Bimonthly analysis post

Burn the Witch

Bombshell from the Battle of Arsal, offered to Bassil from Hezbollah in order to be used as a Vase – May 2019

“The Lebanese Government resigned today after two days of nationwide riots over the worst economic crisis the country has experienced in years.

The Prime Minister announced his resignation here after angry demonstrators tried to storm his residence and the neighboring villa of the President. Soldiers and policemen guarding the officials fired over the heads of the protesters to disperse them.

Big clouds of black smoke hung over Beirut after thousands of demonstrators burned rubber tires, and set up roadblocks to stop traffic. All roads leading in and out of the capital were closed and large-scale disruptions were reported in all parts of Lebanon from Tyre in the south to Tripoli in the north. Protests were also held in most Christian districts after a four-day general strike was called by labor unions as of Tuesday. Shops, banks, schools and offices were shut. Marches quickly turned into riots as demonstrators broke up in bands who went around smashing bank signs. Most of the glass doors and windows in a building housing the Chamber of Commerce in mainly Muslim West Beirut were broken.

In the Christian part of town, a crowd of several hundred people tried to attack the residence of the Justice Minister but were turned back by the police. In Tyre, demonstrators on Tuesday attacked and set ablaze the residence of the Finance Minister. […]

The Government’s resignation leaves the country, with its civil war wounds still unhealed, in a power vacuum. Officials said the Prime Minister had not intended to step down until agreement had been reached on a new Cabinet, but that today’s riots, which involved his own home, speeded the resignation.

Popular fury had erupted over the near collapse of the national currency and soaring prices of essential commodities. The value of the Lebanese pound in relation to foreign exchange has been on the decline for the last three months, but in the last two days it slumped to an all-time low, selling at over 2,000 pounds to one American dollar compared to one third that rate at the beginning of the year.

Shops and gasoline stations refused to deal in Lebanese pounds and insisted on being paid in dollars.

An empty treasury after years of civil war plus lack of foreign assistance and reluctance by investors to pour money into the Lebanese market have contributed to what amounts to a real depression. The Government’s inflationary policies, such as increasing the salaries of civil servants by 120 percent at the beginning of the year, have been cited by economists and politicians alike as the real cause for the crisis.”

Close your eyes. Keep them closed. Imagine a small Mediterranean country – Beautiful shores (minus the trash), sunny roadtrips (minus the potholes), majestic landscapes (minus the quarries), friendly people (minus the civil war), beautiful archaeology (minus everything they’re dismantling). You can live with all those things – But you can’t live without money. Now open your eyes, and imagine that country broke. Imagine a devaluated currency. Imagine a government that can’t pay wages. Imagine an economic collapse. Imagine a financial tsunami. Imagine riots. Imagine banks and government offices being burned down.

Can’t imagine all those things? It’s Okay. They say imagination is only abundant among Lebanese politicians on the eve of elections (remember Hariri’s 900000 job opportunities?).

So since you are probably not a Lebanese politician, the quote above, from a New York Times article, was actually describing Lebanon on the 7th of May 1992 – I simply removed the names of the politicians who were in charge back then.

This is how the financial abyss looks like for the Lebanese and their politicians – and it never ends well. A lot has changed since the economic collapse of 1992 , but the only thing that has been stable for the past 30 years in Lebanon has been the Lira. It turns out, however, that you don’t need a 15 year Civil War to destroy a country’s economy. 30 years of corruption, uncontrolled public spending and squandering, chaotic debts and ignorance of the country’s financial woes can apparently lead to the same ending. By the end of 2018, and after more than a decade of ignoring state budgets in favor of bickering who gets to rule the country, Lebanese politicians started to realize that they had left the country in a financial and economic mess in the process – and that they were the ones who had to deal with the situation. Cash-flow was needed – so the CEDRE conference happened, but for the CEDRE funds to be unlocked, reforms were necessary. And for a party that changed the name of its parliamentary bloc from “Change and reform” to ” Strong Lebanon” after 13 years, reform was apparently not supposed to be a priority for the FPM – and yet here we are.

Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears a Crown

Gebran Bassil spent 15 years fighting his way into the Parliament, and it took his father-in-law twice that time to maneuver his way into Baabda palace. But by the first of February 2019, both had finally made it – The FPM controlled the presidency, had the biggest bloc in parliament, the swing vote and the blocking third in the government – and with the help of its allies, was finally in command of the Republic. For the first time in ages, Gebran Bassil’s party had total control and was 3 years safe from a parliamentary election or a parliamentary one. Although it looked as if the Syrian regime was back in command, for the FPM, the war was finally won. But with great power, comes great anxiety. Just like every Maronite who is past the age of puberty, the ambitions of Gebran Bassil don’t stop at the gates of Batroun’s parliamentary seat. You don’t need a PhD in nuclear physics to know that Bassil wants to succeed his father-in-law as President – and three obstacles stand in his way.

  • The first obstacle is the agreement that Aoun made with Geagea just before he became President, an agreement that made Geagea the second-in-command in the Christian scene and the de-facto heir to Michel Aoun’s presidency.
  • The second obstacle is that Bassil has very little support outside his political party. Geagea sees him as a competition in his own constituencies, Frangieh and Gemayel as an existential threat to what remains of their political influence. For Joumblatt, he’s arrogantly encroaching on the Joumblattist ancestral lands in the Chouf – making major electoral progress in the 2018 elections. For Berri he is a political newcomer who threatens the status-quo that the speaker has established for three decades. For Hariri, he is a timed political bomb in a fractured government, and for Hezbollah, only the heir to a political alliance that defined Lebanese politics for a decade and a half but grows weary with every day passing on.
  • The third major obstacle is simply due to bad luck and half a century of mismanagement. Gebran Bassil’s party is taking command at the worst possible timing in Lebanon’s modern financial history: Lebanon’s biggest economic crisis in three decades looms on the horizon, and there are only three ways out of it: The necessary financial and economic reforms will either hurt the ruling elite, the middle and low classes, or both. That is bad news for the Lebanese political clientelist-sectarian oriented system that thrives on the symbiosis of both components. Lebanese politicians have a tendency to get out of Civil Wars stronger and thrive on political crises, but there is one thing they do not come back from, and that is an economic crisis – Just ask Omar Karami.

It is the ultimate goal of any ruling party to stay in power. So with great power comes great political anxiety, and with economic crises a greater political anxiety. With greater political anxiety comes electoral panic, and electoral panic awakens the survival instinct of the Lebanese politicians – the only thing they actually brilliantly excel at: Sectarianism and racism.

Névrose de Destinée

Perhaps it is simply bad luck for Bassil’s party – after years and years of marginalization – to finally be the party in command at a time when everything is falling apart – or perhaps it’s all those years of parliamentary and government freezes that the FPM orchestrated in its quest for power that are finally coming back to haunt them. One thing is sure though: It’s not going to be an easy ride for the FPM now that they’re in power, and no matter what they do to try and fix Lebanon’s economic and financial woes, they will make a lot of enemies in the electoral constituencies where they plan on thriving in the 2022 elections. What elections, you say? Three elections: Parliamentary, municipal and – most importantly – presidential elections. Provided the ruling elite doesn’t postpone any of those elections – 2022 will be a key year in Lebanon, and a financial crash or harsh austerity budgets won’t look good for those who were there when they happened. Which is exactly why those in power had to figure out a way out.

Thor in the Republic

For the past couple of months – and especially since the third Hariri cabinet was formed – Lebanese politicians started curiously focusing on something they had previously ignored for decades: Fixing the electricity sector. Getting 24/7 electricity in the republic had always seemed like a virtual reality headline intended to recruit votes ahead of parliamentary elections, but now the ruling cabinet had been actually working very hard to come up with an electricity plan just a month after the cabinet was formed, and three years and a half before the earliest scheduled election. On April 8, the Council of Ministers finally adopted a new electricity policy paper, aimed at reforming the electricity sector. And while the plan has flaws, isn’t perfect and might very well never be implemented – it represents something very unusual in the way Lebanese politicians deal with things: (1) It’s a plan (2) that is real, (3) that was conceived right after elections, (4) and that has long-term implications. And how long-term are we talking here? 2022 is the big year for the plan. Deir Ammar 2’s output will increase to 550 MW, and power plants at Zahrani and Selaata will both come online, each producing 360 MW. This is the year that the plan forecasts EDL becoming profitable for the first time in decades. EDL’s deficit will shrink from $1.4 billion in 2019, to $574 million in 2020 and $307 million in 2021, and make humble winnings of $118 million in 2022, if everything goes according to plan.

Twenty Two Far for D-Day

But it doesn’t matter if the electricity plan works out before the elections. In Lebanon’s modern history, approximately 3 governments fall during every 4-year parliamentary term, and in Lebanese politics, 2022 is a very distant future for safeguarding our politicians’ survival in power. You can come back in 2022 and flaunt the fact that Nada Boustani’s electricity plan worked and that your party (or government) was the one who brought the the light back to Lebanon, but you’ll need another plan to power through the darkness phase until that happens (Yes, the pun was intended). But what darkness, do you ask?

NOT an Austerity Budget

” Today, it’s a trickle, and at this rate we might have a couple of years, based on published reserve numbers, but if it accelerates, which is looking likely, D-Day would strike in 2020.”

That was Dan Azzi at An-Nahar, trying to predict an approximate opening date for Lebanon’s looming fiscal fiasco. For the past year, the main focus of Lebanese lawmakers was the implementation of an “austerity” budget that would make it easier for the country to unlock the CEDRE funds. The parliament finally approved the budget on the 20th of July 2019 after 6 months of deliberations and negotiations with the representative of the different sectors.

But how do you create an austerity budget in a country like Lebanon where everything is dependent on the clientalism of those in power, and where even during official hiring freezes, thousands of employees are employed?

You don’t. You vote a regular budget and – wait for it – call it an *austerity budget* – Which is exactly what they did.

The 2019 Budget of the Lebanese republic is a lot of things, but there is one thing its is not. Unlike the official story being told by the members of the cabinet, it is not an austerity budget, and – unless a miracle happens – it will hardly influence the crisis on the horizon (for more info on the how the new budget is not an austerity one, I suggest you listen to this great podcast discussing it in detail).

The entire show mightactually be a strategy from the Lebanese cabinet to say that the 2019 “austerity” budget was not enough, as an excuse to actually implement real austerity reforms in the next budget without facing a more aggressive popular discontent than the one the government is currently dealing with. In the end, the 2020 budget should actually be discussed in a couple of months, and only time will tell if stronger fiscal measures will be taken by the government.

Goal-directed Anti-Syrian Sentiment

“Immigration is not intended to do good to mankind, but instead (aims) to harm the diversity and forgiveness in Europe and dismantle the human values that the European Union is built on.”

Lebanese politics is all about patterns and maneuvering. On the 10th of June 2016, Lebanon’s foreign minister at the time, Gebran Bassil, had one thing in mind. There was a presidential election to win, internal elections to influence, and parliamentary elections to prepare for. So he did – like any Lebanese politician would – what he does best: He played the sectarian card, and waited on results. Lebanon had a political crisis, a presidential vacancy, and a trash crisis that undermined the current political elite. For Bassil, the Syrian refugee crisis was not a burden – it was a political tool to rally the Christians around his party and to advance politically. When the foreign minister of Lebanon – a country’s whose diaspora is at least 5 times the size of the local population, a country whose economic system survives on the money coming in from its immigrants, a country that takes pride to be a population of traders and merchants – goes out and says from Finland that immigration is not intended to do good to mankind, it’s that the foreign minister either doesn’t understand how diplomacy works for a nation of immigrants, or that he willingly knows how it works and still chooses to continue with his strategy for the greater goal of personal political success.

