Yeah. I know. Ten.
Before I begin, here’s a small recap of the ninth month of presidential vacancy: It started with Hezbollah launching an operation in the Shebaa farms. When Israel did not respond, Hezbollah was supposed to gain momentum on the Lebanese political scene. But Hariri launched an epic maneuver, and Hezbollah did not politically escalate. In the end, it was a tie.
The second half of February and March are more exciting. Way more exciting.
The Two Presidents’ Men
In the last half of February, PM Salam wanted to amend the cabinet’s voting mechanism after several cabinet members began exercising veto power, stalling several of the government’s projects. What happens next? 7 Lebanese ministers meet and decide to form a “consultative gathering”. The ministers are the ones who are loyal to Amine Gemayel and to Michel Sleiman. The rapprochement between the ministers was logical: They all either belong to one of the smallest Lebanese parties in parliament or represent a former president that no longer has any concrete power (not even one MP). The 7 MPs have two more things in common: In a time of presidential vacancy, (1) they all answer to two of the three former presidents that are still alive while (2) not belonging to any of the two main Christian Lebanese parties. Deep down, it’s not about the voting mechanism, as it is about two political groups marking their territory. The two presidents know that they have no power in parliament that would ensure their same important presence in the next Lebanese cabinet. And they also know that they have an enormous amount of prestige (as former presidents) and that the mainstream Muslim parties are annoyed by the LF, the FPM and the two parties’ rivalry preventing them from supporting Aoun, Geagea, or any other alternative than Aoun and Geagea. Again, this is not about the voting mechanism: This is an advertisement. They are showing the Muslim leadership that there is a possible alternative to the FPM/LF choice: A new “prestigious” presidential Christian alliance that is very weak on the ground (and thus that will not ask for too much power – even if it wanted to), and that could still be – to some extent – representative of Lebanese Christians. The two presidents are asking for political relevance, and in exchange, they will be an asset to weaken the LF, the FPM, or a possible (yet highly unlikely) LF-FPM alliance. For example, if the FPM and the LF reject Kahwaji as consensual candidate, Hezbollah and the FM could count on this new gathering to support the presidential candidacy of Kahwaji. After all, who cares about the other politicians if the biggest party in parliament and the most armed one – along with two former presidents and the army – endorse you?
And the advertisement worked: One of the closest Christian ministers to the FM, Michel Pharaon (Boutros Harb is also a member), joined the new gathering led by Sleiman and Gemayel. Now of course, this rapprochement between the two presidents could eventually have no impact at all, but one should keep in mind right now that the mainstream Muslim parties would have more leverage with their Christian allies (the FPM and the LF).
Hariri also succeeded to undermine the power of PM Tammam Salam (hello there, rivalry) by indirectly encouraging discontent in the cabinet. It’s been a good month of the Future Movement, especially that a new March 14 “national council” likely to reinvigorate the Mustaqbal-led coalition has seen the light.
Approximately one year after the presidential race began, the Maronite Four might be welcoming a new member to their closed group, President Michel Sleiman. The Maronite Four could soon become the Maronite Five.
The Maronite Two
The Aounists and the Lebanese Forces are also about to reach an understanding. The process – whose unannounced intention was probably to slow down the Hezbollah-FM dialogue – has accelerated probably due to the Gemayel-Sleiman rapprochement. The progress in the LF-FPM dialogue could mean two things: (1) That the two main Christian parties are trying to keep the president’s seat to themselves. In other words, the document of understanding could say that only both politicians would be eligible to run for presidency and no one else. Proof? On the 15th of March, Michel Aoun told us once again that he would only agree to a strong president and not to a consensual accord. Welcome back to 2014. But it could also mean that (2) no consensual candidate would become president unless the two Christian parties agree on him. This written paper, as useless as it might seem, should put an end to the Muslim parties’ maneuvering and make Aoun and Geagea panic less about the possibility that Hezbollah and Mustaqbal would go through with a consensual candidate of their own. But in the end we (and they) all know that at least one of the Christians leaders will eventually agree to his ally’s terms. But hey, as they say an Arabic, el mhemm el niyye. An FPM-LF document of understanding should hinder for some time any M8-M14 agreement on Kahwaji (or any other consensual candidate for that matter).
Meanwhile, Sleiman Frangieh, who is probably feeling abandoned by everyone (by “everyone” I mean the Gemayel- Sleiman and Aoun-Geagea talks), launched his own political maneuver and preemptively self-proclaimed himself March 8’s number-two presidential candidate after Aoun pulls out.
Quand le chat n’est pas là, les souris dansent
Right now everyone is acting as if there’s a president in office: Berri wants to call for a parliamentary session amid presidential vacuum (It’s arguably unconstitutional, but hey, who cares). Moreover, the Lebanese cabinet is acting as if it’s not a caretaker one anymore: It spent at least two weeks trying to figure out a decision-making mechanism while there’s no president in power, instead of actually pressuring the parliament to elect a president. Our minister of foreign affairs too forgot that he was a caretaker cabinet member, and decided – like Phileas Fogg – to embark on a journey around the world signing treaties in 10 Latin American countries. (Someone should tell him that signing historic treaties with Cuba is not a priority right now)
Because that’s what care-taking apparently means: Doing everything you can do before someone in charge (a president) comes and tells you that you can’t do it.
When Lebanese politicians suddenly become too greedy, it usually means two things: (1) The status quo is going to end really soon (notice the very high number of decrees that Lebanese cabinets pass in the weeks before leaving power), or (2) the status quo is going to stay for a lot of time, and everyone wants to make sure that their slice of the pizza is in the fridge ready to be eaten whenever they get hungry. Meanwhile, on the southern side of Mount Lebanon, Walid Jumblatt is trying to benefit as much as possible from the vacancy and finish his transition of power before a president who is likely to be from the Chouf tries to interfere from the Beiteddine palace.
But one thing is for sure. It’s no longer about a electing a consensual candidate now. It’s about who would look like the winner once the consensual candidate is chosen.
305 days since the 25th of May. 141 days since the 5th of November. 3 Million years till the next parliamentary elections.
I don’t know if it matters anymore , but here’s the monthly reminder anyway: We still don’t have a president.