Bimonthly analysis post

How Michel Aoun Became the President

 

 

president-michel-aoun

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first round: April 2014

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

The first slow wait: May 2014 – November 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frangieh the Second? (November – December 2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A humiliating election

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Advertisements

Aoun – Hariri : The Downfall of the BlueBerry ?

 

aoun-hariri

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

 

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

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

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

A little bit of context

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

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

 

 

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

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

To sum things up, Hariri was supposed to say no to a Aoun presidency, at least with no clear road-map with what was going to happen with the governmental formation (what would the governmental shares be in the government? 15-10-5 like 2010? 8-8-8 like 2013? Who are the centrists anyway?) and the electoral law. There were too much unknown variables to have a presidency deal, and Berri’s maneuver was his way of reducing the FPM/LF pressure on Amal (the FPM were boycotting the cabinet and the dialogue sessions) to elect Aoun president by throwing all the blame on Hariri.

Plot twist

By the 17th of September, the media was buzzing with rumors that Hariri was surprisingly going to endorse Aoun as his presidential candidate. While it wasn’t clear where the rumors originated from (an FM MP said that very same week that Aoun wasn’t an independent president and that he doesn’t represent the Christian’s public opinion), Berri panicked, and said that he preferred Frangieh over Aoun.

Blue berries and strategic mistakes

That strategic mistake from Berri made it clear to everyone that he was not willing to vote for Aoun after all, even if everyone stood by the former general. In fact, until that very moment, it did not make sense for Hariri to endorse Aoun since, as explained earlier, it would be unwise to make such a huge concession (presidency) without making sure that he had something “worthy” (electoral law, governmental share) in return. But now that it was obvious that Berri wasn’t willing to vote for Aoun even if Hariri endorsed him, the FM leader started one of his smartest maneuvers since November 2015: He began hinting, via visits to every politician that has ever exited (he visited Frangieh on the 26th of September, met with Gemayel on the 28th, also meeting Jumblatt that same day) that Michel Aoun was indeed an option, causing further panic in the Amal camp – especially after Hariri also met Berri that week: According to reports, Berri was willing to accept “half a package deal” involving “an agreement on the electoral law, the finance minister post, creating an oil ministry and retaking the energy ministry portfolio.”

There was no Aoun presidency in Berri’s half-package deal – at least in the press reports,  which might have made Hariri realize that he could harass Berri and sabotage the March 8 alliance by circulating the name of Aoun as next president: By the 30th of September, Aoun was meeting with Hariri (yes, that escalated quickly). Berri tried to mask his strategic political faux-pas and tried to hide his Aoun veto by saying in that week that “he has no personal dispute with any candidate”, but it was already too late, and soon enough, Berri (and Frangieh)  understood that it was useless to *hide their emotions and try to mask their opinions*: Berri publicly clashed with the patriarch, which really isn’t something he usually does, and the FPM did not surprisingly escalate when it came to October’s cabinet meetings, only partially boycotting it twice, on October 6 and October 13th, for obvious reasons: And while they were actually sending a friendly message to everyone by dropping their full cabinet boycott, Frangieh was vowing to stay in the race despite everything, as Berri’s sources still said that he would never nominate Aoun.

Introducing the sectarian card

When rumors of Hariri endorsing Aoun become even more relevant, Berri did something he never does: He used the sectarian card, and accused the FPM and the FM of making a deal behind his back and going back to the “Sunni-Christian duality era”. In the last 5 years of Lebanese politics, speaker Berri had never, ever used the sectarian card. The aounists have been talking about the national pact too much recently (inserting the word “ميثاقية” in every speech), and Berri probably thought he could use the FPM’s weapon against them. The FPM however had the momentum both in the political arena (via Hariri’s meetings) and on the ground, via the 13 October anniversary protest. Hezbollah’s awkward (official) silence also wasn’t of much help to Berri, so the FPM, experts in using the sectarian card, smoothly stopped Berri’s “you are turning back on Shias” rants by…not escalating (best strategy ever).

But it was already too late for anything anyway. Hariri had already figured out his master plan: In fact, Berri was trying to throw all the vacancy blame on Hariri, so when Hariri was sure (probably by the end of September) that Berri wasn’t on board with the Aoun presidency even with Hariri’s approval, the former prime minister came up with his brilliant maneuver of endorsing Aoun:

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

A loss nevertheless

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

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

The only real winner here is Aoun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deal or No Deal?

