Lebanese Politics – 2014 In Review

Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam casts his vote to elect the new Lebanese president in the parliament building in downtown Beirut on April 23 2014 (AFP-Joseph Eid)

The two most important political events of 2014: A new cabinet, and presidential elections. Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam casts his vote to elect the new Lebanese president in the parliament building in downtown Beirut on April 23 2014 (AFP-Joseph Eid)

2014 was a very busy year in Lebanon. It started with no cabinet in power, ended with no president in power, and saw a postponement of the parliamentary elections. But there’s a lot more than that, so I decided to make a compilation of all of Lebanon’s political events in 2014, while linking them to one another. Voila.

After 8 Months Of Pressure, M8 Yields (Well, Not Really): Introducing The 8-8-8 Formula (January 2014)

(And yes, I’m aware that there are five eights in the sentence above)

2013 ended very badly for M8. In the last two weeks of December, and after several months of “divorce with M8”, the president threatened to form a neutral independent cabinet excluding M8 and M14. In the same time frame, one of Future Movement’s most prominent politicians was assassinated. With every step forward in Syria, Hezbollah was facing increasing pressure in Lebanon. The designated prime minister  could have been seen as an M14 member or as a centrist, but one thing was for sure: He was definitely not a member of the March 8 alliance. By the first week of January, it was too much to handle for the party: The March 8 alliance conceded to M14’s demands and accepted M14’s 8-8-8 government formation even though they had previously vetoed it. By January 2014, M8 hadn’t only lost its Mikati government: It was now deprived – and via the 8-8-8 formula – from the blocking third in the executive power. The president was at the time getting closer to M14, which means that the 8-8-8 deal had one consequence for M8: they were theoretically out of the executive power. However, and since Jumblatt was still closer to them at that point, it would have seemed like a smart maneuver for M8: They would give all the responsibilities to M14 by granting them an indirect majority (Sleiman and Salam would be considered centrists) while at the same time keeping a certain degree of control (one of the centrists was supposed to be mutually pro-Berri and Sleiman and the Jumblati share among the centrist seats was sort of an “M8 garantee”. And in the end, even if M14 had won the government, it would have been still accountable to a pro-M8 parliament – Jumblat was aligned with March 8 at the time: Win-Win for everyone. But something else was also developing at the time: The Free Patriotic Movement had already started a slow but steady transition towards the Future Movement, hoping to strengthen Aoun and to declare him as a consensual presidential candidate 6 months before Sleiman left office.

Two things to remember from January: M8 were (not really) losing the battle for the government, and its seemed for a while that a tripartite Hezbollah-FPM-FM alliance was in the making.

Lebanon’s Longest Governmental Vacancy Ends (February 2014)

After 11 months of stalemate, and weeks of sectarian discourse, the government was finally formed on the 15th of February. The FPM finally managed to turn the ministerial rotation into a weird victory: Gebran Bassil was proudly transferred from the energy ministry to the ministry of foreign affairs, and the defense and interior ministries were officially out of M8’s influence. Rifi became minister of justice, and Berri’s aide got hold of the ministry of finance. The Kataeb were thriving with 3 ministers in the cabinet (even more than the FPM) while the boycotting Lebanese Forces were abandoned by their M14 allies and were left all by themselves in the opposition. And Walid Jumblatt was still holding on to his kingmaker position: Officially, the cabinet was an 8-8-8 one. But in reality, it was more like a 9-8-7 cabinet or even a 13-11 one. After all, Salam and Sleiman’s ministers were closer to M14, and Hannawi was a common Berri/Sleiman representative, making Jumblatt’s rather small share an equally important one for everyone. And speaking of the president, he was given 3 portfolios but only 2 votes: In other words, the political class was trying to reinforce his prestige while at the same time denying him any power after the post-Sleiman era. ٍIt was an early sign that the six-year term that started in 2008 was ending.

The cabinet formation had a clear impact on the presidential elections: the biggest winners of the all-embracing cabinet were the FPM and the Kataeb: Strong with their big shares in the executive power and their “moderate” decision to participate with the rival parties in the same cabinet, Amine Gemayel and Michel Aoun would soon seem as the most likely candidates among the Maronite Four to win the presidential elections.

