2015 will probably be remembered as the first year in Lebanon’s history that was entirely spent without a president. But for what it’s worth, there was a lot more than that to it, which is why this post is a summary/compilation of all of Lebanon’s events for this year. The time has come to link 2015’s political events with one another. Happy New Year 🙂
Aoun tasted Geagea’s truffles and we almost had a war with Israel (January 2015)
In the last months of 2014, Hezbollah and the Future Movement decided to have a dialogue. As soon as the rumors started, everyone panicked: Aoun agreed to sit with Geagea (and even tasted his truffles), Geagea agreed to support Aoun (if certain conditions were met), and Jumblatt decided – via Wael Abou Faour – to preemptively mark his electoral territory (remember the food health campaign of 2014?) But all the political maneuvering eventually ended when Hezbollah finally chose the “time and place for the retaliation” against Israeli aggressions. For the past 3 years, the party had been constantly criticized for participating in the Syrian civil war and for directing its weapons away from Israel and towards Syria. So when Israel’s recent airstrike in the Golan Heights killed Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian General, the prefect time and place were found: Hezbollah fighters retaliated by attacking an Israeli military convoy in the occupied Shebaa Farms, 45 days before Israeli elections, on a disputed Syrian-Lebanese-Israeli territory. The party of God wanted to prove a point without starting a war, and the aftermath was a political success*.
If you can’t beat them, join them, then beat them (February 2015)
It was a political success for the first two weeks*: A minister close to the FM in the cabinet said that Hezbollah did not break the ministerial declaration and Jumblatt lauded Hezbollah’s retaliation. Yet by the laws of Lebanese politics, March 14 was supposed to criticize Hezbollah which is why the Christian parties thought that the dialogue between Hezbollah and the FM was a serious one, and the fear of a deal on the presidency throwing them outside made them…panic. And when the FPM and the LF tried to start an all-out political war between the FM and Hezbollah in order to stop the possible deal, the two Muslim parties simply ignored the Christian brouhaha and made their Christian allies panic even more by removing all their political posters from the city of Beirut in order to “defuse tensions“. Then, after approximately three weeks of bonding with Hezbollah (and throwing Khaled Daher outside the FM’s parliamentary bloc), Hariri threw this political bomb on the 14th of February: “Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria is insanity and Hezbollah has brought this insanity to Lebanon. Tying the Golan Heights to south Lebanon is insanity as well”. In 3 weeks, Hariri (1) gave the impression that he had no problem with Hezbollah’s retaliation and made it look as if Hezbollah was following the cabinet’s guidelines that were jointly set by M8 and M14. Then, (2) Hariri managed, whether he meant it or not, to cause confrontations between the members of M8, and between the LF and the FPM. He also managed to (3) undermine Siniora, (4) to throw Daher out and eventually attract a friendly Christian electorate towards M14 while (5) setting boundaries for his MPs, (6) to give the impression that Hezbollah lost him as an ally after they thought they were winning him over, while (7) showing that he is a moderate at the same time because he wants to have a serious dialogue, and (8) highlighting the fact that he is actually making a big sacrifice by negotiating with Hezbollah, which would mean that he is (9) a patriot that values Lebanon above everything else. These three weeks were supposed to be about Hezbollah’s achievement. Instead, they became all about Hariri, who didn’t even have an achievement. It was – by far – the best political maneuver of 2015.
The two president’s men and a new bey in Mukhtara? (March 2015)
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). That was Gemayel and Sleiman’s way of counterbalacing the FPM-LF’s recent dialogue: The Aounists and the Lebanese Forces were also about to reach an understanding. The process – whose unannounced intention was probably to slow down the Hezbollah-FM dialogue – could have meant two things: (1) That the two main Christian parties were trying to keep the president’s seat to themselves or (2) that no consensual candidate would become president unless the biggest two Christian parties agree on him. Speaking of consensual candidates, Walid Jumblatt’s decision to transfer his power to his son before the presidential elections (and not the parliamentary elections) could have meant that he didn’t want the transition of power to happen in Mukhtara while a president from the Chouf – did I mention that General Kahwagi is from the Chouf – interferes from the Beiteddin palace.
