A Month Of Vacuum

Baabda Palace Chair

The last time I wrote a blog post, Michel Sleiman was leaving office. One week before that, vacuum was more probable than ever. And here we are, one month after the 25th of May, with no president, with a caretaker cabinet, and with a parliament whose term expires in November. What a lovely way to start the summer. Not much has changed since last month. Michel Aoun is still trying to strike a deal with Hariri – the latest maneuver was his vow to protect him if he’s elected as a president – while Geagea is still maintaining his candidacy in order to block any possible agreement. The PSP – and to a greater extent Nabih Berri and the Kataeb – are enjoying the show, hoping that a centrist closer to one of them might emerge as a consensual candidate.

Welcome to Lebanon, the only republic in the world that – instead of actually electing a president – spends huge amounts of time trying to figure out how a caretaker cabinet should handle the presidential powers.

A new maneuver…

Michel Aoun made a strategic mistake on the 21st of May. While he was trying – in one of his interviews – to convince the Future Movement of electing him as a president, he said something that would probably haunt him for the next few months. “Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and I should be a three-sided triangle, and triangles cannot be broken up”. Unless Aoun is a fan of political suicide, he meant that a tripartite alliance between Hezbollah, the FPM, and the FM would be the best for the three. The three parties form a majority in the parliament, wouldn’t compete with each other – they do not appeal to the same religious electorates, and would destroy any rival alliance in most of the mixed districts.

But in Lebanese politics, you don’t mention the names of one Christian and two Muslims in the same sentence. Especially if one of the Muslims is a Shia and the other is Sunni. M14 took advantage of Aoun’s political faux-pas, successfully accusing him of trying to establish a 33% Shia – 33% Sunni – 33% Christian formula instead of the existing 50% Christian – 50% Muslim one. On the eve of the 25th of May, Aoun wasn’t anymore the man who was willing to send the country to vacuum in order to become president: He became the man who was willing to challenge Christian interests and even the very foundation of the Taef regime for personal gains.

…and a fast response

“We extremely regret recent remarks accusing our camp, especially the Shiite duo, of seeking tripartite power-sharing, and someone is trying to say that we want a presidential void because we want to reach tripartite power sharing. […] Years ago, the French were the first party to raise this issue in Tehran. They told the Iranians that the Taef Accord had become outdated and asked them about their opinion regarding tripartite power-sharing. The Iranians had never thought of this matter, but they asked us about it and we said that it is totally out of the question.” Nasrallah clarified.

A media campaign by M14 accusing Aoun of trying to implement a tripartite power sharing agreement would have destroyed Aoun and the FPM in the Christian camp. Hezbollah’s response was fast – it had to be. Nasrallah scored several mini-victories in his speech:

(1) By using the words “Shiite duo” he sent a message to Aoun reminding him that Berri – who was excluded by Aoun in his interview as Aoun only mentioned Nasrallah, Hariri and himself – would not under any circumstances be excluded in any deal regarding the presidential elections.

(2) Nasrallah distanced M8 from this controversy and threw it on the French. You know he succeeded when in the following morning the Kataeb had the “moral Christian political obligation” to ask the French embassy for clarifications.

(3) Nasrallah knows how to use his words. The Iranians had never thought of this matter, but they asked us about it and we said that it is totally out of the question. In a Middle-Eastern context where M14 accuses Hezbollah of following the orders from Iran’s Qassem Suleimani, Hezbollah’s secretary-general gave the impression to the Lebanese public that Hezbollah does not receive orders from Iran and always has the last say in local politics.

So how bad is the vacuum? It’s so bad that on the 22nd of June, we’re still tackling events that happened between the 21st of May and the 6th of June…

When the fear of not broadcasting the world cup makes a nation panic more than the fear of not electing a president, know two things: (1) The Lebanese president is as relevant as a soccer ball, and (2) we have been so accustomed to power vacuum that even a football game is more interesting for a Lebanese than the prospect of electing a new president.

At least in the world cup, a team is expected to win. In the matter of a month. And It’s not a consensual winner.

Reminder: We still don’t have a president – 29 days since the 25th of May.