 

national-dialogue-september-5-2016

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

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

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

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

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

2009 lebanese parliament seats

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

How it began

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

Panique

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

Deal?

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

Wait? What?? Deal???

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

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

What package deal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The commander of the army: Complication or advantage?

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

2006 + 2015 = 2016

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

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

When it rains, it pours

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

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

Deal or no deal?

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

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

OrangeBerries!

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Presidency for Oil?

Headline L'orient le jour August 2016

This is the 23rd post in a series of monthly posts covering the presidential elections. This post is about the last days of June and the month of July 2016.

Lebanese politicians usually take their break during summer. They stop writing speeches, they stop giving statements, and they stop campaigning. Truth be said, Lebanese politicians are on a break all year round, but in summer it’s usually really something else (it’s probably too hot for political maneuvers). This June and July though have been full of developments.

Revolts in the Kataeb and the FPM

When the transition of power started in the Kataeb and the FPM last year, everyone had underestimated the fact that the new young leaders of those parties would face resistance from their own leadership. Bassil was Aoun’s son-in-law and was more or less anointed by the General (unchallenged after Alain Aoun withdrew from the race), while Gemayel was basically leading a party founded by his grandfather and led by his father. So the potential for revolt in both parties was small, since time had turned those parties (as well as most of the Lebanese parties) into family reunions led by the heir. But both leaders were young, and both saw their party making HUGE decisions within less than a year for them in power: The FPM entered a historic alliance with the LF in January, and the Kataeb decided in June to abandon their biggest share in government since ages in favor of a long-term political maneuver. Big decisions mean consolidating power, and consolidating power means that potential rivals had to be marginalized. One of the Kataeb ministers, Sejaan Kazzi, (arguably) a member of the old guard, refused to resign, and subsequently saw his membership revoked. Gemayel was trying to keep the Kataeb in the game by orchestrating the political maneuver of the year (you don’t get the opportunity to be congratulated by rivals for a bold move twice) and everything Kazzi was thinking about was his chair in the Grand Serail. He publicly defied the young leader’s authority and made him look weak. Expelling Kazzi from the party was the smart thing to do, and the Gemayel leadership did it. On the other side of the political spectrum, in the FPM, tensions have been building up for a while: It is no secret that not everyone likes Gebran Bassil in the FPM, and if Gemayel was brave enough to exit the cabinet and expel a minister from his party, Bassil had to take control of his party too: Right before preliminiary elections that were supposed to be a democratic way to choose the FPM’s parliamentary candidates, three major FPM officials – not big fans of Bassil – were expelled from the party, probably to prevent them from consolidating any kind of power while Bassil is still trying to win the hearts of his father-in-law’s fan base. Not every LF supporter liked the FPM-LF alliance, and not every FPM supporter was a fan of it too, so making sure that there was no rivalry to the young FPM leader in the middle of a weird Christian alliance was a must. Prominent Beiruti FPM official Ziad Abs, Aoun’s nephew Naim Aoun, and other Bassil critics were thus no longer part of the FPM. Not really smooth, but it’s a practical way of keeping the potential FPM parliamentary candidates pro-Bassil. The months of June and July 2016 “party purges” in the Christian parties are the first round of preparations to the 2017 elections: The leader has to make sure that the candidates would not question him before he starts nominating them.

The rest of the August was cliché: Lebanese politicians arguing about the internet, Hezbollah and the FM playing the usual love-and-hate game, and other Lebanese politicians trying to strike an gas & oil deal before a new president gets elected and complicates the procedure of sharing the cake. Speaking of that:

“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)

Presidency for oil?

Now this is pure speculation, but Berri’s 13 votes in parliament are a nice advantage for Aoun’s quest to the presidential palace (March 8 + LF =65 votes – here’s a nice table clarifying that), and the calm statements going back and forth from Ain El Tineh to Rabieh recently (Aoun and Berri are known for their political cold war) hints that an agreement on the oil dossier can mean that a compromise including the oil and gas reserves file might make it easier to end the deadlock. Also, we all know that “opportunity for stability” is the politician’s nickname of “Lebanese president”

Bassil’s comments were made following his meeting with Speaker Nabih Berri in the presence of Minister Ali Hassan Khalil, who, in turn, said that Berri is “keen on reaching a common ground over this issue in order to launch works.

“We discussed political issues and projects and we agreed to continue the coordination and cooperation over these issues” he added.