Exactly 3 years later, in June 2019, and while Gebran Bassil was waging a different political war – having already won the presidency for his father in-law and the parliamentary elections with the party he leads – his primary strategy in achieving his goals was still the same. On the 8th of June, Bassil tweeted a video showing a crowd of FPM youth gathered outside a restaurant, singing the national anthem, calling for only Lebanese to be employed. While that was not the first time Bassil spearheaded or took advantage of the rising anti-Syrian (refugees) sentiment in the country, it was a major milestone: The FPM had found their new purpose. For years, the main objective of the FPM was centered around the idea of winning back the “Christian rights” – proposing electoral laws that maximized the Christian parties’ influence in parliament such as the Orthodox Gathering Law, blocking the presidential elections for three years in the name of getting a ” Strong Christian President in Baabda”, maneuvering like there’s no tomorrow in order to secure the maximal share of ministers appointed by the Christian parties, and finally waging an electoral battle in the name of claiming back Christian representation in Parliament. The price to pay was allying at times two of Aoun’s major rivals (Hariri and Geagea) while dropping long-term allies such as Sleiman Frangieh. Nevertheless, the FPM emerged from the political maneuvering stronger than ever, winning every single political battle in the past three years. As the leading political party among the Christians, the FPM’s struggle to maximize Christian representation in parliament and in government was naturally also a struggle to increase their influence and power across the political spectrum. And once the political influence was secured, it was time to keep it that way.

Burn the Witch

Lebanon has had Syrian refugees for 8 years now – but never in those 8 years has the anti-Syrian sentiment been so strong. For the past 6 months – curiously around the time the new austerity budget was being discussed – Bassil has been waging a political-diplomatic battle against the Syrian refugee’s presence in the country, tweeting about the issue more than Donald Trump tweets about his wall, touring the country as if it’s elections season, singlehandedly trying to raise (at the same time, in the spirit of sectarianism and coexistence – go figure) the alarm about the risk of “Tawtining the Syrian refugees” and yes, I used Tawtin as a verb, judge me if you want – before eventually getting to the point: To use the economic alibi of the Syrian presence in the country to his advantage. In his tweet on the 2nd of June, Bassil asked to protect the Lebanese labor force – indirectly (not that indirectly anyway) blaming the unemployment on the Syrian refugees, and – by simple generalization – throwing the entire weight of the Lebanese fiscal and economic crisis on the Syrian refugees. After years of political vertigo, the FPM had finally found their new raison d’être, their distraction and way out of the financial crisis. No more Christian rights to collect? Talk about the refugees. Unemployment problems? Talk about the refugees. Fiscal problems? Refugees. Too much immigration? Refugees. Too much debt? Refugees. Want to distract the entire republic from possible austerity measures? Refugees. For the past two months, The FPM’s politicians, spearheaded by Bassil, have been on an endless adventure focused on the refugee crisis. (See here, here, here, here, here, and here – You might as well check Gebran Bassil’s entire twitter feed that has somehow metamorphosed in the past couple of months into an anti Syrian refugee blog). In fact, Gebran Bassil went so far in his campaign that he started talking about a genetic feeling of belonging to Lebanon that only the Lebanese would understand.

This was not quite Nazi Germany, but in their quest to consolidate their newly-found power, The FPM needed to create a new “witch” for them to burn in times of crisis, a non-Lebanese threat, a scapegoat, something to keep the Lebanese busy with, a new raison d’être – especially that there are no Christian rights to collect anymore. The legend of 1975 also says that using Muslim refugees as a boogeyman is a nice way to unite Christian under your banner.

Choose Your Scapegoat

In fact, the FPM went so far in their anti-Syrian rhetoric that the Washington Post described them in an article on the 26th of June as “ultranationalists“. And the very fact that the FPM politicians were now seen as the right-wingers among the Christian parties did not go well down with the traditional right-wingers, the Lebanese Forces. The FPM has always been seen as the centrist, moderate Christian party, but now it became so ambitious and wanted to gather all Christian factions under its wing – the right wingers and the centrists.

So how would the Lebanese Forces respond to the rising “ultranationalist” side of the FPM? By reminding the country that there was only one true right-wing party among the Christians, and that is the party led by Samir Geagea: In what seemed like a move that was out of the blue, the LF’s representative in the ministry, Camille Abou Sleiman, decided in July to crackdown on illegal Palestinian refugee workers, causing uproar in the camps and leading the Palestinians to go on a general strike. But Abou Sleiman’s move was not a miscalculated one, nor was it out of the blue. Through his sectarian and racist campaign, Gebran Bassil had miraculously activated the dormant Lebanese Forces and started a sick game where the Christian parties would now compete on who can crackdown more on refugees.

Every Lebanese party needs a scapegoat, and it seems the LF and the FPM had found theirs. So if the FPM was going to be seen as the party that led the country to the financial abyss, they might as well blame someone else for it, and show themselves as the ones trying to fix that refugee problem in the process. You only burn the witch after 8 years if you want that devaluated Lira to go unnoticed.

The Silence of the Lambs

While the FPM was gaining grounds in their newly found political purpose, Saad Hariri was surprisingly letting his foreign affairs minister run his affairs unchecked (pun intended, again). Aside from a few critical remarks to Bassil by calling his comments racist, Hariri did absolutely nothing else to contain the anti-Syrian sentiment.

Hariri and Bassil share the same cabinet together, and Bassil’s Machiavellian tactics are intended to save the face of the government that is Hariri’s before anyone else. Is it also that wise to clash with someone who can command a majority of the parliament votes? Hariri lost the elections and his presence in cabinet depends on two things now: The presidential settlement with the FPM, and his achievements towards the public. Providing cover for Gebran Bassil’s maneuvering allows him to consolidate both things; The alliance with the FPM, and a possible distraction in case the financial woes get bigger for the government. In the end, any crisis would hurt the Prime Minister’s career more than anyone else. In any other situation Bassil’s political campaign against Muslim refugees would have led to a divide between Lebanon’s Muslim and Christian parties and would have driven Lebanon to the brink of a Civil War, but this time keeping the PM’s seat will come at a price for Hariri, and if it’s not gonna be the Lebanese Lira, it will have to be Syrian refugees.

Why Have an Economy When You Can Have War

Walid Joumblatt’s PSP has always relied on a careful juggling of alliances between Lebanese politicians. So when the FPM and the FM began their tumultuous love journey ahead of the 2016 elections, it was clear the equilibrium that Joumblatt needed to thrive would be shattered. The fatal blow came however with the new electoral law that only shrunk the PSP’s share in parliament. Under the new political order, what remained of the March 14 alliance only controlled 11 ministers in the cabinet. That carefully calculated number meant that Joumblatt could actually rely in times of trouble on the blocking third by calling upon his closest allies: the LF and the FM. From outside March 14, Joumblatt could only count on Berri to support him in government. But Berri’s share is 3 ministers, and without the support of Hariri’s 5 seats in government, all hell could break loose for the PSP in Lebanese politics: Unable to rely on any blocking third (11 ministers), Joumblatt would lose any political influence he had in the central government.

So when the FM and the FPM started getting close again in the past few months and when it became obvious that Hariri would let Bassil roam free in his political campaign and that Hezbollah was willing to provide any political cover Bassil needed, it became clear for Joumblatt that he had effectively lost any bargaining chip he had. In order to try and sow discontent between the leading members of the ruling coalition, Joumblatt took it upon himself to put an end to Bassil’s increasing influence by calling Bassil racist at the start of June. But when words seemed powerless, Joumblatt tweeted on the 25th of June that he was no longer going to comment on political events through social media. So just when you thought that Joumblatt was calling for a political truce, the PSP decided to protest Bassil’s visit to the Aley district on the 30th of June. The protest turned into clashes, and the clashes led to a bloodbath with the death of pro-Arslan bodyguards. And while Hezbollah quickly tried to calm things down and worked to contain its allies, Joumblatt had sent a clear message to the leaders of the ruling coalition : He is still unpredictable, and isolating him would have major consequences.

As if it was still 1985, the Prince in the Chouf had effectively stopped the convoy of a foreign minister from entering a specific region in Lebanon, but contrary to popular belief, the military clash between the PSP and the LDP/FPM did not escalate quickly. It’s been happening for months, and those months of political maneuvering and scapegoating had to eventually spill over somehow.

The 2019 budget is over, long live the 2020 budget debate.

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The Republic of Distractions

Senior state officials commemorate GS anniversary in Beirut, August 26

Senior state officials commemorate General Security’s 72nd anniversary in Beirut, Lebanon. Saturday, August 26, 2017. (The Daily Star/ Mohammad Azakir)

On the 16th of June 2017, Lebanese politicians pulled what could arguably be considered as the biggest parliamentary achievement since the Doha agreement of 2008. After 7 years of procrastination, 4 years of planification, and 6 months of deliberations only dedicated to that cause (also overshadowed by calculated procrastination), Lebanon’s ruling parties finally agreed on a new electoral law. The plan was crystal clear: Adjourn the agreement on a new voting law as much as possible (from December 2016 to June 2017), and design a law that suits the interests of the ruling coalition as whole and gives an impression of reform while practically keeping the status-quo (click here for a dedicated analysis about Lebanon’s new electoral law) . Before President Aoun was elected in October 2016, the biggest obstacle that almost made the Aoun-Hariri consensus impossible was the fact that Aoun’s term was going to last till October 2022, while Hariri would only serve till the next theoretical parliamentary election, which – at the time – was May 2017. In an ideal world of Lebanese politics, that would have meant that Hariri’s term would last 6 months while Aoun’s rule would span for 6 years. For the Future Movement, it was out of the question to trade a government they controlled (The Salam one), with a regime that had Aoun at its head and no guarantees about its long-term cabinet future. It was thus crucial for Hariri to create an equilibrium to that consensual formula, by extending his premiership term. The only way to do that was via postponing parliamentary elections, and the only way to postpone elections was by procrastinating for months about a new electoral law, not preparing for new elections under the current law (Notice how both (1) the FM made sure to keep the interior ministry – that handles electoral preparations – under their command in the new Hariri cabinet, and (2) how Aoun refused over and over again to hold elections under the 2008 law), and eventually vote a new electoral law at the last-minute, coupled with a parliamentary term extension that no one would object to.

The plan was a solid one, and just like that, in June 2017, Hariri was given 11 more months in power (in exchange for crowning Aoun in his Baabda Palace), until April 2018, effectively tripling his theoretical stay, and giving enough time for the ruling parties to change alliances accordingly to the new law and reactivate their patronage networks ahead of the 2018 rescheduled spring elections.

Lebanon’s Zuamas had probably planned that entire scenario in October when Hariri “suddenly and surprisingly” agreed to support his Arch-nemesis Michel Aoun as President, and the 8 months-old speculation became reality when Lebanon’s parties finalized their collective maneuver on the 17th of June 2017. Lebanon’s ruling parties had successfully wasted precious time procrastinating on an electoral law in order to push for a parliamentary extension, and now that the parliamentary extension became reality, the time was for distractions.

