Presidential Elections

Lebanese Politics – 2015 In Review

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

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

2015 will probably be remembered as the first year in Lebanon’s history that was entirely spent without a president. But for what it’s worth, there was a lot more than that to it, which is why this post is a summary/compilation of all of Lebanon’s events for this year. The time has come to link 2015’s political events with one another. Happy New Year 🙂

Aoun tasted Geagea’s truffles and we almost had a war with Israel (January 2015)

In the last months of 2014, Hezbollah and the Future Movement decided to have a dialogue. As soon as the rumors started, everyone panicked: Aoun agreed to sit with Geagea (and even tasted his truffles), Geagea agreed to support Aoun (if certain conditions were met), and Jumblatt decided – via Wael Abou Faour – to preemptively mark his electoral territory (remember the food health campaign of 2014?) But all the political maneuvering eventually ended when Hezbollah finally chose the “time and place for the retaliation” against Israeli aggressions. For the past 3 years, the party had been constantly criticized for participating in the Syrian civil war and  for directing its weapons away from Israel and towards Syria. So when Israel’s recent airstrike in the Golan Heights killed Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian General, the prefect time and place were found: Hezbollah fighters retaliated by  attacking an Israeli military convoy in the occupied Shebaa Farms, 45 days before Israeli elections, on a disputed Syrian-Lebanese-Israeli territory. The party of God wanted to prove a point without starting a war, and the aftermath was a political success*.

If you can’t beat them, join them, then beat them (February 2015)

It was a political success for the first two weeks*: A minister close to the FM in the cabinet said that Hezbollah did not break the ministerial declaration and Jumblatt lauded Hezbollah’s retaliation. Yet by the laws of Lebanese politics, March 14 was supposed to criticize Hezbollah which is why the Christian parties thought that the dialogue between Hezbollah and the FM was a serious one, and the fear of a deal on the presidency throwing them outside made them…panic. And when the FPM and the LF tried to start an all-out political war between the FM and Hezbollah in order to stop the possible deal, the two Muslim parties simply ignored the Christian brouhaha and made their Christian allies panic even more by removing all their political posters from the city of Beirut in order to “defuse tensions“. Then, after approximately three weeks of bonding with Hezbollah (and throwing Khaled Daher outside the FM’s parliamentary bloc), Hariri threw this political bomb on the 14th of February: “Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria is insanity and Hezbollah has brought this insanity to Lebanon. Tying the Golan Heights to south Lebanon is insanity as well”. In 3 weeks, Hariri (1) gave the impression that he had no problem with Hezbollah’s retaliation and made it look as if Hezbollah was following the cabinet’s guidelines that were jointly set by M8 and M14. Then, (2) Hariri managed, whether he meant it or not, to cause confrontations between the members of M8, and between the LF and the FPM. He also managed to (3) undermine Siniora, (4) to throw Daher out and eventually attract a friendly Christian electorate towards M14 while (5) setting boundaries for his MPs, (6) to give the impression that Hezbollah lost him as an ally after they thought they were winning him over, while (7) showing that he is a moderate at the same time because he wants to have a serious dialogue, and (8) highlighting the fact that he is actually making a big sacrifice by negotiating with  Hezbollah, which would mean that he is (9) a patriot that values Lebanon above everything else. These three weeks were supposed to be about Hezbollah’s achievement. Instead, they became all about Hariri, who didn’t even have an achievement. It was – by far – the best political maneuver of 2015.

The two president’s men and a new bey in Mukhtara? (March 2015)

In the last half of February, PM Salam wanted to amend the cabinet’s voting mechanism after several cabinet members began exercising veto power, stalling several of the government’s projects. What happens next? 7 Lebanese ministers meet and decide to form a “consultative gathering”. The ministers are the ones who are loyal to Amine Gemayel and to Michel Sleiman. The rapprochement between the ministers was logical: They all either belong to one of the smallest Lebanese parties in parliament or represent a former president that no longer has any concrete power (not even one MP). That was Gemayel and Sleiman’s way of counterbalacing the FPM-LF’s recent dialogue: The Aounists and the Lebanese Forces were also about to reach an understanding. The process – whose unannounced intention was probably to slow down the Hezbollah-FM dialogue – could have meant two things: (1) That the two main Christian parties were trying to keep the president’s seat to themselves or (2) that no consensual candidate would become president unless the biggest two Christian parties agree on him. Speaking of consensual candidates, Walid Jumblatt’s decision to transfer his power to his son before the presidential elections (and not the parliamentary elections) could have meant that he didn’t want the transition of power to happen in Mukhtara while a president from the Chouf – did I mention that General Kahwagi  is from the Chouf – interferes from the Beiteddin palace.

Yemen, Yemen everywhere (April 2015)

Here’s a short summary of the three productive weeks we had between the 27th of March and the 17th of April: First, Hariri supports the “Saudi intervention” in Yemen. Then, Hezbollah condemns the “Saudi aggression” in Yemen. Then, the Future Movement supports the “Saudi intervention” in Yemen.Then, Nasrallah criticizes Saudi Arabia. Then, the Future Movement criticizes Hezbollah. Then, Hezbollah criticizes the Future Movement. Then, the Future Movement criticizes Hezbollah. Then, Nasrallah criticizes Saudi Arabia. Then, Hariri criticizes Nasrallah. Then, Hezbollah criticizes the Future Movement. Then, the Future Movement criticizes Hezbollah. Then, Hezbollah criticizes the Future Movement. Then, the Future Movement criticizes Hezbollah. This time however, it was Gebran Bassil who was responsible for April’s political bomb: he expressed support for “legitimacy in any Arab country, especially in Yemen”. Four days later, Bassil struck again: “We don’t wish to see Hezbollah fighting with the Houthis or see anyone from the Future Movement fighting alongside the Saudis”. For the second time in the same week, Bassil was indirectly criticizing the FPM’s key ally, Hezbollah. And it wasn’t a good month for Hezbollah: The upper hand that the party had in the two weeks after the January retaliation had disappeared: Jumblatt asked “What’s wrong with Nasrallah?“, the Prime Minister said that Beirut supported any move that preserves Sanaa’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity”, the speaker said he supported Oman’s efforts to solve the crisis, Michel Samaha confessed, Rustum Ghazali died, and the Patriarch said that the March 8 alliance was responsible for the presidential vacancy. So yeah, you can say that it was the worst month for March 8 in 2015.

The War for Shamel Roukoz (May 2015)

By the month of May, a new development had happened: The commander of the army’s term was supposed to end in September, and it was time to find a replacement. For Michel Aoun, March 8’s presidential candidate, the name of the next General in charge of the LAF mattered even more: His son-in-law, Shamel Roukoz,  headed at the time the army’s special forces (The Maghawir) and was a serious candidate for the post. If Roukoz became commander of the army and got the right political backing, he would have been in a position to be as influential as his father-in-law and ultimately succeed him as the party’s leader and idol.  So when The FM and the PSP realized how badly their Christian rival wanted the post, they played it smart. Instead of vetoing the appointment, they outmaneuvered Aoun by accepting the nomination (Here’s a link of Hariri saying yes to Roukoz, and another link of Jumblatt saying yes to Roukoz) while indirectly requiring some concessions from the FPM: (1) Someone not named Michel Aoun as president, (2) a gentler electoral law towards the FM and PSP’s interests, and (3) Hezbollah agreeing to some of their terms. But that’s not all of it. Giving Roukoz the green light comes at a price: The FM insisted on naming Roukoz commander after the presidential elections, making it a difficult task for Aoun to accept that deal: What if the next president didn’t want Roukoz to lead the army? It was a risky prospect for Aoun. For the FPM, appointing Roukoz as commander seemed like one of the two steps needed to secure the presidential elections of 2021 (since the commander of the army is usually the candidat-favori). For the FM, appointing Roukoz seemed like the easiest way to try to sow discontent between the FPM and Hezbollah. Anyway, the month of May 2015 ends with the hope of implementing a settlement including a Aoun withdrawal from the presidential race and a Roukoz appointment in the army.

The rise of the Christian parties (June 2015)

Surprise. For the first time since 2005, Michel Aoun and Samir Geagea met. Live. Face to face. Without having to shoot at one another like the good old days of the late eighties. After 6 months of speculation, the FPM and the LF finally agreed on a “declaration of intent”, which was basically an agreement to agree on an agreement between the two parties. The symbolism of the meeting was however very important, and if you read the declaration, you’ll find out  that it revolves around one main idea: protecting the Christian interests, and at their core, the election of a strong president (a “strong president” = Aoun and /or Geagea). Although the FPM looked like the winning party (since it was Geagea the one who visited him in Rabieh), the leader of the Lebanese Forces succeeded in bringing back the “strong president” rhetoric to life, thus pushing Aoun away from the idea of a consensual president (in case he was even tempted by it) and a Roukouz deal with the Mustaqbal and the PSP. At the time, it didn’t look as if a new pseudo-alliance between the LF and the FPM was genuinely starting: It looked more like the consensual candidate – Roukoz deal was being put off the table, At least for a while. Meanwhile, the transfer of power in the Kataeb was already underway: Samy Gemayel officially declared his candidacy for the Kataeb presidency on the third of June, and was officially elected to succeed his father on the 15th of June; it was always too obvious that the presidency of the Kataeb would eventually be given – even if by elections – to the eldest living heir of the eldest heir of Pierre Gemayel. With a temporarily weakened Kataeb in a succession period, one can only imagine the impact an FPM-LF pseudo-alliance might have on Lebanese politics.