Yemen, Yemen everywhere (April 2015)
Here’s a short summary of the three productive weeks we had between the 27th of March and the 17th of April: First, Hariri supports the “Saudi intervention” in Yemen. Then, Hezbollah condemns the “Saudi aggression” in Yemen. Then, the Future Movement supports the “Saudi intervention” in Yemen.Then, Nasrallah criticizes Saudi Arabia. Then, the Future Movement criticizes Hezbollah. Then, Hezbollah criticizes the Future Movement. Then, the Future Movement criticizes Hezbollah. Then, Nasrallah criticizes Saudi Arabia. Then, Hariri criticizes Nasrallah. Then, Hezbollah criticizes the Future Movement. Then, the Future Movement criticizes Hezbollah. Then, Hezbollah criticizes the Future Movement. Then, the Future Movement criticizes Hezbollah. This time however, it was Gebran Bassil who was responsible for April’s political bomb: he expressed support for “legitimacy in any Arab country, especially in Yemen”. Four days later, Bassil struck again: “We don’t wish to see Hezbollah fighting with the Houthis or see anyone from the Future Movement fighting alongside the Saudis”. For the second time in the same week, Bassil was indirectly criticizing the FPM’s key ally, Hezbollah. And it wasn’t a good month for Hezbollah: The upper hand that the party had in the two weeks after the January retaliation had disappeared: Jumblatt asked “What’s wrong with Nasrallah?“, the Prime Minister said that Beirut supported any move that preserves Sanaa’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity”, the speaker said he supported Oman’s efforts to solve the crisis, Michel Samaha confessed, Rustum Ghazali died, and the Patriarch said that the March 8 alliance was responsible for the presidential vacancy. So yeah, you can say that it was the worst month for March 8 in 2015.
The War for Shamel Roukoz (May 2015)
By the month of May, a new development had happened: The commander of the army’s term was supposed to end in September, and it was time to find a replacement. For Michel Aoun, March 8’s presidential candidate, the name of the next General in charge of the LAF mattered even more: His son-in-law, Shamel Roukoz, headed at the time the army’s special forces (The Maghawir) and was a serious candidate for the post. If Roukoz became commander of the army and got the right political backing, he would have been in a position to be as influential as his father-in-law and ultimately succeed him as the party’s leader and idol. So when The FM and the PSP realized how badly their Christian rival wanted the post, they played it smart. Instead of vetoing the appointment, they outmaneuvered Aoun by accepting the nomination (Here’s a link of Hariri saying yes to Roukoz, and another link of Jumblatt saying yes to Roukoz) while indirectly requiring some concessions from the FPM: (1) Someone not named Michel Aoun as president, (2) a gentler electoral law towards the FM and PSP’s interests, and (3) Hezbollah agreeing to some of their terms. But that’s not all of it. Giving Roukoz the green light comes at a price: The FM insisted on naming Roukoz commander after the presidential elections, making it a difficult task for Aoun to accept that deal: What if the next president didn’t want Roukoz to lead the army? It was a risky prospect for Aoun. For the FPM, appointing Roukoz as commander seemed like one of the two steps needed to secure the presidential elections of 2021 (since the commander of the army is usually the candidat-favori). For the FM, appointing Roukoz seemed like the easiest way to try to sow discontent between the FPM and Hezbollah. Anyway, the month of May 2015 ends with the hope of implementing a settlement including a Aoun withdrawal from the presidential race and a Roukoz appointment in the army.
The rise of the Christian parties (June 2015)
Surprise. For the first time since 2005, Michel Aoun and Samir Geagea met. Live. Face to face. Without having to shoot at one another like the good old days of the late eighties. After 6 months of speculation, the FPM and the LF finally agreed on a “declaration of intent”, which was basically an agreement to agree on an agreement between the two parties. The symbolism of the meeting was however very important, and if you read the declaration, you’ll find out that it revolves around one main idea: protecting the Christian interests, and at their core, the election of a strong president (a “strong president” = Aoun and /or Geagea). Although the FPM looked like the winning party (since it was Geagea the one who visited him in Rabieh), the leader of the Lebanese Forces succeeded in bringing back the “strong president” rhetoric to life, thus pushing Aoun away from the idea of a consensual president (in case he was even tempted by it) and a Roukouz deal with the Mustaqbal and the PSP. At the time, it didn’t look as if a new pseudo-alliance between the LF and the FPM was genuinely starting: It looked more like the consensual candidate – Roukoz deal was being put off the table, At least for a while. Meanwhile, the transfer of power in the Kataeb was already underway: Samy Gemayel officially declared his candidacy for the Kataeb presidency on the third of June, and was officially elected to succeed his father on the 15th of June; it was always too obvious that the presidency of the Kataeb would eventually be given – even if by elections – to the eldest living heir of the eldest heir of Pierre Gemayel. With a temporarily weakened Kataeb in a succession period, one can only imagine the impact an FPM-LF pseudo-alliance might have on Lebanese politics.