The sky is the limit for our politicians’ political maneuvers, but the greatest of all machinations remains their ability to distract the people, and sometimes even their rivals, with a particular event, while they vote a law or implement a new rule. The Summer of 2017 will go down in history as a perfect example.

Throwback February

At the very end of February, Lebanese politicians were still bickering on what electoral system is best for the country, with Amal and Hezbollah asking for full proportional representation, the PSP refusing it, and the FPM, LF, FM and other parties trying to look for something in between. However, out of nowhere, they decided that it was not only time to discuss the state budget, but it was also the time to fund the new salary wage scale by imposing new taxes. By the 20th of February, and just when it was clear the Lebanese President was not going to sign the electoral decree that calls for parliamentary elections (in theory, it was in order to pressure the MPs into voting a new electoral law, while in practice all it did was paving the way to a third cancelled parliamentary election in a row by cancelling planned elections), Lebanese politicians started discussing the new controversial taxes they wanted to impose as part of the new budget. The ruling parties made sure that the public’s attention started shifting to the new economic policies instead of the parliamentary elections that were scheduled to happen in three months.

Distraction 1.0

But there was a problem: While the public was successfully distracted with the prospect of new taxes and a modified salary scale, Lebanese politicians couldn’t vote on raising taxes in the middle of a parliamentary crisis and ahead of a planned parliamentary extension with no electoral law in sight. It was too risky as a strategy, and similar faux-pas of angering the public had previously led to protests and more momentum for the opposition parties and groups (From the Kataeb to the multiple Hirak movements). So the politicians eventually aborted their mission of raising taxes after waves of protests probably started reminding them of the Summer of 2015. After all, this time Aoun and Hariri were both in power, which meant that protests would directly threaten their influence, unlike 2015 when both leaders weren’t personally in power and could sympathize/endorse some of the protests’ ideas as a way of “smoothing” their role in power.

By the end of April, the salary scale was not voted in parliament, the taxes funding it were not voted in parliament, protest fatigue quickly happened, but the electoral deadlines had passed. The first part of the mission was accomplished (electoral distraction), but the second part (raising the taxes), was postponed.

The law and the outskirts

The electoral law wa finally agreed upon in June, and the month of July starts with Jumblatt hailing the army’s endeavors to maintain stability, followed by Hariri “hailing the heroes of the Lebanese army” a day later – a stance also reiterated 10 days later, which was then followed by Hezbollah leaders calling for the defeat of Daesh. A couple of days earlier, the Lebanese army had foiled a terrorist attack near Arsal, and Lebanese politicians saw in that developement an opportunity like no other to maneuver. Leaders from both sides of the spectrum started calling for returning the refugees to Syria, and the sentiment culminated, with Hezbollah using the momentum to start a media war on ISIS and the Syrian rebels occupying the Lebanese North-East outskirts since 2014. By the 11th and the 14th of July, Both the FPM and the LF were calling for the Syrian refugees to return, and what started as a maneuver by Hariri (in a bad timing since there was a fallout between Hariri and Jumblatt at the time) to highlight the army’s supremacy – the army that answers to his cabinet – in the North-East and undermine Hezbollah backfired and gave Hezbollah an opportunity to strengthen their propaganda.

For years, Hezbollah had been fighting in Syria with no valid direct alibi for their presence except their alliance with the Syrian regime. Now, with ISIS and Nusra’s military presence in the outskirts of Arsal, Hezbollah had finally found the opportunity to justify their actions towards the Lebanese public ahead of parliamentary elections – notably the Christian swing-voting electorate that isn’t always too happy about alliances with Assad.

Launching an offensive on the militants in the outskirts that are a few Kilometers from Baalbak would also serve as a boost for Hezbollah in a region where the party is already popular but where elections that are supposed to be held on a proportionality basis might threaten Hezbollah’s influence.

Lebanese Politicians 1 – Panicking Lebanese 0

With the anti-refugee sentiment getting stronger by the day and rumors of Hezbollah preparing for an offensive in the North-East, activist groups called for rival demonstrations regarding the Syrian refugee crisis, and for a moment, it just seemed as if the scenario of 1975 was being repeated and the rival protests were heading for a clash. Fear led to exaggeration, exaggeration led to speculation, speculation led to censorship, and we all took the bait. The Lebanese government had allowed two rival protests regarding refugees and the army to take place, and then banned all protests after an impression was given that the protesters were going to clash.
What did I forget to tell you? A tax hike parliamentary session was taking place that Tuesday, and by banning all possible protests and focusing on an imminent civil strife, the ruling class had just directly used the refugees issue to make things easier for them in parliament without anyone noticing.

Distraction 2.0

But you can’t really raise taxes in this country without anyone noticing, and the alibi of backing the wage hike with the new taxes in the middle of a refugee crisis simply wasn’t enough in a corrupt Lebanon. A bigger distraction was thus needed in order to raise the taxes: On the Tuesday the 16th of July, the day Hezbollah launched skirmishes against Arsal militants ahead of its planned offensive, parliament began by voting the new salary scale into law after waiting it out for 5 years.

There are times when political agreements seem secret and mysterious, but the coalition’s agreement on July’s events was too obvious to be true: By the 20th of July, Hezbollah was finally moving in on Arsal militants – something that was deemed unfavorable in FM circles for years – in the exact 48 hours when FM leader and PM Hariri was leaving for Washington – the last time Hariri was in Washington in his official role as Prime Minister, Hezbollah brought his government down in the most humiliating way imaginable.

Hariri’s visit had a very awkward timing: It was arguably Lebanon’s most important economic and military week since at least 2014, and if a Lebanese Prime Minister should have stayed in the country for only 1 week out of the 54 available in a year, that week would have been good candidate. It seemed as if Hariri was running away from his responsibilities, but it was more than that: He was avoiding any clash with Hezbollah about their offensive against Syrian militants on Lebanese territory, a clash that seemed a necessary distraction for the Lebanese who just had their taxes increased. In a way, a “disappearing” Hariri gave Hezbollah a free pass to launch the offensive while Hezbollah gave Hariri and his cabinet a cover to raise the taxes, and the diplomatic trip to Washington was comfortably there to make that awkward trade a smooth one.  Now of course, FM and M14 leaders criticized Hezbollah for acting without the government’s approval, but Hariri wasn’t here to oversee that awkwardness as Prime Minister or to criticize the party of God as FM leader – at least in the early stages of the offensive (he eventually criticized it in a mild way on the 26th of July) . And even within March 14, there was some ambivalence about Hezbollah’s role, with Geagea positive about that Offensive (was this the Michel Aoun within the Samir Geagea speaking?), whereas other Future Movement officials were blasting the party. It is interesting to note that Geagea changed his opinion 4 days later, blasting Hezbollah’s arms and calling the Arsal battle collateral advantage (was this the Saad Hariri within the Samir Geagea speaking?) : It’s really amazing how 4 days can Jumblattify any Lebanese politician. Speaking of Jumblattifcation, Jumblatt, who traditionally sides with the winning side, was traditionally siding with the winning side. Classic.

Introducing the Don’t Know Don’t Care policy

Hariri’s trip to the United States was no less awkward than its weird timing:  Lebanon is ‘on the front lines fighting’ Hezbollah, Trump said at a news conference following his Oval Office meeting with Hariri. I’m not sure what Hariri and Trump discussed in their meeting, but Hezbollah’s relationship with the cabinet in which it is member, as well as its offensive on militants in the North-East was obviously not part of the conversation. And the best thing about all that? The leadership of Hezbollah – a party that brought down Hariri’s cabinet while he was meeting Obama in 2011 – didn’t even bother to comment on that entire issue. In the name of mutual benefits, there was an obvious truce between the FM and Hezbollah that month, and events that could have led to military clashes in 2008 or even 2011 or 2013, went unnoticed by both parties’ leaderships.

By the 29th of July, Hezbollah had accomplished its military mission in Arsal, but also its political one in parliament, helping the Aoun-Hariri alliance raise taxes in a context of military distraction.

Elections are coming

In the world of Christian politicians, however, it seemed that the LF-FPM alliance was starting to crumble:  Hours after Gebran Bassil hinted that his party was seeking all three seats in the Jezzine governorate – excluding any LF share from the equation, Geagea was stating that he was confident of his party’s win in parliamentary election, while saying that electoral alliances have not been finalized yet. I’m not sure if that’s how the LF and the FPM flirt with each other now, but it seemed as if both parties were trying to take the upper hand in negotiating the number of seats for each party. There is definitely no previous agreement on how they’re going to share a united parliamentary list of candidates, and this would open the door for the FM and Hezbollah to manipulate each of their historic allies in a hope to break up a Christian alliance that has been more awkward for the Muslim parties than anyone else. The FPM, anxious to light up the country with electricity after 9 years in power – ahead of the parliamentary elections (for obvious reasons), were dealing with corruption scandals, while Aoun and his son-in-law were touring in his home district of Batroun and launching infrastructure plans. Election season is coming, and Lebanese politicians remember.

The threat of losing in the next elections was ever-present as always for the FPM and its allies in the coalition, and in the spirit of building on their current political upper hand ahead of unpredictable elections and unpredictable alliances that would precede it, they consolidated their influence both in the judiciary and in public administrations by removing judges (who were influencial in thwarting some of the corruption scandals) and replacing them with others – so much for separation of powers – while appointing their own men as public servants in a strategy to weaken the only party in the parliamentary opposition. The FPM was removing pro-Kataeb public servants and rewarding its own men with new key positions.

The FPM and LF’s maneuvering ahead of parliamentary elections was also clear in the cabinet’s minor and major decision. On the 16th of August, lawmakers approved the establishment of a new administrative division (governorate) of Keserwan-Jbeil, splitting the historical Mouhafaza of Mount-Lebanon into two for the first time in the history of the republic. That move was a selective administrative decentralization towards a district expected to be the heart of the Christian political battle in 2018: Whoever wins Keserwan is usually given the title of legitimate Christian representative by the media. The new Mouhafaza was smart propaganda, giving the impression that the FPM and the LF were working in favor of Christian interests, while using the Kataeb demands of administrative decentralization against them, also drawing a virtual line between the Kataeb Metn stronghold and the potential territory up North the phalangists could ‘conquer’ in June 2018. That move also creates a “Southern Mount-Lebanon” that is now more religiously mixed than ever, potentially giving Jumblatt more influence over 4 Cazas while feeding a policy of sectarian isolation that would only benefit the FPM, the LF, and the PSP.

Who fights for the North-East?

In its battle against militants in July, Hezbollah established control over Nusra’s territories in the outskirts of Arsal, but had not yet attacked the outskirts of Kaa and Ras Baalbak controlled by ISIS. This was probably due to the fact that Hezbollah wanted to keep some action for other times of need, and for the fact that a clash between ISIS and the Lebanese army, that answers to the Hariri cabinet, would be more appropriate for Hariri than a clash between the LAF and more mainstream Syrian rebels such as Nusra.

From the end of July, it was well established that Hezbollah would have a lesser role in an offensive on the North-East’s ISIS controlled territories – especially that they lie on the outskirts of two Christian towns, Kaa and Ras Baalbak.

When Berri said that the army would play a bigger role in Ras Baalbak as soon as the battles in Arsal’s outskirts ended, and reiterated this stance 5 days later from Tehran, it looked as if Berri was trying to lessen of Hezbollah’s increasing influence in the Bekaa as part as a genius political maneuver from the speaker. What was actually happening however, was something entirely different. By refusing to attack the remaining outskirts, Hezbollah – in the spirit of its detente with the FM – was giving Hariri what he asked for: His cabinet’s control of the military operations in the North-East.