Christian rights and political maneuvers (July 2015)

The appointment of Shamel Roukoz as commander of the army meant that Kahwagi, who will no longer be commander of the army, would slowly lose momentum as a presidential candidate in favor of other candidates, while at the same time Roukoz seemed the man to fulfill the legacy of Aoun. The problem however for the FPM is that the party did not wish to make concessions (such as Aoun’s withdrawal from the presidential race) in order to bring Roukoz into the army command. Aoun wanted the cabinet to discuss the commander of the army’s appointment from July, in order to avoid any deal that could be forced upon him in September. The early/urgent appointment of Shamel Roukoz as commander hence became the FPM’s main priority. For a little over than a month – empowered by the newly signed declaration of intent – Aoun took it upon himself to launch the most aggressive political maneuver of this year:  He called for the demonstrations and tried to prove that he is the most popular leader with the Geagea polling deal. He also played the sectarian card by saying that Salam was abusing his powers in his refusal to discuss the appointment of a new commander of the army: Constitutionally speaking, it’s the Sunni PM that sets the agenda in the cabinet meetings (article 64) although the Maronite president is allowed to “introduce, from outside the agenda, any urgent matter to the council of Ministers” (article 53). But there was no president which gave the FPM the chance to play a double sectarian card: The FPM leaders argued that the PM doesn’t want to discuss the appointment of the Maronite commander of the army, and is refusing to let the biggest Christian party in the cabinet use the authorities of the Maronite president. So when Bassil told the PM that he was the President in the absence of a President during a cabinet session, it was clear that it was going to end badly in the executive power: The pressure and paralysis in the government eventually led to rumors that the Prime Minister was going to resign. It was a clever maneuver from Salam: In case he leaves the premiership, his cabinet – that already assumes the role of the president – becomes a caretaker one, the parliament loses the remainder of its legislative power and the FPM’s demands in the government become useless (since a caretaker cabinet cannot theoretically meet). The FPM lose their chance of making a scene by throwing Salam outside like they did to Hariri in 2011,  and instead of showing themselves as victims, they become the ones responsible for literally everything: Every institution in Lebanon becomes paralyzed because of the M8 boycott of the presidential elections, and the only one who would still keep a bit of influence is Tammam Salam as president of the caretaker cabinet. Also if no solution was reached by September, the commander of the army will probably see his term extended, since a caretaker cabinet doesn’t officially have enough authority to discuss such an important post, especially that the country would become highly unstable once we cease to have a functioning government alongside a paralyzed parliament and a non-existent president. In the end, Salam didn’t resign and the Aounists didn’t appoint Roukoz as commander, but the FPM’s July jockeying will be remembered as a major turning point in Lebanese politics this year.

A coup in the cabinet and a garbage revolt everywhere else (August 2015)

Weakened by his failed July maneuver and by an expected succession crisis in his party, Michel Aoun suffered a major blow on the 6th of August when defense minister Samir Mokbel signed a decree to postpone the retirement of Army Commander General Jean Kahwaji. While the FPM ministers’ resignation seemed like the typical response to this “mini-declaration of war”, the fact that Aoun wasn’t on board with Berri that month (Berri lashed out at the FPM that same week, told us that he wouldn’t vote for Aoun in the presidential elections, that toppling the cabinet was a red line and that the government paralysis hurts citizens) meant that Amal’s 2.5 ministers wouldn’t have resigned along with the FPM officials. In other words, a Hezbollah-FPM double resignation wouldn’t have been enough to collapse the cabinet, and Salam was free to extend Kahwaji’s term. The move to throw Roukoz outside the army command and to isolate Aoun in the government was humiliating yet there was still one, and only one (fast) way left for Aoun to vacate the army command before the summer of 2016 (when Kahwagi’s new term expires): Agree to make Kahwagi president, which would leave room in the army command to bring in Roukoz. Deep down, March 14’s maneuver of extending Kahwagi’s term wasn’t necessary about ending any chance of striking a deal with the FPM. It was might have actually been their way of enforcing one.

By the second week of August, all the political maneuvering Lebanon had for years turned suddenly stopped: Lebanon turned into a dumpster and a garbage crisis – caused by the government’s inaction for 20 years and aggravated by the recent deadlock – was quickly threatening the authority of the Lebanese political class. For the next month, Beirut was at its most beautiful in years. Small demonstrations protesting corruption and oppression grew in size and on the 29th of August, as hundreds of thousands of Lebanese gathered in martyr’s square asking for solutions to the trash crisis, early elections and accountability, there was finally hope that this country might one day change for the better.

Another coup in the cabinet (September/October 2015)

While the protests were still ongoing to pressure the cabinet to solve the trash crisis, Lebanon was witnessing two important developments regarding the FPM: Gebran Bassil became the leader of the party, and Chamel Roukoz was thrown out of the army for good, raising several important questions: Who gives the orders in the FPM? Aoun? Bassil? Who does the FPM answer to? Bassil? Aoun? What to do with Roukoz? Bring him in since he’s too popular? (Or keep him outside since he’s too popular?) Can the FPM nominate Roukoz instead of Aoun to the presidency? What would that make of Bassil? The FPM also started changing their discourse into a more “Christian rights” – based one: The whole “reforming the system and rooting out corruption from within” wasn’t working so much anymore, especially with the recent waves of anti-government protests.  The crisis in the cabinet continued, and as everyone threatened to bring down the cabinet,  the premier, who probably knew – like everyone else – that no one was ready to bring down a government in which they thrive on the status-quo, took it upon himself to end the discourse and indirectly told everyone that if they won’t calm down and try (or at least pretend) to figure out how to solve the trash crisis, he will be the one who will bring down the government. Ironically, it might have been the fear of the trash protesters that prevented the government from imploding.

The boycott and the bait (November 2015)

November was weird. Lebanon’s Muslim parties wanted to legislate in the middle of a presidential vacancy (hint: It’s unconstitutional), while the Christian parties refused to do so and formed a brief yet historic tripartite alliance to dis-legitimatize the session by boycotting it. Among the 38 draft laws on the table was a proposal that was supposed to lure the Christian parties and push them to take part in the legislative sessions: A draft law that would grant citizenship to the descendants of Lebanese expatriates. For ages, that was one of the main requests of the Christian parties (they believe that most of the expatriates are Christians which would strengthen their position ahead of parliamentary elections). So why weren’t they willing to participate? For the LF and the Kataeb, boycotting the legislative session meant that they were pissing off the leadership of the March 8 alliance and that they too – and not only the FPM – are ready to stand up for Christian rights (= the priority of electing a Christian president before legislating in this case). For the FPM, their boycott of the session was probably a mini-retaliation on Berri for letting the extension of Kahwagi in the army command pass and for not standing with them on the Chamel Roukoz issue. So is revenge a dish best served cold? No, not really: The bait (citizenship law) actually worked and the FPM and LF eventually participated in the (theoretically unconstitutional) session after it became obvious that the Muslim parties were going through with their plans regardless of the Christian boycott. After passing the citizenship law, it seemed as if the declaration of intent had finally reached its purpose and both the LF  and FPM had won their first battle as half-allies. So everything seemed to be fine for the Christian parties that month…until the Future Movement hinted that they might endorse Sleiman Frangieh, the second-in-command among March 8’s Christian parties and a long-term ally of the Syrian regime as their presidential candidate. As you can expect, the Christian parties panicked: Frangieh had the right family name, the international support, enough “Christian legitimacy” (he’s one of the Maronite Four), and support from three powerful Muslim parties across the political spectrum.

Frangieh The Second? (December 2015)

As the seriousness of Sleiman Frangieh’s candidacy became evident, Lebanon’s traditional March 8/March 14 alliances were on the verge of collapsing. While the PSP, the FM and Amal rallied around Frangieh, the election of Frangieh was out of the question for the biggest three Christian parties (the LF, FPM, and Kataeb). Hezbollah stayed silent and as the FPM’s final say that they would stick with Aoun became more obvious, the party of God’s decision not to support the Marada leader (for the time being) will have saved Lebanon from a Christian-Muslim confrontation in parliament. Only time will tell if Frangieh’s candidacy was an M14 maneuver to blow up M8 or an M8 counter-maneuver to take the presidency, but for now, the future of the Frangieh settlement remains unclear: While the election of Frangieh as president is a long-term investment for Hezbollah and could reinforce the March 8 alliance till the next parliamentary elections, Aoun doesn’t exactly benefit from the Frangieh deal. A minor ally of his becomes a major rival that threatens the influence of the newly elected FPM president Gebran Bassil, and Aoun will have no guarantee whatsoever on what happens with the electoral law. If the FPM isn’t given assurances – the outline of the new electoral law, the FPM’s share in the new cabinet, or even bringing Chamel Roukoz (in a way or another) back into the army command – the deal is as good as dead: Hezbollah and the FPM control a little less than the third of the parliament’s seats making it extremely difficult for any candidate to secure the two-thirds quorum needed for the presidential elections.

