How Michel Aoun Became the President

 

 

president-michel-aoun

On the 31st of October, Michel Aoun has been declared Lebanon’s 13th president after gaining a simple majority in the second round of voting in Monday’s highly-anticipated presidential election in Parliament, putting an end to the country’s 2-1/2 year vacuum. The Change and Reform bloc leader and founder of the Free Patriotic Movement initially received 84 votes, only two less needed to win the first round to become president. In the second round, he secured 83 votes in his favor, 18 more than the 65 votes needed for a simple majority. The second round was repeated twice after an extra vote – 128 instead of 127 – appeared for a second time in the counting process.

With the end of the longest presidential vacancy in the history of the republic, I am summing up more than 25 posts of political commentary I wrote over the past three years about the Lebanese presidential election, in order to try and understand the recent developments that led to the election of Michel Aoun as Lebanese president.

Three years ago, If anyone had said that the Lebanese parliament was going to elect the FPM founder, Michel Aoun, as Lebanese president, he would have been called either an enthusiastic Aounist or a bad mathematician.

Three years ago , If anyone had also said that the Lebanese parliament was going to elect the FPM founder, Michel Aoun, as Lebanese president, with a consensual green light coming from Hezbollah, the Lebanese Forces, the Future Movement, and the PSP, he would have been called mad.

But Lebanese politics is weird, and three years were enough to change the entire landscape of the Lebanese political spectrum.

In fact, there was absolutely no possible/mathematical way for Michel Aoun to become president in 2014. He was the candidate of the March 8 alliance (M8) and the Civil War enemy of Samir Geagea, the March 14 alliance (M14)’s candidate.  While March 14 (Future Movement, Lebanese Forces, Kataeb) was not exactly in a position to win the presidency, with the centrists (PSP/Mikati bloc) not fans of both candidates, Michel Aoun did not have what it took to make it to Baabda palace: You need 65 votes to become president, and March 8 (Amal, Hezbollah, FPM, Marada) had no more than 57. And with the parliamentary election postponed from June 2013 to November 2014, there was no way for the FPM to win back the parliament in order to reach the 65 MPs mark before Michel Sleiman leaves office on the 25th of May 2014.  It was mathematically impossible, and a deal including a centrist president after seven or eight months of a presidential vacancy – just like what happened in Doha in 2008 – was expected to be the final settlement. But the FPM had other ideas, and started a political maneuver that lasted more than two and a half years.

The first round: April 2014

In April 2014, and after Samir Geagea rallied the March 14 alliance behind him, he expected to face-off Michel Aoun in parliament, especially that there was no reason for March 8 to boycott the session and deny quorum: Unlike 2007, when March 14 still included the PSP, had the majority of votes and could have won the election if March 8 did not deny quorum (the 2/3 of the parliament’s MPs, which is 86 votes), this time the PSP and March 14 were on each on their own, and no candidate had what it took to win from the first round (86 votes, the 2/3 of the parliament) or even the other rounds (65 votes to win). But the FPM made an unexpected move: On the 23rd of April 2014, the March 8 coalition voted white in the first round. There were reports that M8 might vote for Emile Rahme in the election, in order to give the impression that Aoun – who refused to run against Geagea – is a moderate while on the other hand making sure that Geagea couldn’t be one. But instead of proposing Emile Rahme to face Geagea, they decided to be more original and vote white. With Geagea getting less votes (48) than white ballots (52), the FPM had successfully humiliated Geagea in parliament and it was only a matter of time before Geagea’s name would not be taken seriously – at least in his own alliance:  If there’s anything more humiliating than losing the election, it’s losing the election to no one.

The first slow wait: May 2014 – November 2014

The first round was a vote just for show anyway: It couldn’t have been taken seriously as Hariri, the leader of Geagea’s March 14 coalition, did not even attend it. That went relatively unnoticed back then, but one year and a half later, those small details would prove to be extremely relevant.

