The Orange and the Blueberry

Check the color of the tie. (Image source: The Daily Star/Lebanese Parliament Website, HO)

Yes, I actually chose a picture where both ties are blue. I’m that mean. (Image source: The Daily Star/Lebanese Parliament Website, HO)

This is the 18th post in a series of monthly posts covering the presidential elections. This post is about the month of February 2016.

Perhaps the biggest lie in Lebanese politics is that power comes from the people. As the month of February 2016 demonstrates, it is the Lebanese supreme council of the tribal federation that decides on all matters. Everything else is just political bickering that has little and sometimes no meaning at all.

On the 27th of January 2016, the Lebanese supreme council of the tribal federation met with happiness and joy, and gave the orders to the Lebanese cabinet to end the deadlock. Just like that, what started as a feud over the appointment of Chamel Roukoz in the army command, and evolved into a crisis that almost brought down the government while paralyzing the cabinet throughout all autumn, was suddenly solved within hours. The Lebanese leaders shook their hands in the national dialogue session, and there was suddenly no problem at all. The cabinet was free to convene and do whatever it wanted to do, and as the media acted as if the deadlock was never here to begin with, everyone moved on with pleasure and delight and focused on solving the trash crisis by exporting garbage (:-$) – hint: even that turned out to be an epic fiasco.

So on the last days of January, we learned something very important, and this time we learned it for sure: When six months of protests and trash and humiliation don’t have any impact on the Lebanese policy makers and all it takes is eleven or twelve or thirteen godfathers sitting together on a table to get things going, know that power is not in the hands of the people. It’s not even in the hands of an unconstitutional parliament, a deadlocked cabinet, or a non-existent president. It’s in the hands of the Lebanese supreme council of the tribal federation, commonly referred to in the media as the national dialogue table.

Anyway, who cares about the people, time to go back to the politicians.

What the lack of quorum means right now

On the 8th of February 2016, the Lebanese parliament was supposed to elect its president. Unlike the previous 28294294 attempts to elect the head of state, this time it was supposed to be special (and, no, not because it was on the eve of St. Maron and that the president is supposed to be Maronite selon l’usage). For the first time since 2014, the main two candidates were now from March 8 and were both endorsed by parties from March 14. Yet just like all the previous times, March 8’s parties boycotted the session. Which why it’s time to do the math. If Michel Aoun is indeed March 8’s main candidate, and is now endorsed by all its parties (minus Frangieh’s Marada), that means that he has the support of around 55/56 MPs from March 8. Add to that the 8 MPs of the Lebanese Forces and some random votes in the center (Mikati’s bloc? Khaled Daher? Michel Murr? – especially that his swing votes in the Metn will become useless if the FPM and the LF go through with an electoral alliance, so he’ll probably eventually join in and help out the new mini-alliance of the Christian parties or risk losing his seat and Tueni’s), you end up with a candidate securing the 65 votes required for the win. [I counted the votes in a previous blog post in case you’re more interested about the numbers]

So why did the FPM boycott the session on the 8th of February 2016? There are two theories:

The first one, circulated by March 14 and their media has been alive for 12 years and can be summed up with the following three sentence: “Hezbollah doesn’t want a president. Hezbollah wants a constituent assembly. Hezbollah likes the emptiness of the status quo”.

The second theory is that the FPM does not have an absolute majority it can count on in the parliament and that participating in a session where Aoun loses by a narrow margin – with the two other candidates, Helou and Frangieh getting less votes – would be similar in impact to the 23rd of April 2014 session where Geagea got 48 votes: Yes, the candidate with the biggest number of votes might actually gain momentum, but – this is not the United States presidential primaries – on the long run we all know that Frangieh or Helou won’t suddenly withdraw from the race and endorse Aoun and that means that time would eventually kill off the Aoun candidacy the same way it did to Geagea’s. Moreover, attending a session where Helou might suddenly withdraw in favor of Frangieh can be a very risky prospect for the FPM as the Marada leader might himself end up winning an absolute majority. If the FPM (and Hezbollah)’s boycott of the session means something, it’s that the Aounists are not sure whether their other allies (or allies of ally) would stick with them. The mechanics of why the lack of quorum is happening mean that Berri will not vote for Aoun (which is why the FPM bloc is boycotting the session, since they fear he might side with Frangieh). This is where the fans (hello, March 14 guys) of the first theory come in and answer the people who believe in the second theory: If Berri is not with Aoun, it’s because Hezbollah is not forcing him to vote for Aoun, since deep down Hezbollah doesn’t want to elect a president.

If you believe that Amal is a Hezbollah proxy that ultimately answers to Nasrallah, then Hezbollah doesn’t truly want to elect Aoun but is blocking the election of everyone else, alongside the FPM, so that the alliance between Hezbollah and Aoun doesn’t fall apart. That theory has also been used by the Lebanese Forces after their deal with Aoun in order to force a clash between the FPM and Hezbollah – en vain. However, if you believe (theory number two) that Hezbollah and Amal are two separate “sovereign” parties with rival separate agendas, then Hezbollah wants Aoun to be in Baabda but just can’t convince Berri to join in on the deal.