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

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What Future for the Frangieh Settlement?

This is the 16th post in a series of monthly posts covering the presidential elections. This post is about the month of December 2015.

Is Frangieh going to be elected president? Until the second week of December, most of Lebanon thought so. However, several developments this month indicated that the deadlock is very likely to remain as there is still no unanimous agreement on Frangieh. Although the Marada said that the settlement still stands, the Frangieh-Aoun meeting as well as several other reports hint that things are not going very well for Frangieh’s candidacy.

International pressure and “local resistance”

In what might be the most desperate (yet obvious) attempt to obstruct the Frangieh deal, the Christian parties have tried during the past few weeks to make the Frangieh candidacy look as an imported international deal brokered by regional powers (the Hollande phone call, the Frangiehs close family ties with the Assads as well as the green light coming from Saudi Arabia have made it easier for them to launch this maneuver): On the 11th, Adwan said that the ambassadors’ stances won’t influence the LF’s decisions. Two days later, Gemayel stated that it was hard for outside to decide on the presidential file. The disproportionate coverage of Berri’s decision not visit Saudi Arabia (really, why do we even need to know?) perhaps highlights an attempt from the pro-Frangieh camp to undermine the allegations of an internationally-sponsored deal.

Frangieh Who?

On the other side of the political spectrum, the Future movement was acting very weird. On the 19th of December, one day after Frangieh officially declared his candidacy and sponsored himself as a moderate candidate during a televised interview, Khaled Daher (the rebellious FM MP from Akkar) said he would choose aoun over Frangieh for the  presidency. While that was rather expected from Daher, another northern MP, Ahmad Fatfat, said from Maarab that Frangieh’s name was…never ever considered in the first place (?!?!). However the FM’s highest ranking minister in the cabinet (interior, Mashnouk), said that Frangieh’s interview “showed sincerity” (also, look at Future newspaper’s front page). While it is yet unclear if there is a major disagreement on Frangieh’s name in the ranks of the Future Movement or if it is a maneuver to (re)strengthen Frangieh among M8 by making him look as a hated candidate in M14, it seems that the FM is trying to delay an official endorsement of Frangieh in order to maintain its ties with the Lebanese Forces.

Peace and love

One of the most awkward moments in Lebanese politics this year was perhaps when Saudi-Arabia decided to form an Islamic coalition to fight ISIS and included Lebanon in it. As expected, not everyone was happy with that decision: While Salam hailed the move and Hariri praised it, Mohamad Raad of Hezbolah absolutely refused Lebanon’s participation and Qaouk accused it of supporting takfiris. Even the Kataeb were confused, saying that it should have been named ‘Arab’ instead of ‘Islamic’ (you know, since Saudi Arabia cares about the Kataeb’s feelings). In another decade, Lebanon’s participation in such a coalition would have started a civil war, but it was not the time to start a fight (the Frangieh deal was apparently the priority), so the whole debate suddenly…disappeared (after Salam assured everyone that no one could have prevented him from taking a decision that he deemed appropriate). Even the death of Samir Qantar in Syria and the commemoration of Mohamad Chatah’s assassination were rather calmly handled by the Future Movement and Hezbollah: The speeches were (relatively) moderate towards the other camp – Siniora was a bit harsh, but then again, that isn’t something new. With Frangieh’s candidacy on the horizon, there seems to be an agreement to keep things “politically peaceful” at the moment. Even the death of Ali Eid – the Alawi leader who was wanted by the Lebanese judiciary over his alleged involvement the 2013 twin Tripoli bombings – almost went unnoticed last week: Lebanon’s politicians didn’t make any comments on what could have been the most important event this month. Did I also mention that there has finally been an agreement on a trash plan without a lot of objections in the cabinet? Too much silence in Lebanese politics could mean that there is indeed a deal in the making.

A comeback opportunity for the others?

The only positive (yet controversial) event that happened this year was the release of the abducted Lebanese servicemen. While it happened in the middle of the talks on the Frangieh deal, it was a very important boost for the (undeclared) campaign of the commander of the army: On the 9th of December, the strengthened army chief said there would be no safe passage for militants. On the 21st, Berri said that if the Maronite four weren’t going to agree on a candidate (Frangieh), then it would be possible for another candidate to run. He was probably pressuring the Maronite leaders, yet the Patriarchy’s hint that it is ready to support someone outside the Maronite four, followed the next day by the Patriarch’s praise of the army, puts back Kahwagi’s name back in the game.

Amine Gemayel’s recent plans to spearhead a joint Maronite project to end the deadlock can also be seen as an attempt by the last politician of the Maronite four who still hasn’t seriously proposed himself as candidate to do so in the wake of Frangieh’s recent mini-defeats.

So is Frangieh going to be elected president?

Until the second week of December, most of Lebanon thought so. There was a parliamentary session to elect the president on the 16th, and most of late November’s statements had hinted that Frangieh could be elected before the end of the year. Three of the biggest four Muslim parties were in agreement on his candidacy, Frangieh has the necessary legitimacy by being one of the Maronite four, he’s close to Syria, has international approval (apparently), and managed to gather support from March 8 (Amal), March 14 (Mustaqbal), and the centre (PSP). The leader of the Marada was coming close to the 65 votes he needs to win, and all he needed was Aoun’s blessing followed by Hezbollah’s green light. Even if Frangieh had managed to secure an absolute majority in parliament, he still needed the necessary two-thirds quorum, and the Hezbollah-FPM alliance controls – on its own – around 30% of the seats in parliament. In other words, it is almost impossible for Frangieh – or anyone else – to be elected without a green light from Aoun, unless he can convince 95% of the other MPs to attend the session (Good luck persuading the Kataeb and the LF to vote for Frangieh). Reports that Frangieh has kicked off talks with independent figures (like MP Boutros Harb) might indicate that he is trying to gather as much support as possible to gather the 86 votes he needs for the quorum – especially that Hezbollah cannot veto his election by using the sectarian card now that Frangieh has Berri behind him.

While the election of Frangieh as president is a long-term investment (Frangieh is only 50 years old and will rule as president for 6 years) for Hezbollah and could reinforce the March 8 alliance – in case Aoun approves – till the next parliamentary election, Aoun doesn’t exactly benefit from the Frangieh deal. A minor ally of his becomes a major rival that threatens the influence of the newly elected FPM president Gebran Bassil, and Aoun will have no guarantee whatsoever on what happens with the electoral law. If the FPM isn’t given assurances – the outline of the new electoral law, the FPM’s share in the new cabinet or even bringing Chamel Roukoz (in a way or another) back into the army command -the deal is as good as dead (unless Hezbollah breaks the alliance with Aoun and we end up with a quadripartite Muslim alliance supporting Frangieh and a tripartite Christian one opposing him. But as Hezbollah refuses to do so, that scenario doesn’t seem very likely to happen in the near future). To quote speaker Berri, “The best scenario to resolve the crisis lies in an agreement between Change and Reform bloc chief MP Michel Aoun and Marada Movement leader MP Suleiman Franjieh.”

And to quote the FPM’s MP Ibrahim Kanaan, “Political competition is essential for democracy” (If you know what he means).

Brace yourself for a Frangieh-Aoun competition in 2016, Lebanon.

583 days since the 25th of May. 419 days since the 5th of November.

Is the Quadripartite Alliance Rising from the Dead?

 Lebanon's former president, Sleiman Frangieh (the grandfather), hunting in Syria. Found on the internet.

Lebanon’s former president, Sleiman Frangieh (the grandfather), hunting in Syria. Found on the internet.

In 2005, and as the Syrian army was retreating from Lebanon, a quadripartite alliance was formed between Lebanon’s four major Muslim parties (Amal, Hezbollah, the FM, and the PSP) ahead of the parliamentary elections. At the time, the 2000 electoral law was still in place, which meant that the quadripartite alliance could have easily won more than 100 seat in Lebanon’s parliament: The electoral map was engineered by the pro-Syrian elite in a way  to reduce Christian influence – only two constituencies had a clear-cut Christian majority, Keserwan-Jbeil and the Metn. The maneuver was obvious: It was a way of reassuring Lebanon’s pro-Syrian parties (Amal, Hezbollah) that they wouldn’t be excluded from the Lebanese equation following the Syrian withdrawal, while at the same time keeping the Christian newcomers in check: Michel Aoun had just come back from Paris, there was increasing pressure to release Geagea from jail, and both of them had been gaining momentum and threatening to challenge the dominance of the quadripartite alliance’s parties. The Kataeb and the LF eventually settled for a couple of seats they won alongside the quadripartite alliance in the Muslim-dominated districts while the FPM, on their own in the opposition, “tsunamied” in the two Christian-majority constituencies and even managed to partially make it through in Zahle. However with the 2006 memorandum of understanding between the FPM and Hezbollah, a new era began in Lebanese politics, shattering the 2005 quadripartite alliance into the March 8 and March 14 alliances: Amal and Hezbollah joined the FPM in the opposition, lost the 2009 elections, but eventually managed to reach power in 2011.

