Monthly Presidential Coverage

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.

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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.

President Aoun: The Morning After

 

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

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

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

A humiliating election

Lebanon’s parliament finally convened on the 31st of October 2016, and while it elected Aoun president, it did it in a humiliating way: Michel Aoun needed only two votes (he got 84 out of the required 86) to win from the first round and that means that many PSP and FM MPs refused to vote for him. While indeed many FM politicians publicly opposed Hariri’s Aoun endorsement (indicating that there might be a rift in the Future Movement because of Aoun’s endorsement), Hariri and Jumblatt did not also pressure their blocs a lot to vote for the General, probably to deny Aoun the luxury of winning from the first round and the extra legitimacy the president could have enjoyed had he won the 2/3 of the votes of the parliament (the 86 votes). Anyway, we’ll know for sure who’s still a Haririst and who’s not after the nomination of the prime minister (first week of November)

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

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

A loss for Hariri

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

Unless

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

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

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

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

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

March 8 and 14: RIP

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

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

What’s after Aoun?

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

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

Military leaders and bright sides?

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

Just to be clear

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

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

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

 

How Michel Aoun Became the President

 

 

president-michel-aoun

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first round: April 2014

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

The first slow wait: May 2014 – November 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the last month of 2014, Hezbollah and the Future Movement decided to have a dialogue. As soon as the rumors started, everyone panicked: In January 2015, Aoun agreed to sit with Geagea (and even tasted his truffles), Geagea agreed to support Aoun (if certain conditions were met), and Jumblatt decided – via Wael Abou Faour – to preemptively mark his electoral territory. And while Hezbollah’s attack on  an Israeli military convoy in the occupied Shebaa Farms that same month changed the subject in the Lebanese political discourse from the presidential election to Hezbollah and the FM’s rivalry as if it was 2009, a new development had happened by the month of May 2015:

The commander of the army’s term was supposed to end in September 2015, and it was time to find a replacement. For Michel Aoun, March 8’s presidential candidate, the name of the next General in charge of the LAF mattered even more: His son-in-law, Shamel Roukoz,  headed at the time the army’s special forces (The Maghawir) and was a serious candidate for the post. So when The FM and the PSP realized how badly their Christian rival wanted the post, they played it smart. Instead of vetoing the appointment, they outmaneuvered Aoun by accepting the nomination. But giving Roukoz the green light came at a price: The FM insisted on naming Roukoz commander after the presidential election, making it a difficult task for Aoun to accept that deal: What if the next president didn’t want Roukoz to lead the army? It was a risky prospect for Aoun. Anyway, the month of May 2015 ends with the hope of implementing a settlement including a Aoun withdrawal from the presidential race and a Roukoz appointment in the army.

In June 2015, and for the first time since 2005, Michel Aoun and Samir Geagea met without having to shoot at one another like the good old days of the late eighties. After 6 months of speculation, the FPM and the LF finally agreed on a “declaration of intent”, which was basically an agreement to agree on an agreement between the two parties. The symbolism of the meeting was however very important: Both leaders insisted to protect the Christian interests, and at their core, the election of a strong president (a “strong president” = Aoun and /or Geagea). At the time, it didn’t look as if a new pseudo-alliance between the LF and the FPM was genuinely starting: It looked more like the consensual candidate – Roukoz deal was being put off the table, At least for a while. And with a temporarily weakened Kataeb in a succession period, one can only imagine the impact an FPM-LF pseudo-alliance might have on Lebanese politics.

In July 2015, Aoun wanted the cabinet to discuss the commander of the army’s appointment early on in order to avoid any deal that could be forced upon him in September 2015. For a little over than a month – empowered by the newly signed declaration of intent – Aoun took it upon himself to launch the most aggressive political maneuver of 2015:  He called for demonstrations and tried to prove that he is the most popular leader. He also played the sectarian card by saying that Salam was abusing his powers in his refusal to discuss the appointment of a new commander of the army: So when Bassil told the PM that he was the President in the absence of a President during a cabinet session, it was clear that it was going to end badly in the executive power: The pressure and paralysis in the government eventually led to rumors that the Prime Minister was going to resign. In the end, Salam didn’t resign and the Aounists didn’t appoint Roukoz as commander, but the FPM’s July jockeying will be remembered as a major turning point in Lebanese presidential politics during 2015.