But the reasons and the mechanics don’t really matter. Whether it’s only Amal, or secretly Hezbollah and Amal who refuse a Aoun presidency is details. What matters are the consequences: If the February presidential session that never happened taught us anything, it’s that there might be a rift among the March 8 parties that is as big as the rift in March 14.

The rift

As previously demonstrated, Amal indirectly/officially told the world on the first week of February that they are not fans of a Aoun presidency. True, that information wasn’t near as shocking as the idea of Geagea endorsing Aoun, but deep down every FPM official had hoped that Berri might in the end say yes to the General and help him reach Baabda. So when it became clear that Berri was more blue than he was orange in his presidential choices (in case you kept asking yourself what that creepy title meant), a full-blown political war on the Amal leader started. Although it’s a very nice thing to believe in the beauty of coincidences, I don’t think that the Christian parties’ criticism of all of Amal’s ministers in the cabinet and accusing them of disregarding the Christian interests in the country a week after Berri started sending signals that he does not to support the LF-FPM Christian consensual president can be counted as a coincidence: Minister of public works Ghazi Zaiter was accused of allocating less fund for the Christian areas (although some areas are much larger and more populous and have less funding than them [Check Najib from BlogBaladi’s arguments] – it’s why we need official state budgets anyway) while on the other hand, Ali Hassan Khalil, the finance minister, was criticized for replacing a Christian employee with a non-Christian one. Now again, the mechanics don’t matter. What matters here is the timing. Berri bypassed a Christian consensus on a Christian post (the presidency), and that was the LF and the FPM’s mediatized response (If you’re wondering why the Kataeb joined in too, it’s because of the competition on the Christian electorate 😉 )

Speaking of the Kataeb, they apparently found out about the trash crisis recently and decided that the best part to solve it was to pressure the government – in which they have one of the biggest shares – by protesting its policies in the streets as well as “fighting from inside the cabinet” (à la FPM). That recent hyperactivity within the party can be explained by the fact that they recently became the biggest Christian party not supporting an M8 candidate, and they clearly plan on gaining some momentum because of that. Time (and the electoral law type) will tell whether they’ll succeed or not. And even if Geagea and Hariri reiterated that the FM leaders’ remarks on the Christian wedding during the Biel commemoration were a joke, it is very clear – especially while looking at how the supporters of both parties acted – that there is a rising tension between the FM and the LF and that the FM and the Kataeb might get closer with time: Those extra-kisses from Hariri to Gemayel on the 14th of February commemoration were not so *innocent*. Hariri officially finally endorsed Frangieh on the 14th, and while it’s still practically impossible for Frangieh to make it to Baabda, the FM will need another minor Christian party to count on in the post-presidential elections era in case the Marada leader miraculously gets elected, and it seems day after day that relying on the LF (and of course, the FPM) will be awkward. It’s like asking Mikati and Hariri to be ministers in cabinet led by Walid Succarieh; on the other hand, Safadi might say yes to that prospect.

The fall and rise and fall of Ashraf Rifi

While the Lebanese government was proving once again what an epic failure it is, via the trash exportation fiasco and the no-kissing statement, something else was already cooking. It seemed that Michel Samaha was going out of jail, and while that information briefly united all the previous cadres of March 14 under one banner, another politician thought that it was more of an opportunity to gain momentum within his party. the minister of justice, Ashraf Rifi, whose presence in the ISF leadership brought the 2011 Mikati government down in March 2013, took it upon himself to resign from the government that wasn’t making it harder for Michel Samaha to leave his cell and that wasn’t standing with Saudi Arabia regionally (more on that afterwards). Yet it is unclear what Rifi was trying to do. When he previously stormed out of a cabinet session because of the same issue, Hariri disowned his stance and publicly criticized his actions . On the long run, Rifi’s move was smartly calculated, for him and his party: He showed himself as a “true” March14-er, taking his justice ministry seriously and refusing to “succumb to the fait-accompli and recognize March 8’s terms” (and yes, I’just sarcastically used March 14 terms in a Lebanese media context 😛 ). Rifi probably thought that the Prime Minister would ask him to reconsider his position in the cabinet and make him come back as a hero for his city, community, country, planet and galaxy so he may serve them with justice and order. But the former ISF commander is still new to Lebanese politics and he arguably did his first rookie mistake: He humiliated Tammam Salam in the cabinet, and bypassed Hariri’s stances when he refused to back Frangieh like most of the Future Movement officials. Rifi tried to rise through the ranks as quickly as possible by criticizing the negotiating/compromise qualities of his two bosses (and trying to look as pro-Saudi as possible by resigning in the middle of the crisis between the Gulf and Hezbollah), and signed with this move his mini-political death warrant. Bringing back Rifi to the cabinet would show weakness in the Future Movement leadership, give an impression that Hariri and Salam need Rifi more than anything – hint: no one cares about anyone in Lebanese politics – and eventually strengthen Rifi in the northern city of Tripoli, giving him the serious opportunity to overthrow – in an unlikely yet possible alliance with Karami, Mikati, and Safadi – the Future Movement in the next Tripoli parliamentary elections. So yeah, Salam – with an obvious green light for Hariri – signed the formal papers, and what started as a mini-political maneuver turned into a political farewell for Rifi – at least for now.