Then came the month of November 2015. For the first time since 2006, several events in Lebanese politics started putting in question the cohesion of Lebanon’s two main alliances, March 8 and March 14. If it wasn’t for a last minute-decision, the FPM and the LF were on the verge of standing against their Muslim allies in parliament. Regardless of the reservations coming from the Christian parties, the four parties in parliament were insisting on legislating in the absence of a president in power and were going through with their plans regardless of the opinion of all of their Christian allies – except Frangieh. This dangerous precedent of trying to isolate the biggest three Christian parties in Lebanon wasn’t going to be the first that year: The same four Muslim parties that allied in 2005 and isolated the Christian parties in early November are now talking about electing Frangieh as president, much to the dismay of the FPM, the LF, and the Kataeb.

The Maronite four

The presidential elections are the most exciting event for the Christian parties, and the failure of their Muslim allies to stand with them – even after one year and a half of vacancy – can be deadly for Lebanon’s two alliances. It was always a possibility that Lebanon’s Muslim parties would eventually support their own candidate to the presidential elections, which is why, and in a desperate preemptive move two years ago, Lebanon’s four Maronite leaders gave themselves the  title of “strong presidential candidate”, thus agreeing early on that only one of them would be allowed to be elected president. The maronite four knew that at least one of Lebanon’s Muslim parties would veto each of their names, and that candidates like LAF commander Jean Kahwagi were more likely to be consensual ones so they launched one of the most brilliant maneuvers of 2014 and restricted the acceptable candidates to a group of 4 persons: Themselves.

The Maronite one

So what exactly happened to the Maronite four’s solidarity campaign? It backfired: Samir Geagea ran in the first round of presidential elections and lost…to no one,  Amine Gemayel was replaced as president of his party by his son Sami while Gebran Bassil took his father-in-law’s position in the FPM. This transitional phase that suddenly hit two of Lebanon’s Christian parties – accompanied by Geagea’s humiliation in parliament, made Frangieh the second-oldest of the Maronite (de-facto) four and a serious candidate for the presidency. His rebellious attitude towards Aoun in the last two times the parliament convened in – unlike Aoun, he supported the parliamentary extension of 2014 while also dissociating his policy from the FPM’s one in the last parliamentary session – was very marking. His criticism of Aoun’s protests, as well as his commentary on  the FPM/LF’s latest achievement (the new citizenship law) did not go unnoticed.

Frangieh is also gaining momentum. Only this week, he received a phone call from the French president and got the blessing of the Maronite patriarch.

All that time – and while staunchly supporting Aoun’s candidacy – Frangieh was slowly stepping out of the Shadow of the Maronite Four. Only months ago, he used to be the youngest of the group. Now he’s the second oldest (official) leader of Lebanon’s Christian parties and is starting to pose a serious threat on both Geagea and Aoun. When those two leaders decided to start their rapprochement in May, we all thought that it was to counter the rise of Sami Gemayel in the Kataeb. Turns out that this mini-weird-alliance between the FPM and the LF was also made to contain a rising threat to Baabda coming from the North: Sleiman Frangieh.

Tripartite alliance vs Quadripartite alliance?

If the Muslim parties that isolated Aoun in 2005 come back together to elect Frangieh without getting the blessing of any of Lebanon’s Christian parties, it would set a dangerous precedent – perhaps the most dangerous one since Taef: For the first time, Lebanon’s Muslim parties – aka the quadripartite alliance – would be voting for Frangieh and will be – in a way or another – pushing Lebanon’s biggest three Christian parties (FPM, LF, Kataeb) to form a counter-alliance to resist Frangieh’s election. The last time a Frangieh was in power and that the Christians and Muslims were siding against one another was in 1975, so  it’s not really good to have that same combination again.

How the Maronite four treaty will backfire

The biggest three Christian parties will count on the fact that their boycott of the election of the top Maronite post will be enough to force the hand of their Muslim allies. You can’t expect the Christian parties to simply let the Muslim parties decide the outcome of the presidential elections without their approval: This would raise questions on the legitimacy of a Christian president “abandoned by his won sect” (That’s the propaganda the three Christian parties would use). Frangieh might be weaker than the others (he’s a local Zaim who only commands three MPs in parliament and who has been overshadowed by Aoun for the past 10 years), but then again, he doesn’t need to prove his legitimacy to anyone: He is one of the Maronite four, and he will use this weapon against the bigger 3 parties every time he can. For Lebanon’s four Muslim parties, Frangieh represents the most legitimate candidate that could be elected without the consent of Geagea, Aoun and Gemayel. When the Maronite four restricted the post to one of them, they had probably never thought that the Muslim parties would eventually support one of their own. Yet in a way, they led the Muslim parties straight to Frangieh: He has the right name and he’s part of the Maronite four. At only 55 50 years old, he’s one of the oldest-serving MPs in the Lebanese parliament (1992-2005, 2009-2017), he’s local (<=> weak <=> even better since he won’t be as defiant as the others), he’s reliable, he doesn’t suddenly change sides, he did his time in the executive power and thus has the experience to rule (unlike Geagea), and he was the only Christian leader to stand by his Muslim ally throughout most of the events. Frangieh was close to winning the game, and his three rivals – while thinking they were protecting themselves from kahwagi or Salamis nomination – gave him the winning cards. Or so it seems.

An M8 conspiracy theory?

According to many of M8’s supporters, Frangieh’s nomination is considered to be a hidden “Aoun” one. They say that Aoun is stalling in order to give the impression that Frangieh is not his candidate thus making his name more popular across the FM. Although everything can be possible in the realm of Lebanese politics, I’m not a fan of conspiracy theories and reverse-conspiracy theories, and only time will tell if this an M14 maneuver to blow up M8 or an M8 counter-maneuver to take the presidency. Aoun might eventually endorse Frangieh as his protege in order to minimize his loss, although one thing is for sure: A new chapter in Lebanese politics is opening up, and Gebran Bassil should be ready to face a serious threat to his power within M8.

Hezbollah’s green light to the Frangieh candidacy is also yet to be given, so almost all scenarios are possible at that moment.

The biggest of all ironies here is that Frangieh (the grandfather) counted on the support of a “Christian tripartite alliance” (consisting of Chamoun, Edde and Gemayel) to be elected president in 1970, while the biggest obstacle currently facing his grandson seems to be another Christian tripartite alliance. For the Frangiehs, the only thing that is constant seems to be the support they receive from the Jumblatts during the presidential elections.

559 days since the 25th of May. 395 days since the 5th of November.

What Would It Take To Get Aoun To Renounce His Presidential Ambitions?

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, right, receives FPM leader Michel Aoun in Beirut, Wednesday, June 4, 2014. (The Daily Star/Lebanese Parliament Website, HO)

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, right, receives FPM leader Michel Aoun in Beirut, Wednesday, June 4, 2014. (The Daily Star/Lebanese Parliament Website, HO)

This is the 11th post in a series of monthly posts covering (forgotten/ignored) WikiLeaks cables about Lebanon. 

Last week, all of Lebanon started speculating on the outcome of the presidential elections. For the first time since 2013, it finally seemed that Hezbollah and the Future Movement had agreed on a name to fill the vacancy, and that Sleiman Frangieh would eventually make it to Baabda. Yet the candidacy of the Zgharta MP still faces two major obstacles: Reservations coming from M14’s Christian parties, and – more importantly – the absence of an official green light coming from his long-term ally and president in the Change and Reform Bloc, Michel Aoun. Which is why this month’s WikiLeaks cable is about a dialogue that happened 8 years ago – when Aoun was running for the 2007 presidential elections – between speaker Nabih Berri and the American ambassador, on what it might have taken to get Aoun to renounce his presidential ambitions back then (spoiler: Berri says that it might be certain ministerial portfolios).

Also, (according to the cable) Berri called Aoun  “an…eunuch”.

Enjoy.