Nasrallah nevertheless wanted to include Hezbollah in this operation to claim Hezbollah’s victory, but in a way that made it less awkward for Hariri, his cabinet, and the army: He stated that Hezbollah and the Syrian army would attack Daesh from the Syrian side of the border. That statement would cause chaos in Lebanese politics: In that context, agitating March 8 ministers wanted to use the momentum to their advantage. Three ministers publicly said that they would visit Syria in order to improve/normalize relations with the Syrian regime as official representatives of the Lebanese cabinet. That move would embarrass Hariri, whose cabinet quickly un-endorsed the official character of the ministers’ visits, But the visits happened nonetheless, and the ministers still insisted they were participating as representatives of the government anyway.

While you can obviously feel the chemistry between the coalition members (this is sarcasm, in case you were wondering), a political clash like this one would have blown up governments in the past. In other words, the truce that had been active since June 2017 was still in place in August. No one cared about escalating a diplomatic confusion in Syria. The 2017 taxes and 2018 elections were everything that mattered.

Distraction 3.0

It’s not nice to go down in history as the President who sole economic achievement in his first year in power is raising taxes. It’s also not nice to be that person when elections come knocking on your son-in-law’s door in 9 months. Which is why Aoun was reluctant about immediately signing the tax law, especially that Hariri’s absence from the country would have given the impression that the taxes were mainly Aoun’s idea and responsibility. So Aoun, who clearly knows his Lebanese politics, refused to sign the voted tax law at first, waiting an entire month before signing the new numbers and percentages into law. Still, a distraction was obviously preferable at the moment of signing.

So on the 19th of August, and after 2 weeks of momentum building for the Ras Baalbak and Arsal offensives, the army finally launched the Fajr Al-Jouroud operation against ISIS in the North-East, eventually winning in its battles against the terrorists and quickly liberating most of the Daesh occupied territories on the outskirts of Ras Baalbak and Al-Qaa within days, preparing for the 4th stage of the Assault on the 23rd of August.

Guess what happened in the meantime? In the middle of the military battle, Aoun, who had visited the outskirts in the weekend in a show of support for the army,  signed the salary scale and tax laws three days later, on the 22nd of August…and almost no one noticed. Smooth.

Quadripartite formulas and imaginary victories

“This great achievement (…) is one of the results of the golden Army-people-Resistance formula, added to it the Syrian Army”

Hezbollah chief Nasrallah threw a political bomb on the 24th of August, expanding March 8’s tripartite formula by adding to it the Syrian army, embarrassing in the process Hariri and his anti-Syrian regime allies, and picturing an offensive that was led by the army against terrorists in the Lebanese outskirts as part of a battle in the Syrian regime’s greater war. That quote obviously caused an uproar within March 14 and its media: Hezbollah had obviously tried to hijack a Hariri victory after offering it to him on a silver plate, showing a Lebanese government cooperating with the Syrian regime.

But that was nothing compared to the military fiasco that would follow in the next few days: As ISIS surrendered, negotiations happened with the militants, and it was agreed that ISIS terrorists – that could have been captured, annihilated or even starved to death by the Lebanese army surrounding them in the outskirts – would be free to leave to ISIS-held territories in buses,  in exchange for ensuring the safe return of nine Lebanese soldiers kidnapped when Isis overran the area in 2014. The deal favored Hezbollah since it allowed the release of Hezbollah and some Syrian regime allies hostages, but was a total humiliation for the Lebanese state as hundreds of terrorists – who executed its soldiers and published execution footage – were allowed to leave, unpunished for their crimes. Nasrallah had to contain the damage quickly, and in his second speech within days, claimed victory in an attempt to change the conversation from terrorists escaping punishment to liberation and territorial conquests. But there was no pride in what happened: In the aftermath of the deal, the Lebanese authorities had allowed murderers and enemies of the state to escape punishment, and indirectly transferred and exported terrorists by allowing them to leave, in exchange of ISIS giving up the outcome of the Lebanese abducted soldiers, who turned out to be all dead – an information apparently known by the authorities since February 2015, and cruelly hidden from the martyr’s families and the public.

ISIS no longer had any leverage on the Lebanese authorities, and the Lebanese authorities had let them leave unscathed, for the simple reason that ISIS had leverage on the Syrian regime in other parts of Syria and that the Syrian regime obviously had a leverage on the Lebanese authorities. No matter how our politicians try to picture it, what started as a campaign to establish Lebanese sovereignty in the North-East ironically turned out to be the exact opposite. Does it really matter who rules the arid oustskirts if we end up with no accountability for the terrorists who bombed our cities and slaughtered our soldiers?

Sweetening the deal

In 2013, just after the parliament voted its first parliamentary extension, it gave up a gift in order to legitimize that extension, by pushing for a law advocating for protecting women from domestic violence. That same strategy lives on in 2017, with the parliament legitimizing its third parliamentary extension, its electoral law, and its tax raise by scrapping the controversial rape-marriage law and voting for an animal welfare law. The cabinet was also helping out in that legitimization process by appointing women in diplomatic vacancies.

With the objectives of the ruling parties completed in parliament via calculated distractions that ultimately served their purpose, expect an environment of political escalation between Hezbollah and the FM as they progressively start to brace themselves for elections. Summer is almost over, and with it, the time for moderation. With everything requiring consensus – such as government formations, taxes and electoral laws – decided, the next chapter is about forming the electoral alliances, and with those alliances comes political escalation.

Brace yourselves for political debates about every single thing happening in the country. It’s going to be fun. After all, we’re finally heading towards our first parliamentary election in a decade.

This was the 30th post in a series of bimonthly / monthly posts covering developments in Lebanese politics since June 2014. This post is about the months of June, July and August 2017.

The Republic of Procrastination

President Michel Aoun watch a demonstration match from the delegation of the Lebanese Union for Tai Boxing, in Baabda, Lebanon (Dalati Nohra)

I wanted to add a picture of Aoun using his Constitutional powers to postpone the parliamentary extension session, but this image seems somehow more representative of the debate on the new electoral law during the months of April and May 2017.

Welcome to the month of April 2017 in Lebanese politics.

The theoretical deadline to vote a new electoral law and call for elections was the 20th of February (with elections scheduled theoreticall on the 21st of May), but Lebanese politicians – who are too cool and chill to believe in deadlines – had decided that it was still too early for them to do the only job they postponed parliamentary elections 4 years ago for: Instead of actually discussing elections in the Parliament and the Council of Ministers, they pulled the oldest trick in the book of Lebanese political maneuvers: They changed the subject.

Recap

In February, and just when it was clear the Lebanese President was not going to sign the electoral decree that calls for parliamentary elections (in theory, it was in order to pressure the MPs into voting a new electoral law, while in practice all it did was paving the way to a third cancelled parliamentary election in a row by cancelling planned elections), Lebanese politicians started discussing the new controversial taxes they wanted to impose as part of the new budget – The first one since 12 years. By doing that, the ruling parties made sure that the public’s attention started shifting to the new economic policies instead of the parliamentary elections that were scheduled to happen in three months. For the next 3 weeks, Lebanon’s headlines were all about the proposed new taxes, but that was just an appetizer: By that time, the Lebanese President had decided that it was time to discuss Israeli aggressions and warn Israel that its threats would be met with adequate response, giving an impression of possible political instability and indirectly supporting one of the most used alibis by Lebanese politicians to postpone elections: That the security situation wasn’t good enough for elections: “الوضع الأمني لا يسمح”. Once the state budget issue was sorted out, the cabinet, that theoretically leaves in 2 months and draws its legitimacy from a parliament that was elected in the previous decade, decided that it was also time to sort out Lebanon’s electricity problems. Just like that, the Lebanese council of ministers voted on a temporary solution (of bringing in Turkish ships that would generate electricity), in order to keep Lebanon lit this summer.

Lebanese politicians had four months to make things right – from December to April – yet somehow found themselves procrastinating for more than 100 days about something that should have been accomplished 8 years ago.

CIVIL UNREST QUICK HIDE WE CANT HAVE ELECTIONS

“Today, if you go around most of the host communities, there is huge tension between the Lebanese and the Syrians … I fear civil unrest.”

April surprisingly starts doesn’t start with electoral law discussions. Inspired by Aoun’s political instability warning a couple of weeks earlier, and in a 180 degree turn of foreign and domestic policy, the Prime Minister Saad Hariri decides that it was time to discuss the impact of Syrian refugees, publicly stating that the country is close to “breaking point”. Before gaining back the Premiership in December, Hariri and the Future Movement had taken pro-refugees stances for the better part of 6 years of the Syrian conflict. Now that the Prime Minister was in power and no longer needed to take such pro-refugees stances in order to gain the support of the Sunni electorate, the presence of more than a million Syrian refugees could be turned into another asset for Lebanese politicians  by using it as a false impression that Lebanon is not stable enough to stage parliamentary elections – although municipal elections were held last year in even more unstable circumstances, which is exactly what Hariri was probably trying to do. By then, it was pretty much confirmed that parliamentary elections would not be held on time in May 2017, especially that Lebanese politicians had burned through electoral preparation deadlines, and they needed an alibi to justify the cancellation/ postponement of the elections. Four days later, the Prime Minister made his strategy even clearer when he threatened to move Syrian refugees into Europe (yes, he actually…threatened the European Union 🤔), while at the same time, his party, the FM, was criticizing Hezbollah’s earlier show of force, thus feeding the sentiment of false instability.

The Un-Orthodox law

Meanwhile, in the other part of the political spectrum, Bassil was calling for a vote on an electoral law in case there was no consensual agreement on one, a move that was likely to anger the minor parties in the parliament – specifically the PSP.

The FPM also proposed in the first week of April a new form  of electoral proposal – a ta’ahili (qualification) electoral law –  organizing elections on two rounds, the first one designed similarly to the Orthodox gathering law ( with each sect voting for its representative, in its constituency) – but with majoritarian representation and a number of candidates making it to the second round equaling twice the number of seats available, and a second round made from full proportional representation in the same constituencies with the ability given to all sects to vote for all the candidates regardless of their sects. It is a proposal that was designed with the sole purpose of thwarting any Christian opposition to the FPM from making it into Parliament: If the FPM-LF alliance gets a simple majority of votes in the Christian-dominated constituencies (something totally possible since they’re the biggest two Christian parties and the Muslims will be forbidden from voting for Christian candidates in the first round), all the other candidates – including those supported by civil movements, minor Christian parties such as the Kataeb and the Marada, as well as Christian politicians favored by Muslim voters – would not even make it into the second round, making the proportional representation in that round a mere farce of correct political representation. By redesigning the Orthodox gathering law into the ta’ahili one, the FPM were trying to propose the only electoral law proposal that could allow the FPM-LF alliance to get – in  the most creative gerrymandering way imaginable – all of the 64 Christian MPS, as long as both parties combined have a simple (not even an absolute) majority among the Christian electorate.

