when parliament failed to elect a new president, earning a death threat from Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea (now his ally in March 14) and splitting the LAF.

5. (C) NAYLA MOUAWAD: The only female candidate (and only the third woman in Lebanon’s history to serve in the cabinet), Mouawad is the widow of assassinated President Rene Mouawad and honorary president of the Rene Mouawad Foundation in the United States. She is Minister of Social Affairs in the Siniora cabinet and, as an MP from Zghorta, voted against the extention of Lahoud’s mandate. While recognized as being one of the hardest working political figures in the country, Mouawad herself recognizes that she has only slim chances of succeeding in presidential elections. She has told us that, if it’s clear she cannot win, she will vote for Nassib Lahoud.

6. (SBU) SAMIR FRANJIEH: Also known as the “Red Bey” because of his leftist leanings and feudal heritage, Franjiyeh was

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instrumental in the creation of the Qornet Chahwan Christian opposition group that called for Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. He strongly advocates the implementation of all UN resolutions related to Lebanon, specifically UNSCR 1559 and 1701. Because of his leftist past, Franjieh appeals to a large number of Shia intellectuals. He is close to Walid Jumblatt and was a close associate to late PM Rafiq Hariri. Franjieh’s weakness is his lack of popular support in his Christian district of Zgharta, and because he was elected to parliament with the Muslim votes of Tripoli. Known in March 14 circles as “the good Franjieh,” he is strongly opposed by his cousin Suleiman Franjieh, the “bad Franjieh” and former MP and ex-minister who is close to Bashar al-Asad.

THE CONSENSUS CANDIDATES

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7. (SBU) ROBERT GHANEM (declared): Ghanem, who hails from the Biqa’, denies being a member of March 14 and is seen by some as being too susceptible to Syrian political pressure. Indeed, with Syrian troops virtually at his doorstep, he failed to attend the March 14, 2005 Cedar Revolution demonstration, and voted for the 2004 extension of President Lahoud’s mandate following Syrian threats. A “decent” man according to our contacts from all sides, it is unclear how strongly he would stand up to the Syrians should he receive the nomination. His name was one of seven mentioned as potential consensus candidates in the October 22 issue of ad-Diyyar, a pro-Syrian newspaper.

8. (SBU) CHARLES RIZK: Currently Minister of Justice and in the past a long-time friend of President Lahoud, Rizk distanced himself from Lahoud following the 2005 assassination of MP Gebran Tueini. He played a crucial role in the creation of the UN Special Tribunal for the assassination of former PM Rafiq Hariri and has used this platform to promote himself as a presidential candidate. While appointed as one of “Lahoud’s men” to the Siniora cabinet, Rizk defied orders in refusing to resign in November 2006 with the Shia ministers. He has become broadly acceptable to March 14 because of his dogged pursuit of the tribunal. The French like Rizk for his impeccable language skills, which have made him Lebanon’s more or less permanent representative to the Francophonie. (With good English as well, Rizk has offered to represent Lebanon at what he jokingly calls the “Anglophonie.”)

THE PERENNIAL CANDIDATE

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9. (C) MICHEL AOUN (forever declared): Nominally Hizballah’s one and only candidate (or so he would like to believe), the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) leader and former Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) commander insists he alone enjoys the majority of the Christian and popular vote and therefore deserves to be president. Often described as being mentally unstable, the opportunistic Aoun, realizing Hizballah’s support for him is perfunctory, recently began reaching out to March 14 in an effort to boost his dwindling prospects. He may have the highest single popularity ratings in the country of any Christian politician, but that is balanced by one of the highest negative ratings as well. Aoun is infamous for picking the wrong side of issues — as PM and interim (acting) head of State, he continued to support Saddam Hussein after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, and he opposed the Taif accord that even the Patriarch accepted.

AMAL’S FAVORITE

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10. (C) JOHN OBEID: A long-time pro-Syrian figure and former Baathist, Obeid shifted gears in 2004 when he refused to attend the cabinet session that extended President Lahoud’s term. Then Lebanon’s foreign minister, Obeid believed that he deserved the presidency himself. Obeid is nevertheless Parliament Speaker and Amal leader Nabih Berri’s preferred candidate. Despite Obeid’s renewed ties with majority leader Saad Hariri, Lebanese Forces Samir Geagea still vetoes his candidacy. Maronite Patriarch Sfeir acquires the expression of one smelling a very bad odor when Obeid’s name is mentioned. Obeid’s name was also touted in the October 22 ad-Diyyar story as an acceptable (presumably to Syria)

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consensus choice.

THE CONSTITUTIONALLY CHALLENGED

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11. (C) MICHEL SLEIMAN: Commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) for the last nine years, General Sleiman’s popularity soared following the September 2 defeat of Fatah al-Islam militants in the Nahr al-Barid Palestinian camp in northern Lebanon. Sleiman’s long tenure as head of the LAF entailed close ties with the Syrians, and it is not clear how strong these ties remain. Because he is a sitting government official, the constitution prohibits him from running for president without a two year interim period, though parliament (with a two-thirds majority) could vote to amend the constitution if it appears the General is the only candidate who can “save the country.” Ad-Diyyar newspaper did Sleiman no favors in including his name in the October 22 list of potential consensus candidates, inclusion that reinforces the March 14 impression that Sleiman, while basically an honest figure, is too close to to the Syrians.

