Free Patriotic Movement

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) .

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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).

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.

 

Aoun’s Jockeying

Michel Aoun

Free Patriotic Movement protests are just the latest of Michel Aoun’s tactics to secure the presidency and empower his party.

The following analysis was first published in Sada on July 28, 2015.

Following a political feud in the cabinet regarding the nomination of the next Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) commander, Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) leader Michel Aoun called for protests, and party supporters rallied in Beirut on July 9. The presidency, the most important Maronite-allocated post in Lebanese politics, has been vacant since May 2014, and the term of the LAF commander—another important Maronite post—expires in September. Although Aoun has framed the deadlock over both appointments as an assault on Christian rights, his call for protests is really a key gambit in his quest to empower the FPM and his allies within the party.

When the FPM and Lebanese Forces party signed their “declaration of intent” in June to elect a strong president, this gave Aoun the upper hand over other Christian parties. Because Chairman of the Lebanese Forces Samir Geagea visited Aoun in Rabieh to sign the declaration, he was branded the junior partner. The declaration—basically an agreement to agree on an agreement between the two parties—also preemptively ended any rising threat that any Kataeb party or Hezbollah–Future Movement (FM) presidential deal would exclude the FPM.

The Kataeb, distracted and vulnerable during the current transfer of power from party leader Amine Gemayel to his son Sami, is not in a position to threaten the FPM’s supremacy among the Christian electorate, which has become increasingly friendly to other members of the March 8 alliance as Hezbollah’s reputation as protector against the Islamic State grows. With two traditionally Maronite posts up for contention and three Christian parties in disarray (the FPM and the Kataeb are focused on internal organization, and the Lebanese Forces is weakened amid revelations that Geagea asked for Saudi financial support), Aoun’s call for protests and public mobilization seemed like a wise political gamble.

Had the FPM conceded the presidency in 2014 when the office had just been vacated, they would likely have only received an electoral law friendlier to the March 8 alliance and perhaps a better share in the next cabinet—and so had little reason to do so. But since May 2015, when the post of LAF commander came onto the negotiating table, the FPM has had the opportunity to win the best political deal on the two posts. Its position is strong enough that it could concede the presidency to March 14, if it so chose, in return for claiming the LAF command, the lesser of the two posts. They can alternately use their “blocking third” parliament veto powers on the presidential elections to gain concessions on a continued push for LAF command appointment. The March 8 alliance could also abandon their presidential ambitions in exchange for all three demands: a modified electoral law, the blocking third in the cabinet, and the army command. For the FPM, that also means the opportunity to empower Aoun’s popular potential successor, his son-in-law and current commander of the LAF Special Forces Chamel Roukoz, by making him commander of the army.

Most importantly, a tradeoff deal between the presidency and the army command post could make the FPM the strongest Christian player in politics, because the Future Movement would be conceding to the FPM as opposed to one of its own March 14 Christian allies like the Lebanese Forces or Kataeb party. Aoun and his supporters could use this political win to boost his standing before internal FPM elections in September. The two primary candidates seem to be Baabda MP Alain Aoun, Michel Aoun’s nephew, and Gebran Bassil, another son-in-law of Aoun’s and current minister of foreign affairs. There were rumors that Aoun might push for a consensus deal within the FPM by making one of the candidates president and the other vice president, but that remains to be seen.

If both candidates lock horns it might cause a major rift within the FPM, especially as the two are high-ranking politicians influential among the party’s electorate. Should Aoun fail to appoint Chamel Roukoz as commander of the army, it could create an atmosphere of failure ahead of the internal elections, possibly weaken Aoun and his favored candidates, and disrupt the transfer of power in the FPM. Hence, Aoun sought to use the July 9 demonstrations to pressure the cabinet into appointing Roukoz as soon as possible. The closer Aoun is to September, the more likely he will accept a presidential–army command power-sharing deal with March 14, in order to avoid any distractions ahead of the FPM elections. And this is likely why the FM is blocking any discussion about the army commander post until August.