Weakened by his failed July maneuver and by an expected succession crisis in his party, Michel Aoun suffered a major blow on the 6th of August 2015 when defense minister Samir Mokbel signed a decree to postpone the retirement of Army Commander General Jean Kahwaji.  The move to throw Roukoz outside the army command and to isolate Aoun in the government was humiliating yet there was still one, and only one (fast) way left for Aoun to vacate the army command before the summer of 2016 (when Kahwagi’s new term expires): Agree to make Kahwagi president, which would leave room in the army command to bring in Roukoz. Deep down, March 14’s maneuver of extending Kahwagi’s term wasn’t necessary about ending any chance of striking a deal with the FPM. It was might have actually been their way of enforcing one.

By the second week of August 2015, Lebanon had turned into a dumpster and in September 2015, while the protests were still ongoing to pressure the cabinet to solve the trash crisis, Lebanon was witnessing two important developments regarding the FPM: Gebran Bassil became the leader of the party, and Chamel Roukoz was thrown out of the army for good, raising several important questionsCan the FPM nominate Roukoz instead of Aoun to the presidency? What would that make of Bassil? The FPM also started changing their discourse into a more “Christian rights” – based one: The whole “reforming the system and rooting out corruption from within” wasn’t working so much anymore, especially with the recent waves of anti-government protests.

Frangieh the Second? (November – December 2015)

By the month of November 2015, the Future Movement hinted that they might endorse Sleiman Frangieh, the second-in-command among March 8’s Christian parties and a long-term ally of the Syrian regime as their presidential candidate. As you can expect, the Christian parties panicked: Frangieh had the right family name, the international support, enough “Christian legitimacy” (he’s one of the Maronite Four), and support from three powerful Muslim parties across the political spectrum.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A humiliating election

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Aoun – Hariri : The Downfall of the BlueBerry ?

 

aoun-hariri

Aoun speaks during a joint press conference with Hariri in Beirut, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016 (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

 

“Based on agreements, I announce my support for the candidacy of Gen. Michel Aoun,” Hariri declared to loud applause.

“Aoun will be a president for all Lebanese,” he added. “This is not a settlement, this is a sacrifice.”

Yes. On October 20, 2016, Saad Hariri officially endorsed Michel Aoun as his presidential candidate, abandoning his previous endorsement of Sleiman Frangieh, and changing the rules of the Lebanese political game.

A little bit of context

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

  1. Hariri would be seen in the mainstream media as the one preventing the election of a Lebanese president and a Aoun presidency in particular – going against the candidate of the de-facto Christian majority in parliament and on the ground – which would discredit him and sabotage his alliance with the LF even more, making Berri the first responder to the election of Aoun, and turning the Amal leader into a hero although he was practically doing nothing but maneuvering to get a better deal for Amal.
  2. Hariri would also be blocking something that was going to eventually happen, since Aoun no longer had a relative majority in parliament, but around 65 MPs. In fact, while Michel Aoun and Samir Geagea were forging their alliance in February  and everyone else was panicking, the FPM-LF alliance practically meant nothing back then: Aoun had the public support of the March 8 alliance (minus Amal and Frangieh) and Frangieh had the (not so public) support of Amal, the PSP and the FM. That meant that both candidates had around 45 to 50 votes (since you can never predict how smaller “offside” blocs such as Mikati’s and Murr’s bloc would behave with a Frangieh-Aoun confrontation in parliament), and both Frangieh and Aoun still needed around 15 to 20 votes to guarantee their election after the second round (you need 86 votes to make it through after the first round). The main obstacle for Aoun was that Amal did not eventually support him, while the main obstacle for Frangieh was that Hezbollah – basically the core of the M8 alliance – never really fell to the temptation of saying yes to him instead of Aoun –  which was the goal of the entire FM maneuver of  endorsing Frangieh in December. In other words,when it finally seemed that all of M8 (minus Frangieh’s 3 MPs), as well as the LF, and some random MPs from M14 became on board with a package deal that supposedly included a Aoun presidency, that gave Michel Aoun around 65 MPs, and with almost half of the parliament already on his side, more MPs flocked towards his nomination: For minor independent MPs, that’s the regular procedure when you know that a deal will happen since there’s already a majority that approves it, and that if you stand against it, you’ll get isolated by the deal. And in September, that’s exactly what was happening to MP Makari of Koura who distanced himself from the FM and to MP Pharaon of Beirut who said he was favor of an all- inclusive deal that ends the presidential crisis. Check the most important table in Lebanon right now to see how Aoun became really (really) close to 65 MP mark once M8 (including Berri) and the LF became on his side:2009 lebanese parliament seats

 

 

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

If theoretically Hariri would be made prime-minister, he would leave at the first parliamentary elections, 9 months from now, with no guarantees of having him back in power after the elections. Aoun, on the other hand, would have been elected for 6 years, and a deal that simply tries to exchange a 9 month-term premiership with a 6 year term presidency, without a clear plan about an electoral law or a parliamentary elections would be unwise for Hariri (the potential prime minister).

