President Aoun: The Morning After

 

michel-aoun-gives-his-speech-to-the-parliament

Lebanon’s newly-elected president Michel Aoun (C) gives a speech next to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri (R) as he takes an oath after he was elected at the Lebanese parliament in downtown Beirut on October 31, 2016. (Photo by AFP)

In case you missed how three years of micro-maneuvering led to a Aoun presidency,  check this summary of the past three years of presidential politics.

Now that Michel Aoun is elected president and that the excessive excitement in the mainstream media is calming dow, it would be interesting to see what the FPM founder’s election means in order to see where we might head next.

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 (he got 84 out of the required 86) to win from the first round and that means that many PSP and FM MPs refused to vote for him. While indeed many FM politicians publicly opposed Hariri’s Aoun endorsement (indicating that there might be a rift in the Future Movement because of Aoun’s endorsement), Hariri and Jumblatt did not also pressure their blocs a lot to vote for the General, probably to deny Aoun the luxury of winning from the first round and the extra legitimacy the president could have enjoyed had he won the 2/3 of the votes of the parliament (the 86 votes). Anyway, we’ll know for sure who’s still a Haririst and who’s not after the nomination of the prime minister (first week of November)

To make things even more humiliating for the President, 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 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.

A loss for Hariri

As much as it was a humiliating process for the FPM leader, electing Aoun was a defeat for Hariri because he has lost (in the vacant presidency) a key negotiating card with the FPM, and although he is (probably) coming as prime minister under Aoun, he’s going to have to fight for his place in the next parliamentary election, especially if he’s on his own and a proportional law is implemented. He did after all endorse Hezbollah’s candidate, and that isn’t really appealing to his Sunni electorate: You can already see from now a possible Rifi-Mikati alliance forming in Tripoli to dethrone Hariri in the North. Perhaps Hariri was forced to take this path of endorsing Aoun, partially because of Amal’s stances in the summer, and while he might have successfully taken the speaker down with him and unified March 14 (behind Aoun) in the process while trying to disturb the Amal-Hezbollah-FPM trio, he weakened himself before the scheduled parliamentary election (with no electoral law pre-agreed on), and has prematurely abandoned his negotiating card – especially since there was no agreement on a parliamentary extension -at least not publicly. As president, Michel Aoun can directly control and block the formation of the cabinet, and with no agreement on that either, Hariri is going to struggle to form his government, and will have to pay the price – sooner or later – with Lebanon’s political elite but also with his electorate for going forward with a Aoun nomination without having any guarantees – not even anything about Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria: What are they going to write in the ministerial declaration? What about Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria and Hariri’s disapproval of it? Who gets the key ministries? Hariri mentioned a settlement in his endorsement speech of Aoun, but electing Aoun without clarifying every microscopical detail about what happens next – a la Doha agreement – would be a major rookie mistake.

Unless

Unless there was a hidden agreement between Lebanon’s political elite that the next parliamentary election would be postponed or that the election would be held under the 2008 (= “1960”) law. That would be the only way Hariri doesn’t lose by endorsing Aoun, since he would have exchanged the presidency with both the electoral law and the premiership. Such a deal is fair for all the sides of the political spectrum (except the Kataeb – who have been bracing themselves for this moment since June), and means that the status quo is going to prevail even though a new president will be in Baabda. While I’m not a big fan of conspiracy theories, keeping the 1960 electoral law in place was apparently requested by Hariri when he decided to endorse Frangieh in 2015 (according to Frangieh, who also said he refused it), and there is absolutely no reason for this “secret clause” not to be part of the Hariri endorsement of Aoun. Plus, why change the parliamentary electoral law when you’re in power? There are no ethics in Lebanese politics, and this is something that isn’t changing anytime soon.

Not so difficult to implement such a hidden agreement: Stalling and “sacrifices”

If there’s something Lebanese politicians excel at, it’s procrastinating when it comes to the government formation and staying several months trying to distribute the ministerial shares in the Lebanese government. In 2014,  a governmental formation process that was supposed to take 33 days, took 333 days, and the result was postponing the parliamentary election because the caretaker government was not ready or (as some might argue) even eligible to organize elections. That’s exactly what might be happening right now: In his endorsement speech of Aoun, Hariri said that standing behind Aoun was a sacrifice, while in his 23rd of October speech, Nasrallah also used the same word (“sacrifice”) when he said Hezbollah was OK with a Aoun presidency .