According to the March 14 logic, if Aoun refuses to concede the presidency in exchange for the LAF command, the cabinet could proceed to appoint another LAF commander and deny Aoun the chance of appointing Roukoz for another few years. This would weaken Aoun before the internal elections and deprive him of the army command, while at the same time allowing March 14 to depict him as the man responsible for blocking the election of a president. For them, Aoun has to compromise or he’ll lose both posts.

By Aoun’s thinking, if he pressures the cabinet to appoint his son-in-law as commander of the army now, he won’t have to give up his presidential ambitions later, as a compromise deal over the presidency and LAF command post will no longer be on the table. The March 14 alliance would no longer be able to deny the FPM the LAF command, leaving the FPM little to lose if they keep pushing for the presidency. It would also weaken Aoun’s main rival for the presidency, Jean Kahwaji, whose presence in the army command remains his largest asset.

As such, Aoun is using every tactic to pressure the cabinet. He argued that Prime Minister Tammam Salam was abusing his powers when he refused to put the appointment of a new commander of the army on the cabinet’s agenda. Constitutionally speaking, the Sunni PM sets the agenda in the cabinet meetings (article 64), although the Maronite president is allowed to “present any urgent matter to the council of Ministers from outside the agenda” (article 53). In the absence of a president, Aoun took it upon himself to protect the Christian interests by proclaiming that the FPM—as the largest Christian party represented in the cabinet—is allowed to assume the president’s authority during the cabinet session. March 14 has responded by pointing out that Aoun is ultimately to blame because he is blocking the election of any non-Aoun president.

Aoun’s demonstrations also had a low turnout, and a confrontation between the FPM supporters and the army near the Grand Serail didn’t help. The next day, Aoun verbally attacked the army command over the incident, and while army commander Jean Kahwaji did not respond directly, an indirect response came from his son Joe on Twitter, pointing out the FPM’s double standards in praising General Roukoz when the FPM and the army are on the same page and criticizing Kahwaji when they aren’t.

So although the protests might appear as a wise political maneuver, they are a defeat for Aoun in the streets, the cabinet, and the institution over which he wants greater influence. Aoun is even losing ground within his bloc. One of his closest allies, Marada Movement leader Sleiman Frangieh, criticized Aoun’s political moves in the days following the protests, saying that he supported Aoun’s quest but disapproved of the means (the demonstrations). And although Hezbollah publicly stated that they stood with their March 8 Christian allies, the fact that they did not take part in the protests is telling. By refusing to make a popular move against the current commander of the army, they perhaps sought to save face with Kahwaji, who is also the strongest consensus presidential candidate. One thing is for sure: the FPM is heading into a turbulent period in the next few weeks, and as a main party of the March 8 alliance and the Lebanese fabric, they are dragging both their coalition and the country with it.

Ramez Dagher is a Lebanese political blogger at Moulahazat.

When Tayyar.org Misquote the Constitution

Tayyar.org constitution article

Here’s a lovely screenshot of the article

Since the expiration of the term of Former President Michel Suleiman, and the Parliaments failure to elect a successor, the constitution stipulates that all ministers in the government must unanimously agree to a law in order for it to be considered as passed.

I understand Lebanon has other more important things to focus on these days (like a garbage crisis, militants on our eastern border, a refugee emergency, and a cabinet that might fall and paralyze the whole country with it), but this is bad. This very, very, very bad. Tayyar.org, the FPM’s main media mouthpiece, published yesterday an article (link) in which they said that the constitution stipulates that all ministers in the government must unanimously agree to a law in order for it to be considered as passed.