LEBANON: BERRI URGES U.S. TO WORK ON AOUN
2007 November 6, 15:36 (Tuesday)
07BEIRUT1736_a
CONFIDENTIAL
CONFIDENTIAL
— Not Assigned —
SUMMARY
——-
1. (C) Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri lamented the absence of parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri from Lebanon, which he said prevented efforts to reach a consensus presidential candidate on time. If no consensus candidate is named before November 12, Berri said he would set a new date for the election, probably on either November 19 or 20. Berri was optimistic that the recent discussions with the Syrians in Istanbul and continuing French diplomatic efforts in Lebanon could lead to a consensus candidate, but warned the U.S. to stop supporting a half plus one president. Privately, Berri told the Ambassador that the U.S. should work on Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun to find out what it would take to get Aoun to renounce his own presidential ambitions. With Aoun conceding the office to others, Berri said that he he would work to see a consensus candidate elected who is closer to March 14 than March 8, with Boutros Harb and Robert Ghanem mentioned as possibilities. End summary.
HARIRI’S ABSENCE COSTING TIME
—————————–
2. (C) The Ambassador, accompanied by Pol/Econ Chief, met with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and his advisor Ali Hamdan at Berri’s office in Ain el-Tineh on November 6. The Ambassador opened the meeting asking when majority leader Saad Hariri would return to Lebanon. An exasperated Berri complained that Saad’s frequent and prolonged absences were causing them to lose time. We lost the October 23 election date because of Saad’s extended stay abroad, Berri said, and now the timing is even more delicate; Saad is out and about meeting with the French in Paris to hear about Istanbul when he should be here dealing with the situation in Lebanon. If he had to postpone the electoral session again, Berri said, it would probably be November 19 or 20. (Note: President Lahoud’s mandate expires on midnight November 23; November 22 is Lebanese National Day. End note.)
THE FRENCH CONNECTION
———————
3. (C) Berri said he had heard the day before from Fares Boueiz that Sarkozy advisor Claude Gueant would visit Beirut later in the week and had requested a meeting with Berri for November 8. Gueant reportedly planned to stay in Lebanon afterwards to help encourage progress towards electing a new president.
4. (C) Sharing his readouts from the Istanbul meetings, Berri said the French representatives reportedly told the Syrians they wanted a consensus candidate and a new relationship with Syria, and that France would work on the Europeans and U.S. if Syria played a constructive role in the Lebanese election. There were no differences between the French and U.S. up until November 14; but after that France feared that March 14’s election of a president with a half plus one majority would be a problem. The French reportedly asked about possible candidates, to which President Asad replied that Syria also wants consensus and has no candidate in mind. Asad reportedly pushed the French to talk to the Patriarch, Saad Hariri, and Nabih Berri, telling them that if they were successful in reaching a solution, Syria would be on board.
5. (C) The Ambassador, noting that this echoed reports he had heard that the Syrians had proposed to the French a mechanism for resolving the impasse, wondered whether the Patriarch would play along, given his fear that people would not accept his candidates. Berri, agreeing that the names currently believed to be on the Patriarch’s short-list (Demianos Kattar, Joseph Torbey, Shakib Qortbawi, Michel Edde) were not acceptable to either side, said there were many names between the March 14 candidates (Nassib Lahoud, Boutros Harb, and Robert Ghanem) and Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun (“an eunuch,” Berri said, beseeching us not to share his comment). So, he added, “I think we can arrive at a consensus…with the help of the U.S.”
FOCUS ON CANDIDATES, NOT PROGRAMS
———————————
6. (C) While acknowledging that the U.S. supported consensus in its public statements, Berri said the U.S. should stop telling March 14 privately that the U.S. would support a half plus one president. “I know the private messages you are passing,” he said, adding that Saad was convinced of consensus. “I know you have your opinion, but don’t interfere; it is your duty to help.”
7. (C) The Ambassador, as in many meetings before with the Speaker, told Berri the U.S. was not opposed to compromise, as long as it was not on principles. Berri retorted, “We are with 1701,” adding that since UN Special Envoy for UNSCR 1559 Envoy Terje Roed-Larsen downplayed 1559 in Rome, he saw no need to reference it either. When Saad raised UNSCR 1559, Berri stressed that he supported UNSCR 1701. After the election, it would be the first duty of the new prime minister to discuss Shebaa farms and Hizballah’s arms, he said; otherwise he, as Speaker, would have to finish what he started in the National Dialogue. If Hizballah disagreed with the government’s position, it could stay out of the government, Berri said, adding that he himself might withdraw if his party (Amal) were not given enough cabinet seats.
8. (C) Berri said he had told Saad in their meetings that there was no need to discuss principles and programs, only candidates, since the opposition would support the principles outlined in the spring 2006 National Dialogue (i.e., support for the Special Tribunal, good relations with Syria, including the exchange of diplomatic ties, and the rejection of Palestinian arms outside the camps and limited timeline for their removal inside the camps). The opposition also supported Lebanon’s Paris III commitments, he said; different elements within those commitments might have to be reviewed, he added, citing the government’s recent efforts to privatize Lebanon’s cell phone networks.
U.S. SHOULD WORK ON AOUN
————————
9. (C) Pulling the Ambassador into his side office for a private word, Berri urged the U.S. to work on Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun to find out what Aoun would need in return for renouncing his own presidential aspirations. If Aoun agrees to concede the presidency, Berri said, then it makes possible for a solution — a president who is closer to March 14 than March 8. As long as Aoun remains in the running, Berri said, his hands are tied. But if Aoun agrees to accept certain ministerial portfolios, then Berri would be willing to support someone like Boutros Harb or Robert Ghanem. The Ambassador asked for confirmation that he would support Harb. Yes, Berri said, if Aoun will agree to step aside. Berri said that his only red line was Nassib Lahoud, as someone “too Saudi.”
COMMENT
——-
10. (C) In what seemed to the Ambassador and Pol/Econ Chief like an endless lunch the day before with presidential hopeful Robert Ghanem, Ghanem did not sound very March 14-like in his statements in support of a two-thirds quorum and his lenient approach to Hizballah. We find it slightly worrisome that Berri has now placed him in this camp, suggesting that he may no longer be viewed as a potential consensus candidate.
11. (C) Berri’s continuing mantra of “the presidency will solve all of Lebanon’s problems” also is not comforting, especially combined with his dismissal of UNSCR 1559. We find it difficult to believe Berri would strike a deal with Saad without some sort of guarantees on the makeup of the new cabinet or the government’s program. That is unless, as many have warned us, Berri’s real goal is to install a weak president along with Saad as prime minister, both of whom would serve as easy prey for the opposition’s efforts to undermine March 14 and its objectives.
12. (C) Berri, fingering Saad’s absence and what he deems to be U.S. “interference,” while at the same time applauding French and Syrian support for a consensus candidate, seems to be absolving himself of any responsibility should parliament be unable to elect a president on November 12. Rather than take the bull by the horns, however, he is content to postpone the crisis until the bitter end. His appeal to us to work on Aoun is not surprising, given his apparent disdain for the General, though we can’t help but wonder, if not Aoun or Ghanem, whom the speaker has in mind as a consensus candidate. Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) Commander Michel Sleiman’s name, notably, did not come up in this meeting, suggesting that either the pro-Syrian opposition has given up on his candidacy or perhaps is merely waiting to see how things play out over the next critical days, ready to pull Sleiman back out of the hat when it seems no other solution is possible.
13. (C) Whatever Berri’s motivations, he is right that working on Aoun is something, however unappealing a task it may be, worth doing. We agree with Berri that, if Aoun would accept the inevitability that he is not going to be president, a solution to Lebanon’s presidential crisis becomes easier to achieve. End comment.
FELTMAN

Is the Frangieh Scenario Possible?

Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri (R) chats with Lebanese Christian politician and leader of the Marada movement Suleiman Franjieh (L) as Head of Hezbollah's parliamentary bloc Mohamed Raad (2nd L), MP Assaad Hardan (C) and Lebanon's Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri listen to them during a new session of the national dialogue between political leaders at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, near Beirut April 15, 2010. (Photo: REUTERS/Dalati Nohra)

Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri (R) chats with Lebanese Christian politician and leader of the Marada movement Suleiman Franjieh (L) as Head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc Mohamed Raad (2nd L), MP Assaad Hardan (C) and Lebanon’s Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri listen to them during a new session of the national dialogue between political leaders at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, near Beirut April 15, 2010. (Photo: REUTERS/Dalati Nohra)

This is the 15th post in a series of monthly posts covering the presidential elections. This post is about the month of November 2015.

Accordingly, [Future MP] Shab foresees serious negotiations taking place within “weeks, not months” to agree on a candidate “who can navigate a Sunni-Shiite conflict and who has the confidence of both parties [
] someone with a certain degree of legitimate representation, but who is also agreeable to both sides.”

Asked by NOW who might fit that profile, Shab cited the leader of the 8 March-aligned Marada Movement, MP Sleiman Frangieh. When NOW queried how Frangieh, a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, could be acceptable to 14 March, Shab hinted at a hypothetical agreement by which Frangieh’s presidency would be paired with Future leader MP Saad Hariri as prime minister.

(2014)

Around the months of October and November of every year (since the presidential debate started in 2013) , Lebanon gets the impression that Sleiman Frangieh might be elected president. This year is no exception: On Wednesday, Frangieh said that “Change and Reform bloc MP Michel Aoun is the March 8 camp’s presidential candidate, but if the March 14 camp makes a proposal, then we are willing to consider it.”

In what might be the most exciting political event this year since Aoun was isolated in government and Roukoz was thrown outside the army, several events (since the twin suicide bombings happened) hinted at the possibility of Sleiman Frangieh being elected president:

(1) Hezbollah Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah, addressed local political forces “to search for a true political settlement” (Link)

(2) The Future parliamentary bloc Tuesday welcomed Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah’s call for a political settlement in Lebanon, urging a concrete plan to be put into action (Link)

(3) According to information also obtained by LBCI, a meeting over the issue of the presidential vote was held Saturday in Riyadh between Hariri, Mustaqbal bloc chief ex-PM Fouad Saniora, Deputy Speaker Farid Makari, Interior Minister Nouhad al-Mashnouq, and Hariri’s advisers Nader Hariri, Ghattas Khoury and Hani Hammoud.

