14 March Alliance

Lebanese Politics – 2016 In Review

hariri-berri-and-aoun-sharing-candy-while-watching-the-independence-day-parade-2016

Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri(L), Speaker Nabih Berri, President Michel Aoun and caretaker Prime Minister Tammam Salam watch the Army parade in Downtown Beirut during Independence Day celebrations, Tuesday. Nov. 22, 2016. (Image source: The Daily Star/ Mohammad Azakir)

 

Lebanon ends 2016 with a Lebanese Forces minister as the official spokesman of a March 8-dominated cabinet led by President Michel Aoun and his Prime Minister, Saad Hariri. So if you want to sum up everything that happened during 2016 in Lebanese politics with only one word, crazy would be the accurate one to use.

But if you want more than one word to summarize this year’s political madness, I suggest taking a look at the Independence Day picture: Michel Aoun  was elected Lebanese President, Saad Hariri was designated as his Prime Minister, Speaker Nabih Berri is helping them share the candy, a new government was formed, they’re all participating in a show/parade, and outgoing PM Tammam Salam has a face expression that represents all of us.

Making a compilation of Lebanese political developments by the end of the year has become a tradition on this blog, and just like 2013, 2014 and 2015, this post is a summary/compilation of all of Lebanon’s political events for this year. The time has finally come to link 2016’s developments with one another. Enjoy the craziness of Lebanese politics, and Happy New Year 🙂!

The Christian Wedding: Ending the political Civil War in East Beirut (January 2016)

After surprising developments in November, Saad Hariri of the March 14 alliance’s Future Movement endorsed Sleiman Frangieh of March 8’s Marada Movement for president, bypassing March 8’s favored candidate, Michel Aoun. Hariri’s support for Frangieh—who had previously indicated he would not stand in the way of Aoun’s candidacy before he announced his bid on December 17—was meant to drive a wedge between members of the March 8 alliance, but little did he know that it was going to  backfire on Hariri’s own March 14 alliance.

At the time, March 14 was endorsing its own candidate, Samir Geagea of the Lebanese Forces (LF). However, Hariri endorsed Frangieh, seeking to showcase him as a consensual candidate from the very heart of March 8—and attract parties from all sides to a possible deal without granting a victory to Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). Initially, the strategy appeared to work: at first, March 8’s Amal Movement and the independent Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) rallied around the new bid. Meanwhile the FPM was left blindsided as Aoun suddenly appeared a less serious candidate than Frangieh, formerly a junior ally from the weakest of the four main Maronite parties. Moreover, by supporting Frangieh, the Future Movement was trying to lure Hezbollah away from Aoun. They hoped that open support for Frangieh, who has close ties with the Syrian regime, would encourage Hezbollah to switch its votes toward Frangieh and in so doing destroy the Hezbollah–FPM alliance that forms the cornerstone of the March 8 coalition.

But realizing that support for Frangieh would have shattered their ties with the FPM and discredited the party in Christian popular opinion, Hezbollah stood with Aoun. Instead, Hariri’s endorsement of a March 8 candidate drove wedges within his own March 14 alliance. The Lebanese Forces, the leading Christian party of March 14, saw Hariri’s act as a betrayal. Not only was the party humiliated when its ally endorsed a different candidate than Geagea, Frangieh’s strong backing in northern Lebanon would threaten the LF’s influence in its most important region. The LF, and Geagea himself, retaliated by endorsing Aoun—a wartime rival—keeping Geagea’s 2007 promise that if it came to it, he would “preserve his Christian credibility by breaking with Hariri” rather than support a “weak figure” for president.

So on the 18th of January 2016, Lebanon’s biggest Christian rivals since the civil war ended more than 25 years of confrontation, and made (political) peace: 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. It was an attempt to end what is soon to become a 2 years presidential crisis that has left the country’s main post vacant because of the deadlock caused by the March 8 alliance and March 14 alliance’s disagreement.

The goal of Hariri’s endorsement was to bring down the March 8 alliance, but instead, the three biggest parties of the March 14 alliance were now divided. The Lebanese Forces party was supporting Aoun, the Future Movement was supporting Frangieh, and the Kataeb Party was refusing to support either of them. Aoun, Geagea, and Hezbollah were now on one side of parliament, with Frangieh and Hariri on the other side. In the middle were parties like the PSP, who went back to endorsing their original candidate, Henri Helou, and the Amal Movement, which had yet to make a formal endorsement.

Geagea’s endorsement of Aoun however had a direct impact on Lebanese politics: On the 27th of January 2016, the Lebanese Supreme Council of the Tribal Federation (the National Dialogue guys) 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.

The orange and the blueberry (February 2016)

Remember when we said the Amal movement still had to make a formal endorsement?

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: 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. If the February presidential session that never happened taught us anything, it’s that there might had been a rift among the March 8 parties that was  as big as the rift in March 14.

The lack of quorum meant that Amal had officially told the world on the first week of February 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 the speaker was more blue than he was orange in his presidential choices (by sending signals that he does not to support the LF-FPM Christian consensual president), Berri had bypassed a Christian consensus on a Christian post (the presidency) and the FPM-LF alliance went on the offense: Minister of public works Ghazi Zaiter was accused of allocating less fund for the Christian areas, while on the other hand, Ali Hassan Khalil, the finance minister, was criticized for replacing a Christian employee with a non-Christian one.

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: Ashraf Rifi did his first rookie mistake by resigning from the cabinet. He had humiliated Tammam Salam in the cabinet, and had already 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). 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 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.

But 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. The Lebanese government took it upon itself to meet for 7 hours while March 14 were united in their common support to Saudi Arabia and asked Lebanon to sign a “we’re sorry we Love Saudi Arabia” petition. It was always  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. But it was also a blow for The FPM: They were directly 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” (?!?!?).

The blueberry and the pistachio (March 2016)

While January and February were overloaded with political maneuvers, March seemed to be a month of clarity. 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 had received formal proof that Berri wasn’t going to vote for Aoun, but not that Amal was officially standing with Frangieh. In fact, Berri didn’t just endorse Frangieh on the 19th of March: He called upon Hezbollah to vote with Frangieh too. Even Hariri chose to kindly remind the world that he will not vote for Aoun and “threw the presidential file in Hezbollah’s court”.

And 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.

To make things worse for the FPM, Nasrallah said the following sentence in his speech on the 21st of March: “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 Frangieh, 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. Aoun had officially lost the presidential momentum Geagea had won him in January.