The War For The Policy Statement (March 2014)

The cabinet had been formed, but it wasn’t yet functional. The M8 and M14 alliances managed to split the cake but still had to agree on a common ground for the cabinet: The policy statement. After weeks of bickering, an agreement was finally reached at the last moment between the two coalitions: M14 abandoned their “commitment to the Baabda declaration” clause and replaced it with a vague “commitment to all the decisions of the dialogue committee”. In exchange, Hezbollah agreed to remove the famous “Army, People, Resistance” clause and put instead of it a very weird sentence about “the right of Lebanese citizens to resist the occupation”. The rest of the policy statement was particularly normal – involving calls for unity among other things – except for the part where a plan for a decentralization law was mentioned. Michel Sleiman was trying to achieve something / anything at all before the end of his term. And out of the five cabinets he formed, he chose the cabinet with the least life expectancy to start the reforms.

Forget About The Cabinet – The Presidential Elections Have Begun* (April 2014)

By April, Lebanon felt the presence of a functioning cabinet for the first time since ages. But the new government’s decrees were overshadowed by a war starting in the parliament: The main four Maronite candidates (Aoun, Gemayel, Geagea, Frangieh) met and decided than no one other than them was entitled to become president. The maneuver was clear: The Christian parties of M14 and M8 don’t trust their allies so they decided to preemptively meet and put a Maronite veto on any other “weak” candidate the Muslim parties might nominate (They were trying to keep Kahwaji and Obeid and everyone else out of the race).  The Christian parties didn’t want anyone but the Maronite Four – while not agreeing on any one of them. Each Muslim party vetoed half of the candidates, and Jumblatt vetoed them all. In an attempt to end any Hariri-Aoun rapprochement before it even happened, Samir Geagea nominated himself very early as a presidential candidate, ending any hope that he had of winning, but at the same time ending the possibility of a Mustaqbal-Aoun deal. It was a smart maneuver.

But M8 were even smarter. At first, they spread rumors that Emile Rahme, a very minor pro-Hezbollah Maronite from Aoun’s bloc would be facing Geagea in the first round. Then, they realised that it would even be more humiliating for Geagea to lose the first round without having a candidate competing against him: There were more white ballots than Geagea ballots. The first round of the presidential elections gave us an idea about M8’s strategy for the next few months: They had destroyed Geagea’s candidacy and were now intending to sponsor and elect Aoun as a consensual candidate, or else they would not let the parliament meet again by denying quorum. At the same time, Jumblatt was reuniting his bloc, “the democratic gathering” (That collapsed in January 2011) and fielding his own “centrist” candidate, Henri Helou.

*And The Presidential Elections Shall Never End (May 2014)

By the end of April, there were three things to keep in mind: Jumblatt was yet again confirming his Kingmaker position, M8 had won a symbolic victory, but M14 had time on their side: The longer M8 postponed the elections, the longer the people would turn against them. M8 had no problem shutting down the parliament as long as it didn’t lead to the election of an anti-M8 president, and M14 had no problem letting them shut down the parliament since they knew that eventually the trick would make Aoun very unpopular ahead of the parliamentary elections in November. May ended with no president in power and four warlords aspiring to fill the empty spot.

Meet Our Old Friend – The Presidential Vacancy Is Back (June 2014)

Aoun’s presidential victory in April did not last long enough: In June, the leader of the FPM made a major strategic mistake by suggesting that he – alongside Hariri and Nasrallah – represented a triangle of salvation that could not be broken up. Naturally, March 14 would start the Summer of 2014 with an original propaganda : “Aoun wanted to give up the 50-50 Christian-Muslim representation in exchange of his elections as president.” Nasrallah quickly countered M14’s offensive by (1) reminding Aoun that the triangle included Berri, (2) throwing this controversy on the French, and (3) confirming that he had vetoed the 33% Christians -33% Sunnis – 33% Shia representation deal when the Iranians asked Hezbollah about it. Once again, Nasrallah saves the day.