“these” = something is cooking. Have you ever seen the FPM and Amal leaders so happy and optimistic in their meetings?

Jumblatt too:

Jumblatt also criticized any new term extension for Kahwagi in the army command, a move that should bring the PSP leader closer to the FPM, which is something he shouldn’t be doing if there wasn’t a deal on the horizon. He also praised the FPM-Amal agreement

Oh, and among other cliché events, the supreme council of the tribal federation (the national dialogue guys) met for three days and decided that since electing a president and 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 – in the absence of a president and with the legitimacy of 127 deputies elected more than 7 years ago who are represented by an assembly of politicians that has no constitutional authority.

Nice.

So to sum up the first half of this summer, the Lebanese Christian parties were organizing themselves for next year’s parliamentary elections while the political class was complicating the presidential crisis even more by including senate talks and the oil doisser in the potential deal. Complicating the crisis means a longer deadlock and a longer deadlock means a possible parliamentary extension which also means a longer deadlock, which means that the entire revolts and counter-revolts that happened in the Christian parties last month were in vain.

So yeah, again, nice.

Oh, and speaking of deadlocks and productivity, Lebanon’s number 1 presidential candidate right now, Sleiman Frangieh, reportedly said that the only things that work right now are…prayers. And people complain our politicians / candidates have no plans.

Enjoy your summer. You know your politicians are!

And pray.

Don’t forget to pray,

For three years of dialogue weren’t enough to agree on the name of a president.

The Orange and the Pistachio

Aoun and Frangieh

Aoun meets with Frangieh on December 9, 2015 in Rabieh. I also have no idea who the person in the painting is, although trusted sources (“مصادر مطلعة”, à la Lebanese media) say she might be the next Lebanese president. (Image source: Annahar)

This is the 19th post in a series of monthly posts covering the presidential elections. This post is about the month of March 2016.

The month of March 2016 was overloaded with political developments. Let’s start with the garbage. After receiving the green light from the supreme council of the tribal federation , the Lebanese government took it upon itself to end the trash crisis by:

1) turning a beach resort (Costa Brava)… into a landfill.
2) reopening the Burj Hammoud landfill that was {as it turns out, temporarily} closed since 1997.
3)”temporarily” (yeah, right) reopening another landfill – Naameh – that was ironically supposed to be the government’s temporary emergency plan to close the Burj Hammoud dump in 1998 and that temporarily lasted for more than 17 years.

So while the government was back to square one, spending the second half of March solving the consequences of a problem by making the initial problem even worse, Lebanon’s politicians were finally free to focus on their maneuvers (and of course, the municipal elections in May).

The revelation of the year

I’m going to start with the  most important development of the past six months (even more relevant than Hariri endorsing Frangieh or Geagea endorsing Aoun). 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 received formal proof that Berri wasn’t going to vote for Aoun, but not that Amal was officially standing with Frangieh. True, we had always felt the he wasn’t exactly a fan of Aoun and his excitement when Frangieh’s name was mentioned in November was too real to hide, but Amal’s leader, had – until March 2016 – always kept a very vague stance when it came to the presidential elections, probably in order to give an impression that the March 8 alliance was still less damaged than the March 14 one by the recent Frangieh-Aoun confrontation. But then again, Berri didn’t just endorse Frangieh on the 19th of March: He called upon Hezbollah to vote with Frangieh too. That was a political declaration of war for the FPM. Why did Berri do it? and why now? Perhaps Berri was encouraged by the official endorsement of Frangieh by Hariri on the 14th of February. There are multiple theories – and frankly – it doesn’t really matter, because what is done is done: Berri’s move will now encourage Jumblatt to be more public about his support to Frangieh,  and has officially ended the March 8 and 14 alliances – at least when it came to presidential politics.

The war on Bassil continues

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. So as the cliché political clash between Salam, Hariri, Nasrallah, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Jupiter, and Mars about the Israeli conflict, Saudi Arabia and Hezbollah’s weapons continued, the FPM was by the last week of March under a huge amount of pressure: Frangieh was gaining momentum again, Aoun had officially lost Berri, and Bassil was blamed by March 14 for the entire diplomatic crisis. Even Hariri chose to kindly remind the world that he will not vote for Aoun and “threw the presidential file in Hezbollah’s court”. That very same week, al-Liwaa newspaper reported that Russia is backing the election of Marada Movement leader MP Suleiman Franjieh as president, and Hariri’s meetings with both Lavrov and Putin in the last days of the month are enough to make any other presidential candidate panic. I don’t like conspiracy theories, but the last time Hariri met in Europe with someone relevant from the other camp, that someone became his presidential candidate.