So 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. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Lebanon got overwhelmed with anti-naturalization calls (see here, here, here, here and 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. That created a context for the Muslim parties where they had to wait at least two months before rallying behind someone (like Frangieh) who is vetoed by the biggest three Christian parties, or else it would create panic and kill the candidacy of Sleiman Frangieh by giving the impression that they were going against the Christian sentiment at a time when the naturalization of Syrian refugees seemed imminent.

The month that doesn’t count (April 2016)

In Lebanese politics, there are months that “count”, and months that “don’t count” when it comes to political maneuvering. There’s a pattern when it comes to policy making: short periods of “active” deadlocks – full of efficient political maneuvering that eventually give you results – are often followed by even shorter periods of political stability. After the shorter periods comes a longvery long period – of deadlock that is extremely similar to what they call in football a “dead rubber match” (a match that has no effect on the winner and loser of the series, other than the number of matches won and lost). The dead rubber period can be full of maneuvers, or it can simply have no political developments at all. It all depends on the laziness of Lebanese politicians.

This month – just like the ones before – was mostly a dead rubber period, but not because Lebanese politicians were lazy. In fact, they were even more focused than before, concentrating all their efforts on the municipal elections. Municipal elections in Lebanon are an extremely complicated process known to bring rivals together (the example of Beirut) but also create tensions between allies (the example of Zahle), so the whole maneuvering mechanism becomes useless and old-fashioned. So other than Jumblatt and Gemayel, few were the politicians who cared to maneuver on a nation-wide scale.The most important event of the month was Jumblatt’s decision to resign from parliament (spoiler alert: Jumblatt did not eventually resign in the end). The PSP leader’s maneuver was brilliant: He promised to resign only when the parliament meets in a legislative session. And If there’s something Lebanon’s Christian parties agreed on, it’s the fact that legislating in the middle of a presidential vacancy is unconstitutional. It made them unite in November 2015, and only two of the three major parties eventually attended the last legislative session, after making an issue out of it and getting something in return. There has been a lot of talk of a legislative session happening in April, and as Berri was trying to push his agenda of convening the parliament to legislate, Jumblatt’s move – in a way – was meant to put pressure on the other parties to make the legislative session possible.

As Aoun and Geagea were using their new alliance to blame the Muslim ally of their new Christian ally for not supporting their new Christian candidate (you can blame Lebanese politics for that complicated sentence), Gemayel was micro-maneuvering in the last ten days in April by finally naming five presidential candidates. Among the five candidates, you’ll find the name of Michel Aoun’s son-in-law. Yeah, not Gebran Bassil, the son-in-law currently in charge of the FPM, but the other one, Chamel Roukoz. By embracing the candidacy of the son-in-law of one of the two most popular candidates, that happens not to be the son-in-law leading the party, and also happens to be the son-in-law who is a retired general, the Kataeb were trying to turn the Aounists on one another.

The rising threat of the outsiders: The example of Beirut Madinati (May 2016)

For a country that had postponed elections three times in the past 12 years and that had been polarized between two political coalitions competing and eventually sharing power in almost every state institution, the month of May 2016 will be an exception in Lebanon’s modern political history: The Lebanese would be voting for the first time since 2010, and this time – at least in Beirut – there was a third choice available. To put it in the campaign’s own words, Beirut Madinati is a volunteer-led campaign to elect a municipal council of qualified, politically unaffiliated individuals in the upcoming contest of May 2016, and, once in office, to support them in implementing a people-centered program that prioritizes livability in our storied city.

But despite the context of the trash crisis, rising corruption, overall voter discontentment, parliament extending its mandate twice, etc… the math of the Beirut electoral equation was never in favor of any non-political movement: the division of districts, the system, demographics, the sectarian propaganda were all in favor of the establishment parties. So no, the cards were not the best that could be given for Beirut Madinati, or any other movement for that matter, simply because those cards were being played on a table that served only one side. An alliance made of all the ruling parties barely got 60% of the votes, and with Beirut Madinati close to the 30% mark, that was the equivalent to a political nuclear bomb. The Lebanese were in favor of change, and all that was missing was an electoral law that could turn percentage numbers into reality. Now, more than ever, proportional representation was expected to be the Lebanese establishment’s boogeyman.

The resignation game (June 2016)

Remember when I said that Rifi had signed his political death warrant with his resignation from government?

It turns out the Tripoli strongman had outsmarted us all. The timing of  his resignation, the causes of his resignation, as well as his political intuitions were so good that he actually managed to defeat in the Tripoli municipal elections – as an underdog, and all by himself – a  huge alliance made of three billionaires (Hariri, Mikati, Safadi), two former prime ministers (Hariri, Mikati), and the heir to the most prestigious political family in the North (Karami). Three years earlier, Rifi was not even a politician, and yet against all odds the list he supported won the municipal council of a city that has more than 8 MPs in parliament, and that victory was partly due to the context in which he resigned.

With the threat of the FPM-LF alliance on the Horizon, the phalangists knew they need to secure 51% of at least one constituency’s voters or they’ll lose everything in 2017. And the only place where that might be possible is the Metn, and it’s a big might. the Kataeb know that they could be alone on election day, with no allies, in a very hostile electoral environment because of an electoral law that currently favors bigger parties / alliances and that tends to eliminate political minorities from being represented in their constituencies. Gemayel couldn’t have risked losing it all, not while he’s still rising. The only way he survives the FPM-LF wedding is by securing the Metn, and the easiest way to secure the Metn is by giving the Metnis the impression that the FPM wants to turn the caza’s coast into a dump while the Kataeb were ready to resign their biggest government share ever in modern history just to protest that.

So on the 14th of June 2016, and inspired by the resignations of Ashraf Rifi in February and Robert Fadel in May, two Kataeb ministers resigned from government following a decision by the party’s leadership to leave the executive power. For 12 months, the Kataeb had criticized the government’s handling of the trash crisis, refusing to put more pressure on the government by resigning, even as tens of thousands of demonstrators protested in disgust against the trash crisis and the trashy solutions the government kept proposing. By their resignation moves, Fadel, as well as the Kataeb, were trying to appeal to their electorates in the same way Rifi did – via resignations in critical moments important to their electorates. If a charismatic (in his region at least) newcomer/underdog/micro-Zaim can defeat three billionaires, two prime ministers, and the heir to Abdulhamid Karami, then Gemayel can do the same to the FPM, LF and SSNP in his home district.

Two things seemed to work in this country: Resignations and sectarianism. If you use both correctly, nothing stood in your way.