According to the original Orthodox Gathering law, the FPM and the LF would actually get their fair share of Christian seats, proportionally to their “exact weight” in the Christian electorate, although according to that apartheid-inspired proposal, the Christian voters would be overrepresented. That would mean that the FPM and LF alliance would face a very big opposition in Parliament, since the alliance is not likely to get more than 65 to 70% of the Christian votes (for example the alliance lost the municipal election in the Christian-majority first district of Beirut in 2016, and there is no reason why that would not happen again). In Bassil’s ta’ahili law, not only (1) the formula is based on an apartheid-like separation of the Muslim electorate and (2) the Christian voters are overrepresented, but even winning a simple majority of the Christian electorate in the first round (based on a majoritarian law) would eventually hand all the places of the second round to the FPM-LF candidates, with those candidates fighting one another in the second round (proportional representation). An unofficial preliminary round to choose the FPM and LF candidates to run in the parliamentary elections thus becomes the official second round of the Lebanese parliamentary elections.

It was a law that gave the FPM and the LF up to 64 Christian seats as long as their candidates managed to beat any other Christian candidate by 0.0001% in every constituency during the first round.

When it comes to rigging elections, that was textbook gerrymandering – so much gerrymandering I’m pretty sure most of you still didn’t understand a word I said even though I just spent three paragraphs trying to explain it, which is exactly why only the FPM and the LF supported that proposal (Jumblatt described the mind that thought of that proposal as a sick mind 😛 , and Hezbollah went against the FPM on the matter, adhering to full proportionality).

The FPM-proposed law favored the LF so much that for the first time since the June 2015 LF-FPM rapprochement, Samir Geagea publicly stated that week that he was going to seek a parliamentary alliance with the FPM.  It favored the FPM so much that Bassil wrote in Annahar an article that is unprecedented in its sectarian approach, calling his electoral proposal “the freedom law” and comparing it to the crucifixion and resuscitation of Christ: “ان ساعة قانون الحريّة قد دقّت، وسنكون على موعد قيامته في زمن القيامة، فالصلب سبيل الزامي اليها، سنحمله ونحمل أوجاعه من أجلها. والصلب فيه شوك التجريح، وخلّ التشويه، ولوحة التقسيم ، ومسمار الاستيلاء، وحربة الشهادة… فليكن!”“ان ساعة قانون الحريّة قد دقّت، وسنكون على موعد قيامته في زمن القيامة، فالصلب سبيل الزامي اليها، سنحمله ونحمل أوجاعه من أجلها. والصلب فيه شوك التجريح، وخلّ التشويه، ولوحة التقسيم ، ومسمار الاستيلاء، وحربة الشهادة… فليكن!” (N.B.: the entire article is a poetic masterpiece)

Procrastination, procrastination

With the FPM insisting on a law that no one was going to agree on, time was quickly passing (or in the words of our wise speaker of the parliament, “the clock was ticking”), but Lebanon’s Parliament – in denial – decided that it was the time to discuss the cabinet’s progress (a cabinet that theoretically becomes a caretaker one 60 days later)  instead of holding  a session to vote a new electoral law. Close enough.

Fattoush, the almighty extender

Fattoush is a Levantine bread salad made from toasted or fried pieces of pita bread combined with mixed greens and other vegetables, such as radishes and tomatoes. An extender is a person or thing that extends something.

In the context of Lebanese politics, Fattoush is not a salad. He is the dessert. The crème de la crème. The MP who gets elected with one coalition and then switches sides to the opposite coalition. The dream Member of Parliament of every self-extending-loving Parliament. Fattoush is the MP who is ready to propose an electoral draft for the Parliament to extend its term. Every time. He did it in 2014, and here he is, doing it again, in 2017: On the 11th of April, Fattoush officially ended the spectacle where Lebanese politicians give the impression that they are seeking an electoral law (while all they’re doing is waste time until elections are no longer possible and a parliamentary extensions becomes the only reality), and proposed a TECHNICAL parliamentary extension draft law – wait for it – FOR 1 YEAR. Why a parliamentary extension this time? Because, according to Fattoush, the parliamentary extension is being considered to “protect the people.” And that’s exactly what Fattoush is: The protector of the people through parliamentary extensions and the human/salad embodiment of the Lebanese democratic model.

A PARLIAMENT THAT HAD 4 YEARS TO FIND AN ELECTORAL LAW, AND THAT EXTENDED ITS TERM FOR ANOTHER 4 YEARS TO FIND AN ELECTORAL LAW, WAS GOING TO GIVE ITSELF – IN FULL HYPOCRISY – ANOTHER YEAR TO FIND A NEW ELECTORAL LAW, AS IF IT WAS TOO MAINSTREAM TO CALL FOR ELECTIONS BASED ON THE CURRENT ELECTORAL LAW,  VOTE A NEW ELECTORAL LAW AS SOON AS THE NEW LEGITIMATE PARLIAMENT IS ELECTED, DISSOLVE THE PARLIAMENT ANDTHEN CALL FOR PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS, LIKE ALL DEMOCRATIC NORMAL COUNTRIES DO.

Article 59

Things escalated quickly: The politicians that were pro-extension started spreading FALSE INFORMATION THAT THE EXTENSION WAS TO AVOID A VACANCY IN THE PARLIAMENT: But – plot twist – There is NO SUCH THING AS A VACANCY IN THE PARLIAMENT. If the parliament becomes vacant – for whatever reason that is – or if it is dissolved, the Constitution stipulates that – wait for it – PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS SHOULD BE ORGANIZED AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. And another plot twist: That scenario used to happen before the war when the President dissolved the Parliament (example – in 1960).

Lebanese politicians – who had spent more than 30 months gaming (the literal meaning of gaming here) with a Presidential vacancy – were making everyone panic over a possibly vacant parliament, making everyone fear the void, or “Al Faragh” as they call it in a scary arabic tone, something that CONSTITUTIONALLY DOES NOT EXIST.

Things escalated quickly: The Christian parties refused the extension and the Muslim ones were more favorable, and as a sudden split was appearing in Lebanese politics, the President, under pressure from his own party, decided that he was going to use article 59 of the Constitution, postponing all Parliamentary session for one month – Until the 15th of May 2017. It was a wise move, making the President look like a savior, showing the FPM as the party that made an actual effort to stop the extension (in case it would happen afterwards in May or June), while also giving the impression that the President is a “strong President” that used his authority to close the parliament.

The President had however, in the process, also banned the Parliament from meeting to vote an electoral law till the 15th of May – 6 days before the theoretical planned election day. And as it turns out, the form in which the President banned the Parliament from meeting was actually unconstitutional.

One more month to procrastinate

In other words, the Lebanese parliament was given one month by the President to figure out an electoral law for it to vote while passing the extension. And that’s what we were promised by the wise speaker of the Parliament: “A fruitful electoral deadline”

There were a lot of fruits that month (including an apple Gebran Bassil tweeted about on the 27th of April), but none of them were related to elections or electoral laws: Like the past 8 years, each political party stuck to its proposal, while several compromise formulas were rejected by one party or another.

The political alliance was no longer as clear as 10 years ago when a single person could have negotiated in the name of March 8 and another in the name of March 14, and that complicated things a lot.

The FPM kept lobbying for their proposed electoral law while MPs from most blocs were voicing disapproval at it. The electoral law proposed by Mikati in 2012 was returning to the forefront, and Jumblatt launched an initiative to break the vote law impasse, proposing the PSP version of a hybrid vote law. But with 28291037378 electoral draft laws on the table proposed by 2410372829 parties to satisfy 38290238382902 politicians,  still no progress was being made, especially with Nasrallah of Hezbollah asking for the electoral law to be a consensual one (something that made Jumblatt happy for very obvious reasons).

Priorities

On the 28th of April 2017, the FPM, Hezbollah, the FM, the LF and PSP held a unprecedented meeting in the history of the electoral deliberations, so it was speculated that an agreement would be reached soon. That didn’t happen.

Instead, politicians decided that it was time to maximize the debate: On the 30th of April, Berri proposed the creation of a 64-Member Senate. You know what they say, “when there is no agreement on a parliamentary election law for elections that should be held in 21 days, change the subject and propose the creation of a Senate. Very helpful”.

One day later, Prime Minsiter Saad Hariri was launching Beirut’s new bike-sharing system.  You know what they say, “when there is no agreement on a parliamentary election law for elections that should be held in 20 days, launch a new bike system as it is an important priority.”

Then, on the 4th of May 2017, PM Hariri and President Aoun signed a decree that allows the diaspora of Lebanese origin to reclaim citizenship from wherever they are. You know what they say, “when there is no agreement on a parliamentary election law for elections that should be held in 17 days, sign a decree about Lebanese citizenship. It is a very important priority.”

Then on the 8th of May 2017, Lebanese politicians decided that they were going to focus on the electricity file. You know what they say, “when there is no agreement on a parliamentary election law for elections that should be held in 13 days, talk about the electricity. It is a very urgent priority.”

Then, on the 10th of May 2017, 11 DAYS BEFORE PLANNED THEORETICAL ELECTIONS, the Lebanese cabinet finally met, discussing more than 100 items on the agenda – while managing to avoid any talk about the electoral law. You know what they say, “when there is no agreement on a parliamentary election law for elections that should be held in 11 days, do not discuss elections but instead focus on unlicensed quarries and 100 other items. It is the most urgent of all priorities”

Then, on the 12th of may 2017, 9 DAYS BEFORE PLANNED THEORETICAL ELECTIONS, Hariri decided that it was 2009 again, and criticized Nasrallah’s speech. You know what they say, “when there is no agreement on a parliamentary election law for elections that should be held in 9 days, discuss your rival’s speech. It is a nuclear priority.”

By the 15th of May, the “grace period” given by the President was now over, and Berri, in an attempt to maximize the chance of reaching an electoral law, gave two more weeks for Lebanese politicians to procrastinate about a consensual electoral law, re-scheduling for the 29th of May the parliamentary session that was planned on the 15th of May.

The republic of procrastination

In Lebanese politics, a lot of things can happen in six months. And a lot of things did happen in those last six months. But not one single one of those things was a priority. The only job of the Parliament was to vote a new, fair electoral law as quickly as possible, and the only job of the Cabinet was to accelerate that process and assure timely elections. Instead, Lebanon’s Zuamas did the (expected) unthinkable: They decided, with the legitimacy of a Parliament elected in the previous decade and that theoretically leaves in a month, long-term economic plans for the country while putting the Lebanese on track for a third parliamentary extension.

Do we really ask so much of our politicians?

This was the 29th post in a series of bimonthly / monthly posts covering developments in Lebanese politics. This post is about the month of April and the first two weeks of May 2017.

The Shame Game

Hariri and Bassil

And then they said, “let’s make a new, modern and fair electoral law!”

It’s the 2nd of January 2017. The new Lebanese government is up and running. The Lebanese Forces is in love with the Free Patriotic Movement, the Free Patriotic Movement is in love with the Future Movement, and Hezbollah is in love with the Free Patriotic Movement. President Aoun managed to create the weirdest ruling coalition in the modern history of Lebanon. With the exceptions of the PSP, the Kataeb, and the half-exception of Amal, everyone seemed to be on board with the new status-quo. The last time Lebanon had so much political stability was in 2010. So it was the perfect time to draft an electoral law: The parliamentary elections were 5 months away, the deadline for voting a new electoral law without having to do a “technical” parliamentary extension was theoretically the 20th of February, and aside from the fact that the current parliament had 8 years to find a new electoral alternative (including a 4 year parliamentary extension designed solely for that purpose) and that the new/old establishment had 74 years to fix things electorally, the atmosphere was optimistic. Politicians had 50 days, from the 2nd of January till the 20th of February, to redeem themselves and finally draft a good electoral law and prepare for elections.