12. (C) RIAD SALAMEH: The 2006 Central Banker of the Year according to the U.S. finance magazine Euromoney, Salameh is considered to be a capable central banker and technocrat. Although he argues that he is not a government employee and therefore needs no constitutional amendment, most believe he faces the same obstacle as Sleiman. Also like Sleiman, it is not clear where his loyalties lie; Salameh is rumored to be a close economic advisor to Syrian President Bashar Asad. His name, too, was in the October 22 ad-Diyyar article.

THE OCTOGENARIANS

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13. (C) MICHEL EDDE: A prominent figure in Lebanon’s Maronite community, happy gourmand Edde emphasizes the protection of the Lebanese Christians and the need for Maronites to maintain a role in government. Edde was close to former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. While privately supportive of the Special Tribunal, Edde has remained quiet publicly on most contentious political issues. Resolving the Palestinian refugee issue is at the top of his agenda, and he believes that the time is ripe to find a solution — any solution — as long as that means the Palestinians (who are mostly Sunni) do not stay in Lebanon to further dilute the Christian demographics. Edde was close to former Surete General chief Jamil as-Sayyid, now in prison at UNIIIC request for possible involvement in the Hariri assassination. Edde is the butt of jokes about his comments several years ago that he would throw his body down to prevent Syrian tanks from leaving Lebanon. Like many of the other candidates, Edde professes disinterest but will accept the presidency if elected, and demonstrated his nonchalance by being abroad on a trip when parliament was scheduled to convene October 23. Edde, too, was on the October 22 ad-Diyyar list of potential compromise candidates.

14. (C) MICHEL KHOURY: The son of Lebanon’s first independence president, Bechara Khoury, and a member of the March 14 alliance, “Sheikh” Michel has close links to the Vatican. While strongly March 14 in views, he privately suggesting dropping the formation of the Special Tribunal in an attempt to break the political deadlock and stop the political assassinations. Though quick to protest at suggestions that he could become Lebanon’s next president, the always elegant Khoury would, in our view, be a good choice, though he probably is too pro-March 14 to be a consensus candidate. If he would emerge as a serious candidate, we are certain that he would accept our request that he strongly back the Tribunal. 15.

(C) PIERRE DACCASH: Daccash ran unopposed as a so-called “consensus” candidate for a Baabda-Aley seat after the death (unusually by natural cases) of March 14 MP Edmond Naim. Since his election, however, Daccash has towed closely to the Aoun line and is seen around town frequently with former Minister Youssef Salameh (known as “Pumpkin head,” both for his appearance and his allegiance to Emile Lahoud). Now, Daccash is touted again as a “consensus” candidate, this time for the presidency. He is from a predominately Shia area, Hadath, and is considered by some to be a weak president, if

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elected. Pro-Syrian newspaper ad-Diyyar included him on its October 22 list of seven acceptable candidates.

THE UNINSPIRING

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16. (SBU) CHIBLI MALLAT: An active member in the Cedar revolution, Mallat co-founded and coordinated organizations for democracy and judicial accountability in mass crimes in Iraq (formed the Indict Saddam Association) and conducted judicial action leading to the indictment of Libyan President Muammar Kaddafi for the disappearance of Shiite Imam Mussa Sadr.

17. (C) FARES BOUEIZ: The long-winded Boueiz endorsed Syrian foreign policies during the mandate of his father-in-law (1989-1998), late President Elias Hraoui. Boueiz has forged strong relations with then Syria’s Foreign Minister Faruq Shara. Boueiz boycotted the cabinet session that extended President Lahoud’s term in September 2004, voted against Lahoud’s extension in parliament, and joined the Bristol opposition group that formed in autumn 2004. Since then, however, he has drifted back into the Syrian orbit, garnering him a place on ad-Diyyar’s October 22 list of potential consensus candidates. Boueiz is widely considered the most corrupt of the candidates, at the opposite end of the cleanliness scale from Nassib Lahoud. According to reports, Boueiz, when foreign minister, sold honorary consul positions and made other decisions based on bribes.

18. (SBU) ROGER EDDE: An international financier and prominent project developer, Edde is the owner of the popular Edde Sands Beach Resort. He supports a strategic peace between Israel and Lebanon, and between Israel and Syria, with a solution for the Palestinian issue. He supported Free Patriotic Movement head General Michel Aoun politically and financially while Aoun was in exile in Paris, but he broke from the group in 2005 after Aoun failed to include Edde on his parliamentary list and joined March 14. Edde is critical of Aoun’s “memorandum of understanding” with Hizballah.

