Strikes, Silence, And Confusion: The War For Baabda Continues

Since it's civil war commemoration week and the parliament will soon elect a president, i thought this unrelated picture of the parliament in 1976 would be the most appropriate for the post.

Since it’s civil war commemoration week and the parliament will soon elect a president, I thought this picture of the parliament in 1976 would be the most appropriate image for this  post.

FOR ANALYTICAL PURPOSES, THEREFORE, PARLIAMENTARY MEMBERSHIP BREAKS DOWN INTO THREE BASIS GROUPS TODAY AS FAR AS WE CAN DETERMINE: PRO-SARKIS (LARGEST BUT NOT YET DETERMINANT); INDEPENDENTS (SECOND AND KEY); AND PRO-EDDE. PRECISE NUMBERS ARE ANYBODY’S GUESS BUT WE WOULD PLACE SARKIS VOTES IN HAND TODAY AT SLIGHTLY OVER 50 RPT 50 AND, THEREFORE SUFFICIENT FOR ELECTION ON SECOND BALLOT IF SESSION GOES AHEAD. ELECTION BY THIS SLIM MARGIN, HOWEVER, WOULD LEAVE THE NEW PRESIDENT IN A RELATIVELY WEAK POSITION AND FACING A DIVIDED ELECTORATE–NOT A HAPPY PROSPECT. 

In case you were wondering, that was a flashback to the first  presidential elections (1976) of the civil war era, courtesy of Wikleaks’ Kissinger Cables.

Now back to 2014. Lots of things are happening lately and it would be interesting to see where we’re heading with all these events since Berri is going to call for a session to elect a president soon.

The Lebanese Forces

Let’s start with the situation among M14. Exactly 10 days ago, the only person that officially said he was running for the presidency was LF leader Samir Geagea. This early move had 2 motives: (1) Pressuring the Kataeb by making it politically awkward for them to propose another candidate (most probably Amine Gemayel), and (2) forestalling any kind of last-minute compromise between the Future Movement and the Free Patriotic Movement by embarrassing the FM and pushing them to embrace the candidacy of Samir Geagea. If politics in Lebanon were to be normal, the next predictable moves in Lebanon would be the Kataeb becoming shy and refusing to nominate anyone other than Geagea, and the FM supporting no other than the leader of their strongest Christian ally, the Lebanese Forces. That’s why the Lebanese Forces’ political maneuver was a brilliant move in a brilliant timing. But again, to assume that such consequences were definitely going to happen would mean that one simply doesn’t understand the complexity of Lebanese politics. Politics in Lebanon might be predictable, but it’s far from being that predictable.

The Kataeb

As I demonstrated one month and a half earlier, if M14 wants a serious competitor to Michel Aoun that would seem equally moderate, Amine Gemayel is the first name coming to mind. And the Kataeb know the advantage of their leader. He’s relatively on good terms with everyone, used to be a president, shares the same blood of Bachir Gemayel and was also exiled after the civil war. The two last features are particularly appealing to the Christian electorate. Concerning  the moderate part, Gemayel’s already on it: Sajaan Kazzi of the Kataeb called last week for closer and more sustainable ties with Iran. We all know what that means. And although the Kataeb didn’t officially nominate Gemayel, they did hint several times that he was the right man for the job, indicating that – unlike what the LF thought –  they will not support Geagea to the presidency. There was even a report saying that former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi sent his aide to Lebanon – At Putin’s request – in order to help Gemayel in his campaign.

After all, now that the LF are outside the cabinet and acting all by themselves, it’s the best moment for the Kataeb to try to push a competitor from within M14 further outside. If M14 nominates Gemayel to the presidency, The Kataeb would eventually get the upper hand on the LF in the Christian side of M14. As a party that has 5 MPs out of 128 and that can’t even control one constituency alone in the parliamentary elections, believe me, you don’t wan’t to miss that chance.

Future Movement

However, I’m not saying that Amine Gemayel was actually approved by the FM. In fact, the FM are keeping an unusual awkward silence these past few days. True, minor cadres in the party might have said that they supported Geagea to the presidency, but there is still no definite word coming from Saad Hariri. The only things the former premier promised were (1) that the elections would be held on time and (2) that M14 would be fielding one, and only one presidential contender. So basically the movement’s stances stayed exactly the same since March, while everything else around them kept constantly changing. Future Movement’s silence is revealing. The party has five options here. The first one is supporting Geagea. The second one is embracing Gemayel. The third choice is to side with one of the independent M14 figures, such as Robert Ghanem or Boutros Harb. The fourth choice is striking a deal with the FPM in which Hariri would serve as prime minister under Aoun. The fifth final choice is supporting one of the Maronite two (Kahwagi/Salameh) in a deal similar to the 2008 Doha agreement. I’ll discuss the last two choices afterwards.

Geagea is responsible for PM Rachid Karami’s assassination, so embracing him would make the FM highly unpopular among Sunnis. Amine Gemayel also had his dark moments during the war, so he isn’t a favori either. Robert Ghanem might look as a promising candidate for the FM, but again, as this Al-Akhbar article suggests, the FM is more likely to abandon its allies in favor of a more reliable compromise with M8 – The same way they did in 2007 when they decided to back the neutral Michel Sleiman in the last 2 days before Lahoud left office.

Who knew, it turns out that the Lebanese Forces have on one hand an arrogant ally, and on the other hand, yet another arrogant ally. To be fair, Geagea’s early candidacy without consulting his allies was also an arrogant way to treat them.

The Silence 

Now I’m going to move to M8. The FPM, just like the FM, haven’t yet said a definite word on the presidential elections. The FPM didn’t directly nominate Aoun after the LF nominated Geagea in order to give the impression that Aoun, unlike Geagea, is not a polarized candidate but rather a consensual one. In fact, Aoun even sent a message to Hariri  that he won’t run in the elections unless there’s a consensus on him, implicitly inviting Hariri to strike a deal that would bring them both to power. The press is also circulating information revealing that Jean Obeid is Nabih Berri’s number 1 candidate, who also happens to get support from Walid Jumblatt. So basically among M8 the tendency is to get the most moderate candidate available in a compromise that would give M8 the largest number of benefits. In order to counter M8’s strategy, Geagea tried to take a more moderate position: He proposed Hezbollah partnership with Hezbollah  in case he wins.

The Strikes

When you talk about the  Lebanese presidential elections, you can’t simply ignore the neutral side. The most prominent candidates right now are the central bank governor Riad Salameh and the commander of the army Jean Kahwagi (The Maronite Two). Two interesting things happened in the past few weeks. For the first time since last year, Lebanon is witnessing several confrontations between the syndicates and the political class. On another note, the political class apparently just woke up from its coma and realized that the economy is in ashes. Banks are even striking over tax hike proposals. A couple of days ago, a pro-Berri MP sued a bank association (the ABL) while Berri refused to meet them. In other words, the recent discourse regarding the worsening economy aims at undermining the candidacy of BDL chief Riad Salameh while on the other end of the neutral side the army – with support from the executive authority – is implementing security plans everywhere throughout the country. It is even going after Rafaat Ali Eid, which is pretty big. It might be a simple coincidence, but I don’t believe in such things 15 days before the presidential elections. There seems to be a tendency to give the upper hand to Kahwaji as a neutral candidate while undermining Salameh at the same time.

Things are so confusing in Lebanon right now, that even the ElNashra  app notification on my phone is going crazy when it updates me with news on the presidential elections.

ElNashra Notification

40 days till the 25th of May.

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