Presidency and oil (July 2016)

“We discussed the oil and gas file and ways to extract it from the Lebanese waters. We have agreed with the AMAL Movement on the points of disagreement which gives the country an opportunity for stability.” (Gebran Bassil, July 1 2016)

“opportunity for stability” is the politician’s nickname of “Lebanese president”, and something was cooking in Lebanese politics. Berri’s 13 votes in parliament were a nice advantage for Aoun’s quest to the presidential palace (here’s a nice table clarifying that), and the calm statements going back and forth from Ain El Tineh to Rabieh (Aoun and Berri were known for their political cold war) meant that a compromise including the oil and gas reserves file might make it easier to end the presidential deadlock.

The rest of the July was cliché: Lebanese politicians arguing about the internet, Hezbollah and the FM playing their usual love-and-hate game, and the supreme council of the tribal federation (again, the national dialogue guys) meeting for three days and deciding that since electing a president, agreeing on an electoral law, organizing parliamentary elections, voting a state budget, and drafting a defensive strategy were too mainstream, they were now going to work on creating a senate and debate its authorities and its electoral law.

Deal or no deal? (August – September 2016)

When Berri gave hints, right after his agreement with Bassil on the oil dossier in June and July 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 that 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. But 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 to exchange 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 Aoun. Now 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.

President Aoun (October 2016)

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 take the blame of 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 the consequences of his loss: 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.

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.

Three years of political maneuvering later and 26 years after he was ousted from the Baabda palace, Michel Aoun would gloriously return as President of the Lebanese Republic.

Prime Minister Hariri (November 2016)

The date is October 31st, 2016. Michel Aoun is elected – against all odds – President of the Lebanese Republic after more than two years of a presidential vacancy. A new era begins in Lebanese politics: Michel Aoun, who had spent the majority of the post-Syrian era criticizing the policies of the Future Movement, named Saad Hariri, the leader of the FM, as his Prime Minister after the designated PM’s endorsement of Aoun finally led to the end of the presidential deadlock and the election of the FPM leader as President. Meanwhile, in what was now formerly (?) known as the March 8 alliance, not everyone was excited to see Aoun in Baabda. Hariri’s maneuver of endorsing Aoun without a green light coming from speaker Berri had succeeded: Amal, Berri’s party, led the opposition to Michel Aoun’s election in parliament, and even Frangieh, who was considered for a full decade to be Michel Aoun’s second in command among the Christian leaders of the March 8’s Change and Reform Bloc, refused to vote for Aoun after the FPM leader had refused to end the presidential vacancy by endorsing Frangieh earlier this year.

The result was the election of Aoun as President in the most humiliating conditions ever: Second to him in the ballots’ results was Myriam Klink, and not only was he elected by absolute majority, the second round was also repeated two times because there was an extra ballot casted twice (128 votes counted instead of 127).

That meant that a humiliated President Aoun was going to start his mandate without the support of the two-thirds of a parliament (elected 8 years ago) behind him, while Hariri, as Prime Minister, was expected to gather as Prime Minister designate the votes of the March 14 coalition parties, the PSP, the Marada (since he almost got Frangieh to Baabda in 2015), Amal, and the FPM. Hariri’s maneuver of making Hezbollah choose between upsetting Aoun and angering Berri (by endorsing Aoun) in October also meant – in a way or another – that he had unified all the mainstream parties behind him in the process.

Hezbollah had brought Michel Aoun into Baabda, but it wouldn’t have been a “pure victory” if Hariri would have been named by the entire parliament as Prime Minister while Aoun couldn’t gather the two-thirds of the parliament’s votes even after more than two years of boycotting. So Hezbollah decided to partially ruin the Future Movement’s party and refused to vote for Hariri as Prime Minister although almost all of Hezbollah’s allies within March 8 named Hariri with enthusiasm, happiness and joy (the joy of participating in a cabinet before expected parliamentary elections :$ ). The result was Hariri being nominated for the premiership by  112 out of Lebanon’s 127 representatives on the 3rd of November 2016, 4 days after the election of Aoun as President.

The fourth Cohabitation (December 2016)

Lebanon ends a crazy 2016 with a formation of its 4th all-embracing cabinet since 2005. Although the first three cabinets were a total failure, the deal was done, and you couldn’t put Aoun and Hariri at the head of Lebanon’s executive power without expecting them to share it with everyone else who made the agreement happen. The new cabinet shares were thus mainly given to those in favor of the new FM-FPM alliance: More than a third of the new cabinet was now answering in a way or another to the Godfather of the C&R bloc, who also happens to be the President of the Lebanese Republic Michel Aoun. In other words, while Michel Aoun cannot by the rules of the Lebanese constitution change his Prime Minister by a simple presidential decree like the pre-Taef days, he could now deny quorum by ordering his ministers to boycott the sessions and even dethrone Hariri by another method: Asking his 11 ministers to resign. For the first time since 2005, the FPM were in command of the veto power in the cabinet without the help of the Marada, Hezbollah and Amal to reach the blocking third. Bassil, leader of the FPM, will be his father-in-law’s foreign minister, while the FPM and President got to have the defense and justice ministries, two important ministries, especially when you realize that Lebanon’s two biggest sources of political conflict, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, and Hezbollah’s arms, are directly related to those two ministries. In a way, Hezbollah gets to keep those two issues under control via the supervision of the FPM (still Hezbollah’s ally).

The LF have 4 ministers (and 5 portfolios), probably in order to limit their voting influence in parliament while also making them feel they’re on the winning side although they did not get any key ministry and only managed to hold one important ministry (as opposed to Aoun’s C&R bloc who got 2 important portfolios and 1 sovereign one).  The LF get the important ministry of health, the official spokesman post of the cabinet (who is the minister of information), the prestigious post of Deputy Prime Minister, and the ministry of Social affairs (not that important but nevertheless a very smart choice before parliamentary elections)

The Future Movement now have 7 ministers/votes (including the sovereign interior ministry portfolio that deals with parliamentary elections) behind the Prime Minister (the biggest bloc in the cabinet), and when you add the 3 ministers of Amal, the 2 ministers of the PSP, the Marada minister, and the 3 votes of the Lebanese Forces, you’ll find that the Prime Minister has 16 votes of close allies by him. That’s the 1/2 +1 of the cabinet, enough for Hariri to take decisions without the green light of the President.

