Free Patriotic Movement

The Time For Moderation

1984...

1984…

For a country that took 11 months to get out of the deadlock, the events of the past few days are revealing. Sleiman Frangieh will not run for the presidential elections: It’s official. In his interview with Al-Mayadeen, the leader of the Marada party endorsed the candidacy of Michel Aoun. The FPM leader on the other hand was busy commending Saad Hariri’s speech “characterized with moderation“. On the other side of the political spectrum, Amine Gemayel was praising the Iranian policies in the regions, only days after Hariri promised the Patriarch that the presidential elections would be held on time.

M8 Unified

Although it might be hard to believe, Frangieh’s withdrawal makes sense. For M14, he is the most despised Christian leader out there. For Hezbollah and Amal, he is a minor Christian politician. For the FPM, he is a local ally that mustn’t get stronger under any circumstances, especially that he is more likely to answer to Damascus than to Rabieh in case something goes bad between the Syrian regime and its biggest Christian ally. Frangieh hence has no shot at all to become president in 2014: Even if he runs as the sole candidate backed by M8, his name can never become a consensual one, and M14 pressure on Jumblatt would eventually prevent the latter of voting for the Marada candidate. By running for office in 2014, Frangieh would have angered the FPM, lost the elections, and found himself isolated. Patience is a virtue. Out of the “Maronite four” (Gemayel, Geagea, Aoun and himself), Frangieh is by far the youngest, and the very fact that in 2020 Amine Gemayel would be 78, Michel Aoun 86 and Samir Geagea 67 makes him the perfect candidate for the elections. By then, he would have become M8’s number one, the Syrian crisis would have probably ended, and he’ll get to have  6 years to adapt to any new situation, make new alliances, or switch sides. In 2020, the odds can be in his favor. In 2014, they’re not.

Michel Aoun on the other hand understood the rules of the game (after years of experience). The president is practically always a consensual one, especially in times of crisis. Fouad Chehab was elected for refusing to engage the army in the conflict. Charles Helou was elected because he was one of Chehab’s closest men to the opposition. Sleiman Frangieh was elected for his pro-Nasserist history and his anti-Palestinian tendencies. Elias Sarkis was elected for staying neutral throughout the first year of the civil war. In Lebanese politics, if you don’t compromise, you lose it all: Raymond Edde stayed 50 years in the opposition and never made it to the presidential palace. And for the millionth time (see here, here, herehere and here), this is what Michel Aoun is trying to achieve. Even though he might never become a consensual candidate in the matter of a year’s effort, he can still become M8’s most moderate politician. And how do we know it works? Because his new moderate attitude made Frangieh withdraw for lack of support from M8 and M14, forced the different M8 factions to pamper him more (so he doesn’t defect) and eventually unified M8 behind him while turning him into a more acceptable candidate to M14. After spending most of 2012 and 2013 accusing Hariri of being an extremist politician supporting rogue Islamist militants, he describes Hariri in 2014 of being the voice of moderation. There is no such thing as a coincidence. Everyone hoping to succeed has to be a moderate ahead of the presidential elections. For Michel Aoun, being a moderate means that he’ll have to praise the Future Movement.

M14 Unified

When I say everyone, I include M14’s candidate. And while we’re at it, there will be one,  and only one candidate coming from the ranks of M14. Hariri reiterated in his meeting with the Patriarch on Friday that the March 14 coalition would field one presidential contender. Meanwhile in the Christian camp of M14, the Kataeb – now strong of their huge share in the cabinet – are preparing their comeback. Among the possible candidates for the presidency, there’s LF leader Samir Geagea (head of the biggest Christian M14 party) , popular independent MPs such as Boutros Hareb, and last but not least former president Amine Gemayel, leader of the Kataeb party.

M14 needs a candidate that is in full harmony with its policies while being at the same time acceptable by M8. Samir Geagea, while being the strongest Christian in M14, doesn’t fit the criteria. The majority of independent MPs , although enjoying some support and prestige from the parliament – Boutros Hareb has been in the parliament for the past 42 years – are also too violent for M8.

One has to see it from a very particular perspective. Aoun is popular, was a commander of the army and a former prime minister,  is seen as protector of Christian interests (due to his stances on the cabinet formation and the electoral law), has strong allies, is currently establishing ties with various parties – notably the Future Movement, and is fashioning himself as a moderate. If M14 wants a serious competitor, the first name coming to mind is Amine Gemayel. He leads Lebanon’s oldest and most prestigious Christian party, had the same stances regarding the electoral law and the cabinet, has good ties with most of the parties and is at the core of M14. Also who’s better to compete with Aoun than the president who appointed him as commander of the army and later prime minister?