Hariri had on Saturday described the vacuum at the presidential post as “the biggest insult to the Lebanese people on their national day of independence.”

According to media reports, the ex-PM held talks last week with Marada Movement leader MP Suleiman Franjieh, who belongs to the rival March 8 camp. (Link)

(4) Raad: Let’s debate and reach some understanding. (Link)

(5) Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi Monday criticized the idea of electing a candidate with links to Syrian President Bashar Assad as Lebanon’s next head of state. (Link)

(6) Change and Reform Parliamentary Bloc Member, Deputy Nabil Ncoula, stated Monday that “a full package does not imply the elimination of General Michel Aoun, but actually highlights the need for a genuine partnership based on respecting true representation.” (Link)

(7) Marada Movement chief MP Suleiman Franjieh stressed Monday that the country’s new president must “reassure” all of the Lebanese political and social components (Link)

(8) Head of the Change and Reform bloc MP Michel Aoun noted that Marada Movement chief MP Suleiman Franjieh has the needed characteristics to become president, adding that he is willing to back his bid for the presidency, reported As Safir newspaper on Tuesday.

His visitors told the daily that the lawmaker is “willing to give his blessing to Franjieh’s candidacy if he garners the necessary votes at parliament.”  (Link)

(9) Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his March 14 ally Kataeb leader Sami Gemayel have agreed that all efforts must be put toward electing a president, a statement released by Hariri’s media office said Tuesday (Link)

(10) The Future Parliamentary bloc on Tuesday held its weekly meeting chaired by its leader, Fouad Siniora, and called for doubled efforts that would lead to a comprehensive national compromise which could preserve the national pact, devotes the Taif as a reference and finally solves the crisis of the presidency. (Link)

The speculations started as soon as the Frangieh-Hariri meeting happened and the positive statements by Lebanon’s rival politicians made the possibility of the deal more likely. Both Hezbollah and the FM seem to be willing to settle the issue for good, and for the first time in three years, we could say that the presidential negotiations are finally – in a way or another – underway. Frangieh might seem as an odd choice to fill a consensual position, but then again he might be the best solution available for M8 and M14 as part of a bigger deal tackling the name of the next prime minister, the composition of the cabinet, and the electoral law.

 The Christian exception of Sleiman Frangieh

There are three types of Christian leaders in Beirut. There’s the Samy Gemayel type, willing to defy the greater (Muslim) ally in case the decisions aren’t in his party’s interests. Then there’s the Geagea/Aoun type, who usually stalls and negotiates, before (almost always) agreeing to a compromise with the greater ally. Finally, there’s the Frangieh type, who always – always – stands with the Muslim ally when things get messy. The last two years have been a perfect example: When the parliament’s term was extended in 2014, Frangieh was the only Christian leader -alongside Geagea – to approve of the extension. When Berri wanted to call for a legislative session last week, the only Christian leader who was willing to participate from the start was Frangieh. True, the FPM and the LF eventually participated in the legislation, but they were challenging to deal with. Frangieh also stood against Aoun several  times (although he was still supporting Aoun’s candidacy all the time): Note Frangieh’s criticism of (1) the Aounist 2015 demonstrations and (2) the latest legislative session which was the fruit of the FPM-LF cooperation.

In other words, and for Lebanon’s Muslim parties, Frangieh represents a rare type of politicians in Lebanon: Not only is he predictable, he’s also the better type of predictable: The one who will stand with you, not against you when things will matter. March 8’s problem with a consensual candidate coming from outside its ranks can be summed up by the example of Michel Sleiman, who stood with M14 in the second half of his term. True, the commander of the army might be the strongest consensual candidate right now, but Hezbollah and Amal need a politician they can trust, and Frangieh fits in that role perfectly. On the other hand, Frangieh is by far the most pro-Syrian Christian leader, which raises the ultimate question on how M14 might bring him into the presidential palace. Scroll up, and read quote number (6). That’s the FM’s way of saying that they might accept him as a candidate in exchange of a compromise: A staunchly M8 president means that the prime minister must be staunchly M14, which puts Hariri, the leader of M14, as the only candidate for the premiership. A staunchly M8 president also means that there would be a slight M14 counterbalance force in the government, hence guaranteeing M14 a majority (or at least the half – like in 2009) of the seats in the executive power. The only piece of the puzzle that remains is the electoral law, and it could be solved soon: There’s a committee in parliament that has been recently tasked with drafting it – the irony is that Geagea and Aoun were the ones that asked for it in exchange of their participation in this month’s legislative session, not realizing that they were unknowingly boosting Frangieh’s chances in the presidential war.

The Frangieh-Aoun conundrum

In 2013, Frangieh warned of a presidential vacuum as the conflict over Syria continues and suggested that Lebanon adopts the 50 percent plus one vote formula to secure the office. That (very dangerous political statement) meant that Frangieh was not only a natural presidential candidate (by being one of the Maronite Four), but that he was also somehow able to secure more that half of the parliament’s votes. Lebanon did not overthink that sentence back then, but since March 8 have less than the half of the seats, that was a clear sign that Frangieh had the support of the centrists (but probably under their terms – there was a different context back then, Sleiman was still in Baabda, there was a governmental vacancy and there were high tensions between M14 and M8).

Although Frangieh’s name was always on the table, he kept on denying that he was March 8’s first candidate for the elections. Aoun had the seniority, the bigger party in the coalition, and the official support of his allies. Every time he was approached on the subject, Frangieh insisted that he would run as M8’s candidate only if Aoun withdrew. Aoun’s candidacy was most likely doomed to fail, and Frangieh knew that standing against the candidacy of the president of his bloc and the leader of the biggest Christian party early on would turn M8 against him, perturb his alliance with the FPM, and discredit him within M14. His biggest ally was and still is time: The more the vacancy persists, the more his M8 allies would start looking – under pressure from M14 – for a candidate other than Aoun that might be accepted by M14. That moment seems to have arrived this week (But then again, we also thought that it had arrived in 2014 😛 ). The more Frangieh says he’s with Aoun, the more Aoun would be eventually forced to endorse him as his alternative/protĂ©gĂ©, which explains why – even as the whole country speculates that Sleiman Frangieh has become the prime presidential candidate – Frangieh’s man in the cabinet (culture minister Rony Araiji)  still confirms that Aoun is still M8’s candidate.

The golden question: Why Frangieh is so important to M14

I explained it last year (when we had the rumors that M14 was about to endorse Frangieh), and I’ll explain it again: If March 14 endorses Frangieh, it would be highly tempting for Hezbollah and Frangieh to abandon the Aoun campaign. For Hezbollah, Aoun is silver but Frangieh is gold. Frangieh – unlike Aoun who has 18 MPs representing solely the FPM – doesn’t have a big bloc (4 MPs, including himself and Emile Rahme who is much more pro-Hezbollah than he is pro-Frangieh). Frangieh also has a limited electorate that he can rely on. And by limited, I mean it in a geographical, demographic, and sectarian way. Most (If not all) of Frangieh’s popular base is Christian, mostly Maronite, from the Zgharta Caza (Which is one of the smallest in terms of parliamentary representation with 3 MPs) and some of the surrounding villages in Koura. Frangieh doesn’t have foothold outside the North, belongs to a feudal family – and most importantly – faces continuous competition from other renowned political families established in Zgharta (Such as the Mouawads). In other words, Frangieh is too weak and can be manipulated by Hezbollah / Future Movement while Aoun (as a comparison) is much, much harder to keep under control. If Aoun switches sides, his ~ 22/23 MPs would be enough to change the status quo and throw a party outside the cabinet – be it Hezbollah, or even the FM. Frangieh can’t do anything with his 3 MPs (Yes, 3, because once he’s elected he loses his seat 😛 – And it’s actually 2 since you can’t really count Rahme as a loyalist). Frangieh won’t have his own base in the parliament to rely on, which means that he will fully be dependent on Hezbollah or the FM in everything concerning the legislation. Even if Frangieh wants to call for demonstrations, it wouldn’t have any impact unless Hezbollah joins him. Aoun wouldn’t need Hezbollah at all on the popular level (the 2015 summer demonstrations prove it) –  in fact it would hurt him since the counter-propaganda would make it look as if his supporters aren’t Christian – making him an “illegitimate” Christian president. Frangieh is also a lot more pro-Syrian than Aoun is, and the Frangiehs have historical family ties with the Assad family that are almost 50 years old. Which means that even if every single MP in M14 endorses Frangieh, he would always be a friend of Syria – and thus closer to Hezbollah. Aoun, on the other hand, is a lot more unreliable so he might be a pain in the ass in case he decides to switch sides or go against the Syrian regime.