19. (C) DEMIANOS KATTAR: A former Minister of Finance (in the Mikati government), Kattar has distanced himself from political figures he worked with but has remained close to Maronite Patriarch Sfeir. He openly says that he is the favorite presidential candidate for Bkirke – the seat of the Maronite Church. Kattar considers that he has built “executive experience” having served for ten weeks in the Mikati-led Cabinet in 2005 as Finance Minister and Economy and Trade Minister. In 2003, he became advisor to President Emile Lahoud, but then distanced himself from Lahoud around 2004 and became close to Mikati. Kattar has built a successful career as a management consultant in the Gulf region. Citing Kattar’s proclivity to talk rather than do, Najib Mikati tells us that the appointment of Kattar was his sole mistake in forming his cabinet.

20. (SBU) SIMON KARAM: Rumored to be the Patriarch’s favorite, Karam’s vocal criticisms of Berri and Hizballah almost certainly rule out his chances. The Syrians evicted him from his position as Lebanon’s Ambassador to the U.S. in 1992 because he attempted to lobby for a gradual Israel withdrawal from Lebanon gradually. Karam strongly supports the disarmament of Hizballah and all militias in Lebanon, and he supports the Special Tribunal. He further advocates changing the mandate of UNIFIL to deploy it along the Syrian-Lebanese border. While agreeing with March 14 principles, he opposes March 14 practices, believing (with some justification) that March 14 has not expended sufficient efforts to win independent Shia support.

21. (SBU) JOSEPH TORBEY: The newly elected president of the Maronite League, Torbey is an expert in Lebanese and regional banking and financial issues. He is the longtime chairman and general manager of Credit Libanais group, which includes a variety of local and regional companies specializing in investment banking, insurance, real estate, IT, and tourism. Formerly head of both the Lebanese and Arab Bankers Assocation, he has been active recently in visiting the various political leaders in an attempt to bridge the gap between the opposition and pro-government.

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22. (SBU) SHAKIB QORTBAWI: The former head of the Bar Association of Beirut, Qortbawi has been a fervent advocate for freedom of expression and brought to the forefront cases of human rights abuses during the Syrian era. A former member of the executive committee of the National Bloc party, Qortbawi was among the first people to join the Qornet Shahwan Christian opposition group during 2001. Though not a member of Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, he espoused all of Aoun’s anti-Syrian policies and stances. He ran on Aoun’s list for the parliamentary elections during 2005 but lost to Jumblatt’s candidate.

23. (SBU) CHARLES CHIDIAC: The president of the Republican Reform Party, Chidiac’s campaign platform primarily rests with defeating Hizballah’s strength in Lebanon and reining in Syria, through building a coalition of non-Hizballah Shia and providing economic incentives. Claiming not to particularly want the presidency, which he started considering when Lahoud’s term was renewed in 2004, Chidiac is running now because he feels there is no one else. When pushed, he will acknowledge that he is March 14, but not explicitly. He says that if it comes to a compromise candidate, Jumblatt would support him.

24. (SBU) NABIL MECHANTAFF: Nabil Mechantaff is a lawyer from the Shouf district and currently serves as chairman of the Lebanese Movement party. He shifted gears several times in his political life, starting as a staunch supporter of Lebanese Forces head Samir Geagea during the civil war, then becoming an Aounist during Aoun’s era, and now he is flirting with the Gemayel family. He presented himself as a presidential candidate several times in the past. He strongly opposes Hizballah’s arms and supports the international tribunal.

25. (SBU) FARID RAPHAEL: A banker, Farid Raphael was appointed Minister of Finance during the seventies under former President Elias Sarkis. He is currently the CEO of Banque Libanon-Francaise and was head of the Bankers’ Association. He was close to the late PM Rafiq Hariri. In the nineties, Raphael set up a holding company that purchased the cargo carrier TMA. It is alleged that Raphael acted as the frontman for Hariri, who later pulled out from the holding company. Raphael took over TMA and is now trying to sell it. As a businessman, Raphael has little involvement with current political groups.

THE DARK HORSE

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26. (C) JOHNNY ABDO: A former LAF G-2 Intelligence Director, Abdo is said to be the dark horse for Hariri and March 14, in the event elections are held with a half plus one majority. Geagea is supportive because Abdo was close to Bashir Gemayel, and, as a former LAF officer, Abdo also enjoys support from the military. He is on Hariri’s payroll and it is believed that Jumblatt would not oppose him (despite Abdo’s assassination attempt on Jumblatt in 1983). Abdo and Michel Aoun are bitter enemies.

FELTMAN

(Link to the cable on Wikileaks)

103 days since the 25th of May. 74 days till the 16th of November.

How Rifi Destroyed March 14’s Comeback

ISIS Flag

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

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

The example of Faysal Karami

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

Is it a long-term maneuver?

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

Is it worth it?

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

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

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

Three Months Of Vacuum

Presidential Palace Sign

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

Contre-attaque no.1

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

Contre-attaque no.2

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

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

Jumblatt. Walid Jumblatt.

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

Is Ashraf Rifi the new Abbas Ibrahim?

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

Here’s an early example:

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

(Link)

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

The dilemma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

f) bringing us again to (a)

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

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