UPDATE: According to this report, Salam did not sign the formal papers yet (apparently it has something to do with the logistics and the fact that there is no president to co-sign). But he’s making Rifi wait, and there has been no important sign that the FM leadership asked him to reconsider his resignation.

Alice Shabtini became acting minister of justice and Michel Sleiman’s ministers in cabinet are now in charge of 4 portfolios (deputy prime-minister, defense, sports, justice) which is higher than all the previous numbers of portfolios that were awarded to the presidency between 2008 and 2014 (2008: 2/30, 2009: 3/30, 2011:3/30). In other words, that awkward moment when Sleiman has more ministerial portfolios after he left power than he ever had during his 6 years in power.

The gulf engulfing Lebanon and the Gulf

The event of the month is as regional as Lebanese politics gets, with Saudi Arabia withdrawing 4 billion $ in military aid for Lebanon and most of the Gulf countries issuing travel bans because Lebanon abstained during a meeting to back a Saudi-initiated resolution criticizing Hezbollah. I really hate the regional speculations à la Lebanese media, but those developments are clearly – undeniably – either (1) related to Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria and a Saudi response to that because of whatever’s happening in Syria or (2) Saudi Arabia going through financial difficulties with Lebanon clearly not being a priority to them (or any country in the world), or (3) Saudi Arabia’s way of refusing the new developments in Lebanese politics and sending a message that it would only resume aid if a certain president is elected or (4) that for Saudi Arabia, official Lebanon wasn’t worth the investment if it was going to either keep a neutral stance or refuse to contain Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria. Deep down, Gebran Bassil didn’t make that much of a mistake by keeping Lebanon’s neutral stance in the region, as he was following on the government’s official policy of self-dissociation (النأي بالنفس). Regardless of why Saudi Arabia stopped its 4 Billion dollar donation and why a rift suddenly happened between official Lebanon and the Gulf countries in February, the impact on the Lebanese economy was huge: many Lebanese citizens risk being deported for the Gulf countries which might destabilize the economy especially that the travel ban by the Arab countries officially killed this year’s tourism season. The impact on Lebanese politics, on the other hand, was the definition of what a Lebanese political fiasco looks like:

  • The Lebanese government took it upon itself to meet for 7 hours – they almost did an all-nighter – in order to find solutions to this “outrage”, while simultaneously ignoring any reasonable eco-friendly solution to the garbage crisis for the seventh continuous month, insulting with this move the intelligence of every Lebanese being poisoned by the piles of trash polluting the country.
  • March 14 were united in their common support to Saudi Arabia (:-$), and asked Lebanon to sign a petition saying we’re sorry (:-$) and that we’re never going to have a neutral stance (:-$) in our life again. It was always a blow to March 14, since the cabinet, in which they more or less have the biggest share (even if it’s a theoretically 8-8-8 one, its president is still pro-March 14) had failed to achieve the only true thing it promised in its policy statement: Use the Saudi donation to arm the army and preserve stability.
  • The FPM received a huge (HUGE) blow with Saudi Arabia’s move, was blamed for their new leader’s diplomatic faux-pas by Saudi Arabia and March 14, and responded in a very awkward way, saying that NO ONE COULD CHALLENGE THEM IN THEIR SUPPORT FOR SAUDI ARABIA .(?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!)
  • Hezbollah’s officials were angry since they too – by the obvious rules of Lebanese politics – were blamed by March 14 and its regional allies for everything wrong happening in the country (M8 would have reacted the same if the opposite scenario would have happened). Nasrallah escalated, telling the Gulf Hezbollah doesn’t care what they think, which led the Gulf Cooperation Council to officially label them as a terrorist group.
  • The best thing ever? After criticizing Hezbollah and saying to Saudi Arabia that Lebanon is sorry, March 14’s highest-ranking minister in the cabinet eventually acted…exactly like Bassil during another meeting for Arab ministers –  refusing to condemn Hezbollah, which confirms one thing: The cabinet is here to stay, and Lebanon’s political class prefers to have a fall-out with a major regional country because of a sentence in a statement rather than escalate and push the cabinet to a dangerous resignation with no president in power and unconstitutional parliament in Nejmeh square.

Anyway, to sum up the month of February 2016 with one word: Zbele

On the bright side, 73 MPs actually attended the latest presidential elections session on March 2 (I think it’s a record).

Just kidding. There is no bright side. Zbele.

 649 days since the 25th of May (presidential vacancy). 485 days since the 5th of November (parliamentary extension). 231 days since the 17th of July (trash crisis). 

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7 comments

    1. Shukran Tobias. Tueni has the right last name (+ Murr is her grandfather & she votes with him), so I wouldn’t be surprised, especially if there’s a deal including Murr. We’ll know for sure in 2017. That’s if the elections even happen…

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