As Michel Sleiman left office on the 25th of May 2014, M8 was already using the same tactics it has used in the 2007 presidential elections: By denying quorum to the presidential election sessions, Hezbollah’s allies were making sure that M14 would not reign in a president of its own. The expected presidential vacancy eventually happened, and Lebanon, much more used to the deadlock than 2007, didn’t really complain about its politicians not doing anything to end the deadlock. And unlike 2007 (when the March 14 alliance was in power and the March 8 one was in the opposition), the government that ruled in the president’s stead was a consensual one, which meant that March 8 wasn’t really hasty about electing a president in order to change the cabinet. The FPM was the only major Christian party in the government – giving them legitimacy in the Christian arena – and March 8 had the blocking third in the cabinet, making Hezbollah comfortable regarding the official Lebanese government opinion towards the Syrian civil war. In fact, M8 wasn’t hasty at all to elect the president: Hezbollah was engaged in the Syrian civil war, and needed his Christian ally more than ever. The FPM’s allies were comfortable in government, so it was not the time to abandon Aoun in favor of a consensual candidate, especially that the commander of the army, Jean Kahwagi, was rumored to be Hezbollah’s “hidden candidate”. Switching sides would mean that Hezbollah never intended to vote for Aoun anyway, and could have shattered the March 8 alliance. There was no rush to reach a compromise, that’s if March 8 ever wanted to reach a compromise in the first place.

So the presidential vacancy stayed even tough everyone was micro-maneuvering:

In June 2014, the leader of the FPM made a major strategic mistake by suggesting that he – alongside Hariri and Nasrallah – represented a triangle of salvation that could not be broken up. Naturally, March 14 would start the Summer of 2014 with an original propaganda : “Aoun wanted to give up the 50-50 Christian-Muslim representation in exchange of his election as president.”So in July 2014, Aoun, who had previously spent a whole year getting closer to the Future Movement while trying to fashion himself as a consensual, all-embracing candidate, suddenly decided – and probably because of the M14 June maneuver – that it wasn’t worth it anymore, and threw in a political bomb: He wanted to amend the constitution and let the president be elected by universal suffrage.

And that was only the beginning: Over the next few  months of the presidential vacancy, all hell broke loose in Lebanese politics, with every Lebanese political party trying to take advantage of the deadlock and the vacancy. The FPM were probably waiting till the November 2014 parliamentary election in order to try to win back the majority of the parliament except – plot twist – the parliamentary election got postponed once again as the majority of the parliamentary blocs realized it was too risky and unwise to change the status quo.

The second slow(er) wait: December 2014 – October 2015

In the last month of 2014, Hezbollah and the Future Movement decided to have a dialogue. As soon as the rumors started, everyone panicked: In January 2015, 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. And while Hezbollah’s attack on  an Israeli military convoy in the occupied Shebaa Farms that same month changed the subject in the Lebanese political discourse from the presidential election to Hezbollah and the FM’s rivalry as if it was 2009, a new development had happened by the month of May 2015:

The commander of the army’s term was supposed to end in September 2015, 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. 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. But giving Roukoz the green light came at a price: The FM insisted on naming Roukoz commander after the presidential election, 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. 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.

In June 2015, and for the first time since 2005, Michel Aoun and Samir Geagea met 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: Both leaders insisted to protect the Christian interests, and at their core, the election of a strong president (a “strong president” = Aoun and /or Geagea). 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. And 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.

In July 2015, Aoun wanted the cabinet to discuss the commander of the army’s appointment early on in order to avoid any deal that could be forced upon him in September 2015. 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 2015:  He called for demonstrations and tried to prove that he is the most popular leader. 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: 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. 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 presidential politics during 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 2015 when defense minister Samir Mokbel signed a decree to postpone the retirement of Army Commander General Jean Kahwaji.  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 2015, Lebanon had turned into a dumpster and in September 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 questionsCan 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.

Frangieh the Second? (November – December 2015)

By the month of November 2015, 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.