Aoun Wants To Change The Constitution And The Patriarch Wants To Explain It Differently (July 2014)

July was weird. Aoun, who had previously spent a whole year getting closer to the Future Movement while trying to fashion himself as a consensual, all-embracing candidate, suddenly decided – and probably because of the M14 June maneuver – that it wasn’t worth it anymore, and threw in a political bomb: He wanted to amend the constitution and let the president be elected by universal suffrage. The irony here is double: Aoun, who had spent the last two years lobbying for an electoral law maximizing Christian representation in the parliament, was now letting a Muslim majority decide the fate of the top Christian post. Moreover, it would also mean that the winning candidate would in no way be a consensual one, showing Aoun as a political opportunist that would do anything to become president, even if it meant being a consensual and a non-consensual candidate at the same time. While M8 tried to show him as a politician that believed in true democracy, M14 described him as an opportunist that would easily change the constitution and his convictions to win the elections. So it was a tie in July between M8 and M14 – and Jumblatt was taking advantage of this tie and maximizing his political gains. Rumors about a deal including a two-year presidency for Aoun started circulating in Beirut. Finally, the tie between M8 and M14 ended in late July, when the Maronite Patriarch launched three maneuvers against the M8 alliance. M14 were eventually right in their long-term maneuver: The longer M8 freezed the presidential elections, the faster it would lead to their downfall. July 2014 saw Rai’s first violent stances against M8. And for a Patriarch that has been for long considered as pro-M8, that’s not something good at all for M8: Rai’s first move was considering the boycott unconstitutional and declaring that a half+1 vote would be enough to elect a president. Rai then decided to undermine Hezbollah’s anti-ISIS propaganda by calling for dialogue with the group. Rai’s third move was saying that the president should come from outside M8 and M14. For the first time since March, M8 was starting to lose the presidential race.

Hariri Is Back, Arsal Is On Fire, And Rifi Ruins M14’s Comeback (August 2014)

With M8 having their first major setback since Mikati resigned, Hariri decided to rise to the occasion and maximize M14’s gains. In the beginning of August, Islamist militants from Syria seized the border town of Arsal. The Lebanese army hence started a campaign to regain control of the town. There were two consequences: a political one, and a military one. Militarily speaking, the commander of the army was proving once again that he was capable of handling tough situations. In a way, Arsal 2014 was for Kahwaji what Nahr El Bared 2007 was for Sleiman in 2008. Politically speaking, the chaos on the border was a huge asset for Hezbollah: The Syrian civil war was no longer only across the border, and Hezbollah had now a legitimate reason to crush the rebels on the other side of the mountains. In the same week, four FM politicians – in confusion – revealed four completely different stances regarding Arsal. For a while, it seemed like a propaganda boost for M8. Until Hariri decided to seize the moment, and returned to Beirut with a billion dollar to arm the army. In 48 hours, the rhetoric would completely shift: Hariri was yet again the moderate, the chaos among the FM disappeared, and Hezbollah’s presence in Syria – now with a Lebanese army that should be more capable of defending the border – was no longer justified (at least from M14’s point of view). What would’ve been a massive win for M8 turned out to be whopping political victory for M14. At least until Rifi decided at the end of the month to make a very stupid decision of banning the burning of ISIS flags because they had religious scripture. M8’s propaganda would thrive because of this story and M14’s short yet powerful comeback would end.

Forget About The Presidential Elections – We’re Heading To Parliamentary Elections (September 2014)

September began with the following dilemma: What is the most important priority, the presidential elections, or the parliamentary elections?

And September ended with the following answer: We should head to parliamentary elections.

So what happened in September? For the first time since ages, the Lebanese Forces realized that they were not in a weak spot. And they decided to manipulate everyone – including their allies.

In early September, M8’s parties were all in favor of parliamentary elections – after all, what do they have to lose? On the other hand, the Future Movement was struggling with the idea of heading to parliamentary elections: Hariri warned that the FM would boycott the elections should they happen, while at the same time the FM minister of interior handled the idea very badly and made sure no effort was spared to prevent elections. Hezbollah’s anti-ISIS propaganda would have won M8 the parliamentary elections and made the presidential battle far easier for Hezbollah and their allies. But there was one slight problem for the FM: They didn’t have enough votes to pass a parliamentary extension in the parliament. The FM and the PSP were the only parties embracing the parliamentary extension at the time, and the FM badly needed the Lebanese Forces’ votes to make sure that Lebanon wasn’t going to parliamentary elections. The LF were for the first time in control. For a while, it seemed that they decided the fate of the parliamentary elections. So they decided to manipulate everyone, including their own allies. Their early decision to vote for elections meant two things: They were willing to punish the Mustaqbal for leaving them on their own outside the cabinet in February, and they were willing to strike a deal without the O.K. of their allies. After 10 years, the Lebanese Forces had finally understood how to play the game of Lebanese politics. With the parliamentary elections getting closer, Lebanon also witnessed a media war between Al-Akhbar and Al-Mustaqbal.