The constitution doesn’t even mention what happens with the cabinet voting mechanism when a presidential vacancy happens (by all means, look for yourselves, and if you find anything, tell me). In fact, for the voting mechanism, the constitution only stipulates that:

5. The Council of Ministers shall meet periodically in a special seat, and the President of the republic shall chair its meetings when he attends. The legal quorum for a Council meeting shall be a two-thirds majority of its members. It shall make its decisions by consensus. If that is not possible, it makes its decisions by vote of the majority of attending members. Basic issues shall require the approval of two thirds of the members of the government named in the Decree of its formation. The following issues are considered basic: The amendment of the constitution, the declaration of a state of emergency and its termination, war and peace, general mobilization, international, long-term comprehensive development plans, the appointment of employees of grade one and its equivalent, the reconsideration of the administrative divisions, the dissolution of the Chamber of Deputies, electoral laws, nationality laws, personal status laws, and the dismissal of Ministers.

(Article 65)

and for the presidential vacancy, the article that we can relate to is this one:

Should there be a vacancy in the Presidency for any reason whatsoever, the Council of Ministers shall exercise the authorities of the President by delegation.

(Article 62)

I usually come across brainwashing in most media outlets and I often choose to smile and ignore them, but this is huge (I’m not picking sides here). This is the constitution we’re talking about, and quoting articles that don’t exist  is the worst kind of brainwashing there is. It’s already bad enough that the different parties interpret the constitution in different ways and barely stick to its rules, the last thing we need right now is a made up constitutional article to be used as a political maneuver.

Not cool, Tayyar.org. Not cool.

Oh and by the way Tayyar.org, they’re called decrees, not laws.

431 days since the 25th of May. 267 days since the 5th of November.

How Rifi Destroyed March 14’s Comeback

ISIS Flag

The March 14 alliance excels at ruining political comebacks. When in October 2012 Prime Minister Mikati was on the verge of resigning due to pressure caused by the assassination of General Wissam Hassan, Nadim Koteich of the Future Movement had the brilliant idea of ruining everything by calling these seven words : “Ya Shabeb, Ya Sabaya, Yalla Yalla Al Saraya”What followed was an hour of Chaos, but most importantly five more months of M8 in power.

Justice Minister Ahsraf Rifi made a major political faux-pas yesterday when he requested to legally pursue a group of Lebanese who were seen burning an ISIS flag in Achrafieh.

The example of Faysal Karami

One has to keep in mind two important things: The parliamentary elections are theoretically in two months, and Ahsraf Rifi will likely run in one of the poorest and most conservative districts of the republic. And that’s not all of it: He will be running against a former Prime Minister (Mikati), millionaire ministers (such as Safadi), the nephew of the Sunni community’s most adored Prime Minister (Faysal Karami), and a handful of locally popular leaders. Tripoli will be a fierce electoral battle for Rifi which probably explains his recent moves. Most of Lebanon laughed when former sports minister Faysal Karami was about to take action against Jackie Chamoun who represented Lebanon during the Winter Olympics and happened to have some topless photos – Most of Lebanon laughed, but not most of Tripoli. Faysal Karami was starting his electoral campaign at the time, and that’s exactly the same thing Rifi is doing: By taking action against those who are burning a flag with Muslim scripture on it, Ashraf Rifi wants to look as the politician who is willing to go as far as saving ISIS flags in order to protect everything holy – even if it is on the flag of a terrorist organization.

Is it a long-term maneuver?

The M8 and M14 alliances were preparing themselves for a round of fighting on who gets to negotiate with Islamists who kidnapped the Lebanese soldiers in Arsal. Ashraf Rifi’s recent stance showed him as the less hostile Lebanese politician towards ISIS, putting him in the best position to negotiate with them. On the long run, ISIS will be more likely to concede to his terms than to those of Abbas Ibrahim, which will likely turn out to be a mini victory for M14.

Is it worth it?