Christian rights and political maneuvers (July 2015)
The appointment of Shamel Roukoz as commander of the army meant that Kahwagi, who will no longer be commander of the army, would slowly lose momentum as a presidential candidate in favor of other candidates, while at the same time Roukoz seemed the man to fulfill the legacy of Aoun. The problem however for the FPM is that the party did not wish to make concessions (such as Aoun’s withdrawal from the presidential race) in order to bring Roukoz into the army command. Aoun wanted the cabinet to discuss the commander of the army’s appointment from July, in order to avoid any deal that could be forced upon him in September. The early/urgent appointment of Shamel Roukoz as commander hence became the FPM’s main priority. For a little over than a month – empowered by the newly signed declaration of intent – Aoun took it upon himself to launch the most aggressive political maneuver of this year: He called for the demonstrations and tried to prove that he is the most popular leader with the Geagea polling deal. He also played the sectarian card by saying that Salam was abusing his powers in his refusal to discuss the appointment of a new commander of the army: Constitutionally speaking, it’s the Sunni PM that sets the agenda in the cabinet meetings (article 64) although the Maronite president is allowed to “introduce, from outside the agenda, any urgent matter to the council of Ministers” (article 53). But there was no president which gave the FPM the chance to play a double sectarian card: The FPM leaders argued that the PM doesn’t want to discuss the appointment of the Maronite commander of the army, and is refusing to let the biggest Christian party in the cabinet use the authorities of the Maronite president. So when Bassil told the PM that he was the President in the absence of a President during a cabinet session, it was clear that it was going to end badly in the executive power: The pressure and paralysis in the government eventually led to rumors that the Prime Minister was going to resign. It was a clever maneuver from Salam: In case he leaves the premiership, his cabinet – that already assumes the role of the president – becomes a caretaker one, the parliament loses the remainder of its legislative power and the FPM’s demands in the government become useless (since a caretaker cabinet cannot theoretically meet). The FPM lose their chance of making a scene by throwing Salam outside like they did to Hariri in 2011, and instead of showing themselves as victims, they become the ones responsible for literally everything: Every institution in Lebanon becomes paralyzed because of the M8 boycott of the presidential elections, and the only one who would still keep a bit of influence is Tammam Salam as president of the caretaker cabinet. Also if no solution was reached by September, the commander of the army will probably see his term extended, since a caretaker cabinet doesn’t officially have enough authority to discuss such an important post, especially that the country would become highly unstable once we cease to have a functioning government alongside a paralyzed parliament and a non-existent president. In the end, Salam didn’t resign and the Aounists didn’t appoint Roukoz as commander, but the FPM’s July jockeying will be remembered as a major turning point in Lebanese politics this year.
A coup in the cabinet and a garbage revolt everywhere else (August 2015)
Weakened by his failed July maneuver and by an expected succession crisis in his party, Michel Aoun suffered a major blow on the 6th of August when defense minister Samir Mokbel signed a decree to postpone the retirement of Army Commander General Jean Kahwaji. While the FPM ministers’ resignation seemed like the typical response to this “mini-declaration of war”, the fact that Aoun wasn’t on board with Berri that month (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 have resigned along with the FPM officials. In other words, a Hezbollah-FPM double resignation wouldn’t have been enough to collapse the cabinet, and Salam was free to extend Kahwaji’s term. The move to throw Roukoz outside the army command and to isolate Aoun in the government was humiliating yet there was still 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 necessary about ending any chance of striking a deal with the FPM. It was might have actually been their way of enforcing one.
By the second week of August, all the political maneuvering Lebanon had for years turned suddenly stopped: Lebanon turned into a dumpster and a garbage crisis – caused by the government’s inaction for 20 years and aggravated by the recent deadlock – was quickly threatening the authority of the Lebanese political class. For the next month, Beirut was at its most beautiful in years. Small demonstrations protesting corruption and oppression grew in size and on the 29th of August, as hundreds of thousands of Lebanese gathered in martyr’s square asking for solutions to the trash crisis, early elections and accountability, there was finally hope that this country might one day change for the better.