The Kataeb are aware of their sudden power in the executive power and of the precious value of their leader: Amine Gemayel asked for the elections to be held on time, dismissed any other consensual candidate by requesting the parliament to elect a strong president (hinting at “the Maronite Four”), nominating himself to the presidency and finally starting to laud some of the M8 rivals, namely Iran. Like Michel Aoun, he is showing his moderate side. While rumors on the streets say that Hariri is likely going to endorse the leader of the Kataeb, Gemayel’s relation with Lebanon’s kingmaker Walid Jumblatt isn’t very good (due to civil war-related issues). Since Jumblatt isn’t a fan of Aoun either, we might probably see a third consensual name endorsed by the centrists. The press is circulating the names of Jean Obeid (who apparently also enjoys the support of Berri and Hariri) and the usual “two Maronites” : the commander of the army and the governor of the central bank.

2014 Is Not 2008 (Or Is It?)

Even if the elections are held on time, and even if the M8 and M14 alliances do not boycott the elections and everything goes according to the plan (no lack of quorum), there is still one problem: None of both alliances can secure 65 votes (absolute majority) to support its candidate. While it is more obvious by the day that M14 and M8 would be each supporting one candidate to the presidency, it remains unclear what side Walid Jumblatt and Mikati’s parliamentary blocs would back. If the Jumblatt-Mikati duo decides not to participate in the elections, neither M8 nor M14 will be able to secure the post for its candidate. Without Jumblatt and Mikati, M14 has around 58 MPs while M8 has a bit less than that (around 57).

The constitution stipulates that a 2/3 majority is necessary to elect a president in the first round, while an absolute majority would be needed for all the rounds after that. unlike 2007, when the presence of M8 and M14 in the parliament would have probably ended in an M14 candidate as a president (since they held the majority), the elections of 2014 are different. Even if everyone shows up, the elections would be like a play. The MPs will keep voting for the same candidates, and since no camp can secure 65 votes, the elections can go on forever. In other words, none of the two coalition will take it upon itself to boycott the parliamentary session and get treated with disregard from the public for “paralyzing the states’ institutions”. Because unlike 2008, there is no coalition holding the majority of votes in the parliament which means that the minority coalition doesn’t need to boycott and block quorum in order to prevent the majority of electing a president of its ranks.

While nothing is official or definite, we are approaching the elections with 2 candidates, Michel Aoun of M8 and Amine Gemayel of M14 that are – unlike 2007 – fighting to get the support of the rival camp by playing the moderate card, while the name of the third consensual candidate is soon to be determined.

Reminder: The government didn’t win the confidence vote yet.

Playing The Sectarian Card

FPM government Ad

“We should reduce the difficulties in forming a new Cabinet such as the agreement to postpone discussion on the government’s policy statement rather than adding more obstacles such as the rotation of ministerial portfolios. […] The principle of rotating ministerial portfolios is a sound policy if it is adopted by consensus and consultations (and) at the beginning of a new Parliament or presidential term. […] It is strategic for Lebanon and Christians because it entails international relations stolen from the Christians 25 years ago. It also includes a balanced development that was absent from Christian [areas] for 25 years.  […] Therefore, it is a primary ministry par excellence and should not be a target of exclusion and it is the right of this sect [Christians] to be trusted with Lebanon’s oil for an interim period. […] Is it acceptable to allocate the Interior Ministry to a sect in order to reassure it, allocate the Finance ministry to a specific sect to compensate for it or allocate the Defense ministry to [a party] to protect a grant for the Army?”

In case you didn’t guess, that’s Gebran Bassil talking about the energy ministry two weeks ago. Since this is apparently the primary problem preventing the government formation (for the moment), I thought it would be nice if I tackled the issue.

The Offer

According to media reports, Michel Aoun’s bloc was offered 4 ministers in the government (apparently two for the FPM, one for the Tachnag and another for the Marada) in exchange for the ministries – especially the energy ministry – held by Aounists for the past few years. The FPM would be getting one of the four sovereign portfolios – the foreign ministry – along with the ministry of education. Now the ministry of education might seem as a very minor portfolio, but for the first time since ages, a Christian political party would be handling the education portfolio. There were always fears that the history book might be changed in case a Christian party held the post – in the FPM circles you always hear how the Future Movement would never give it to the Lebanese Forces or the Kataeb – so basically this can be seen as some kind of concession by the Future Movement. Michel Aoun is also being offered one of the most important posts in the cabinet. The ministry of Foreign affairs is a quadruple offer: M8 gets to keep the post it held for the few past years, a Christian gets to be foreign minister for the first time since 2004 and the second time since 1998, a Christian party would be holding the ministry for the first time since the civil war, and most importantly, Michel Aoun would be given a sovereign portfolio for the first time in the history of the all-embracing cabinets (he never had any of the Finance, Interior, Defense or Foreign ministries in any of the previous unity cabinets).

