What Future for the Frangieh Settlement?

This is the 16th post in a series of monthly posts covering the presidential elections. This post is about the month of December 2015.

Is Frangieh going to be elected president? Until the second week of December, most of Lebanon thought so. However, several developments this month indicated that the deadlock is very likely to remain as there is still no unanimous agreement on Frangieh. Although the Marada said that the settlement still stands, the Frangieh-Aoun meeting as well as several other reports hint that things are not going very well for Frangieh’s candidacy.

International pressure and “local resistance”

In what might be the most desperate (yet obvious) attempt to obstruct the Frangieh deal, the Christian parties have tried during the past few weeks to make the Frangieh candidacy look as an imported international deal brokered by regional powers (the Hollande phone call, the Frangiehs close family ties with the Assads as well as the green light coming from Saudi Arabia have made it easier for them to launch this maneuver): On the 11th, Adwan said that the ambassadors’ stances won’t influence the LF’s decisions. Two days later, Gemayel stated that it was hard for outside to decide on the presidential file. The disproportionate coverage of Berri’s decision not visit Saudi Arabia (really, why do we even need to know?) perhaps highlights an attempt from the pro-Frangieh camp to undermine the allegations of an internationally-sponsored deal.

Frangieh Who?

On the other side of the political spectrum, the Future movement was acting very weird. On the 19th of December, one day after Frangieh officially declared his candidacy and sponsored himself as a moderate candidate during a televised interview, Khaled Daher (the rebellious FM MP from Akkar) said he would choose aoun over Frangieh for the  presidency. While that was rather expected from Daher, another northern MP, Ahmad Fatfat, said from Maarab that Frangieh’s name was…never ever considered in the first place (?!?!). However the FM’s highest ranking minister in the cabinet (interior, Mashnouk), said that Frangieh’s interview “showed sincerity” (also, look at Future newspaper’s front page). While it is yet unclear if there is a major disagreement on Frangieh’s name in the ranks of the Future Movement or if it is a maneuver to (re)strengthen Frangieh among M8 by making him look as a hated candidate in M14, it seems that the FM is trying to delay an official endorsement of Frangieh in order to maintain its ties with the Lebanese Forces.

Peace and love

One of the most awkward moments in Lebanese politics this year was perhaps when Saudi-Arabia decided to form an Islamic coalition to fight ISIS and included Lebanon in it. As expected, not everyone was happy with that decision: While Salam hailed the move and Hariri praised it, Mohamad Raad of Hezbolah absolutely refused Lebanon’s participation and Qaouk accused it of supporting takfiris. Even the Kataeb were confused, saying that it should have been named ‘Arab’ instead of ‘Islamic’ (you know, since Saudi Arabia cares about the Kataeb’s feelings). In another decade, Lebanon’s participation in such a coalition would have started a civil war, but it was not the time to start a fight (the Frangieh deal was apparently the priority), so the whole debate suddenly…disappeared (after Salam assured everyone that no one could have prevented him from taking a decision that he deemed appropriate). Even the death of Samir Qantar in Syria and the commemoration of Mohamad Chatah’s assassination were rather calmly handled by the Future Movement and Hezbollah: The speeches were (relatively) moderate towards the other camp – Siniora was a bit harsh, but then again, that isn’t something new. With Frangieh’s candidacy on the horizon, there seems to be an agreement to keep things “politically peaceful” at the moment. Even the death of Ali Eid – the Alawi leader who was wanted by the Lebanese judiciary over his alleged involvement the 2013 twin Tripoli bombings – almost went unnoticed last week: Lebanon’s politicians didn’t make any comments on what could have been the most important event this month. Did I also mention that there has finally been an agreement on a trash plan without a lot of objections in the cabinet? Too much silence in Lebanese politics could mean that there is indeed a deal in the making.

A comeback opportunity for the others?

The only positive (yet controversial) event that happened this year was the release of the abducted Lebanese servicemen. While it happened in the middle of the talks on the Frangieh deal, it was a very important boost for the (undeclared) campaign of the commander of the army: On the 9th of December, the strengthened army chief said there would be no safe passage for militants. On the 21st, Berri said that if the Maronite four weren’t going to agree on a candidate (Frangieh), then it would be possible for another candidate to run. He was probably pressuring the Maronite leaders, yet the Patriarchy’s hint that it is ready to support someone outside the Maronite four, followed the next day by the Patriarch’s praise of the army, puts back Kahwagi’s name back in the game.

Amine Gemayel’s recent plans to spearhead a joint Maronite project to end the deadlock can also be seen as an attempt by the last politician of the Maronite four who still hasn’t seriously proposed himself as candidate to do so in the wake of Frangieh’s recent mini-defeats.

So is Frangieh going to be elected president?

Until the second week of December, most of Lebanon thought so. There was a parliamentary session to elect the president on the 16th, and most of late November’s statements had hinted that Frangieh could be elected before the end of the year. Three of the biggest four Muslim parties were in agreement on his candidacy, Frangieh has the necessary legitimacy by being one of the Maronite four, he’s close to Syria, has international approval (apparently), and managed to gather support from March 8 (Amal), March 14 (Mustaqbal), and the centre (PSP). The leader of the Marada was coming close to the 65 votes he needs to win, and all he needed was Aoun’s blessing followed by Hezbollah’s green light. Even if Frangieh had managed to secure an absolute majority in parliament, he still needed the necessary two-thirds quorum, and the Hezbollah-FPM alliance controls – on its own – around 30% of the seats in parliament. In other words, it is almost impossible for Frangieh – or anyone else – to be elected without a green light from Aoun, unless he can convince 95% of the other MPs to attend the session (Good luck persuading the Kataeb and the LF to vote for Frangieh). Reports that Frangieh has kicked off talks with independent figures (like MP Boutros Harb) might indicate that he is trying to gather as much support as possible to gather the 86 votes he needs for the quorum – especially that Hezbollah cannot veto his election by using the sectarian card now that Frangieh has Berri behind him.

While the election of Frangieh as president is a long-term investment (Frangieh is only 50 years old and will rule as president for 6 years) for Hezbollah and could reinforce the March 8 alliance – in case Aoun approves – till the next parliamentary election, Aoun doesn’t exactly benefit from the Frangieh deal. A minor ally of his becomes a major rival that threatens the influence of the newly elected FPM president Gebran Bassil, and Aoun will have no guarantee whatsoever on what happens with the electoral law. If the FPM isn’t given assurances – the outline of the new electoral law, the FPM’s share in the new cabinet or even bringing Chamel Roukoz (in a way or another) back into the army command -the deal is as good as dead (unless Hezbollah breaks the alliance with Aoun and we end up with a quadripartite Muslim alliance supporting Frangieh and a tripartite Christian one opposing him. But as Hezbollah refuses to do so, that scenario doesn’t seem very likely to happen in the near future). To quote speaker Berri, “The best scenario to resolve the crisis lies in an agreement between Change and Reform bloc chief MP Michel Aoun and Marada Movement leader MP Suleiman Franjieh.”

And to quote the FPM’s MP Ibrahim Kanaan, “Political competition is essential for democracy” (If you know what he means).

Brace yourself for a Frangieh-Aoun competition in 2016, Lebanon.

583 days since the 25th of May. 419 days since the 5th of November.

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