Another coup in the cabinet (September/October 2015)
While the protests were still ongoing to pressure the cabinet to solve the trash crisis, Lebanon was witnessing two important developments regarding the FPM: Gebran Bassil became the leader of the party, and Chamel Roukoz was thrown out of the army for good, raising several important questions: Who gives the orders in the FPM? Aoun? Bassil? Who does the FPM answer to? Bassil? Aoun? What to do with Roukoz? Bring him in since he’s too popular? (Or keep him outside since he’s too popular?) Can the FPM nominate Roukoz instead of Aoun to the presidency? What would that make of Bassil? The FPM also started changing their discourse into a more “Christian rights” – based one: The whole “reforming the system and rooting out corruption from within” wasn’t working so much anymore, especially with the recent waves of anti-government protests. The crisis in the cabinet continued, and as everyone threatened to bring down the cabinet, the premier, who probably knew – like everyone else – that no one was ready to bring down a government in which they thrive on the status-quo, took it upon himself to end the discourse and indirectly told everyone that if they won’t calm down and try (or at least pretend) to figure out how to solve the trash crisis, he will be the one who will bring down the government. Ironically, it might have been the fear of the trash protesters that prevented the government from imploding.
The boycott and the bait (November 2015)
November was weird. Lebanon’s Muslim parties wanted to legislate in the middle of a presidential vacancy (hint: It’s unconstitutional), while the Christian parties refused to do so and formed a brief yet historic tripartite alliance to dis-legitimatize the session by boycotting it. Among the 38 draft laws on the table was a proposal that was supposed to lure the Christian parties and push them to take part in the legislative sessions: A draft law that would grant citizenship to the descendants of Lebanese expatriates. For ages, that was one of the main requests of the Christian parties (they believe that most of the expatriates are Christians which would strengthen their position ahead of parliamentary elections). So why weren’t they willing to participate? For the LF and the Kataeb, boycotting the legislative session meant that they were pissing off the leadership of the March 8 alliance and that they too – and not only the FPM – are ready to stand up for Christian rights (= the priority of electing a Christian president before legislating in this case). For the FPM, their boycott of the session was probably a mini-retaliation on Berri for letting the extension of Kahwagi in the army command pass and for not standing with them on the Chamel Roukoz issue. So is revenge a dish best served cold? No, not really: The bait (citizenship law) actually worked and the FPM and LF eventually participated in the (theoretically unconstitutional) session after it became obvious that the Muslim parties were going through with their plans regardless of the Christian boycott. After passing the citizenship law, it seemed as if the declaration of intent had finally reached its purpose and both the LF and FPM had won their first battle as half-allies. So everything seemed to be fine for the Christian parties that month…until the Future Movement hinted that they might endorse Sleiman Frangieh, the second-in-command among March 8’s Christian parties and a long-term ally of the Syrian regime as their presidential candidate. As you can expect, the Christian parties panicked: Frangieh had the right family name, the international support, enough “Christian legitimacy” (he’s one of the Maronite Four), and support from three powerful Muslim parties across the political spectrum.
Frangieh The Second? (December 2015)
As the seriousness of Sleiman Frangieh’s candidacy became evident, Lebanon’s traditional March 8/March 14 alliances were on the verge of collapsing. While the PSP, the FM and Amal rallied around Frangieh, the election of Frangieh was out of the question for the biggest three Christian parties (the LF, FPM, and Kataeb). Hezbollah stayed silent and as the FPM’s final say that they would stick with Aoun became more obvious, the party of God’s decision not to support the Marada leader (for the time being) will have saved Lebanon from a Christian-Muslim confrontation in parliament. Only time will tell if Frangieh’s candidacy was an M14 maneuver to blow up M8 or an M8 counter-maneuver to take the presidency, but for now, the future of the Frangieh settlement remains unclear: While the election of Frangieh as president is a long-term investment for Hezbollah and could reinforce the March 8 alliance till the next parliamentary elections, 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: Hezbollah and the FPM control a little less than the third of the parliament’s seats making it extremely difficult for any candidate to secure the two-thirds quorum needed for the presidential elections.