Now you would think that the first priority of the new government – being a “unity” one – would be to draft a new electoral law, focus on the May 2017 parliamentary election, and avoid working on all kinds of new major projects before the new parliament gets elected. After all, the parliamentary elections were mentioned four times in the new cabinet’s policy statement. It was without any question supposed to be a cabinet whose sole purpose should be planning elections and overseeing them (the media calls it in Lebanon “حكومة إنتخابات”). Except Lebanese politicians did the exact opposite: After years of inactivity, the parliament finally met in January, but instead of discussing the electoral law – plot twist – it discussed everything but that73 draft laws not related to elections, a new state budget, oil and gas decrees.  Because who needs elections, right?

The denial was strong in the Lebanese government in February, and just when you think that our politicians would finally drop all those distractions in March, finish with the electoral law, and finally call for elections – especially that the theoretical deadline to change the law and call for elections was the 20th of February – what do the geniuses in the Lebanese parliament do?

They pull the oldest trick in the book of Lebanese political maneuvers: They change the subject.

Geniuses

When I say the word “genius”, I mean it – no sarcasm intended. At the very end of February, Lebanese politicians were still bickering on what electoral system is best for the country, with Amal and Hezbollah asking for full proportional representation, the PSP refusing it, and the FPM, LF, FM and other parties trying to look for something in between. However, out of nowhere, they decide that it was not only time to discuss the state budget, it was also the time to fund the new salary wage scale by imposing new taxes. By the 20th of February, and just when it was clear the Lebanese President was not going to sign the electoral decree that calls for parliamentary elections (in theory, it was in order to pressure the MPs into voting a new electoral law, while in practice all it did was paving the way to a third cancelled parliamentary election in a row by cancelling planned elections), Lebanese politicians started discussing the new controversial taxes they wanted to impose as part of the new budget. The ruling parties made sure that the public’s attention started shifting to the new economic policies instead of the parliamentary elections that were scheduled to happen in three months.

But that was just an appetizer. Also out of nowhere, in that very same week, the Lebanese President , who found that it was probably too mainstream to do his constitutional job and call for parliamentary elections, decided that it was time to discuss Israeli aggressions and warn Israel that its threats would be met with adequate response.  Aoun had taken a staunch pro-Hezbollah stance earlier that month when he said that Hezbollah’s arms complement, rather than contradict, the Lebanese Army, but his more recent comments were not about Hezbollah at all. The godfather of the FPM was pulling another old trick in the book. By giving an impression of possible political instability, the President was sending a message throughout the country that Lebanon might not be as stable as we think right now (Plot twist: The country has never been as stable since 2010), indirectly supporting one of the most used alibis by Lebanese politicians to postpone elections: That the security situation wasn’t good enough for elections: “الوضع الأمني لا يسمح”. Lebanese politicians used that sentence to postpone elections in 2013, and used it again in 2014. Michel Aoun, by emphasising something that shouldn’t even be mentioned in the news, Israeli threats (That we had since 1943), gave the political class their favorite alibi to delay elections. Next thing you know, Israeli troops fire 5 smoke bombs at Lebanese protesters, and reports in the media spread that Hezbollah obtained Naval missiles that could threaten Israel: The mainstream media took the bait.

The appetizer becomes the main dish

As I said before, Lebanon had Israeli threats even before the Prime Minister was born, and while it was a nice distraction from the electoral law debate, the tax hike would be a far better option for the politicians to distract the people with than a possible Israeli war. For the next 3 weeks, Lebanon’s headlines were all about the proposed new taxes, pushing the Lebanese opposition, awkwardly made of the Kataeb, the communist party, Bedna Nhaseb, You Stink, Beirut Madinati, Sabaa, and many other civil society movements, to unite against the ruling parties for the first time since the government formation. The Lebanese establishment, in its attempt to distract the country from its electoral procrastination, had successfully united the opposition against it and gave the people an alibi and a motivation to protest.

Taxation without representation

In a way, the ruling parties were imposing taxation without representation. They were raising taxes without giving the people the right to have a say about it. It was pure hypocrisy especially since they were leading the country towards a third cancelled parliamentary election. Lebanese politicians made us live in garbage for a year in a half, deprived us from electricity for decades, breathe corruption, and now wanted to raise taxes that will eventually feed that corruption in a way or another. The government made everyone angry, and in the process, also made everyone forget about the elections that were going to be postponed in two months. Geniuses.

And that’s how a cabinet, that was theoretically supposed to solely focus on elections, ended up voting Lebanon’s first state budget since 12 years at the very end of March.

Electricity and elections 

Once the state budget was sorted out, the cabinet, that theoretically leaves in 2 months and draws its legitimacy from a parliament that was elected in the previous decade, decided that it was also time to sort out Lebanon’s electricity problems. Just like that, the Lebanese council of ministers voted on a temporary solution (of bringing in Turkish ships that would generate electricity), in order to keep Lebanon lit this summer. The FPM minister of energy, while blaming refugees for the electricity shortage (because as we all know, Lebanon had 24/7 electricity before 2007 😂), said the plan would add extra hours of electricity for the summer months.

I really don’t want to be the party pooper here, but temporarily adding extra hours of electricity, without a clear long-term plan, just after a planned parliamentary extension, and just before parliamentary extension, with the minister of energy being the ruling party’s candidate for elections, doesn’t seem like last-minute *election bribery* (a la Zaffetleh el Tarika Zaffetleh el Tarik)?

The Senate and the law

Meanwhile, Gebran Bassil had decided to embrace the Yolo life, and “threatened” at the end of February to propose a new electoral law inspired from the Orthodox gathering law, eventually revealing his creepy hybrid Orthodox law proposal (that would obviously be refused by the mainstream Muslim parties) two weeks after his *threat*.  Gebran Bassil, who is getting more and more experienced in Lebanese political maneuvers, proposed his new draft law alongside a suggestion of creating a senate that would be led by a non-Maronite Christian. Bassil’s proposal was supposed to make the Druze political leadership panic since it was agreed in Taef that the President of the Senate, once created, would be a Druze ( = Jumblatt 😛 ). In a way, it’s as if Hariri proposed full proportional representation for the FPM in exchange of a electing a Sunni President. The PSP, however, did not take Gebran Bassil’s bait. By asking by asking for a Christian senate leader and a hybrid PR electoral law, the FPM leader was smartly trying to force Jumblatt to accept full proportional representation  in the electoral law (an electoral designed endorsed by Hezbollah, Amal, and the FPM, and vetoed by the PSP) in exchange of a Druze senate leader.

Jumblatt, however, did not take the bait, and outmaneuvered Bassil by reminding him that according to the Constitution, a senate could only be created after confessionalism would be removed from the house, which contradicts Bassil’s electoral draft electoral law.

The pre-extension love

There’s a pattern in Lebanese politics that gets clearer with every parliamentary extension: Just before/after lawmakers proceed to cancel elections, they start passing reform plans, similar to “free candy” that eventually make their extra-stay in parliament more legitimate. In 2013, that “free candy” was the law on domestic violence that the parliament passed after the extension, and now the “free candy” seems to be:

Taymour Bey and General Aoun

March was a very busy month: Walid Jumblatt officially started transferring his powers in the PSP to his son Taymour, while just like that, the Lebanese political class decided to appoint a new commander of the army (with a last name ending with Aoun, just to confuse Lebanon with “General Aoun”), something that would have a created a civil war two years ago. That proves how nothing really matters in Lebanese politics, and how a same event can either go unnoticed or lead Lebanon to a civil strife depending on the mood of the Zuamas. Proof? When Previous independent/March 14 leaders sent a letter to the Arab league summit, bypassing the current President and Prime Minister, Berri and his friends in the March 8 coalition weren’t very happy, but when the Patriarch said this month that Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria divided the Lebanese, the entire March 8 leadership couldn’t care less to respond.

2017, I guess.

Le tour du monde en 80 jours and elections in 65 jours

Meanwhile, while he still hadn’t called for the elections scheduled in 65 days, the Lebanese President went to the Arab league summit in Jordan with the Prime Minister, right after he went to the vatican to meet the Pope. Did I also forget to mention that he also previously went to Cairo in February? And Doha? and Saudi Arabia?

So as Lebanon’s politicians begin blaming each other for the absence of a new electoral law and shaming one another for the upcoming parliamentary extension, one thing is for sure: They are all to blame in the shame game they’re playing, and they can’t keep distracting the Lebanese for ever.

This was the 28th post in a series of bimonthly / monthly posts covering developments in Lebanese politics. This post is about the last two weeks of February and the month of March 2017.

The Electoral Law and the Detente

prime-minister-saad-hariri-shakes-hands-with-mp-michel-aoun-at-his-downtown-beirut-residence-thursday-oct-20-2016-the-daily-star-mohamad-azakir

Prime Minister Saad Hariri shakes hands with MP Michel Aoun at his Downtown Beirut residence, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016. (The Daily Star/ Mohamad Azakir)

The amount of political statements and political activity is not necessarily proportional to political productivity. If there would be anything out there to prove that, it would be the two months following the government formation in Lebanon.

Throwback to 2016

Things happened very fast in the Autumn of 2016. The President was elected on the 31st of October, the Prime Minister was named on the 3rd of November, the government was formed on the 19th of December, and it received the confidence vote by the 27th of December. It was – by Lebanese standards – one of the quickest government formations in the past decade. Why?

As I said in December, while postponing the cabinet formation would have seemed natural in the world of Lebanese politics, it would have sent a wrong message to the people: That the President and the Prime Minister do not want elections. Stalling with the government formation could make the President and the Prime Minister look as culprits should a parliamentary extension happen or the electoral law remain the same: The parliament can not legislate without a cabinet in a power in order to pass a new electoral law, and a caretaker cabinet has never in Lebanon’s modern history overseen parliamentary elections. The failure to form a cabinet would have thrown all the blame of a possible parliamentary extension or an election under the 2008 law (known as the 1960 law) on the President and the Prime Minister (since they are the only two persons in the entire republic who sign the government formation decree). Since the Prime Minister and the President are the leaders of the two biggest blocs in parliament and are facing new rivalries , it would seem wise to show at least early positive signs regarding their rule and this summer’s potential parliamentary elections. Now, and with the relatively early formation of the government, all of Lebanon’s MPs would equally share the blame of possible electoral failure 😀.

2017: A fresh start

It’s the 2nd of January 2017. The new Lebanese government is up and running. The Lebanese Forces is in love with the Free Patriotic Movement, the Free Patriotic Movement is in love with the Future Movement, and Hezbollah is in love with the Free Patriotic Movement. President Aoun managed to create the weirdest ruling coalition in the modern history of Lebanon. With the exceptions of the PSP, the Kataeb, and the half-exception of Amal, everyone seemed to be on board with the new status-quo. The last time Lebanon had so much political stability was in 2010. So it was the perfect time to draft an electoral law: The parliamentary elections were 5 months away, the deadline for voting a new electoral law without having to do a “technical” parliamentary extension was theoretically the 20th of February, and aside from the fact that the current parliament had 8 years to find a new electoral alternative (including a 4 year parliamentary extension designed solely for that purpose) and that the new/old establishment had 74 years to fix things electorally, the atmosphere was optimistic. Politicians had 50 days, from the 2nd of January till the 20th of February, to redeem themselves and finally draft a good electoral law and prepare for elections.