To sum things up, 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 (what would the governmental shares be in the government? 15-10-5 like 2010? 8-8-8 like 2013? Who are the centrists anyway?) and the electoral law. 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.

Plot twist

By the 17th of September, 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.

Blue berries and strategic mistakes

That strategic mistake from Berri made it clear to everyone that he was not willing to vote for Aoun after all, even if everyone stood by the former general. In fact, until that very moment, it did not make sense for Hariri to endorse Aoun since, as explained earlier, it would be unwise to make such a huge concession (presidency) without making sure that he had something “worthy” (electoral law, governmental share) in return. But 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, via visits to every politician that has ever exited (he visited Frangieh on the 26th of September, met with Gemayel on the 28th, also meeting Jumblatt that same day) that Michel Aoun was indeed an option, causing further panic in the Amal camp – especially after Hariri also met Berri that week: 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, Berri (and Frangieh)  understood that it was useless to *hide their emotions and try to mask their opinions*: Berri publicly clashed with the patriarch, which really isn’t something he usually does, and the FPM did not surprisingly escalate when it came to October’s cabinet meetings, only partially boycotting it twice, on October 6 and October 13th, for obvious reasons: And while they were actually sending a friendly message to everyone by dropping their full cabinet boycott, Frangieh was vowing to stay in the race despite everything, as Berri’s sources still said that he would never nominate Aoun.

Introducing the sectarian card

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”. In the last 5 years of Lebanese politics, speaker Berri had never, ever used the sectarian card. The aounists have been talking about the national pact too much recently (inserting the word “ميثاقية” in every speech), and Berri probably thought he could use the FPM’s weapon against them. 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. Hezbollah’s awkward (official) silence also wasn’t of much help to Berri, so the FPM, experts in using the sectarian card, smoothly stopped Berri’s “you are turning back on Shias” rants by…not escalating (best strategy ever).

But 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, the former prime minister came up with his brilliant maneuver of endorsing Aoun:

  1. By endorsing Aoun without the consent of Berri and without the blessing of Hezbollah, Hariri is basically reuniting the two main cores of M14 (the FM and the LF) under the banner of Michel Aoun. (This is a historic sentence that I never thought I would write)
  2. With a very high-ranking March 8 official such as Michel Aoun in the presidency, Hariri can more easily secure the premiership for himself as he is the leader of the March 14 coalition: A centrist president means a centrist prime minister, but a president from the core of one coalition can only mean that the core of the other coalition would serve under him: That rules out as next prime-minister, Mikati, Salam, Siniora, and any other Sunni politician that ever wanted to compete with Hariri on a national or even local level for the premiership.
  3. With a centrist president in power, Hariri can probably suggest the name of someone else as prime minister as well as receiving an electoral law compromise afterwards. But with someone the rank of Aoun in power, Hariri can get a better deal, and he’ll be getting those concessions mainly from Hezbollah and Amal since his endorsement of Aoun would put the FPM leader in the center of the Lebanese political game, as Aoun – with Hariri and Geagea’s endorsements – would ironically have more M14 MPs than M8 MPs by his side.
  4. Hariri shatters 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 becomes 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. Smooth. Very smooth.

A loss nevertheless

While it is still unclear how Saudi-Arabia gave Hariri the green light to endorse someone as controversial to the Kingdom as Aoun, two things are very important to note here: As much as this is the first political defeat for Berri since ages, Hariri is in no way a winner right now from this endorsement. Hariri has now conceded a defeat – although he made it look like a national victory in his speech – by endorsing Hezbollah’s official candidate, and Ashraf Rifi is going to slowly take away Hariri’s electorate and continue what he started in May (no one likes the moderates and those who make deals). With no apparent electoral law in sight – although there might be one under the table, who knows – Hariri will have lost (in the vacant presidency) a key negotiating card with the FPM, and although he is probably coming as prime minister under Aoun, he’s going to have to fight for his place in the next parliamentary elections – especially as there was no agreement on a parliamentary extension. As president, Michel Aoun can directly control the formation of the cabinet, and with no agreement on that either, Hariri is going to struggle to form his government, and will have to pay the price – sooner or later – with Lebanon’s political elite but also with his electorate, for going forward with a Aoun nomination without having any guarantees – not even anything about Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria: What are they going to write in the ministerial declaration? Hariri mentioned a deal in his endorsement, but endorsing Aoun, without clarifying every microscopical detail in the deal – a la Doha agreement – would be major rookie mistake.