The March 14 alliance was enjoying a month of political comeback after Saad Hariri’s return from Paris. M8 tried to counter this by focusing all the attention on ISIS and the concept of direct presidential elections. The maneuver wasn’t too successful until Ashraf Rifi gave them everything they needed, and more. Since the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb, (who usually in such sectarian moments have a talent of defending Christian interests) are silent because it’s their ally in question, the Free Patriotic Movement took advantage of this opportunity and showed himself as the sole protector of Christian interests. The Future Movement also successfully managed to turn himself in the matter of seconds from a moderate party giving a billion dollar to the army to fight ISIS into a party that is defending the Islamic State and its flag. Most importantly, if the elections are truly going to be in November, Hezbollah and the FPM are heading to polls with a huge card in their possession, likely to give them the upper hand in the Christian districts. Yesterday, Ashraf Rifi might have scored a small victory in Tripoli, but the March 14 alliance lost everywhere else.

Apparently, we live in a country where it is legal to extend the parliament’s term for the second time but illegal to burn ISIS’s flag.

 99 days since the 25th of May. 78 days till the 16th of November.

On The Maronite Patriarch And Presidential Elections

Paul Peter Meouchi

Maronite Patriarch Paul Peter Meouchi in a press conference (Image from the 1958 crisis)

On July 23, Patriarch Rai said something very surprising. I couldn’t find any English version of it, so I’m going to quote him in Arabic.

مرّةً أخرى نطالب، مع اللبنانيين المخلصين، رئيسَ المجلس النيابي ونوّابَ الأمّة الالتزامَ بالدستور الذي يوجبُ على المجلس أن ينتخب فوراً رئيساً للجمهورية، أي أن يلتئم يوميّاً لهذه الغاية ولا يكون إلّا هيئة انتخابية لا اشتراعية، بحكم المواد الدستورية 73 و74 و75 الواضحة وضوح الشمس. وكم يؤسفُنا أن يكون نصابُ الثلثَين، الذي لا يفرضه الدستور، بل توافق عليه اللبنانيون قد تحوّلَ عن غايته. لقد توافقوا على حضور ثلثَي أعضاء المجلس النيابي لانتخاب رئيسٍ للجمهورية بنصف عدد أعضاء المجلس زائد واحد، لكي تُعطى هالةٌ للرئيس المُنتخَب، وطمأنينةٌ للناخبين فأصبح نصابُ الثلثَين وسيلةً لتعطيل الانتخاب وحرمان الدولة من رأسها، من دون أن نعلم حتى متى، لكنّنا نعرفُ أن هذا يشلّ البلاد ويقوّضُ أوصالَها ويحطّم آمالَ الشعب ولا سيّما شبابه وأجياله الطالعة. ونتساءل أيُّ قيمة تبقى لنصاب الثلثَين؟ وهل النصابُ هو بعد في خدمة رئاسة الجمهورية، أم جعلها رهينةً له.

(Link)

What matters most in this paragraph is the part where the Maronite Patriarch says that there is no constitutional basis for the two thirds quorum required to elect the president.

Article 49 of the Lebanese Constitution says that “The President of the Republic shall be elected by secret ballot and by a twothirds majority of the Chamber of Deputies. After a first ballot, an absolute majority shall be sufficient. The President’s term is six years. He may not be re-elected until six years after the expiration of his last mandate. No one may be elected to the Presidency of the Republic unless he fulfills the conditions of eligibility for the Chamber of Deputies.”

There was always a huge debate whether there is actually a quorum regarding the presidential elections in Lebanon, since the Constitution stipulates that a first two-thirds majority is needed to elect a president on the first round, but doesn’t specify if the presence of 2/3 of the MPs is necessary to proceed with election of the president.

So what’s so important about Rai’s opinion on the presidential quorum?

1. It contradicts what his predecessor Sfeir said 7 years ago

August 29, 2007

“There are those who talk of boycotting presidential elections, this is unfair and disastrous for the country,” Sfeir said from Diman on Tuesday. “Elections must proceed in accordance with the Constitution, with two thirds of MPs in the first session, and after that maybe with half-plus-one of MPs,” Sfeir added.