The Christian wedding and its aftermath (January 2016 – May 2016)

Frangieh’s candidacy was a Hariri maneuver to blow up M8the election of Frangieh as president was a better alternative for Hezbollah than Aoun. He’s younger, far more pro-Syrian than Aoun and closer to Berri and Jumblatt. The goal of the Hariri maneuver was to tempt Hezbollah to choose Frangieh instead of Aoun and blow up the March 8 alliance in the process. What Hariri didn’t think of, however, is that it was also political declaration of war on his M14 ally and (former) presidential candidate, Samir Geagea. Frangieh, for the LF, is the worst candidate that the FM could ever endorse. He is at the heart of March 8, will directly threaten Geagea’s stronger base in the North, and  – while being one of the Maronite four – is not even the top Christian politician of March 8. So you can imagine the humiliation the LF went through when Hariri endorsed Frangieh . The consequences were brutal:

On the 18th of January 2016, Samir Geagea, of March 14’s Lebanese Forces, endorsed Michel Aoun, of March 8’s FPM, as his presidential candidate. For the first time in decades, the biggest two representative parties among Christians had agreed on a major issue. The endorsement of Aoun by Geagea was definitely an “eye for an eye” maneuver regarding Hariri’s endorsement of Frangieh. But the new mini-alliance between the two Christian parties was also more than that: It made Geagea the second-in-command of a Christian alliance whose leader is 81 year old, and who cannot constitutionally run for a second-term in six years. And while Bassil might be a natural “heir” to Aoun’s presidency, he is – until further notice– far less popular than Geagea (having lost twice in a row the parliamentary election in his home district against Geagea’s candidate) who will also have the seniority. If Aoun was going to make it through, Geagea was also likely going to be his successor. True, it was not written in their agreement, but it was a natural result of the deal. The Lebanese Forces, after 11 years in parliament, had realized that they cannot defeat Aoun on their own, even with the full weight of a 40 MPs FM-led bloc. Geagea never had the support of March 8 and the center, lost the Kataeb’s support early on, and was now Future Movement-less. The LF had lost the presidential battle: That was clearer in January, than it ever was or will ever be. And this is why they had opted to support Aoun’s candidacy. It was a long-term investment that could definitely be worth the wait. For Aoun, the endorsement of Geagea was a huge moral boost, but still had little impact whatsoever because of the small bloc the LF have in parliament. Even with the full support of the entire March 8 alliance and the Lebanese Forces, Aoun would have barely reached the 65 MPs mark, and as it turned out, he did not have the full support of the March 8 alliance: Over the next few months of February 2016, March 2016 and April 2016, Berri slowly hinted and eventually publicly said that he would not vote for Aoun, even with the Christian (LF-FPM) consensus on the FPM leader’s name and with the consequences (the Kataeb’s move to resign from government) that alliance had on the May 2016 municipal election.

It would also have not been wise for Aoun to make it to Baabda with a Sunni (FM) and Druze (FPM) veto on his name. Aoun knew that he had to win the FM and the PSP somehow, but his name was still too controversial for both Hariri and Jumblatt to support especially that Berri wasn’t even on board: It would mean Hezbollah’s official candidate had won the presidential election, without even the support of Hezbollah’s other allies.

So while no one had realized it back then, the key to a Aoun presidency was giving the impression that Berri was on board. 

Berri’s strategic mistake and Hariri’s last maneuver (June 2016 – October 2016)

So when Berri gave hints, right after his agreement with Bassil on the oil dossier in June 2016, that he was willing to accept a Aoun presidency as part of a bigger deal (He called it “السلة المتكاملة”, which literally means “the complete basket”), he indirectly suggested  a possible deal that also included a  Hariri premiership and a consensual electoral law (package deal confirmed by Nasrallah’s speech in August, that also included Berri as speaker). Berri’s “blessing” meant two things:

  1. Hariri would be seen in the mainstream media as the one preventing the election of a Lebanese president and a Aoun presidency in particular – going against the candidate of the de-facto Christian majority – which would discredit him and sabotage his alliance with the LF even more.
  2. Hariri would also be blocking something that was going to eventually happen, since Aoun no longer had a relative majority in parliament, but around 65 MPs.Check this table to see how Aoun became close to the 65 MP mark once M8 (including Berri) and the LF became on his side:2009 lebanese parliament seats

Berri (and all of us) probably  thought that Hariri would try to block the Aoun presidency for some time, and then eventually come back with a package deal that probably doesn’t have a Aoun presidency in it but instead other electoral law benefits to the entire M8 alliance, hence ending the presidential crisis by weakening the FPM within March 8 but reinforcing March 8 on the national level.