The bomb. The political bomb. 

To make things worse for the FPM, Nasrallah said the following sentence in his speech on the 21st of March:

العماد عون يمتلك الحيثيات لمنصب الرئاسة وحين ندعمه لا يعني ذلك أننا نرفض مرشحاً اخر

Yes, it’s in a huge font, and in Arabic, because it’s extremely important: While Hezbollah was still sticking with Aoun, Nasrallah has now clearly indicated that they were open to other possibilities (the literal translation: “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 someone other than Aoun, *coughs* like Frangieh *coughs*, and was probably starting a slow but steady shift from the Aoun bid to the Frangieh one, 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. It’s too early to tell, but that sentence in the huge font does look very promising to Frangieh.

Berri’s immediate response? On the 22nd of March, he said that “the presidential fruit had ripened” (whatever that beautiful piece of poetry means). So yeah, the FPM had the right to panic. There was a pattern, everyone saw it, and the media was ignoring it (and suddenly focusing on the illegal internet crisis – not that they shouldn’t have focused, but the timing is weird): Those were the typical characteristics of a deal being prepared between Lebanese politicians.

How the FPM responded: The T word

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. And don’t get me wrong, I’m only questioning the timing here. There was nothing before March, and suddenly, we get overwhelmed with the anti-naturalization calls: See here, here, here, here, 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, and the FPM (as well as the other two parties) was once again using the sectarian card, by focusing on the naturalization of Syrian refugees: Once a Christian party says the word “tawteen“, you’ll have to wait at least one or two month before you endorse someone (like Frangieh) who is vetoed by the biggest three Christian parties, or else you create panic and kill the candidacy of Sleiman Frangieh by giving the impression that you’re going against the Christian sentiment at a time when the naturalization seems imminent.
It’s either that, or there was indeed an intention to naturalize Syrian refugees, but I’ll go with the former theory for now, because of (1) the timing of the calls and (2) the fact that Lebanese politicians are the lords of political maneuvers.
So yeah, you can say that the Christian parties have gained experience, and managed to halt speaker Berri’s political maneuver of promoting Frangieh’s candidacy in the March 8 camp. But then again, who hasn’t gained experience?
680 days since the 25th of May (presidential vacancy). 516 days since the 5th of November (parliamentary extension).

The Orange and the Blueberry

Check the color of the tie. (Image source: The Daily Star/Lebanese Parliament Website, HO)

Yes, I actually chose a picture where both ties are blue. I’m that mean. (Image source: The Daily Star/Lebanese Parliament Website, HO)

This is the 18th post in a series of monthly posts covering the presidential elections. This post is about the month of February 2016.

Perhaps the biggest lie in Lebanese politics is that power comes from the people. As the month of February 2016 demonstrates, it is the Lebanese supreme council of the tribal federation that decides on all matters. Everything else is just political bickering that has little and sometimes no meaning at all.

On the 27th of January 2016, the Lebanese supreme council of the tribal federation met with happiness and joy, and gave the orders to the Lebanese cabinet to end the deadlock. Just like that, what started as a feud over the appointment of Chamel Roukoz in the army command, and evolved into a crisis that almost brought down the government while paralyzing the cabinet throughout all autumn, was suddenly solved within hours. The Lebanese leaders shook their hands in the national dialogue session, and there was suddenly no problem at all. The cabinet was free to convene and do whatever it wanted to do, and as the media acted as if the deadlock was never here to begin with, everyone moved on with pleasure and delight and focused on solving the trash crisis by exporting garbage (:-$) – hint: even that turned out to be an epic fiasco.

So on the last days of January, we learned something very important, and this time we learned it for sure: When six months of protests and trash and humiliation don’t have any impact on the Lebanese policy makers and all it takes is eleven or twelve or thirteen godfathers sitting together on a table to get things going, know that power is not in the hands of the people. It’s not even in the hands of an unconstitutional parliament, a deadlocked cabinet, or a non-existent president. It’s in the hands of the Lebanese supreme council of the tribal federation, commonly referred to in the media as the national dialogue table.

Anyway, who cares about the people, time to go back to the politicians.

