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.

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