As for Hezbollah, they will start 2017 with literally the smallest share in the cabinet in terms of quantity (2) and quality (sports and industry), but oversee the justice and defense departments via the FPM, and, in March 8 terms, are at the core of the majority in the cabinet: While Hariri is indeed the Prime Minister, the C&R bloc have at least 10 ministers, Amal have 3, Frangieh has 1, the SSNP party has 1, and they have 2. The March 8 alliance has the majority of the cabinet with 17 ministers. That makes you think how the decision from Hariri to elect Aoun without agreeing on a package deal first could have been a strategic mistake.

When it comes to M14/M8 comparisons, Hariri is only Prime Minister in name: He will lead a cabinet where the parties who were known as the March 8 alliance in 2009, his rival coalition, form the majority, although his initial alliance had won the 2009 elections. In two words: Lebanese politics.

It is important to note how Berri is playing the long-term game here, giving up the Shiite portfolio in the “important category” and handing it to Frangieh in order to empower a third Christian voice in a cabinet where Christian portfolios are now dominated by the LF and the FPM. In the previous governments, Berri could always count on the ministers of the former President, on the LF ministers or on the Kataeb ones to keep the FPM’s monopoly on the Christian side of the cabinet in check. But this time, the President is Aoun, the LF are the FPM’s main backers, and the Kataeb are outside the government. Frangieh is Berri’s last weapon to annoy Aoun. And in this cabinet, he gave that weapon teeth: Fenianos, the Marada minister, will head the ministry of public works, literally the most important ministry before parliamentary elections.

YEP. The two last words of this post will be the most important two words in 2017: PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS. Here’s to a happy new Year, free of parliamentary term extensions, and full of new members of parliament.

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Introducing the Robert Fadel Maneuver

Robert Fadel (Image source The Daily Star Mohamad Azakir)

Robert Fadel (Image source: The Daily Star/ Mohamad Azakir)

Wait, what? An MP resigned?

Yesterday, Tripoli’s Greek Orthodox MP, Robert Fadel, dropped a political bomb and announced that he was resigning from parliament, because the new Tripoli municipal council had no Christian representatives: “More than one essential component was absent or marginalized from the new municipal council,” Fadel said in an email statement.

True, 126 MPs should resign their seats as well since they weren’t elected and their presence in parliament is unconstitutional according to the constitutional council itself, but it should be noted that MP Fadel’s resignation is by far the perfect example of a Lebanese politician’s maneuver.

The context

With draft electoral laws being discussed in joint commissions once again – including talks of major changes, such as switching 60 or even 64 seats to proportional representation , bigger electoral districts might replace caza ones, and the Greek Orthodox seat might find his way to a larger PR district as a way to give the FPM-LF alliance a political win they can call huge while it’s actually not that relevant to the nationwide politics (although changing the law is extremely likely after the municipal elections almost overthrew every major politician in his “fiefdom” making proportional representation a risky prospect for everyone).

So in other words, there might not be a Greek Orthodox parliamentary seat in Tripoli in 2017 (It would be transferred to a greater North constituency with PR representation), and Fadel can no longer count on an alliance with the city’s politicians – No matter who they are (Mikati, Safadi, Karami, Hariri or Rifi). He’ll either have to run in a district that includes Zgharta, where he might face Frangieh, the strongest presidential candidate right now (or Frangieh Jr, the son of the next president in case that candidate makes it to Baabda) – good luck with that, or he’ll have to run in a district that includes Batroun. There, he’ll have to face Boutros Harb (or a successor), Gebran Bassil – the president of the FPM, and Antoine Zahra of the LF. Depending on the redistricting, he might run for a seat in the entire North governorate. And that means going against all of the above politicians.

Fadel had to face the fact that he was going to run against a presidential candidate or the son of a presidential candidate, or the son-in-law of a presidential candidate and the president of the biggest Christian party who also happens to be supported by the second strongest Christian party and a potentially very powerful independent candidate and local politician. To make things even worse, two of those politicians (Harb, Bassil) are currently in the cabinet.

So what did he do? He resigned, because there were no Christian members of the municipality in the city – in order to try and “win the hearts” of the Christian electorate of Batroun, Zgharta, and Koura, a year before general elections, while also making sure that it was almost impossible for anyone else to take his seat from now till June 2017. But the maneuver isn’t that simple.

The timing

Theoretically, and according to article 41 of the Constitution, “Should a seat in the Chamber become vacant, the election of a successor shall begin within two months. The mandate of the new member shall not exceed that of the old member whose place he is taking; however, should the seat in the Chamber become vacant during the last six months of its mandate, no successor may be elected.”
That means we should have elections by August – similar to the Jezzine by-elections earlier this month, but Fadel resigned one day after parliamentary elections could have been held to replace him, and we live in Lebanon, so if the interior ministry was going to organize parliamentary by-elections in Tripoli, it was going to be last week, when the city had its municipal ones. If the Jezzine by-elections took two years to happen (after the death of MP Helou in 2014) Tripoli by-elections are unlikely to happen before May 2017, and no one of the mainstream establishment parties is going to risk losing a Tripoli seat a day after Rifi won the city. It’s a risky prospect, and gives the opportunity to Rifi, Tripoli’s rising politician, to get a Christian politician by his side. That’s literally the worst thing that could ever happen to any of the parties in power, since it would mean that Rifi can slowly expand his influence in the other Sunni regions – The Sunni leaders of the establishment, when “big enough”, have always been known of allying themselves with minor Christian figures in their regions – while also threatening the Christian parties’ dominance in the North.

So yeah, I’ll repeat what I said earlier: No one of the mainstream establishment parties is going to risk losing a Tripoli seat a day after Rifi won the city. Fadel’s seat will remain vacant till 2017, so no one could actually fill the vacancy, and if the Tripoli seat remains in the city, Fadel will run with his Sunni allies just like the good old days of 2009 (In the end – and in a way – he resigned because they lost the municipal elections). If it’s going outside the city, where the Christian electorate is expected to have a higher percentage (Christians are around 40% of the Northeners), he has the best sectarian card ever to face the FPM, the LF, Harb (and if Koura is included, other independents like Makari) : He can say he’s the only MP who resigned for “a Christian cause”.

Mikati tried to do the same maneuver in the Sunni camp when he resigned back in 2013, right before parliamentary elections, when Rifi was being isolated (If you guys remember), so it’s actually an old-school maneuver many Lebanese politicians like to use in times of trouble.

ALSO, if you notice, Fadel resigned exactly 3 years after the first parliamentary extension. Now that is what you call a smooth maneuver.

