The Orange and the Pistachio

Aoun and Frangieh

Aoun meets with Frangieh on December 9, 2015 in Rabieh. I also have no idea who the person in the painting is, although trusted sources (“مصادر مطلعة”, à la Lebanese media) say she might be the next Lebanese president. (Image source: Annahar)

This is the 19th post in a series of monthly posts covering the presidential elections. This post is about the month of March 2016.

The month of March 2016 was overloaded with political developments. Let’s start with the garbage. After receiving the green light from the supreme council of the tribal federation , the Lebanese government took it upon itself to end the trash crisis by:

1) turning a beach resort (Costa Brava)… into a landfill.
2) reopening the Burj Hammoud landfill that was {as it turns out, temporarily} closed since 1997.
3)”temporarily” (yeah, right) reopening another landfill – Naameh – that was ironically supposed to be the government’s temporary emergency plan to close the Burj Hammoud dump in 1998 and that temporarily lasted for more than 17 years.

So while the government was back to square one, spending the second half of March solving the consequences of a problem by making the initial problem even worse, Lebanon’s politicians were finally free to focus on their maneuvers (and of course, the municipal elections in May).

The revelation of the year

I’m going to start with the  most important development of the past six months (even more relevant than Hariri endorsing Frangieh or Geagea endorsing Aoun). For the first time since it became clear the presidential battle was featuring Aoun against Frangieh, speaker Berri (finally) officially took a side, and called for the election of Sleiman Frangieh as president. In February, we received formal proof that Berri wasn’t going to vote for Aoun, but not that Amal was officially standing with Frangieh. True, we had always felt the he wasn’t exactly a fan of Aoun and his excitement when Frangieh’s name was mentioned in November was too real to hide, but Amal’s leader, had – until March 2016 – always kept a very vague stance when it came to the presidential elections, probably in order to give an impression that the March 8 alliance was still less damaged than the March 14 one by the recent Frangieh-Aoun confrontation. But then again, Berri didn’t just endorse Frangieh on the 19th of March: He called upon Hezbollah to vote with Frangieh too. That was a political declaration of war for the FPM. Why did Berri do it? and why now? Perhaps Berri was encouraged by the official endorsement of Frangieh by Hariri on the 14th of February. There are multiple theories – and frankly – it doesn’t really matter, because what is done is done: Berri’s move will now encourage Jumblatt to be more public about his support to Frangieh,  and has officially ended the March 8 and 14 alliances – at least when it came to presidential politics.

The war on Bassil continues

As the diplomatic crisis with the Gulf continued this month and Rifi, who saw opportunity in the disorderwas still trying to make the best out of it, the political war against the new FPM leader Gebran Bassil continued. It was the environment minister, Mohamad Machnouk, who was tasked by his ally, PM Salam to represent Lebanon at the Indonesia summit, which was (more or less) an insult against Lebanon’s foreign affairs minister, Bassil. So as the cliché political clash between Salam, Hariri, Nasrallah, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Jupiter, and Mars about the Israeli conflict, Saudi Arabia and Hezbollah’s weapons continued, the FPM was by the last week of March under a huge amount of pressure: Frangieh was gaining momentum again, Aoun had officially lost Berri, and Bassil was blamed by March 14 for the entire diplomatic crisis. Even Hariri chose to kindly remind the world that he will not vote for Aoun and “threw the presidential file in Hezbollah’s court”. That very same week, al-Liwaa newspaper reported that Russia is backing the election of Marada Movement leader MP Suleiman Franjieh as president, and Hariri’s meetings with both Lavrov and Putin in the last days of the month are enough to make any other presidential candidate panic. I don’t like conspiracy theories, but the last time Hariri met in Europe with someone relevant from the other camp, that someone became his presidential candidate.

The bomb. The political bomb. 

To make things worse for the FPM, Nasrallah said the following sentence in his speech on the 21st of March:

العماد عون يمتلك الحيثيات لمنصب الرئاسة وحين ندعمه لا يعني ذلك أننا نرفض مرشحاً اخر

Yes, it’s in a huge font, and in Arabic, because it’s extremely important: While Hezbollah was still sticking with Aoun, Nasrallah has now clearly indicated that they were open to other possibilities (the literal translation: “General Aoun holds all aspects that entitle him to become president, but supporting him does not mean that we do not approve of another candidate”). In other words, Nasrallah was giving a very, very, very subtle OK to Berri’s earlier call (on the 19th of March) to Hezbollah to endorse someone other than Aoun, *coughs* like Frangieh *coughs*, and was probably starting a slow but steady shift from the Aoun bid to the Frangieh one, while also blaming Aoun for the deadlock (since Hezbollah is “open to another candidate”). Nasrallah also criticized the LF for criticizing them that they’re not supporting Aoun enough. It’s too early to tell, but that sentence in the huge font does look very promising to Frangieh.

Berri’s immediate response? On the 22nd of March, he said that “the presidential fruit had ripened” (whatever that beautiful piece of poetry means). So yeah, the FPM had the right to panic. There was a pattern, everyone saw it, and the media was ignoring it (and suddenly focusing on the illegal internet crisis – not that they shouldn’t have focused, but the timing is weird): Those were the typical characteristics of a deal being prepared between Lebanese politicians.

How the FPM responded: The T word

The FPM decided to take the matter in their own hands, and just like any other smart Lebanese party with more than ten years of experience in Lebanese politics, they simply changed the subject: Out of nowhere, a debate on the naturalization of Syrian refugees started, and fear of “tawteen” calls began once again. And don’t get me wrong, I’m only questioning the timing here. There was nothing before March, and suddenly, we get overwhelmed with the anti-naturalization calls: See here, here, here, here, here. Whether they had planned this together or not, the three anti-Frangieh Christian parties (Kataeb, FPM, LF) made a joint effort to say the T words as many times as possible this month. Bassil even refused to meet Ban Ki Moon because of the whole naturalization debate, and the FPM (as well as the other two parties) was once again using the sectarian card, by focusing on the naturalization of Syrian refugees: Once a Christian party says the word “tawteen“, you’ll have to wait at least one or two month before you endorse someone (like Frangieh) who is vetoed by the biggest three Christian parties, or else you create panic and kill the candidacy of Sleiman Frangieh by giving the impression that you’re going against the Christian sentiment at a time when the naturalization seems imminent.
It’s either that, or there was indeed an intention to naturalize Syrian refugees, but I’ll go with the former theory for now, because of (1) the timing of the calls and (2) the fact that Lebanese politicians are the lords of political maneuvers.
So yeah, you can say that the Christian parties have gained experience, and managed to halt speaker Berri’s political maneuver of promoting Frangieh’s candidacy in the March 8 camp. But then again, who hasn’t gained experience?
680 days since the 25th of May (presidential vacancy). 516 days since the 5th of November (parliamentary extension).
Advertisements