Hariri was supposed to say no to a Aoun presidency, at least with no clear road-map with what was going to happen with the governmental formation and the electoral law. It was unwise toexchange a 9 month-term premiership with a 6 year term presidency, without a clear plan about an electoral law or a parliamentary election. There were too much unknown variables to have a presidency deal, and Berri’s maneuver was his way of reducing the FPM/LF pressure on Amal (the FPM were boycotting the cabinet and the dialogue sessions) to elect Aoun president by throwing all the blame on Hariri.

However, by the 17th of September 2016, the media was buzzing with rumors that Hariri was surprisingly going to endorse Aoun as his presidential candidate. While it wasn’t clear where the rumors originated from (an FM MP said that very same week that Aoun wasn’t an independent president and that he doesn’t represent the Christian’s public opinion), Berri panicked, and said that he preferred Frangieh over AounNow that it was obvious that Berri wasn’t willing to vote for Aoun even if Hariri endorsed him, the FM leader started one of his smartest maneuvers since November 2015: He began hinting  that Michel Aoun was indeed an option, causing further panic in the Amal camp. According to reports, Berri was willing to accept “half a package deal” involving “an agreement on the electoral law, the finance minister post, creating an oil ministry and retaking the energy ministry portfolio.”

There was no Aoun presidency in Berri’s half-package deal – at least in the press reports,  which might have made Hariri realize that he could harass Berri and sabotage the March 8 alliance by circulating the name of Aoun as next president: By the 30th of September, Aoun was meeting with Hariri (yes, that escalated quickly). Berri tried to mask his strategic political faux-pas and tried to hide his Aoun veto by saying in that week that “he has no personal dispute with any candidate”, but it was already too late, and soon enough, Frangieh was vowing to stay in the race despite everything, as Berri’s sources still said that he would never nominate Aoun.

When rumors of Hariri endorsing Aoun become even more relevant, Berri did something he never does: He used the sectarian card, and accused the FPM and the FM of making a deal behind his back and going back to the “Sunni-Christian duality era”. The FPM however had the momentum both in the political arena (via Hariri’s meetings) and on the ground, via the 13 October anniversary protest. The FPM leaders, real experts in using the sectarian card, smoothly stopped Berri’s “you are turning back on Shias” rants by…not escalating.

It was already too late for anything anyway. Hariri had already figured out his master plan: In fact, Berri was trying to throw all the vacancy blame on Hariri, so when Hariri was sure (probably by the end of September) that Berri wasn’t on board with the Aoun presidency even with Hariri’s approval, and that he was going to deal with the media pressure that he was the one who was blocking the Christian consensus on Aoun, the former prime minister conceded the defeat (endorsing Aoun, Hezbollah’s official candidate, is after all a  loss for Hariri) but came up with his brilliant maneuver of endorsing Aoun on the 20th of October 2016 in order to minimize theconsequences of his loss :

  1. By endorsing Aoun without the consent of Berri and without the blessing of Hezbollah, Hariri basically reunited the two main cores of M14 (the FM and the LF) under the banner of Michel Aoun.
  2. With a very high-ranking March 8 official such as Michel Aoun in the presidency, Hariri can more easily secure the premiership for himself as he is the leader of the March 14 coalition.
  3. Hariri can get a better deal afterwards, and he’ll be getting concessions mainly from Hezbollah and Amal since his endorsement of Aoun would put the FPM leader in the center of the Lebanese political game, as Aoun – with Hariri and Geagea’s endorsements – would ironically have as much or even more M14 MPs than M8 MPs by his side.
  4. Hariri tried to shatter the March 8 alliance by handing the presidency to Aoun and leaving Hezbollah in the middle trying to mediate between Amal and the FPM. The FM suddenly became closer to all of the Christian parties (of whom he endorsed three figures: Frangieh, Geagea, and Aoun), while also making Amal and the Marada clash with the FPM and Hezbollah. 

 

March 8’s response to Hariri’s “forking”

In a way, Hariri tried to do the same maneuver he did to Hezbollah and Frangieh in November 2015, except this time he did it to Berri and Aoun. By throwing his entire weight behind Michel Aoun (without Amal supporting Aoun), Hariri expected two responses from Hezbollah:

  1. Hezbollah postponing the presidential election until a settlement is reached between Amal and Aoun and a package deal is agreed upon (at least within March 8). That would discredit Hezbollah in the Christian arena, push the FPM towards the FM, and prove right a 12 year-old “legend” circulated by the March 14 mainstream media that Aoun was never Hezbollah’s candidate and that Hezbollah was secretly instructing Berri to side against Aoun in order to indirectly block the election of the FPM’s Zaim.
  2. Hezbollah going forward with the Aoun presidency and voting for Michel Aoun as president in the very first electoral session (October 31st), regardless of Amal’s veto. That would cause problems between Amal and Hezbollah and split the Shiite “base” of the March 8 alliance.