Perhaps Hariri was forced to take this path (he was right when he said it was a sacrifice), partially because of Amal’s stances in the summer. He might have successfully taken the speaker down with him and unified March 14 in the process while shattering the Amal-Hezbollah-FPM trio, but he weakened himself before the scheduled parliamentary elections, and has prematurely abandoned his negotiating cards.

The only real winner here is Aoun.

Well, Aoun and Geagea (Since Geagea has all his allies now on the same side).

Technically, Aoun, Geagea, and the philosophical concept of patience and waiting 3 years in order to get what you want.

Oh, and by the way, the Aoun-Hariri presidency-prime minister deal was expected 3 years ago. 3 YEARS AGO.

Let’s see what happens next. There’s a presidential election session on the 31st of October. Should be interesting.

This was the 25th post in a series of monthly posts covering the presidential elections. This post is about the second half of September, and the month of October 2016.

880 days since the 25th of May (presidential vacancy). 1239 days since the 31st of May (parliamentary extension) .

Deal or No Deal?

 

national-dialogue-september-5-2016

The Lebanese supreme council of the tribal federation trying to reach a deal for the millionth time in three years this month. (Image source: September 5th 2016, The Daily Star/Parliament, HO)

This is the 24th post in a series of monthly posts covering the presidential elections. This post is about the month of August and the first half of September 2016 (the second half of summer).

Sit back and relax. This is going to be a long, long, long post. You have been warned.

Let’s start by playing a little exciting game. The game is called “calculating the number of members of parliament that haven’t been elected for 8 years yet are still eligible to elect a president and vote laws although they practically do nothing other than give speeches and maneuver all year”.

In order to play this little game called “calculating the number of members of parliament that haven’t been elected for 8 years yet are still eligible to elect a president and vote laws although they practically do nothing other than give speeches and maneuver all year” (yes, I copied and pasted that entire paragraph, just because I can), one needs a table that makes it easier. Lucky for you excited gamers, there’s a table for you here on the blog:

2009 lebanese parliament seats

In the dark cold month of February, and while Michel Aoun and Samir Geagea were forging their alliance and everyone else was panicking, I uploaded that table to tell the world that their alliance practically meant nothing: Aoun had the public support of the March 8 alliance (minus Amal and Frangieh) and Frangieh had the (not so public) support of Amal, the PSP and the FM. That meant that both candidates had around 45 to 50 votes (since you can never predict how smaller “offside” blocs such as Mikati’s and Murr’s bloc would behave with a Frangieh-Aoun confrontation in parliament), and both Frangieh and Aoun still needed around 15 to 20 votes to garantee their election after the second round (you need 86 votes to make it through after the first round).The main obstacle for Aoun was that Amal did not eventually support him, while the main obstacle for Frangieh was that Hezbollah – basically the core of the M8 alliance – never really fell to the temptation of saying yes to him instead of Aoun –  which was the goal of the entire FM maneuver of  endorsing Frangieh in December. So as predicted in February, the deadlock stayed and stayed and stayed although the alliances had completely shifted.

How it began

Then came the (politically) hot month of July: Berri and Bassil made a deal on the Lebanese gas and oil dossier,  and Berri suddenly started saying nice things about the FPM, which is why I assumed back then – like everyone – that there was a very high probability that Berri’s bloc would eventually vote for Aoun since the FPM and Amal are more or less on good terms since the beginning of this Summer. But that was pure speculation.

Panique

So Frangieh – in a probable panic mode – was meeting Gemayel in in his northern Lebanon home, perhaps in order to lure him into making the 5 MP Kataeb bloc side with the Marada leader to counter the recent Aounist momentum. The FM meanwhile were doing the same: The FM bloc met in Beirut and decided, via a 23-3 “internal” vote  that they would not stand with Aoun in the presidential elections. The vote was made public for obvious reasons: Sending a message to everyone, that even with a Berri blessing, they would still stand against the election of Aoun.

Deal?

