No words can describe how much these last three weeks were insane in Lebanese politics: As if the Aounist July protests weren’t enough, Lebanon suddenly woke up two weeks ago on threats of resignation from the premier, rumors of resignation of March 8 ministers from the cabinet, Aoun saying that he would vote for Frangieh (probably in order to contain Frangieh who has been criticizing his political overlord lately), Future officials attacking one another, the Kataeb criticizing everything anyone can think of, the Future Movement telling the Kataeb (and the FPM) twice (the second time was via MP Hout) that a federal system will never be implemented in Lebanon and March 8 blocking the cabinet’s policy-making. All of that was accompanied by lots of trash-talking (Jumblatt making the issue sectarian was by far the most interesting headline) and Lebanese army billboards on the occasion of the 70th army day implying that the army was the Lebanese parties’ common denominator ( ≈ presidential campaign for the commander of the army ≈ Wallahi I’m consensual, vote for me).
Last Thursday, it was announced that the defense minister had extended the term of the commander of the army, Jean Kahwagi. The decision was a major blow to Michel Aoun who has been seeking to appoint his son-in-law Chamel Roukoz as commander for years. When Kahwagi’s term was about to expire in September, Aoun saw it as an opportunity to both put Roukoz in charge instead and weaken Kahwagi, the main consensual presidential candidate who is also rumored to be at the same time Hezbollah’s “hidden candidate“. In fact, since mid-May 2015, the FPM has been maneuvering over and over and over again in order to bring Roukoz to the army command without having to give anything in return. Last month tayyar.org even misquoted the constitution as part of their propaganda to secure both the presidency and the army command.
How it was made possible
In the past 10 years, decisions to bring governments down were taken for far simpler reasons: In 2006, March 8 wanted the blocking third. In 2010, Hezbollah didn’t want to fund the STL (that its government eventually ironically funded). In 2013, Mikati didn’t want to throw a general outside the ISF. If you think of it, the army command is as big a deal as all of those. So the million dollar question here is why haven’t the FPM ministers not resigned yet?
While the FPM ministers’ resignation seemed like the typical move, the fact that Aoun wasn’t on board with Berri lately (Berri lashed out at the FPM that same week, told us that he wouldn’t vote for Aoun in the presidential elections, that toppling the cabinet was a red line and that the government paralysis hurts citizens) meant that Amal’s 2.5 ministers wouldn’t resign along with the FPM officials. In other words, a Hezbollah-FPM double resignation wouldn’t have been enough to collapse the cabinet (you need at least 9 ministers) and we would have ended up with a cabinet with both Shia AND March 8 representation (the Amal ministers), which means that Hezbollah couldn’t have said that it was anti-constitutional like they did in 2006. Moreover, 80% of the government would have been either M14 or centrists. That means that an angry resignation move like this one cannot be supported by Hezbollah and will only throw Aoun outside a cabinet he has Gebran Bassil in it as number 2, ultimately weakening him before the internal FPM elections in September. Things aren’t looking very good for Bassil and Alain Aoun has been talking too much for a regular MP as he prepares to confront Gebran Bassil in the FPM’s internal elections (really, he has been talking too much).
So to sum things up, Berri’s genius declaration of war on the FPM gave Salam and the FM the green light to go through with their plans to extend the top security officials’ terms. And now both Salam and Kahwagi owe Amal.
The move to throw Roukoz outside the army command and isolate Aoun in the government was humiliating, but do not be mistaken: The Roukoz deal is not off the table. The March 14 alliance knows that if it desires to end the deadlock, it would have to give something to the March 8 alliance and the FPM in return. Before the Kahwagi extension, an opportunity to make a deal was made available: The cabinet would make Roukoz commander of the army, and in exchange, the FPM would make it easier to bring a consensual candidate into Baabda palace. Aoun however did not see an opportunity to make a deal but rather a chance at winning the army command for his son-in-law while continuing his push for the presidency. And after several weeks of stalemate and confrontation the Grand Serail, it was clear to almost everyone that a deal favorable to M14 ending the Aounist campaign for the presidency was not going to happen soon, which led to last week’s controversial decision to give Kahwagi one more year as commander of the army. While it wasn’t very explicit at first, the anti-Aoun maneuver in the cabinet is getting clearer by the day. This is not 1973 anymore and Aoun cannot simply ask the cabinet to dismiss a commander of the army and expect it to comply only because it would give him the upper hand in Lebanese politics. There is one, and only one (fast) way left for Aoun to vacate the army command before the summer of 2016 (when Kahwagi’s new term expires): Agree to make Kahwagi president, which would leave room in the army command to bring in Roukoz. Deep down, March 14’s maneuver of extending Kahwagi’s term wasn’t about ending any chance of making a deal with the FPM. It was actually their way of enforcing one.
We’re (not really) almost there
I do not always (nor do I like to) make predictions, but expect the March 14 politicians to start floating the name of Kahwagi as presidential candidate: His election would weaken the FPM (yet still give Aoun a half-victory via the Roukoz appointment) and at the same time please Hezbollah (since Kahwagi never really stood against the party of God during his stay). By being the ones suggesting the deal, March 14 would also look like the real victors. This is the kind of deal that makes everyone happy, and we all know what that means. If this was the presidential vacancy of November 2007 – May 2008, I’d say we’re somewhere around January (yalla, arrabit :-P). We have a rough idea of what’s going to happen with the presidency and the army command, yet we’re still in the blue on everything else (that was agreed upon in the Doha agreement back in 2007): We still need an agreement on an electoral law (good luck with that), a clear date for the general elections, a post-vacancy cabinet formula and last but not least a mini-road-map to guide the government through the transitional period.
The FPM in denial
As Aoun heads towards the internal elections with weakness caused by his recent defeat in government, he knows that he still has the ultimate option, his plan A since May 2014 and now his plan B since August 2015: He could continue to block the presidential elections – where Berri’s cooperation matters not – while at the same time try one last time to mobilize the masses in the name of Christian rights. His latest move was saying that it was his efforts in 2004 – and not the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005 – that led to the Syrian withdrawal. Aoun – who now knows for sure that he can no longer trust the allies (a rebellious Berri and an overreaching Frangieh) of his ally – is taking his discourse to a whole new level. The war for Chamel Roukoz is becoming more and more desperate: (1) Aoun, in denial, said that he didn’t want Roukoz in first place (?!?!), (2) called for demonstrations (while defying Kahwagi and the army) to protest the non-appointment of Roukoz while his other son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, (3) literally said that the FPM “rejected dhimmitude and was fighting for the Christians of the world” (no comment).
Desperate times require desperate measures.
The only thing hotter than Lebanon’s weather right now is its political tensions, and the only thing more rotten than Beirut’s streets right now is its deadlock: This is officially the longest presidential vacancy Lebanon has ever seen, the longest parliamentary term extension Lebanon has ever seen and the longest period of time without general elections since the Civil War. And August’s garbage crisis isn’t making things any easier.
Three men walk into a bar and ask for two burgers: a large one (with large fries, a Pepsi and a McFlurry) and a smaller one (with small fries only). The first man wants the large burger for himself and the smaller burger for the second man who happens to be his son-in-law, while the third man, currently savoring the small burger, wants to eat the larger one. The cherry (or in this case, bacon) on the top? No one has a clue how a burger is paid for.
Solve the burger riddle and you would have solved the longest deadlock Lebanon has ever seen.
(Meanwhile, everyone else is starving)
445 days since the 25th of May. 281 days since the 5th of November. Not that anyone cares anymore.