La morale: Campaigning for the parliamentary elections has just begun. Brace yourselves. It’s going to be an exciting year of political maneuvers.

738 days since the 25th of May (presidential vacancy). 1097 days since the 31st of May (parliamentary extension) .

The Month that Doesn’t Count

Lebanon municipal elections 2016

A Lebanese woman walks past posters of candidates for the upcoming Beirut municipal elections on a shop window in the Lebanese capital’s Christian dominated neighbourhood of Ashrafiyeh on May 4, 2016. Municipal elections in Lebanon take place every six years, with political parties often forming joint candidate lists. The vote on May 8, 2016, is the first of any kind in Lebanon since the last municipal elections in 2010. Image source: Patrick Baz – Getty images

This is the 20th post in a series of monthly posts covering the presidential elections. This post is about the month of April (and the first few days of May) 2016.

In Lebanese politics, there are months that “count”, and months that “don’t count” when it comes to political maneuvering. There’s a pattern when it comes to policy making: short periods of “active” deadlocks – full of efficient political maneuvering that eventually give you results – are often followed by even shorter periods of political stability. After the shorter periods comes a longvery long period – of deadlock that is extremely similar to what they call in football a “dead rubber match” (a match that has no effect on the winner and loser of the series, other than the number of matches won and lost). The dead rubber period can be full of maneuvers, or it can simply have no political developments at all. It all depends on the laziness of Lebanese politicians.

This month – just like the ones before – was mostly a dead rubber period, but not because Lebanese politicians were lazy. In fact, they were even more focused than before, concentrating all their efforts on the municipal elections. Municipal elections in Lebanon are an extremely complicated process known to bring rivals together (the example of Beirut) but also create tensions between allies (the example of Zahle), so the whole maneuvering mechanism becomes useless and old-fashioned. People are no longer influenced by a politician’s national speech, and start instead thinking about more than 10000 local seats to fill in municipal councils. On the bright side, that means that this post will be a lot shorter than the previous monthly posts, since there were very few politicians who cared to maneuver on a nation-wide scale.

Except Jumblatt. Jumblatt was hyperactive.

The bey of Mukhtara was extremely hyperactive this month: He politically clashed with Abdelmenhem Youssef, a ministry of telecommunications official close to the FM – theoretically an ally – accusing him of corruption, then politically clashed with the mayor of Beirut – theoretically an ally, before finally politically clashing  with the minister of interior – also theoretically an ally. And finally, after accusing all of those FM loyalists with corruption, he eventually allied himself with the FM in Beirut municipal elections. You know, because Walid Jumblatt.

But the most important event of the month was Jumblatt’s decision to resign from parliament – after extending his term twice, because again, Walid Jumblatt. The PSP leader’s maneuver is brilliant: He promised to resign only when the parliament meets in a legislative session. If there’s something Lebanon’s Christian parties agree on, it’s the fact that legislating in the middle of a presidential vacancy is unconstitutional. It made them unite in November, and only two of the three major parties eventually attended the last legislative session, after making an issue out of it and getting something in return. There has been a lot of talk of a legislative session happening soon, and as Berri was trying to push his agenda of convening the parliament to legislate, Jumblatt’s move – in a way – was meant to put pressure on the other parties to make the legislative session possible: No one likes Jumblatt in parliament, and although his presence inside or outside parliament would be the same, it would nevertheless be nice for the Christian parties to imagine themselves electing a president in a Walid-Jumblat-less parliament. Christian parties aren’t exactly fans of Berri, especially since the speaker endorsed Frangieh in March, and have since then tried to thwart all of his moves. But Jumblatt wasn’t only trying to  tempt the Christian parties into participating in legislative sessions: By resigning (he eventually probably won’t), he creates a vacancy for his son Taymour to get elected unopposed (who is going to run against the heir of Mukhtara in by-elections one year before elections?) which means that Taymour would gain more power and experience a year before the decisive general elections in 2017, with Abu Taymour acting as his mentor and the godfather of the party. That was already Walid Jumblatt’s plan since last year (here’s a nice post about that, in case you forgot), when he told us all he was going to resign, then eventually did not – again, because Walid Jumblatt.

And Gemayel. Gemayel was hyperactive too.

As Aoun and Geagea were using their new alliance to blame the Muslim ally of their new Christian ally for not supporting their new Christian candidate (sorry for that complicated sentence), Sami Gemayel was micro-maneuvering in the last ten days in April by finally naming five presidential candidates – The Kataeb have long been crticized for standing in the way of all of the mainstream candidacies without providing an alternative. Curiously, and among the five candidates, you’ll find the name of Michel Aoun’s son-in-law. Yeah, not Gebran Bassil, the son-in-law currently in charge of the FPM, but the other one, Chamel Roukoz, whose popularity is a big threat on the FPM’s new number 1. By embracing the candidacy of the son-in-law of one of the two most popular candidates, that happens not to be the son-in-law leading the party, and also happens to be the son-in-law who is a retired general – apparently 18 years of generals in Baabda aren’t enough, the Kataeb are trying to turn the Aounists on one another.

Nice maneuver, but it’s a bit cliché: The FM tried something similar in July and August, and it wasn’t too effective.

The experience of Sleiman Frangieh

Meanwhile, while all the other Christian parties were spending all their efforts on discussing rumors of tawteen, Frangieh, who is by now supported by almost every mainstream Muslim party in the republic, ignored the maneuvering of the LF, the Kataeb, and the FPM, did not fall into the trap – like a boss – of even mentioning the subject, and from Tripoli, “rejected attempts to eliminate Lebanon’s Arab identity”. Those of you who read the blog probably already know by now that changing the subject is the most efficient way of ending a political maneuver – no matter how professional that maneuver is. It’s in times like these that you realize Frangieh has 15 extra years of experience in the domain than the other three of the Maronite four.

Oh, and in case you wondered, the parliament becomes even more unconstitutional this Monday.

Happy voting this May. Choose change.

713 days since the 25th of May (presidential elections). 549 days since the 5th of November (second parliamentary extension) .

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). 

Lebanon’s Divisive Presidency

Aoun Geagea Kanaan Riachi 18 January 2016

The following analysis was first published in Sada on February 2, 2016.

After surprising developments in November, Saad Hariri of the March 14 alliance’s Future Movement endorsed Sleiman Frangieh of March 8’s Marada Movement for president, bypassing March 8’s favored candidate, Michel Aoun. Hariri’s support for Frangieh—who had previously indicated he would not stand in the way of Aoun’s candidacy before he announced his bid on December 17—was meant to drive a wedge between members of the March 8 alliance, but is now backfiring on Hariri’s own March 14 alliance.