In Lebanese politics, a no never means no (sometimes I say very deep quotes). Seriously though, a no in a Lebanese political negotiation means that you want something more. And that’s what the FM probably meant with their very public No. They would not elect a president for 6 years without something in return that would have a long-term effect as the term of the Lebanese president.

Wait? What?? Deal???

And Berri got the message fast. Less than 5 days after the internal FM vote, Berri publicly promoted a package deal – confirming that electing the president alone doesn’t solve the crisis. Right after that happened, we saw three interesting stances:

In other words, the FM were hinting that with a good deal they would be ready to abandon the Frangieh candidacy if a good deal is on the table, Salam was hinting that the alternative would have to be someone else than Aoun, and the FPM…were still holding on to Aoun (surprise!). Probably depending on the deal, the name of the president would have to change. If the deal favors the FM a lot, Aoun would become president. If not, the name of the president would be the result of a more moderate compromise.

What package deal?

For this, we’re going to fast-forward… one day: on the 13th of August, Hezbollah SG Hassan Nasrallah finally indirectly told us what the package deal – for the M8 parties at least – would look like: In his speech commemorating the 10th year since the July war, Nasrallah voiced his Party’s commitment to supporting General Michel Aoun for Presidency, adding that “House Speaker Nabih Berri, our long term partner, is our only candidate for heading the Parliament Council,” while expressing “openness” with regards to the Premiership issue after the Presidential elections.

Let me translate the proposal: Aoun becomes president. Berri gets a share of the oil that makes Amal happy enough to vote for Aoun and stays as speaker. The FM get the premiership.With Aoun in power, Hezbollah makes sure that a cabinet hostile to its policies in Lebanon, Syria, and beyond would not see light in the near future. On the Christian side, Geagea becomes the de-facto second in command behind Aoun and an FPM-LF alliance crushes all the smaller parties in the Christian districts in the next parliamentary elections (The proof: The FPM and the LF said in the same week that they want an electoral law with a joint green light from both parties) which means bigger shares in parliament for Aoun and Geagea. Everyone is happy. Everyone gains more from this deal.

Everyone except the FM, the Kataeb, the Marada, and the PSP

When it comes to the FM, the premiership (for Hariri probably) is “a prize” too little for them to approve in the context of such a deal. The prime minister would leave after the first parliamentary elections, and even if the FM coalition wins, there’ll aways be a chance that Hariri would be ousted from the premiership like what happened in 2011 (throwback to when we almost had a civil war).

For the FM to agree on a 6 year long term deal, they would have to be given something that benefits them on the long run… and that would be an electoral law that favors them. Exchanging the premiership with the presidency, without having any guarantee about the next electoral law would be a rookie mistake that the FM are not willing to do no matter how tempting the presence of Hariri at the head of the government might be for the FM.

There’s also the part where the parties have to share the ministers in the next government, but that’s also a temporary developement and the key issue will always  be the electoral law, because governments come and go but parliaments tend to stay in this country (throwback to that time Lebanon’s politicians extended the parliament term twice).

For the Kataeb and the Marada, they clearly lose because they gain nothing in government and will have to face the LF and the FPM in parliamentary elections with an electoral law they will have no say in, while the PSP kind of lose their kingmaker status if a deal passes through without them in the middle being able to block everything.

This is exactly why the Kataeb panicked and decided to escalate their trash crisis struggle and take things to an entire new level by closing down the landfills in August with their protests – just to be clear, closing landfills is the right thing to do but I’m tackling the issue here from a political maneuvering point of view.

In case you’re not following, more trash escalating means inducing more anger from the Metn electorate against the FPM and LF before elections which means higher odds for the Kataeb to secure Gemayel’s home district in the next elections (here’s a post from two months ago that explains the Kataeb escalations in detail). The Kataeb stopped their trash escalation this week, but their strategy remains the same: Make the FPM and the LF suffer as much as possible in the Metn before June 2017 arrives because it’s the only district where they can hope to make it to parliament all by themselves.

The commander of the army: Complication or advantage?

One of the things that complicate the deal right now is that the commander of the army’s term is expiring, which means that the ruling parties have another thing to share ( = add to the deal). As a potential next president, Aoun obviously wants the LAF commander to be close to him – the Lebanese president after all presides over the Supreme Defense Council and is the commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces which falls under the authority of the Council of Ministers (article 49 of the constitution), which might explains why the FPM is refusing to extend the term of the commander of the army with the absence of a president in power.