Lebanon Has A New Presidential Favorite: The Rise of Jean Kahwaji (October 2014)

In October, the commander of the army’s (undeclared) candidacy was gaining momentum. After the Arsal clashes in August, Everyone suddenly wanted to arm the army: Iran was going to donate military equipment to the army, Lebanon was going to get Russian helicopters, the army received a new U.S. arms delivery, and France/Saudi Arabia confirmed Sleiman’s 3 Billion $ deal. This meant two things for the commander of the army: He was locally getting very popular, and he was also gaining the trust of the international community. And for an officer that was rumored to be “Hezbollah’s hidden candidate”, the support he got from the United States and Saudi Arabia made him look like Lebanon’s most likely candidate to fill the presidential vacancy. Berri – whose secret rumored candidate is Jean Obeid – had to counter any possibility of electing a relatively stronger president. The result was a couple of days of bickering with the LAF commander about the wage hike details regarding the officers, and a change of stance by Berri regarding the parliamentary extension: With Berri’s decision not to go to elections, The Future Movement didn’t need the LF votes anymore which meant that yet again the LF’s decision to vote for elections was meaningless (and they would eventually go with the flow and vote with the FM since their decision didn’t matter in the end).

They Were Just Kidding. We’re Not Heading To Parliamentary Elections (November 2014)

By the end of October: M8’s official candidate, Michel Aoun was no longer an option. Hezbollah’s “hidden candidate”, the commander of the army, was the favorite, and Berri’s “hidden candidate”, Jean Obeid, was at the bottom of the list. Meanwhile, M14 was still recovering from M8’s attempt to shatter it by turning the LF and the FM against each other regarding the matter of the parliamentary extension.

It is in this context that most of the political parties headed in early November to the extension session. Now that Berri’s bloc was voting Yes, the Lebanese Forces felt that the wise thing to do (since they now needed the FM more than the FM needed them) was to vote alongside their Sunni ally. The Kataeb, who usually always go against the flow, did the same again and voted No. On the other side of the political spectrum, Hezbollah decided to go against the FPM on this matter and pleased the FM by voting for the extension: It was an indicator that Hezbollah were avoiding – at any cost – any possible Sunni discontent in Lebanon. The direct consequence of the extension session would eventually be a rapprochement between Hezbollah and the FM. Rumors of a dialogue between the two parties would soon start circulating and the meetings would eventually start in late December.

But 10 days after the extension session, M14 was preparing its counter attack and intended to sow discontent among M8’s members, the same way M8 tried a month earlier to manipulate the FM – LF relations. Suddenly, and out of nowhere, Frangieh became an acceptable candidate for the Future Movement. The irony here is that Frangieh was far more pro-Syrian/pro-Hezbollah than Aoun. In other words, this was a trap for Hezbollah: Once Hezbollah accepts the Frangieh candidacy (instead of Aoun), the Hezbollah-FPM relation should end, and the M8 alliance would eventually be shattered. The victorious FM would have gained a president, who – while being pro-M8 – was the weakest among the Maronite Four. But Frangieh saw the trap, and so did Aoun: Frangieh was quick to confirm that he would only run if Aoun withdrew. Aoun, on the other hand, had a smart response: He invited Geagea to a face-off in parliament: M8 would allow the parliament to convene only if the two candidates were Geagea and himself: Aoun was trying to preemptively end Frangieh’s hopes, while effectively destroying Helou’s candidacy. Jumblatt’s natural response was to call Aoun undemocratic, and it helped us learn something very important: M8’s biggest fear was that M14 would go to parliament in order to elect Geagea, and eventually elect Helou instead of him. After all, the centrists and M14 together controlled more than 50% of the seats, and Helou did leave Jumblatt when Jumblatt abandoned Hariri in 2011. It wasn’t Geagea that scared Aoun. It was Helou. And it wasn’t the presence of an M14 president by itself that scared M8. Once an M14 president would be elected, M8 would lose the only power it has (The power to deny quorum in the presidential elections). M14 could then form a government on its own, and vote for an electoral law that might be terrible for M8.

So, to sum up November in 8 words: M8 wants a deal, and Aoun fears Helou.

Total Vacuum (December 2014)

In December, nothing happened. Seriously, nothing. Not one political maneuver. Any hope to end the deadlock depends now on the Mustaqbal – Hezbollah dialogue.

You might also like 2013’s review.

See you in 2015!

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