March 14 was endorsing its own candidate, Samir Geagea of the Lebanese Forces (LF). However, Hariri endorsed Frangieh, seeking to showcase him as a consensual candidate from the very heart of March 8—and attract parties from all sides to a possible deal without granting a victory to Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). Initially, the strategy appeared to work: at first, March 8’s Amal Movement and the independent Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) rallied around the new bid. Meanwhile the FPM was left blindsided as Aoun suddenly appeared a less serious candidate than Frangieh, formerly a junior ally from the weakest of the four main Maronite parties. Moreover, by supporting Frangieh, the Future Movement was trying to lure Hezbollah away from Aoun. They hoped that open support for Frangieh, who has close ties with the Syrian regime, would encourage Hezbollah to switch its votes toward Frangieh and in so doing destroy the Hezbollah–FPM alliance that forms the cornerstone of the March 8 coalition.

But realizing that support for Frangieh would have shattered their ties with the FPM and discredited the party in Christian popular opinion, Hezbollah stood with Aoun. Instead, Hariri’s endorsement of a March 8 candidate drove wedges within his own March 14 alliance. The Lebanese Forces, the leading Christian party of March 14, saw Hariri’s act as a betrayal. Not only was the party humiliated when its ally endorsed a different candidate than Geagea, Frangieh’s strong backing in northern Lebanon would threaten the LF’s influence in its most important region. The LF, and Geagea himself, retaliated by endorsing Aoun—a wartime rival—keeping Geagea’s 2007 promise that if it came to it, he would “preserve his Christian credibility by breaking with Hariri” rather than support a “weak figure” for president.

While Geagea’s endorsement of Aoun is a huge moral boost for the latter’s presidential bid, it is in fact of little practical significance. The Lebanese Forces have only 8 MPs—with Frangieh abandoning support for the Aoun candidacy, Aoun loses the 3 MPs from the Marada Movement and is in the end only getting 5 more votes. As Aoun is 81 years old—and Gebran Bassil, his recently appointed political heir, has twice in a row lost parliamentary elections in his home district of Batroun to the LF’s Antoine Zahra—an alliance between the LF and FPM would make Geagea the natural presidential favorite for the next presidential elections.

Geagea’s endorsement of Aoun was also driven by concerns over the LF’s parliamentary clout. The Lebanese Forces, though the second-largest Maronite party after the FPM, commands only 8 out of 128 MPs in parliament and had limited leverage when it came to Lebanese politics. For the past ten years, they had relied on their alliance with the much larger Future Movement. So when the Future Movement abandoned the Geagea candidacy, it was clear that the alternative is to enhance their parliamentary share through a potential alliance with the FPM. While it is still too soon to know if the presidential endorsement will effectively turn into an electoral alliance, such a move could benefit both parties in the next parliamentary elections if they unite against the other Maronite lists.

The goal of Hariri’s endorsement was to bring down the March 8 alliance, but instead, the three biggest parties of the March 14 alliance are now divided. The Lebanese Forces party is supporting Aoun, the Future Movement is supporting Frangieh, and the Kataeb Party is refusing to support either of them. It is now too late for the Future Movement to endorse Geagea again, who formally dropped his candidacy when he backed Aoun’s bid, and Frangieh is refusing to withdraw from the race unless the Future Movement endorses Aoun. By contrast, the main alliance of March 8 is still holding together—at least for now. Nasrallah’s speech on January 29 reiterated Hezbollah’s support for Aoun, and the party has not lost its ties with the FPM. Though the Amal Movement’s stance is still unclear, these other two largest March 8 parties remain united.

Aoun, Geagea, and Hezbollah are now on one side of parliament, with Frangieh and Hariri on the other side. In the middle are parties like the PSP, who went back to endorsing their original candidate, Henri Helou, and the Amal Movement, which has yet to make a formal endorsement. This means that Aoun’s bid is not yet certain to gather the absolute majority in parliament. Without these 65 votes guaranteed, presidential politics go back to square one.

 

The Christian Wedding and the Presidential Elections

Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and former General Michel Aoun celebrate with officials from both parties Geagea's official endorsement of Aoun's candidacy for the presidency. Image source - Annahar

Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and former General Michel Aoun celebrate with officials from both parties Geagea’s official endorsement of Aoun’s candidacy for the presidency. Image source – Annahar. In case you were wondering, I’m calling this agreement the “Christian wedding” because of the cake.

 

Political maneuvers are Lebanon’s daily bread, but very few are the moments that will truly shape Lebanon’s modern history: The 8th and 14th of March 2005, the 6th of February 2006, the 7th of May 2008, the 2nd of August 2009 and the 12th of January 2011 were the main plot twists in Lebanon’s recent political history. That was until the 18th of January 2016 happened.

On the 18th of January 2016, Lebanon’s biggest Christian rivals since the civil war ended more than 25 years of confrontation, and made (political) peace: 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. It was an attempt to end what is soon to become a 2 years presidential crisis that has left the country’s main post vacant because of the deadlock caused by the March 8 alliance and March 14 alliance’s disagreement. While it is far too soon to know the impact of this agreement on Lebanese politics and its outcome on the presidential elections in particular, the Aoun-Geagea agreement was almost unthinkable 8 months ago, and is on the verge of shattering the March 8 and 14 alliances for good.

As Elie of the blog A Separate State of Mind points out, the move also comes to the backdrop of a 10 point agreement that the two forged over the past 6 months. It reads as follows:

Geagea Aoun Agreement

I will comment on those points afterwards.

How it happened – Step 1

Although it was definitely unexpected, Geagea’s endorsement of Aoun was the most obvious of all political maneuvers – even too obvious to be true. Presidential elections are sacred to Lebanon’s Christian parties – the past 70 years of Lebanon’s history remind us of that every day. It is the highest post any Maronite can be elected to, and thus becomes the career goal of the Christian Zuamas. So when Hariri threw his political bomb in the last days of 2015 and hinted at the possibility of electing Sleiman Frangieh – the second in command of March 8’s Christians and one of the most pro-Syrian politicians in the parliament – while abandoning the candidacy of Samir Geagea, it was a political declaration of war.