In other words, what you saw in the last 10 days of October was Hezbollah and the FM already trying to negotiate the governmental formation by trying to cancel out what the other party has gained in the Aoun-Hariri settlement. That means there is no apparent roadmap for what happens next, and that the government formation – let alone the ministerial declaration – might take ages, especially that the composition of the March 8 and the March 14 alliances is not really the same as 2009 (more on that afterwards): Where does Aoun stand? What about Berri? Where is Geagea? Does he get to nominate the deputy PM as the second in command of the Christian opposition? Who’s in the minority? Who’s the majority? Is Berri in the opposition? What are the shares for every party? Who gets more seats? March 8 or March 14? And What is March 8 and March 14 anyway?

Those few questions can be enough to postpone/ transfer the political deadlock from the presidential vacancy to the governmental formation, and, in the process, either cancel June’s parliamentary election (and extend the parliament’s term) or head to elections under the 1960 law.

March 8 and 14: RIP

Perhaps the most important thing about Aoun’s election is that the majority and the opposition can no longer be grouped into the “March 8” and “March 14” etiquettes. How Aoun will manage to force into the same government coalition the FM, the FPM, Hezbollah, and the LF is beyond me, and while the Kataeb, Frangieh, Mikati and Rifi are the potential backbones of the Aoun opposition, they have really nothing – emphasis on the word “nothing” – in common, making it even easier for Aoun to maneuver within his possible ruling coalition. Where the PSP and Amal are going to stand is still a mystery, although they will probably form an annoying duo opposing Aoun from within the ruling coalition , especially that if they decide to stay in the opposition, an FM-LF-FPM-Hezbollah alliance could literally win every (and when I say “every” here, I mean it) district in elections under the 1960 law. It’s also probably one of the reasons why Berri panicked at the idea of the Hariri-Aoun partnership in the first place. We’ll have a better idea on where we might be heading regarding the government formation after Hariri gets named Prime Minister in the first week of November.

For the Kataeb’s politicians, this might be the beginning of the end, a moment they have been bracing themselves for since June 2016. With their very public opposition to the Aounist presidency, they declared an (inevitable) political war on the LF-FPM alliance, one they can’t win in the parliamentary election – except for the Metn district.

What’s after Aoun?

The awkward alliance between the Lebanese Forces and the Free Patriotic Movement has fulfilled its first purpose: The one of electing Aoun president. But for how long will the LF accept to be the minor partner of the FPM? And who would succeed Aoun as the Christian Zaim after the general retires? According to common sense, Geagea has the seniority, but would the FPM president (Gebran Bassil) accept to give Geagea the supremacy? And if he does, how will Hezbollah react? And if there truly is a hidden agreement to extend the parliament’s term, how will the LF be “rewarded”? And wasn’t the point of their alliance with the FPM to control as much seats as possible in the next parliamentary elections? What if the elections are postponed?

While the FPM-LF alliance is slowly becoming similar the creepy Hezbollah-Amal alliance (who are “allies” despite disagreeing on almost everything), a lot of questions will have to be answered in the coming months. And lots of questions means lots of problems.

Military leaders and bright sides?

Before he was a politician, Michel Aoun was commander of the army. And as Lebanese President, he succeeds another commander of the army, Michel Sleiman, who had previously succeeded 8 years ago yet another commander of the army. When Aoun finishes his term in 2022, Lebanon would have spent 24 consecutive years with a former General as its head of state, setting (I would even say: enforcing) a dangerous precedent: If the past 15 years in Lebanese politics have tought us anything, it’s that military commanders fail at being successful head of states. Aoun, however, is the first president since Taef to actually come from a political party, and is also the first president since ages to actually have a parliamentary bloc behind him as well as allies in the parliament, so perhaps his rule might be different after all.

Just to be clear

There is nothing  democratic about the 2016 Lebanese presidential election. The president will stay till 2022, and was elected by the parliament of 2009. Everyone who wasn’t 21 at the time didn’t participate in the electoral process, and that means that anyone aged 33 or less would have had no say about who rules from Baabda Palace in 2022. And even those who indirectly elected the president by electing in 2009 the parliament that chose him, they picked their representatives in a completely different context: They voted for one of two coalitions that were completely different at the time, in a completely different regional and local context: There was no Syrian Civil War at the time, no Arab Spring, no ISIS. Hezbollah was still fighting Israel, not fighting Israel and in Syria. March 8 and March 14 had only tried to rule together once, between 2008 and 2009, not three times (2008-2009, 2009-2011, 2014-2016). There was no trash crisis, no garbage protests, no alternative political group back then. Moreover, you can’t deny quorum until the parliament elects you, and then come back to say your election was democratic. Especially if the current parliament that elected you as president is unconstitutional  in the first place (and I’m quoting the constitutional council here)

And I haven’t even started criticizing the new president (he might sue me 😛 ).

If Aoun’s election proved anything, it’s that Lebanon is still stuck in its Civil War past and consensual present, and will stay there for the next 6 years.

 

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