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

Le piĂšge (sowing discontent level: Future Movement)

If the FM allows and even supports the election of Frangieh, it would have given Hezbollah its golden candidate. It would have also looked like it would have won the elections, since it was the one who proposed Frangieh’s name first. The only problem here is that for Hezbollah, it would mean abandoning its now declared candidacy of Aoun or at the very least putting M8’s biggest two Christian parties, the FPM and the Marada, in direct confrontation. It would also mean that Nabih Berri’s opinion would be marginalized, and that the FPM would probably exit the March 8 alliance (and perhaps join a common Christian Front with the LF/Kaaeb who should also be in theory pissed because of the Frangieh election). In other words, Hezbollah would have won the presidency, but would’ve lost the integrity of the March 8 coalition. What’s the point of having a 100% loyal president if you can’t even influence 15% of the MPs when you want to form the government or vote for laws?

Hezbollah had a plan: Support Aoun till the end, and eventually settle – with Aoun’s blessing – on a non “Maronite Four” consensual candidate that has a friendly attitude towards Hezbollah, such as LAF commander Jean Kahwaji. Kahwaji’s election would have also been part of a bigger deal that should have been even more rewarding to the M8 alliance.

The only way for Hezbollah to keep the M8 coalition alive and make way for Frangieh would be if Aoun endorses him at the same time as M14 gives its green light. And that was what Frangieh – by his relentless support to the Aoun candidacy – has been doing for the past 2 years. Aoun had said many times that he would support Frangieh, but now things are starting to get serious, and an official stance from the FPM is still required to go forward with such a settlement.

As one of the blog’s readers suggested on twitter, the Frangieh scenario might in fact be back in play. We’ll have to wait and see…

550 days since the 25th of May. 386 days since the 5th of November.

Legislation of Necessity and a Christian Boycott

How the parliament looked like before the war. Found on the internet.

How the parliament looked like before the war. Found on the internet.

The Chamber meeting to elect the President of the Republic shall be considered an electoral body and not a legislative assembly. It must proceed immediately, without discussion of any other act, to elect the Head of the State.

Lebanon, meet article 75 of the Lebanese Constitution. Article 75 of the Lebanese constitution, meet Lebanon. For this week, the parliament of Lebanon is answering the call of its speaker and is meeting – in the middle of a presidential vacancy – in order to legislate.

It is not the first time something like that happens. On the 5th of November 2014, the Lebanese parliament legislated and extended its own term. As if meeting to legislate wasn’t by itself contradictory to article 75 of the constitution (You really don’t have to be an expert to see that), the constitutional council considered that the extension law was unconstitutional. In other words, it’s like telling a little kid that he can’t eat pizza and that he can’t eat in his room, and the little kid proceeds to eat a pizza, in his room. And since the kid wasn’t grounded, he plans on eating the whole kitchen this week (38 draft laws are listed on the agenda of the Thursday and Friday sessions).

What is a priority?

For the past year, the Lebanese political system became a vicious circle. Most of the parties in power (except the FPM) are asking for the election of a president before early parliamentary elections. The FPM (as well as the protesters) have asked for early parliamentary elections before the presidential elections. For the FPM, it’s because they don’t have the majority necessary to elect Aoun, and for the Hirak (the Lebanese protests movement), it’s because the Lebanese parliament is a de facto unconstitutional non-elected one that doesn’t have the legitimacy to elect a president who will rule for 6 years. Now, once this debate is solved, and that all of Lebanon’s people and politicians agree on the identity of the priority (good luck), another problem arises: All of Lebanon’s politicians say that the current electoral law is bad, yet cannot agree on an alternative one. To make things even worse, internal struggles between different parties in the government have left Lebanon drowning in a garbage crisis since July. Even after four months of protests and outrage, there is still no solution in sight as the bickering in the cabinet continues.

To sum things up, Lebanon’s current political crisis is caused by the disagreement of the politicians on the timing of the parliamentary elections, the timing of the presidential elections, the electoral law, the name of the president, and on the way things work within the cabinet. That was until last week. This week, things become a bit more complicated: There’s a disagreement on a parliamentary session too. Is it a priority? What does the word “priority” mean in Lebanon anyway?

Muslim vs Christian

For the first time since the ice age, the biggest three Christian parties in the Lebanese parliament are sticking together. The Lebanese Forces, the Kataeb and the Free Patriotic Movement say that what Berri calls “legislation of necessity” isn’t the priority. The Christian parties consider the election of the president to be the first and foremost priority, and if the parliament should convene, it’s in order to elect a president (Ironically, the FPM are the ones denying quorum in the presidential elections). It’s for obvious reasons: The Christian parties want to keep the presidential elections alive, especially that the main candidates are current/former leaders of the FPM, LF and Kataeb. They consider that legislating in the absence of the president is considered to be unconstitutional, although all of those parties accepted ( = They still consider their MPs to be MPs) the results of a previous legislation in the absence of the president (the extension law of November 5, 2014)  even if they boycotted the session. The FPM and the LF have said that they would participate in case the electoral law would be on the agenda. This more friendly approach than the Kataeb’s absolute boycott stance is probably due to the fact that the presidential front-runners of M8 and M14 are still Aoun and Geagea.

But forget about being friendly right now. Once the main three Christian parties in parliament – they account to approximately the two thirds of the Christian seats –  boycott the session, a much bigger problem will arise: The Lebanese Muslim parties – planning on participating in the legislative sessions – will be (more or less) legislating in the absence of “Christian legitimacy”, which would permit the Christian parties to use March 8’s weapon of 2006: A vague constitutional principle from the preamble stipulating that There shall be no constitutional legitimacy for any authority which contradicts the ‘pact of mutual existence. Hezbollah used it to combat the Siniora government (whose Shia ministers all resigned) almost a decade ago, and almost anyone who claims to represent a sect can use it to veto anything. Another thing that the Christians parties and their electorate fear the most about legislating in the absence of a president is the idea of passing laws without having the highest Christian civil servant in power. True, the president doesn’t have a lot of say in the post-Taef era, but he can still challenge laws via the constitutional council or maneuver via his cabinet share (or via other ways). For the Christians parties (and electorate), passing laws without the signature of the Christian president is very scary.

In other words, all the Christian parties – in a historic moment – are joining up together to play the Christian sectarian card against their Muslim allies. That is a huge precedent in the modern history of Lebanon. And what is even more dangerous is that their Muslim allies seem not to care about this move, which might eventually lead in the future to a Christian-Muslim clash transcending the M8-M14 rivalry. You know, because Lebanon needs even more problems.

Revenge is a dish best served cold

Among the 38 draft laws on the table this week is a proposal that is supposed to lure the Christian parties and push them to take part in the legislative sessions: A draft law that would grant citizenship to the descendants of Lebanese expatriates. For ages, that was one of the main requests of the Christian parties (they believe that most of the expatriates are Christians which would strengthen their position ahead of parliamentary elections). So why aren’t the Christian parties participating?

For the LF and the Kataeb, boycotting the legislative session means that they’re pissing off the leadership of the March 8 alliance and that they too – and not only the FPM – are ready to stand up for Christian rights (= the priority of electing a Christian president before legislating in this case).

For the FPM, their boycott of the session is probably a mini-retaliation on Berri for letting the extension of Kahwagi in the army command pass and for not standing with them on the Chamel Roukoz issue. Revenge is a dish best served cold.

So as Lebanon’s Christian parties boycott a legislative session and as the Muslim parties say that the boycott doesn’t make the session any less legitimate, here’s a little lovely reminder: We still don’t have a president (and if we had one, we wouldn’t be discussing the pros and cons of legislating in the absence of a president).

535 days sincwe the 25th of May. 371 days since the 5th of November. 81 days since the 22nd of August.

Chamel Roukoz and a Struggling Lebanese Government

Chamel Roukoz. the newcomer to Lebanon's crowded political arena

Chamel Roukoz, the latest newcomer to Lebanon’s already crowded political arena

This is the 14th post in a series of monthly posts covering the presidential elections. This post is about the months of August, September and October 2015.

If I haven’t written any monthly analysis post since July 2015, it’s for a reason: In the summer of 2015, Lebanese citizens decided to protest and ask for their rights. The parliament was unconstitutional, parliamentary elections had been cancelled twice, presidential elections had been postponed for lack of quorum for the past year, and the government was an epic failure. Lebanon was arguably facing one of the biggest refugees crisis since World War II, and as if the electricity and water shortages and the corruption weren’t enough, a new garbage crisis had become unbearable. And what was the cabinet fighting (and in a way, still fighting) about? If Michel Aoun’s son-in-law was going to become commander of the army or not. BECAUSE PRIORITIES. There was nothing to analyze there. September 2015 was almost the same, with the government not responding to the basic protest demands (such as an environmentally friendly trash solution) being the extra cherry on the top.

But this month was (politically speaking) awesome. Forget for a moment that there is a protest movement in Beirut today. Sit back and relax. It’s time to enjoy the complexity of Lebanon’s politics.