Expectation vs reality

Now you would think that the first priority of the new government – being a “unity” one – would be to draft a new electoral law, focus on the May 2017 parliamentary election, and avoid working on all kinds of new major projects before the new parliament gets elected. After all, the parliamentary elections were mentioned four times in the new cabinet’s policy statement. It was without any question supposed to be a cabinet whose sole purpose should be planning elections and overseeing them (the media calls it in Lebanon “حكومة إنتخابات”). Except Lebanese politicians did the exact opposite: After years of inactivity, the parliament finally met in January, but instead of discussing the electoral law – plot twist – it discussed everything but that. 73 draft laws not related to elections.

Earlier that month, the Lebanese cabinet, instead of actually trying to find common ground between its ruling parties, decided that it was easier to live in denial. In its first sitting since being formed in December, Lebanon’s new cabinet passed two  gas and oil decrees defining the blocks and specifying conditions for production and exploration tenders and contracts. It was not the time to pass the gas and oil decrees, and it was definitely not up to politicians who won the confidence of a government elected 8 years ago to decide the fate of billions of dollars of Lebanese resources.

Did I mention that they also passed in the middle of all that, a law that raised the compensation to the families of former lawmakers to 100%? As smooth as Lebanese politicians can be.

Now to be fair, a subcommittee made from representatives of the Future Movement, the FPM, Amal, and Hezbollah was meeting every once in a while to reach a consensual solution regarding the electoral law, but it was also not the time to procrastinate on electoral laws. They had 4 regular years from 2009 to 2013 and 4 extra years from 2013 to 2017 to discuss the ethics of elections, and already had dozens of proposals on the table.

Lebanon needed intensive, continuous parliamentary sessions focused exclusively on the electoral law in January, not a subcommittee formed by 4 establishment parties, whose sole objective seemed to send a message on who gets to make the decisions in Lebanese politics, making the Kataeb and the PSP panic in the process.

Lebanese lawmakers and cabinet members had already wasted the first 30 days doing every unnecessary thing they could find, and just when you think things couldn’t get any worse, they decided for the first time since twelve years, that it was finally time to discuss a state budget. Apparently voting a new fair electoral law and preparing parliamentary elections on time so that the new elected legitimate parliament would draft a new state budget seemed too mainstream for our politicians.

In late January, a warning voiced by President Michel Aoun on his willingness to obstruct the parliamentary elections and keep the legislative body vacant in case a new electoral law wasn’t passed, was criticized by al-Mustaqbal ministers who described the stance as unacceptable. While it is constitutionally possible for a Lebanese President to forbid the parliament from meeting for a while (in case MPs want to use a parliamentary session to extend their terms), there is no possible/legal way for Aoun to cancel an election and impose a legislative vacancy or to force an electoral law without parliamentary approval. On the contrary, Aoun’s threats should be seen as preemptively deculpabilising the presidency should a parliament fail to pass a new electoral law. In other words, Aoun’s warning of escalation is the proof everyone needed that there might not be a new electoral law in the near future after all. In fact, it seems that the FPM are already embracing themselves for that scenario, with their new minister of energy basically campaigning on TV with his electricity and gas and oil projects before declaring his candidacy for the next parliamentary elections.

Just like 2013 (or the Lebanese Political Time Machine)

Fast forward one month.

It was now the 1st of February and since the deadline to vote a new electoral law was theoretically 20 days away, Lebanese politicians decided it was finally time…to go back to 2013. Literally. LITERALLY. LITERALLY. While the speaker was supporting proportional representation and being as pessimistic as 2013 when discussing the possibility of Lebanese politicians reaching common ground, the Future Movement politicians decided that they were going to support a hybrid proposal and reject any law fully based on proportional representation, also just like they did in 2013. Geagea supported the hybrid proposal, just like he did in 2013. While reiterating its rejection of a new extension of the parliament’s term, Hezbollah renewed its call for an electoral law “fully based on proportional representation and a single electoral district or several large electorates.”….just like 2013.

Meanwhile, just like 2013, the Kataeb and the PSP were panicking at the sight of the word “proportionality”,  with Jumblatt engaging in late-night tweets  hinting on how  proportional representation is anti-Taef, which is a well-known defense mechanism used by Lebanese politicians in times of political isolation. Taef mentions nothing about about proportional representation or parliamentary electoral laws, except the fact that the 50/50 Christian-Muslim ratio should be safeguarded until a senate is established. So Jumblatt, just like 2013, was sticking with the 1960 (2008) law.

And instead of pressuring Lebanon’s lawmakers by staying in Lebanon to oversee the electoral law talks, President Aoun decided that it was enough to threaten them with a parliamentary vacancy and took the decision to visit Egypt and Jordan in what is arguably the most critical time of his beginning mandate. Even Mikati was still endorsing the law his government drafted and proposed in the summer of 2013.

It’s as if Lebanese politicians robbed us of 4 years of representation (via the two parliamentary extensions) with the alibi of finding a new electoral law before deciding at the last-minute that they were going to ignore all that.

A pro-Hezbollah president

While Frangieh and Bassil had found a new place where their new rivalry would thrive (the electoral law), the Lebanese President was taking March 8-oriented stances for the first time since has was elected: On the 3rd of February, he urged the international community to facilitate the return of refugees in coordination with the Syrian authorities by establishing safe zones (something Hezbollah has also recently endorsed), and on the 12th of February, he said that Hezbollah’s arms complement, rather than contradict, the Lebanese Army. That statement was not only huge (it’s probably the first time in 10 years that a Lebanese President takes such an official pro-Hezbollah stance), it surprisingly went *unnoticed* among the March 14 leadership, with none of the key politicians of that coalition massively criticizing the President for what he said.

What was even more surprising than the President’s statement, is the fact that *the March 14 parties* spent those two first two weeks praising Hezbollah’s flexibility on the electoral law while also doing the IMPOSSIBLE (Machnouk saying he’s not in confrontation with Aoun) to make sure that the ties with the President are still intact (Hariri also ruling out any rift with Aoun)“preserving the coalition between Future Bloc and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) was more precious than losing some seats in the parliament”. We had to wait for the 14th of February commemoration of the assassination of his Rafic Hariri for the Prime Minister to comment on Aoun’s remarks, and while Hariri had basically no political choice but to criticize Hezbollah’s arms (especially on that particular day), he did not directly mention the presidency’s recent statements, leaving us with this indirect and weak message “We’ve made concessions to preserve stability but we won’t bargain over the STL, our stance on the Assad regime, illegal arms or Hizbullah’s involvement in Syria”. There is definitely a deal to keep things calm in Lebanese politics right now: Just as comparison, two years ago (in 2015), also on his 14th of February speech, Hariri said the” intervention in Syria is insanity and Hezbollah has brought this insanity to Lebanon” and  “Tying the Golan Heights to south Lebanon is insanity as well“.

NO ALLIANCES = NO ELECTORAL LAW.

La Morale? The March 8 and March 14 alliances are officially dead. No one wants to turn against the new President (not when he can block government formations and bring governments down), and the resulting dismantling of Lebanon’s mainstream alliances is turning the new electoral law discussions into a chaotic battlefield. For the past few decades, it was Lebanon’s majority alliances that dictated the rules of elections. Now that the alliances are unclear and we just don’t know where the parties stand, every one of those parties is working on its own to secure the implementation of an electoral law that only serves its interests. Parties, by themselves, cannot turn their draft proposals into official laws. Stable coalitions, on the other hand, could actually make a draft electoral proposal (that actually  helps its stay in power) official by voting for it or at least negotiate with another coalition on a common ground. It’s easier for two sides to negotiate on something than having 27 parties discussing 2727 electoral law formats. So as long as the Lebanese parties do not form clear coalitions, it will be very difficult for them to agree on an electoral law.

Michel Aoun’s path to the presidency progressively brought down the March 8 and March 14 coalitions, and in a way, made the process of finding a consensual electoral law harder than it was to find a consensual President in 2014. It’s valentine in Lebanese politics this month, but the fact that everyone is loving everyone right now is ironically making it harder to agree on something as controversial as an electoral law.

Another possible theory, as I said four months ago, is that there might be a secret part of the presidential deal to extend the parliament’s term one more time or to keep the “1960” law in place.

Right now, and without any new electoral law to oversee the elections happening in three months, two scenarios seem very likely: Either the parliament passes a new parliamentary extension (because two parliamentary extensions are too mainstream), or we head to elections under the 2008 (“1960”) law. Translation? We were robbed of four years of political representation by our politicians thieves.

Don’t forget to make sure your voting registration information is correct so you can vote this May!

This was the 27th post in a series of bimonthly posts covering developments in Lebanese politics. This post is about the months of January and  (the first two weeks of ) February 2017.

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.

Slicing the Cabinet Pie: Who Won?

aoun-hariri-press-conference-2016

Aoun and Hariri gesture at the end of a press conference at Hariri s Downtown Beirut residence, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016. (Image source: The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

 

Lebanon’s new Cabinet was announced Sunday after major political powers managed to thaw obstacles hindering the formation process.

Hariri described his Cabinet as a national consensus government, underlining that it will “exert efforts during its short-term, which will not exceed few months. Its first mission will be to reach with the Parliament a new electoral law that abides by proportional representation and the right representation.”

“The Cabinet is an elections government,” Hariri added.

Throwback 50 days

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 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 (not so) long wait

Historically speaking, Lebanese politicians never did anything relevant in December. So when Hariri was named Prime Minister, Lebanon’s Zuamas were expected to stall the process of government formation till 2017: After all, Salam’s cabinet formation took 11 months. While postponing the cabinet formation would have seemed natural in the world of Lebanese politics, it would have sent a wrong message to the people: That the President and the Prime Minister do not want elections. Regardless if the presidency deal included a secret agreement to head to elections under the 2008 law or postpone elections, stalling with the government formation could make the President and the Prime Minister look as culprits should a parliamentary extension happen or the electoral law remain the same: The parliament can not legislate without a cabinet in a power in order to pass a new electoral law, and a caretaker cabinet has never in Lebanon’s modern history overseen parliamentary elections.

The failure to form a cabinet would have thrown all the blame of a possible parliamentary extension or an election under the 2008 law (known as the 1960 law) on the President and the Prime Minister (since they are the only two persons in the entire republic who sign the government formation decree). Since the Prime Minister and the President are the leaders of the two biggest blocs in parliament and are facing new rivalries (The tide is turning for Hariri in the North as Fatfat went to the binding consultations all by himself and Rifi is planning to take Tripoli’s 8 seats in the  next elections), it would seem wise to show at least early positive signs regarding their rule and this summer’s potential parliamentary elections. Now, and with the relatively early formation of the government, all of Lebanon’s MPs will equally share the blame of possible electoral failure 😀 .

The fight over the junior Christian partner

I could overthink every move orchestrated by Lebanese politicians for them to get an extra minister in this cabinet, but it would be irrelevant. There was however, one major battle in the cabinet worth mentioning, and it was about the size of the Lebanese Forces and the Marada’s shares and the portfolios they would get.