If Hariri was playing chess, his maneuver would have been called forking: A fork is a tactic whereby a single piece (Hariri in this case) makes two or more direct attacks simultaneously. Most commonly two pieces (the Aoun-Hezbollah alliance and the Berri-Hezbollah alliance in this case) are threatened, which is also sometimes called a double attack. The attacker usually aims to gain material by capturing one of the opponent’s pieces.

For Hezbollah, the choice was obvious: Temporarily “sacrificing” the Berri veto was much less scary than the idea of losing the only non-Shiite ally in March 8. So on the 23rd of October 2016, Nasrallah quickly embraced the momentum and confirmed that his MPs were going to end the boycott, attend the 31st of October session, and vote for Aoun. At the same time, Hezbollah tried to absorb the impact of the FM’s maneuver, with key leaders in the party (including Nasrallah) reiterating that Amal will not be isolated by the settlement, softening the blow for Berri.  Hezbollah understood what the FM were doing, but had they stalled and waited for Amal to come around, Hariri would have actually turned  his defeat into a win (by questioning the seriousness of Hezbollah’s support to Aoun).

Now that Hezbollah and the FM were on board with his nomination, Aoun was for sure going to be elected (securing at least more than the absolute majority of the parliament), which meant that Jumblatt had to be part of the settlement even though he opposed a Aoun presidency for years. In Lebanese politics, if you can’t fight it, you join it. And that’s exactly what the PSP leader did by announcing, a few days before the 31st of October session, that he would eventually vote for Aoun after more than 30 years of animosity. Joining a settlement late is better than not joining in at all.

Berri and Frangieh had probably thought that Jumblatt would stick to Frangieh or Helou till the very end, but with the majority of the Lebanese parties siding with Aoun, it was useless to fight a lost battle, or even to try to block the quorum in the 31st of October election (since Aoun already had the support of a little less that the 2/3 of the MPs and that the Kataeb never boycott the sessions which wouldn’t help Berri, Frangieh and the anti-Aoun FM/PSP MPs deny quorum). It would have been humiliating for Frangieh to side with Aoun after Aoun refused to side with him last year, so the Marada leader’s late call for Berri’s bloc to vote white instead of Frangieh can be seen as a compromise between an awkward reconciliation and a useless opposition (from the very beginning) to the new Aoun presidency. The same might be said about Berri saying that he could  block Aoun’s election but wouldn’t: Although it was  technically very hard  to block Aoun’s election by now, Berri’s half-positive stance of not making a major issue out of it might be seen as a late-attempt to join a future consensus on the cabinet and stay in the decision-making process.

A humiliating election

Lebanon’s parliament finally convened on the 31st of October 2016, and while it elected Aoun president, it did it in a humiliating way: Michel Aoun needed only two votes to win from the first round which means that many PSP and FM MPs refused to vote for him and that Hariri and Jumblatt did not pressure them enough to do so, probably to deny Aoun the luxury of winning from the first round.

To make things even more humiliating, the two votes that denied Aoun the win from the first round were votes for “Myriam Klink” and “Gilberte Zouein”.

Not humiliating enough? the second round was repeated two times because there was an extra ballot casted twicerepeated two times because there was an extra ballot casted twice (128 votes counted instead of 127), which delayed the process of Aoun’s election (he was elected on the fourth round after the second and third were canceled), and made the parliament electing Aoun look like a classroom.

Speaking of the extra vote in today’s second (and third) round of the election, the exact same thing happened in the second round of the 1970 election: There was an extra vote (100 instead of 99) so they canceled the round.

But in the end, Michel Aoun was elected president against all odds, and that’s what matters for his party and its allies.

At least three years of maneuvering and decades of political and military struggling later, Michel Aoun was elected Lebanese president.

 

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