Yet it was a rather smart gamble from Hariri: The Lebanese Forces were by far the most predictable party in Lebanese politics. For 11 years, they had stood with the Future Movement, while other alliances kept changing every year. In 2013, when the parliament was called to vote on the Orthodox gathering electoral law, they were the only Christian party that refused to do so – at the request of the FM, after they had drafted another electoral law draft together. In 2014, they stood alongside the FM once again and gave the parliamentary extension the Christian legitimacy it needed – the FPM and Kataeb had boycotted the session. In 2015, and while Lebanon’s Muslim parties – among them was the FM – were struggling to gather Christian legitimacy for a parliamentary session, it was the Lebanese Forces who saved the day once again, this time even bringing the FPM with them to the session. True, the Lebanese forces refused to participate in the 2014 unity cabinet, but that decision did not bring major harm to their long-term ally.

How it happened – Step 2

So when Hariri, as well as Berri and the PSP rallied around the candidacy of Sleiman Frangieh, the FM probably thought that the Lebanese Forces would at the very most oppose that move while insisting on the candidacy of Geagea, someone from March 14 or anyone else in the middle. But they were wrong, and should have paid more attention to the recent LF maneuvering in Lebanese politics. Every time a mini-dialogue between the FM and Hezbollah was starting, the FPM and the LF were responding  – because of the fear that Hezbollah and the FM might agree on someone other than Geagea or Aoun- by getting closer. The mini Hezbollah-FM dialogues eventually led to mini FPM-LF rapprochements (in fact, if you remember correctly, the fear of an FPM-LF alliance pushed the Kataeb, Michel Sleiman, and other minor Christian politicians to unite under one front in March). All in all, that led in the end to an agreement to agree on an agreement between Aoun and Geagea in June 2015. It was called “the declaration of intent” and was the two Christian parties’ way of saying to their Muslim allies “it’s either one of us, or we ally together against you”. The message was very obvious: If you read the June 2015 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”. And in case you still don’t know what a “strong president” means after 20 months of presidential vacancy, “Strong” = Aoun and /or Geagea.

How it happened – Step 3

The FM – unlike Hezbollah, who refused to support Frangieh – chose to ignore the message that was the declaration of intent, and supported Frangieh in a very intelligent attempt to blow up the March 8 alliance:

I explained it two years ago, last year, and I’ll explain it again: For Hezbollah, Aoun is silver but Frangieh is gold. Frangieh – unlike Aoun who has 18 MPs representing solely the FPM – doesn’t have a big bloc (4 MPs, including himself and Emile Rahme who is much more pro-Hezbollah than he is pro-Frangieh). Frangieh also has a limited electorate that he can rely on. And by limited, I mean it in a geographical, demographic, and sectarian way. Most (If not all) of Frangieh’s popular base is Christian, mostly Maronite, from the Zgharta Caza (Which is one of the smallest in terms of parliamentary representation with 3 MPs) and some of the surrounding villages in Koura. Frangieh doesn’t have foothold outside the North, belongs to a feudal family – and most importantly – faces continuous competition from other renowned political families established in Zgharta (Such as the Mouawads). In other words, Frangieh is too weak and can be manipulated by Hezbollah / Future Movement while Aoun (as a comparison) is much, much harder to keep under control. If Aoun switches sides, his ~ 22/23 MPs would be enough to change the status quo and throw a party outside the cabinet – be it Hezbollah, or even the FM. Frangieh can’t do anything with his 3 MPs (Yes, 3, because once he’s elected he loses his seat 😛 – And it’s actually 2 since you can’t really count Rahme as a loyalist). Frangieh won’t have his own base in the parliament to rely on, which means that he will fully be dependent on Hezbollah or the FM in everything concerning the legislation. Even if Frangieh wants to call for demonstrations, it wouldn’t have any impact unless Hezbollah joins him. Aoun wouldn’t need Hezbollah at all on the popular level (the 2015 summer demonstrations prove it) –  in fact it would hurt him since the counter-propaganda would make it look as if his supporters aren’t Christian – making him an “illegitimate” Christian president. Frangieh is also a lot more pro-Syrian than Aoun is, and the Frangiehs have historical family ties with the Assad family that are almost 50 years old. Which means that even if every single MP in M14 endorses Frangieh, he would always be a friend of Syria – and thus closer to Hezbollah. Aoun, on the other hand, is a lot more unreliable so he might be a pain in the ass in case he decides to switch sides or go against the Syrian regime.

La morale: If you’re Hezbollah, and have to choose between Frangieh and Aoun, you’ll choose Frangieh every time. Every time.

How it happened – Step 4

But that’s not how the party of God thinks, since Hezbollah decided not to fall in the trap of supporting the Frangieh deal and eventually stood with Aoun. Agreeing to the Frangieh deal would have probably meant that Hariri was going to become PM again, that March 14 would regain foothold in the cabinet, and that the alliance Hezbollah has with the only non-Shia party collapses (it would have discredited Hezbollah for the next decade). Frangieh was not worth shattering the March 8 alliance.

Hariri’s gamble was brilliant, but it failed. And the FM were too slow to end it. The fact that the LF were very predictable and had never moved against the FM probably made the latter party think that rumors about a possible LF support to Aoun in early January were just a bluff destined to put a halt to the Frangieh deal. Maybe it was a bluff and maybe it wasn’t, but when the FM did not respond to the rumors, insisted on Frangieh, and did not support Geagea again, the Christian wedding eventually happened.

How it happened – Step 5

2009 lebanese parliament seats

The most important table in Lebanon for the next few months. Number of seats for every party in the parliament. Note that there are 127 instead of 128 because an FPM PM has past away in the summer. Compiled with the help of Wikipedia.

(a candidate needs at least the absolute majority, 65 votes, to win the elections in the second round. In the first round the candidate needs the two-thirds of the 128 votes, and that’s 86 votes)

The Lebanese Forces had all the reasons in the world to deny support for both candidates – Aoun and Frangieh. Look at the table above: As far as everyone was concerned, Frangieh had the support of the Future Movement (as well as their closest allies (blue)?), Amal, the PSP, and himself (the Marada). That means 28+13+11+3 = 55 seats. Their close allies (in blue) are about 9 MPs, and the other centrists have around 7 votes. 55+9+7= 71. And that’s if EVERYONE approves and has no problem with frangieh. But as the example of Khaled Daher (Daher, of the FM, said he preferred Aoun over Frangieh) shows, definitely not everyone from the center and M14 is going to vote for Frangieh. It is even said – in the dark alleys of the republic – that Berri is giving his MPs the freedom to choose between Aoun and Frangieh. Moreover, the quorum needed to let the session proceed is 86 MPs, which means that you need 43 MPs to stop the elections, and Hezbollah, the (Marada-less) FPM, and their smaller allies have 23+13+2+2+1= 41 MPs. Providing quorum, without Aoun and Hezbollah’s blessing, in order to elect Frangieh, will be the most difficult task on earth.

