Monthly Presidential Coverage

The Republic of Distractions

Senior state officials commemorate GS anniversary in Beirut, August 26

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

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

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

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

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

Throwback February

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

Distraction 1.0

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

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

The law and the outskirts

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

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

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

Lebanese Politicians 1 – Panicking Lebanese 0

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

Distraction 2.0

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

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

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

Introducing the Don’t Know Don’t Care policy

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

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

Elections are coming

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

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

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

Who fights for the North-East?

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

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

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

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

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

Distraction 3.0

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

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

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

Quadripartite formulas and imaginary victories

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

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

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

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

Sweetening the deal

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

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

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

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

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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.

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

 

 

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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) .