He said if from the first electoral session a simple majority is adopted to elect a president the other side could claim this to be a violation of the Constitution which would prompt them to respond similarly.

“Thus we would get two presidents, two governments, two Lebanons and so on, which would be ruinous for the country as a whole,” Sfeir said.

Sfeir said that in Lebanon a constitutional amendment occurs at every juncture, a harmful process, adding that only the national interest should warrant an amendment.

(Link)

2. It can be bad for Christians

Political sources said Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai’s recent speech in which he said that the Constitution did not stipulate that a two-thirds quorum was required to elect a president was an attempt by the head of the Maronite Church to break the presidential deadlock. But the sources added that some legal experts had advised Rai to refrain from starting this debate, as electing a president with a quorum of absolute majority would allow Muslim MPs to impose their preferred candidate.

(Link)

The Maronite Patriarch, on July 23, supported an explanation of the Constitution that was contradictory to his predecessor’s interpretation, and that could in the future put Christian interests at risk (In case some of the MPs decide one day to elect a Muslim president it wouldn’t be possible anymore for the other MPs to block the elections even if they had more than 33% of the seats).

Let’s put things in context here. The coalition that is boycotting the presidential election sessions is the March 8 coalition which means that the Patriarch’s speech was mainly targeting Aoun’s camp. So  the patriarch was willing to give up what’s best for Christians and Bkirki’s long-term explanation of a controversial constitutional article in order to put the Free Patriotic Movement in  a weaker position. And the Patriarch’s implicit criticism of Aoun on July 23 was only the first move.

“Humanity is the only thing we share with you. Come let’s talk and reach an understanding on this basis … you rely on the language of arms, terrorism, violence and influence, but we rely on the language of dialogue, understanding and respect for others,” Rai addressed ISIS during a speech Wednesday at a dinner of the Episcopal Media Committee.

(Link)

It’s no secret that the biggest winner with the Islamic State’s rise in Iraq is the Free Patriotic Movement who is gaining from the propaganda more than anyone. The more the Christians will fear the concept of a Sunni Caliphate, the more Aoun would probably win seats in the next parliamentary elections. For a Patriarch who once equated terrorists with atheists, it’s a very weird idea to start talks with the Islamic State and it is probably a (failed) attempt to make the Christian electorate less frightened and thus less friendly to the FPM.

That was move number 2.

July 27, 2014

“March 14 doesn’t want a president aligned with March 8, and March 8 doesn’t want a president aligned with March 14, therefore there is a need to move toward a president who is outside both blocs,” Rai said during Mass in Diman, adding that “there are many Maronite figures who are worthy of the presidency.”

(Link)

To be clear here, “A president who is outside both blocs” ≠ “Michel Aoun”

As a reminder, Bkirki used to support the election of one of the Maronite Four. So in a way,  it’s a 180° change of policy.

That was move number 3. 

July 20, 2014

Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai Sunday said he wished the term of former President Michel Sleiman was extended until a new president is elected and urged the international community to help the Christians of Iraq.

Addressing Sleiman during a mass to commemorate the anniversary of Mar Charbel, a revered Maronite saint, Rai said he wished the former president would have stayed in office until a new head of state was elected.

“But what to do, those who support void rejected the suggestion,” Rai said in a veiled reference to the Free Patriotic Movement and Hezbollah. “They opted for shutting down the presidential palace after President Sleiman kept it open.”

(Link)

That was move number 4. (Actually it was the first move since it was on July 20, but you get the point)

So to sum things up, the Maronite Patriarch criticized the March 8 alliance 4 times in 1 week, using 4 different maneuvers, and even taking a more radical position than the anti-M8 Patriarch Sfeir.

If the Patriarch is truly siding with M14, it’s a big moral defeat for Aoun and Hezbollah. Let’s wait and see.

70 days since the 25th of May.