What the lack of quorum means right now

On the 8th of February 2016, the Lebanese parliament was supposed to elect its president. Unlike the previous 28294294 attempts to elect the head of state, this time it was supposed to be special (and, no, not because it was on the eve of St. Maron and that the president is supposed to be Maronite selon l’usage). For the first time since 2014, the main two candidates were now from March 8 and were both endorsed by parties from March 14. Yet just like all the previous times, March 8’s parties boycotted the session. Which why it’s time to do the math. If Michel Aoun is indeed March 8’s main candidate, and is now endorsed by all its parties (minus Frangieh’s Marada), that means that he has the support of around 55/56 MPs from March 8. Add to that the 8 MPs of the Lebanese Forces and some random votes in the center (Mikati’s bloc? Khaled Daher? Michel Murr? – especially that his swing votes in the Metn will become useless if the FPM and the LF go through with an electoral alliance, so he’ll probably eventually join in and help out the new mini-alliance of the Christian parties or risk losing his seat and Tueni’s), you end up with a candidate securing the 65 votes required for the win. [I counted the votes in a previous blog post in case you’re more interested about the numbers]

So why did the FPM boycott the session on the 8th of February 2016? There are two theories:

The first one, circulated by March 14 and their media has been alive for 12 years and can be summed up with the following three sentence: “Hezbollah doesn’t want a president. Hezbollah wants a constituent assembly. Hezbollah likes the emptiness of the status quo”.

The second theory is that the FPM does not have an absolute majority it can count on in the parliament and that participating in a session where Aoun loses by a narrow margin – with the two other candidates, Helou and Frangieh getting less votes – would be similar in impact to the 23rd of April 2014 session where Geagea got 48 votes: Yes, the candidate with the biggest number of votes might actually gain momentum, but – this is not the United States presidential primaries – on the long run we all know that Frangieh or Helou won’t suddenly withdraw from the race and endorse Aoun and that means that time would eventually kill off the Aoun candidacy the same way it did to Geagea’s. Moreover, attending a session where Helou might suddenly withdraw in favor of Frangieh can be a very risky prospect for the FPM as the Marada leader might himself end up winning an absolute majority. If the FPM (and Hezbollah)’s boycott of the session means something, it’s that the Aounists are not sure whether their other allies (or allies of ally) would stick with them. The mechanics of why the lack of quorum is happening mean that Berri will not vote for Aoun (which is why the FPM bloc is boycotting the session, since they fear he might side with Frangieh). This is where the fans (hello, March 14 guys) of the first theory come in and answer the people who believe in the second theory: If Berri is not with Aoun, it’s because Hezbollah is not forcing him to vote for Aoun, since deep down Hezbollah doesn’t want to elect a president.

If you believe that Amal is a Hezbollah proxy that ultimately answers to Nasrallah, then Hezbollah doesn’t truly want to elect Aoun but is blocking the election of everyone else, alongside the FPM, so that the alliance between Hezbollah and Aoun doesn’t fall apart. That theory has also been used by the Lebanese Forces after their deal with Aoun in order to force a clash between the FPM and Hezbollah – en vain. However, if you believe (theory number two) that Hezbollah and Amal are two separate “sovereign” parties with rival separate agendas, then Hezbollah wants Aoun to be in Baabda but just can’t convince Berri to join in on the deal.

But the reasons and the mechanics don’t really matter. Whether it’s only Amal, or secretly Hezbollah and Amal who refuse a Aoun presidency is details. What matters are the consequences: If the February presidential session that never happened taught us anything, it’s that there might be a rift among the March 8 parties that is as big as the rift in March 14.

The rift

As previously demonstrated, Amal indirectly/officially told the world on the first week of February that they are not fans of a Aoun presidency. True, that information wasn’t near as shocking as the idea of Geagea endorsing Aoun, but deep down every FPM official had hoped that Berri might in the end say yes to the General and help him reach Baabda. So when it became clear that Berri was more blue than he was orange in his presidential choices (in case you kept asking yourself what that creepy title meant), a full-blown political war on the Amal leader started. Although it’s a very nice thing to believe in the beauty of coincidences, I don’t think that the Christian parties’ criticism of all of Amal’s ministers in the cabinet and accusing them of disregarding the Christian interests in the country a week after Berri started sending signals that he does not to support the LF-FPM Christian consensual president can be counted as a coincidence: Minister of public works Ghazi Zaiter was accused of allocating less fund for the Christian areas (although some areas are much larger and more populous and have less funding than them [Check Najib from BlogBaladi’s arguments] – it’s why we need official state budgets anyway) while on the other hand, Ali Hassan Khalil, the finance minister, was criticized for replacing a Christian employee with a non-Christian one. Now again, the mechanics don’t matter. What matters here is the timing. Berri bypassed a Christian consensus on a Christian post (the presidency), and that was the LF and the FPM’s mediatized response (If you’re wondering why the Kataeb joined in too, it’s because of the competition on the Christian electorate 😉 )