Ending the war for Chamel Roukoz

Perhaps the most important events these past few weeks were the ones related to Michel Aoun’s sons-in-law, Chamel Roukoz – the commander of the Lebanese Army’s special forces – and Gebran Bassil. For Roukoz, the matter might seem at first a bit complicated, but it’s actually quite simple: Aoun wanted to appoint Roukoz as commander of the army when LAF commander Kahwagi’s term was about to expire. At some point, there were rumors that Aoun would be ready to give up his presidential candidacy and discuss a consensual presidential candidate in case Roukoz would have been made as commander. The fact that Kahwagi was – and still is – the strongest consensual candidate out there (Lebanon’s last two presidents have been army commanders) only made the possibility of a deal more likely: (1) Kahwagi becomes president, (2) a vacancy happens in the army command, (3) Roukoz becomes commander of the army. Even some rival parties opposing Aoun’s FPM indirectly hinted about the possibility of a Roukoz-Kahwagi deal. Yet today, that very deal is history. At the time, the FPM felt that it had the upper hand: It could have kept blocking the presidential elections forever, and at the same time, the government wouldn’t have dared to keep Kahwagi for another year without consensus on the extension of his term, especially since Aoun had been playing the sectarian card and calling for “Christian rights” for some time now. At least that’s what the Aounists thought.

Yet motivated by an indirect green light by Berri and an absence of veto from Hezbollah (probably in order to avoid an unnecessary – especially in the current circumstances – political clash with an army command the party of God has no problem with), M14 responded to Aoun’s maneuvering by extending Kahwagi’s term. It was a clear message to Aoun that M14 weren’t going to succumb to his blackmail in the cabinet, that the FPM would only be awarded the army command in case they halt their presidential quest, and that the FPM would not see Roukoz appointed as commander without something else in exchange. M14 was trying to force the deal on Aoun: By then, the only way through for Roukoz was by vacating the army command and the fastest way to vacate the army command was by electing the commander president.

The FPM saw it as a declaration of war and escalated their discourse while calling for protests in the name of Christian rights (For the FPM, that meant electing Aoun as president and appointing his son-in-law as commander).  When it was finally clear to everyone that Berri doesn’t care about the FPM interests in the army, that Hezbollah had bigger problems than a local feud about two generals, and that Aoun had no intentions of giving up the presidency for the army command, Roukoz – who had reached the age of retirement – did not see his term as commando regiment commander extended. In the  early days of October even potential compromises on keeping the status-quo in the army were dismissed. On the 15th of October 2015, only days after an FPM rally in Baabda, and weeks after another FPM rally in which Gebran Bassil was introduced as the new FPM chief, Chamel Roukoz spoke to a group of protesters that gathered  to support him at a rally and told them that he “was promoted to the rank of Lebanese citizen“. Congratulations, Lebanese citizens: Your politics just became slightly more complicated.

Divide and conquer

Rewind four months. By June, the FPM had  managed to maximize their dominance in Lebanese politics: The Lebanese Forces gave them the Christian upper hand when Geagea signed the declaration of intent in Rabieh, and the Kataeb, who had just finished a transfer of powers, were isolated by their exclusion from the declaration of intent talks and were in no postion to compete. The FPM had only one head, its second-in-command was the no.2 in the cabinet, and it was fighting to control the army command and the presidency.

Now the FPM has a godfather (Aoun), a president (Bassil), two vice presidents, an isolated nephew (Alain Aoun), a son-in-law who might as well be more popular than all of the above, and currently looks like a Neapolitan mafia (the amount of sons-in-law in the party is too damn high) where no one knows who’s in charge. For the FPM, October 2015 was one of the worst months since the 2009 elections: A potential negotiation card  for the presidency was lost, the war they had started in the cabinet ended in a humiliating defeat, a key asset in a key institution (army) was lost, the FPM’s most popular / influential ally in the Bekaa – Elias Skaff –  passed away last week leaving a vacancy that other parties in Lebanon’s west could quickly fill – especially that Skaff’s sons are young, and that Skaff himself had been already outside power for too long (6 years is huge for politician who served as an MP from 1992 till 2009). Elias Skaff had distanced himself from the FPM since the 2009 elections, but then again, he was the only local ally the FPM could have reached out to in the Bekaa before the upcoming parliamentary elections. To make things worse, instead of figuring things out in the summertime internal elections, the FPM is now in a pre-chaotic state. Who gives the orders in the FPM? Aoun? Bassil? Who does the FPM answer to? Bassil? Aoun? What to do with Roukoz? Bring him in since he’s too popular? (Or keep him outside since he’s too popular?) Can the FPM nominate Roukoz instead of Aoun to the presidency? What would that make of Bassil? These are dangerous times for the FPM. They are losing to M14, losing support within M8, losing to rival Christian parties, and – most importantly – facing the biggest administrative crisis in the history of the party (and they’re in denial about it). The pro-Roukoz protests happened way too early after his retirement, and that means that the former commander of the maghaweer might be onto something which would pose a threat to Bassil’s already weak fan base. Even the rumors – saying that Roukoz might be appointed as Lebanon’s ambassador in France – hint at a potential Roukoz-Bassil political clash. And the best way for Aoun – and the FPM – to avoid that clash would be by separating both men by thousands of Kilometers until Gebran Bassil gains a bit more ground within the FPM. So to sum things up, M14 didn’t just humiliate the FPM. By refusing to keep Roukoz in the army and in the shadows of Lebanese politics, they gave the FPM the ingredients necessary to start a succession war.

Changing the discourse

Another interesting thing about the transfer of power within the FPM is the change of discourse. For years, the Aounists have talked in a secular and “anti-corruption” way. Now they no longer focus a lot on the corruption talk and instead take a more sectarian approach. Deep down, it’s a natural transition: They can’t really blame the parties in power for the corruption with the same intensity – especially since they have been in power more than any party for the past 7 years and that the new FPM president wasn’t even elected and isn’t exactly what you call a role-model for an anti-corruption discourse (M14 keep accusing him of corrupt measures during his time in government) – so they had to take the sectarian way (“Christian rights”) in order to counter the rising threats from the LF, the Kataeb and from the more popular underdogs within or even allied with the FPM. The shift, that slowly started around 2013 (remember the Orthodox gathering electoral law?) became the cornerstone of the FPM’s new political strategy. In the end, the fastest way to win the heart of your sect (and party) back is by boosting your supporters’ ego and telling them you’re here for them (and their rights). The whole “reforming the system and rooting out corruption from within” doesn’t work so much anymore, especially with the recent waves of anti-government protests.

Bring the government down (or not)

Anyway, enough of FPM politics for today. Time to focus on the recent dynamics of Lebanon’s cabinet crisis. The Lebanese cabinet is made up of most of Lebanon’s parties, and hence sums up the awkwardness of Lebanese politics:

(1) The FPM clearly isn’t planning on ending the boycott on the government that refuses to comply to their demands and that threw Roukoz outside.

(2) Marwan Hamade of the PSP and the FM’s highest ranking minister (interior, Machnouk) in the government threaten to bring the government down after criticizing and accusing M8 of obstructing the cabinet’s work.

Then, (3) Hezbollah, via Nasrallah, tells the FM that they’re too cool to care about the Mustaqbal maneuvers, and defends the premier while also sending the following message to M14: “if you want to leave, leave“(♫♫♫)

Then, (4) Jumblatt, fearing on his kingmaker role that he might lose in case the government falls (Michel Sleiman is no longer in power which – if the cabinet resigns – leaves him all by himself in the so-called “Lebanese center”) sends Abou Faour on the offensive to undermine Hamadeh’s stance.

Then, (5) THE KATAEB CRITICIZE THE PREMIER. I would like to note here that the Kataeb’s share in the cabinet is the one of the biggest (if not the biggest) share they have ever had in a government – especially for a 5 MPs party – so throwing it all on the prime minister can be compared to digging your own grave. Oh, and they also undermined the FM by hinting that Mustaqbal adopted their “M14-ish” line of thought, and not the other way around. In a parallel universe, that was the Kataeb’s way of saying to the Christian electorate that they care about their feelings too and that they – unlike Aoun – are ready to piss off the Muslim boss (in the name of “Christian rights”?). Beat that, FPM!

(Meanwhile, the Lebanese Forces have decided to leave politics and focus on drug awareness campaigns, because Lebanese Forces).

Finally, (6) the premier, who probably knows – like everyone else – that no one is ready to bring down a government in which they thrive on the status-quo, took it upon himself to end this “my dad is stronger than yours which is why I will bring the government down” discourse and indirectly told everyone that (his dad is Saeb Salim Salam which makes him stronger than everyone) if they won’t calm down and try (or at least pretend) to figure out how to solve the trash crisis, he will be the one who will bring down the government. That wasn’t the first or even second time he made such a resignation threat. Maybe third time’s the charm?

Welcome to Lebanon’s rejuvenated politics: As the FM and Hezbollah start another round of political clashes, Jumblatt and Berri are trying to keep the cabinet – under pressure from everyone in power and everyone outside power – from collapsing. On the other side of the political spectrum, in the Christian autonomous political kingdom where the sun and moon never meet, things are changing fast: The FPM is the new LF. The LF is the new Kataeb. The Kataeb are the new FPM. And most importantly, the FPM lost their war and now plan on moving on with two heads and a different discourse.

Time will tell if their strategy will work. But for now, enjoy the deadlock (and the big dumpster the world calls Lebanon).

520 days since the 25th of May. 355 days since the 5th of November.