And if the LF deny quorum, it will be an impossible task. So everything the LF could have done to thwart the election of Frangieh was to deny quorum. The absence of support from the biggest two Christian parties in parliament would have also had a huge moral impact on elections that concern the top Christian post. There was no need to go as far as supporting Aoun. Not participating in the elections would have been more than enough, and would have weakened both Aoun and Frangieh.

But the LF did not only refuse to support Frangieh: They fully endorsed Aoun, another candidate from March 8, and for several important reasons. 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. It’s as if there was a choice between Karami and Hariri for the premiership in 2023, and the LF choose March 8’s barely-known Abdul Rahim Mrad instead of Hariri. So you can imagine the humiliation the LF went through when Hariri endorsed Frangieh.

If you can’t beat them, join them

The endorsement of Aoun by Geagea is definitely an “eye for an eye” maneuver. But the new mini-alliance between the two Christian parties is also more than that: It makes 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 now – far less popular than Geagea (having lost twice in a row the parliamentary elections in his home district against Geagea’s candidate) who will also have the seniority. If Aoun makes it this time, Geagea is likely going to be his successor. True, it is not written in their agreement, but it’s a natural result of the deal.

The Lebanese Forces, after 11 years in parliament, have realized that they cannot defeat Aoun on their own, even with the full weight of a 40 MPs FM-led bloc. They have also probably come to realize that the FM can turn their back on them, just as every Lebanese party can turn his back on another Lebanese party. The Kataeb are a rival to their monopoly within M14, and the only real way to increase their influence is by increasing their number of MPs in parliament. In a parliament of 128, they have a bloc three times smaller than the FPM’s. An alliance with the FPM would mean total dominance of the Christian constituencies by the FPM-LF duo in the next elections, and the ousting of the Kataeb and Christian independents from the Metn, Achrafieh, and the North. Their alliance would also give them negotiating ground everywhere else, as they will probably claim that they could control and influence at least 80% of the Christian electorate. That means a lot more MPs for the two Christian parties in the next elections, and even more MPs for the LF in particular.

The ten-point agreement between the LF and the FPM, while not directly criticizing Hezbollah, is very, very similar to the Baabda declaration and calls for an independent (no sign of the word “neutral” in the article) foreign policy, more efficient border control, a new electoral law, no use of weapons, as well as other cliche sentences that have become irrelevant with time and are not even worth translating. The agreement can’t be more vague which is actually good for both political sides on the short-term. For example, the LF can say that “independent” implies “neutral”, and the FPM can say that it does not imply that. It works for both parties.

Geagea never had the support of March 8 and the center, lost the Kataeb’s support early on, and is now Future Movement-less. The LF have lost the presidential battle: That is more clearer today, that it ever was or will ever be. And this why they have opted to support Aoun’s candidacy. It’s a long-term investment that could definitely be worth the wait. For Aoun, the endorsment of Geagea is a huge moral boost, but has little impact whatsoever because of the small bloc the LF have in parliament. If Frangieh withdraws in favor of Aoun (no sign of that happening anytime soon), Aoun would have definitely secured his supremacy in parliament (the endorsement of three out of the four Maronite four) and would thus only need to find a way to secure the quorum in parliament (offering the premiership to Hariri would be an interesting thing he could try).

 The impact in parliament

The impact of the Christian wedding on Lebanese politics will be huge. If you look at the table above, the 42 MPs that were expected to deny quorum + the 8 MPs of the LF mean that Aoun now has at least around 50 MPs behind him. Without Amal’s support of 13 MPS, he doesn’t have the 65 MPs required for him to win, and even if support rises from the center (Mikata/Safadi), he will have only secured an absolute majority, which means that the other blocs could easily deny quorum and ironically use Aoun’s own weapon of denying quorum against him. And while Jumblatt withdrew his Frangieh support and is endorsing Helou once again (probably because he wants to keep a neutral stance between what seems to be a choice of the Christian-supported parties and another choice of a mainly Sunni-supported party, especially since his home district of the Chouf almost has an equal number of Sunni and Christian voters), that can only mean that the key player that will decide the outcome of the presidential elections is likely to be Berri. Amal have to choose between two Christian Zuamas who are the allies of its ally, and there are several scenarios of what might happen. It is said that Berri might even let his MPs choose freely. The FM is apparently sticking with Frangieh, although anything can still happen from now till the 8th of February – the date of the next presidential elections session. Some rumors are even hinting to the fact that Aoun might break with Hezbollah if Amal don’t support him, but that really doesn’t make a lot of sense since it would push Hezbollah towards Frangieh and effectively hand Frangieh the presidency.

The curious case of the Kataeb

While it is very clear that the Muslim parties still do not know what they are going to do with the whole Aoun-Frangieh conundrum, the Kaateb are experiencing one of the most difficult periods of their recent history. While they might actually benefit from this deal (all the anti-Hezbollah Christians of March 14 now only have the Kataeb as party to support – note how the Kataeb are actually using this to their favor with Gemayel saying that he would never support an M8 candidate and criticizing Geagea for supporting March 8’s choice), their very small bloc in parliament,  as well as the fact that both the FPM and the LF have more support in the Christian areas, mean that the Kataeb risk total parliamentary annihilation in the next elections. The FM could always share with them a couple of Christian seats in Muslim-dominated districts, but the fact that they did not support the FM’s endorsement of Frangieh, that they stood against the FM when it came to the electoral law, to the parliamentary session of 2015, and to almost every major issue (except the cabinet formation) is not in their favor. Moreover, without the LF, the Kataeb cannot challenge the FPM in the Christian constituencies, reducing their margin of negotiation with the FM to an all-time low.

Finally, a lovely reminder that the Christian wedding did not end the trash crisis. We are still drowning in garbage. Thank you.

This post was the 17th post in a series of monthly posts covering the presidential elections. This post was about the month of January 2016.

 609 days since the 25th of May. 445 days since the 5th of November.

Lebanese Politics – 2015 In Review

The image that sums up 2015: A trash revolt and several crises in the cabinet

The image that sums up 2015: A trash revolt and several crises in the cabinet

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.

You might also like 2013’s review and 2014’s review.