Speaking of the Kataeb, they apparently found out about the trash crisis recently and decided that the best part to solve it was to pressure the government – in which they have one of the biggest shares – by protesting its policies in the streets as well as “fighting from inside the cabinet” (à la FPM). That recent hyperactivity within the party can be explained by the fact that they recently became the biggest Christian party not supporting an M8 candidate, and they clearly plan on gaining some momentum because of that. Time (and the electoral law type) will tell whether they’ll succeed or not. And even if Geagea and Hariri reiterated that the FM leaders’ remarks on the Christian wedding during the Biel commemoration were a joke, it is very clear – especially while looking at how the supporters of both parties acted – that there is a rising tension between the FM and the LF and that the FM and the Kataeb might get closer with time: Those extra-kisses from Hariri to Gemayel on the 14th of February commemoration were not so *innocent*. Hariri officially finally endorsed Frangieh on the 14th, and while it’s still practically impossible for Frangieh to make it to Baabda, the FM will need another minor Christian party to count on in the post-presidential elections era in case the Marada leader miraculously gets elected, and it seems day after day that relying on the LF (and of course, the FPM) will be awkward. It’s like asking Mikati and Hariri to be ministers in cabinet led by Walid Succarieh; on the other hand, Safadi might say yes to that prospect.

The fall and rise and fall of Ashraf Rifi

While the Lebanese government was proving once again what an epic failure it is, via the trash exportation fiasco and the no-kissing statement, something else was already cooking. It seemed that Michel Samaha was going out of jail, and while that information briefly united all the previous cadres of March 14 under one banner, another politician thought that it was more of an opportunity to gain momentum within his party. the minister of justice, Ashraf Rifi, whose presence in the ISF leadership brought the 2011 Mikati government down in March 2013, took it upon himself to resign from the government that wasn’t making it harder for Michel Samaha to leave his cell and that wasn’t standing with Saudi Arabia regionally (more on that afterwards). Yet it is unclear what Rifi was trying to do. When he previously stormed out of a cabinet session because of the same issue, Hariri disowned his stance and publicly criticized his actions . On the long run, Rifi’s move was smartly calculated, for him and his party: He showed himself as a “true” March14-er, taking his justice ministry seriously and refusing to “succumb to the fait-accompli and recognize March 8’s terms” (and yes, I’just sarcastically used March 14 terms in a Lebanese media context 😛 ). Rifi probably thought that the Prime Minister would ask him to reconsider his position in the cabinet and make him come back as a hero for his city, community, country, planet and galaxy so he may serve them with justice and order. But the former ISF commander is still new to Lebanese politics and he arguably did his first rookie mistake: He humiliated Tammam Salam in the cabinet, and bypassed Hariri’s stances when he refused to back Frangieh like most of the Future Movement officials. Rifi tried to rise through the ranks as quickly as possible by criticizing the negotiating/compromise qualities of his two bosses (and trying to look as pro-Saudi as possible by resigning in the middle of the crisis between the Gulf and Hezbollah), and signed with this move his mini-political death warrant. Bringing back Rifi to the cabinet would show weakness in the Future Movement leadership, give an impression that Hariri and Salam need Rifi more than anything – hint: no one cares about anyone in Lebanese politics – and eventually strengthen Rifi in the northern city of Tripoli, giving him the serious opportunity to overthrow – in an unlikely yet possible alliance with Karami, Mikati, and Safadi – the Future Movement in the next Tripoli parliamentary elections. So yeah, Salam – with an obvious green light for Hariri – signed the formal papers, and what started as a mini-political maneuver turned into a political farewell for Rifi – at least for now.

UPDATE: According to this report, Salam did not sign the formal papers yet (apparently it has something to do with the logistics and the fact that there is no president to co-sign). But he’s making Rifi wait, and there has been no important sign that the FM leadership asked him to reconsider his resignation.