(1) The LF-FPM-FM rapprochement, as well as (2) the FPM-Hezbollah alliance, and (3) bypassing the speaker’s opinion in electing Aoun were too much for Amal to handle. There was an isolation in the making for Berri, and the speaker had to thwart the new trio (FPM, FM, LF) from bonding more and possibly dragging Hezbollah into a quadripartite alliance excluding Amal. So Berri used the Frangieh card: inspired by the new *friendship* between the FM and the Marada, Berri empowered Frangieh in his quest to seek an important portfolio in the government, which was kind of illogical since Frangieh had three MPs out of 127 in the parliament, and giving the Marada one of the six important ministries would create disequilibrium in the government, especially that Geagea had asked for a key portfolio in the cabinet and that his request was denied (Hezbollah refused to give the Defense ministry to the LF and Amal wouldn’t give up the Finance ministry). That meant Geagea would have to get more ministries outside the key/sovereign portfolios, since it was probably out of the question for the FPM to give up Gebran Bassil’s foreign ministry and the fourth key minister (interior) had to be a Sunni (traditionally, Christians and Muslims split the different kinds of portfolios equally).

That meant that Frangieh and Geagea were *preying* on the same “important” portfolio territory. There are 6 important ministries, and only 3 of those would be given to Christians (half). The LF wanted at least one and hopefully two of them (since they did not get any key ministry) , The FPM wanted one ministry for the President and hopefully another for the FPM’s bloc, while the Marada wanted their only minister in the cabinet to have an important portfolio in order to save face, especially since Frangieh had been humiliated with the sudden election of Aoun and the latest events of the past year.

In other words, three Christian parties were fighting for five important seats whereas only three seats of that category could be allocated to Christians. The FPM were probably planning to give the LF two of the three ministries as a way of saying sorry for not being able to give them a key ministry (there was apparently a deal – dating to Geagea’s endorsement of Aoun in January 2016 – between the LF and the FPM to split everything in the cabinet). But that would mean the Marada wouldn’t get a share in “the important portfolios category”, as the FPM was supposed to take the third Christian important portfolio (as part of its direct share, or President Aoun’s one). The Frangieh-LF fight over the third important Christian portfolio was in fact the consequence of The FPM-Amal rivalry. The FPM wanted the LF to have the portfolio, whereas Berri wanted it for Frangieh: Giving only 1 portfolios out of the 5 major Christian portfolios (the 2 sovereign ones and the 3 important ones) to the LF would create problems between the LF and the FPM on the long run, as the two parties would not have been treated equally, especially that a relatively minor politician as Frangieh would eventually get a share as important as Lebanon’s second biggest party (the Lebanese Forces).

The speaker eventually managed to give Frangieh an important ministry out of his share in the cabinet (the transport and public works ministry), and the LF also only got one important portfolio (health ministry), but the FPM made sure that the LF had 4 portfolios (although they are split among 3 ministers since Ghassan Hasbani is both Deputy Prime Minister and health minister ) as well as keeping Michel Pharaon (who is close to both the LF and the FPM but has been historically part of March 14) in the cabinet.

In the end, giving Frangieh 1 important portfolio meant that the LF should be given a bigger share, and giving the FPM and the LF 4,5 portfolios each – in case you wondered, the o,5 is Michel Pharaon – meant that it was getting too crowded for everyone else to fit in a 24 ministers-government, especially that the President was also supposed to get his share of ministers and that Berri would have to get an extra share of ministers from the “secondary ministries” in order to compensate the important ministry he gave up to Frangieh. That led in the end to a 30 ministers-cabinet (with 6 ministers of state added in order to make it easier to split the pie)

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.

The final lineup

This final lineup was announced by the secretary-general of the council of ministers on the 18th of December after more than a month of negotiations:

– Yaaqoub Sarraf (Defense Minister, President’s share, Greek Orthodox)

– Salim Jreissati (Justice Minister, President’s share, Greek Catholic)

– Pierre Raffoul (State Minister for Presidency Affairs, President’s share, Maronite)

– Nicolas Tueni (State Minister for Combating Corruption, President’s share, Greek Orthodox)

– Gebran Bassil (Foreign Minister, Free Patriotic Movement, Maronite)

– Cesar Abi Khalil (Energy and Water Minister, Free Patriotic Movement, Maronite)

– Tarek Khatib (Environment Minister, Free Patriotic Movement, Sunni)

– Raed Khoury (Economy Minister, Free Patriotic Movement, Greek Orthodox)

– Ouadis Kedenian (Tourism Minister, Tachnag, Armenian Orthodox)

– Michel Pharaon (State Minister for Planning Affairs, Independent – 1/2 FPM – 1/2 LF, Greek Orthodox)

– Ghassan Hasbani (Deputy PM and Health Minister, Lebanese Forces, Greek Orthodox)

– Melhem Riachi (Information Minister, Lebanese Forces, Greek Catholic)

– Pierre Bou Assi (Social Affairs Minister, Lebanese Forces, Maronite)

– Youssef Finianos (Public Works and Transport Minister, Marada Movement, Maronite)

– Marwan Hamadeh (Education Minister, Progressive Socialist Party, Druze)

– Ayman Shqeir (State Minister for Human Rights, PSP, Druze)

– Talal Arslan (Minister of the Displaced, Progressive Socialist Party, Druze)

– Ghazi Zaiter (Agriculture Minister, Amal Movement, Shia)

– Ali Hassan Khalil (Finance Minister, Amal Movement, Shia)

– Enaya Ezzeddine (State Minister for Administrative Development, Amal, Shia)

– Mohammed Fneish (Sport and Youth Minister, Hizbullah, Shia)

– Hussein al-Hajj Hassan (Industry Minister, Hizbullah, Shia)

– Ali Kanso (State Minister for Parliament Affairs, Syrian Social Nationalist Party, Shia)

– Saad Hariri (Prime Minister, Future Movement, Sunni)

– Nohad Machnouk (Interior Minister, Future Movement, Sunni)

– Mohammed Kabbara (Labor Minister, Future Movement, Sunni)

– Jamal al-Jarrah (Telecommunications Minister, Future Movement, Sunni)

– Mouin Merehbi (State Minister for Refugee Affairs, Future Movement, Sunni)

– Jean Oghassabian (State Minister for Women’s Affairs, Future Movement, Armenian Orthodox)

– Ghattas Khoury (Culture Minister, Future Movement, Maronite)

(Note: I allocated the president’s share and the FPM’s share according to the FPM’s media outlet, tayyar.org ,since many of the ministers part of the president’s share are also close to the FPM, making the separation of the two categories of ministers confusing)

Before we start discussing the names and the portfolios, it’s important to understand how politicians “value” the cabinet’s portfolios

Lebanese politicians separate the cabinet portfolios by importance:

  • The 2 top ministries: The Prime Minister (FM) and the Deputy Prime Minister (LF)
  • The key ( = sovereign) 4 ministries (الوزارات السيادية): The defense (President), interior (FM), finance (Amal), and foreign affairs (FPM) ministries.
  • Then there are the 6 important ones (but that aren’t as important as the first ones) – known in the mainstream media as الوزارات الاساسية – because they traditionally get a lot of funding: The justice (President), telecom (FM), education (PSP), energy (FPM), health (LF) , and transport (Marada) ministries.
  • Then there’s 12 secondary ministries : Economy (FPM) , environment (FPM), social affairs (LF), information (LF), displaced (LDP), tourism (Tachnag), industry (Hezbollah), sports (Hezbollah), agriculture (Amal), administrative reform (Amal), labor (FM), culture (FM).
  • Usually, when we’re talking about 30 ministers-cabinets, 6 state ministers are added to the lot (they aren’t in charge of any portfolio but have each one vote in the cabinet). In our case, and since the Lebanese political establishment found it impossible to split the slices of the cabinet cake with less than 30 ministers available and wanted to avoid the negative connotation that comes with the appointment of ministers of state (who basically do nothing and get paid), it tried to send a good vibe about the new era in Lebanese politics and gave the 6 ministers of state “cool” names: Presidency affairs minister (President), combating corruption minister (President), refugee affairs minister (FM), women’s affairs minister (FM), parliament affairs minister (SSNP), Human rights minister (PSP), and the planning affairs minister (Pharaon = FPM  + LF).It’s a smooth maneuver from the establishment, except the entire idea of adding those 6 ministers to facilitate the splitting of the cabinet cake beats the purpose of combating corruption in itself , the minister for women affairs is a woman, there’s only one woman in the cabinet, and speaking of human rights, most of the parties in the cabinet are led by warlords. Again, smooth as always from our politicians.

So who’s winning?

It’s time to count the shares.

The President’s share is made of 4 ministers, the FPM’s share is made of 4,5 ministers (again, the 0,5 here is Pharaon), the tachnag and the LDP each have 1 minister. That means that the Change and reform bloc get the 1/3 + 1 of the cabinet (10,5 ministers out of 30). That’s the blocking third you’re seeing here, and those ten ministers theoretically answer 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 can 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 are in command of the veto power in the cabinet without the help of the Marada, Hezbollah and Amal to reach the blocking third. THIS IS HUGE. And we aren’t mentioning here that 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 3,5 ministers (and 4,5 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). This strategy had already been used with Michel Sleiman in 2014 when the former president received more portfolios than seats (Michel Sleiman’s minister of Defense was Deputy PM in 2014 whereas now the LF’s health minister is the Deputy PM). The LF, however, 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, the ministry of Social affairs (not that important but nevertheless a very smart choice before parliamentary elections), and the half of Michel Pharaon’s ministry 😛 . 3,5 votes out of 30 isn’t so bad after all for a party that has 8 members of parliament out of 128.

All in all, should Aoun’s C&R ministers (including the tachnag misnister, Arslan and the Sunni minister of environment – Tarek Khatib – curiously representing the FPM) join forces with the LF in their quest to dominate the government, they’ll have in common 10,5+3,5=14 ministers, only one minister short of the cabinet’s half. If the FPM-LF alliance holds, the Christian alliance will manage to make out of most of its plans true if it manages to maneuver correctly in the cabinet.

The Future Movement 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 (provided the LF side with Hariri and not Aoun, that Amal side with him against Aoun, and that the 11 ministers who answer in a way or another to the President do not resign and take the cabinet down with them as an objection to the PM’s unilateral moves)

Amal (3 ministers) hit the jackpot for the second year in a row with the finance ministry (did I also mention that the Finance minister is the only minister who has to sign everything?) and can sow discontent in the cabinet by manipulating everyone with the help of Frangieh’s minister and Hezbollah, although they are unlikely to do so since it would be a declaration of war on Hariri – the last thing Berri needs right now.

Hezbollah have 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.

The biggest loser in the cabinet however is Jumblatt. The leader of the PSP has lost one of the three Druze ministries to Arslan without being able to do anything about it, while one of his two ministers, Marwan Hamadeh, had earlier defected in 2011 to the side of the Future Movement and isn’t really predictable. Jumblatt wasn’t at the center of the FPM-FM deal or even at the center of the FPM-LF deal, and that made him pay the price. The lack of Druze alternative as well as his lasting alliance with Berri are arguably the only things that got him to stay in the Lebanese cabinet.

Just like the PSP, the Kataeb did not join the new political trend in Lebanese politics, and have thus left a government where they were heavily over-represented (Salam’s one) to take the role of the only party in the Lebanese parliament to be in the opposition…with 5 MPs. It’s a very huge gamble, but it’s not as if they had the choice: One of the main unwritten goals of the FPM-LF January deal was probably to oust the Kataeb from parliament, and trying to blend in next to the FPM and the LF in the cabinet would have only made it worse for the Kataeb. Samy Gemayel’s last hope of survival remains to take over the Metn’s 8 seats this May, and he has been already planning that battle for a long time now.

This was the 26th post in a series of bimonthly posts covering developments in Lebanese politics. This post is about the months of November and December 2016.