2006 + 2015 = 2016

Another reason why the FPM is focusing on the LAF commander issue right now is  because they currently have more leverage than they will ever have: They’re the only major Christian party that still has an active presence in government and this means that appointing/extending the term of a commander of the army (something relatively important) without their blessing can be considered to be illegitimate (There shall be no constitutional legitimacy for any authority which contradicts the pact of mutual existence, article J, preamble of the constitution). Ten years ago (in 2006), March 8 blocked two years of political life in Lebanon with this article (when they argued that  a government – the first Siniora cabinet – without any Shia ministers had no legitimacy and had to resign), and it eventually worked to their advantage in the Doha agreement. And this is exactly what the FPM is doing now with their boycott of the cabinet sessions as well as the supreme council of the tribal federation sessions (the national dialogue got suspended too, in case you wondered) . So yeah, welcome back to…2006.

Yeah. Just kidding, it’s 2015, since FPM and the other parties also have the possibility of exchanging the amy command with the presidency as part of a huge package deal (in case you forgot about the 2015 Roukouz-Kahwagi-FPM dilemma, here’s a little reminder).

When it rains, it pours

Berri said in August that he was going to be with Hariri whether the former PM did something wrong or not (why so suddenly nice, Mr speaker…), while MP Raad of Hezbollah said that the situation was ripe for the election of president, so it seems that the speaker – as well as Hezbollah – are definitely on board with the deal. One might even say that Berri wants to force a deal: He warned that “the country is to face crossroad by year’s end if there’s no agreement“. And although the FM said that Nasrallah  has no right to impose Aoun as sole candidate, there is nothing the FM can do now since Aoun has ≥ 65 MPs behind him, except blocking the quorum session (ironically like M8 are doing right now). But this FM “negativity”, like I said earlier, might just be a temporary answer to get more concessions from the Aounist team (Aounist team = the parties who want to vote for him ): the definite proof? A Hezbollah MP said that “Mustaqbal may benefit most from Aoun’s election“.

Even Geagea wants the deal. Actually, forget Geagea: Even M14 MP Michel Pharaon wants a package deal.

Deal or no deal?

In other words, all of M8 (minus Frangieh’s 3 MPs), as well as the LF, and some random MPs from M14 are on board with the deal: That gives Michel Aoun more than half of the parliament on his side (cc the game we were playing before at the beginning of the post), and with the half of the parliament already on his side, expect more MPs to flock towards his nomination: Let’s call it the Pharaon syndrome: You know that the deal will happen since there’s already a majority that approves it, and if you stand against it, you get isolated by the deal. So you might as well embrace it, and hope to get something in return…like a parliamentary seat for Pharaon who will be crushed in the next parliamentary elections in case the LF and the FPM blacklist him (it’s definitely going to happen if he doesn’t stand with them), so you can say it’s his way of “redeemint himself” (by endorsing Aoun) . And in September, the Pharaon syndrome was everywhere: Even MP Makari (who represents a Christian district in the North and who’s closer to the FM than the LF), distanced himself from the FM.

All the politicians are playing it safe, and for a reason: A deal is coming, and you’re either on the winning side, or the losing side will abandon you. That’s why the minor politicians on the losing side are flocking to the winning side.

OrangeBerries!

Berri’s indirect support gave Aoun a theoretical absolute majority, and once Aoun was there, his numbers only started getting higher. M8 just has to know what to concede so that the FM (and immediately after that the PSP) goes forward with his nomination and avoid another deadlock that would lead nowhere.

It won’t be easy to find a governmental formation and an electoral law that pleases the FM, but we’re almost there..almost.

I can’t believe I’m actually going to say it, but right now, Aoun has the highest chances of becoming president. Aoun’s chances are so high right now, Frangieh and Bassil clashed in the dialogue session on who represents the Christians more. But with the deal still in the making, Aoun is not going anywhere just yet, and if March 8 aren’t willing to concede something big (#electoral_law), we might instead find ourselves with the FM asking for a president that’s more to the middle between “March 8” and “March 14”: Two candidates fit the profile according to the partisan media: Jean Kahwagi and Jean Obeid. Which also probably explains why…the media has been circulating reports of Jean Kawhagi gaining momentum in the presidential game.

On the bright side, Lebanon’s politicians are actually looking for a solution to the deadlock. And it only took them three years to get here. Only three!

843 days since the 25th of May (presidential vacancy). 1201 days since the 31st of May (parliamentary extension) .