Alice Shabtini became acting minister of justice and Michel Sleiman’s ministers in cabinet are now in charge of 4 portfolios (deputy prime-minister, defense, sports, justice) which is higher than all the previous numbers of portfolios that were awarded to the presidency between 2008 and 2014 (2008: 2/30, 2009: 3/30, 2011:3/30). In other words, that awkward moment when Sleiman has more ministerial portfolios after he left power than he ever had during his 6 years in power.

The gulf engulfing Lebanon and the Gulf

The event of the month is as regional as Lebanese politics gets, with Saudi Arabia withdrawing 4 billion $ in military aid for Lebanon and most of the Gulf countries issuing travel bans because Lebanon abstained during a meeting to back a Saudi-initiated resolution criticizing Hezbollah. I really hate the regional speculations à la Lebanese media, but those developments are clearly – undeniably – either (1) related to Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria and a Saudi response to that because of whatever’s happening in Syria or (2) Saudi Arabia going through financial difficulties with Lebanon clearly not being a priority to them (or any country in the world), or (3) Saudi Arabia’s way of refusing the new developments in Lebanese politics and sending a message that it would only resume aid if a certain president is elected or (4) that for Saudi Arabia, official Lebanon wasn’t worth the investment if it was going to either keep a neutral stance or refuse to contain Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria. Deep down, Gebran Bassil didn’t make that much of a mistake by keeping Lebanon’s neutral stance in the region, as he was following on the government’s official policy of self-dissociation (النأي بالنفس). Regardless of why Saudi Arabia stopped its 4 Billion dollar donation and why a rift suddenly happened between official Lebanon and the Gulf countries in February, the impact on the Lebanese economy was huge: many Lebanese citizens risk being deported for the Gulf countries which might destabilize the economy especially that the travel ban by the Arab countries officially killed this year’s tourism season. The impact on Lebanese politics, on the other hand, was the definition of what a Lebanese political fiasco looks like:

  • The Lebanese government took it upon itself to meet for 7 hours – they almost did an all-nighter – in order to find solutions to this “outrage”, while simultaneously ignoring any reasonable eco-friendly solution to the garbage crisis for the seventh continuous month, insulting with this move the intelligence of every Lebanese being poisoned by the piles of trash polluting the country.
  • March 14 were united in their common support to Saudi Arabia (:-$), and asked Lebanon to sign a petition saying we’re sorry (:-$) and that we’re never going to have a neutral stance (:-$) in our life again. It was always a blow to March 14, since the cabinet, in which they more or less have the biggest share (even if it’s a theoretically 8-8-8 one, its president is still pro-March 14) had failed to achieve the only true thing it promised in its policy statement: Use the Saudi donation to arm the army and preserve stability.
  • The FPM received a huge (HUGE) blow with Saudi Arabia’s move, was blamed for their new leader’s diplomatic faux-pas by Saudi Arabia and March 14, and responded in a very awkward way, saying that NO ONE COULD CHALLENGE THEM IN THEIR SUPPORT FOR SAUDI ARABIA .(?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!)
  • Hezbollah’s officials were angry since they too – by the obvious rules of Lebanese politics – were blamed by March 14 and its regional allies for everything wrong happening in the country (M8 would have reacted the same if the opposite scenario would have happened). Nasrallah escalated, telling the Gulf Hezbollah doesn’t care what they think, which led the Gulf Cooperation Council to officially label them as a terrorist group.
  • The best thing ever? After criticizing Hezbollah and saying to Saudi Arabia that Lebanon is sorry, March 14’s highest-ranking minister in the cabinet eventually acted…exactly like Bassil during another meeting for Arab ministers –  refusing to condemn Hezbollah, which confirms one thing: The cabinet is here to stay, and Lebanon’s political class prefers to have a fall-out with a major regional country because of a sentence in a statement rather than escalate and push the cabinet to a dangerous resignation with no president in power and unconstitutional parliament in Nejmeh square.

Anyway, to sum up the month of February 2016 with one word: Zbele

On the bright side, 73 MPs actually attended the latest presidential elections session on March 2 (I think it’s a record).

Just kidding. There is no bright side. Zbele.

 649 days since the 25th of May (presidential vacancy). 485 days since the 5th of November (parliamentary extension). 231 days since the 17th of July (trash crisis). 

Lebanon’s Divisive Presidency

Aoun Geagea Kanaan Riachi 18 January 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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