But why do the concessions seem so big, and why is the FPM refusing the offer?

The Diversion

To quote Gebran Bassil:

We should reduce the difficulties in forming a new Cabinet such as the agreement to postpone discussion on the government’s policy statement rather than adding more obstacles such as the rotation of ministerial portfolios.

In other words, Gebran Bassil is basically offering – if one reads between the lines – some sort of compromise including concessions from both M8 and M14 regarding the two remaining obstacles: The policy statement and the ministerial rotation. M8 can use the energy ministry issue in order to get what it wants. A deal would be giving up the ministry in exchange for a more suiting ministerial declaration, or vice versa.

The Strategic Importance Of The Energy Ministry

The energy ministry for the FPM is of a very strategic importance. First, it’s a ministry that has been held by the FPM for the past 5 years. All the achievements of the Aounist ministers, including the Oil plan – among other things –  would go with the wind . Let me quote Bassil again:

“The principle of rotating ministerial portfolios is a sound policy if it is adopted by consensus and consultations (and) at the beginning of a new Parliament or presidential term.”

Also in other words: What matters the most is that the ministry stays under FPM control before the November elections. The moment another minister X replaces Bassil, it would seem on the eve of the parliamentary elections that it was X – not Bassil – that was responsible for everything that previously happened. Thus it would be harder for the Aounists to base their campaign on the energy ministry achievements since what people remember the most after a while are the corruption accusations, not the achievements .

Second, the amount of income the ministry will generate soon (because of the gas fields on the shore) is too damn high. Controlling a ministry that provides the biggest income is in the advantage of FPM, and allows him to use the ministry in order to strike better deals with M14 and increase the number of projects – especially that the elections are very near.

The third reason of keeping the energy ministry under Aounist control is because M8 makes sure that the Oil project is alive and kicking, and hence Hezbollah ensures that the Lebanese government would be entering an oil dispute with Israel regarding the maritime region bordering Israel. Hezbollah will gain a legitimacy boost by declaring that he is here to protect Lebanon’s resources.

It’s not only about the ministry

What is really shocking in Gebran Bassil’s speech is the amount of sectarianism used in order to keep the energy ministry.

“It is strategic for Lebanon and Christians because it entails international relations stolen from the Christians 25 years ago. It also includes a balanced development that was absent from Christian [areas] for 25 years.  […] Therefore, it is a primary ministry par excellence and should not be a target of exclusion and it is the right of this sect [Christians] to be trusted with Lebanon’s oil for an interim period.”

There’s a reason for all that. Michel Aoun’s presence in the government is vital for its creation. When the Lebanese Forces decided to boycott the all-embracing cabinet, the FPM suddenly became the only major Christian party represented in it. Gebran Bassil’s sectarian speech is a reminder to all the cabinet factions that the FPM’s Christian identity is crucial for the government formation. If the Aounist ministers resign because the portfolios aren’t good enough for the FPM, the only Christian political parties remaining in the government would be the Kataeb, the Tachnag, and the Marada. And since the Marada and Tachnag are pro-aounist and are members of the FPM’s change and reform parliamentary bloc , there’s a very big possibility that they would resign too. That leaves the Kataeb alone in the government. I seriously doubt that the Kataeb would take the responsibility of being the only Christian party in the government (and get looked upon by the Christian population with distrust 4 months before the elections) , and there’s an enormous chance that their ministers would resign for lack of Christian representation. Hezbollah, due to fears of a possible alternative FM-FPM alliance that is starting to appear, are likely to exit the government as a sign of solidarity with Aoun.

The Future Movement knew what they were doing when they gave up the Finance ministry to Berri: The Finance minister – it is said – was supposed to be a Shia according to the Taif agreement (since he signs all the decrees along with the president and PM and hence has some kind of veto power). By giving the Finance ministry to a minister loyal to Nabih Berri, the FM made it hard for the speaker to withdraw his ministers from the government in solidarity with Aoun. We still don’t know if the maneuver worked or not, but it surely made Berri think again.

We end up with an all-embracing government that lacks Christian representation and Hezbollah participation. Among the bad scenarios ahead for M14:

1) The government will somehow see light – despite the resignations, but due to the lack of Christian representation, it becomes ethically impossible for the government to assume the powers of the (Christian) president when Sleiman exits in May. This maneuver forces all political factions to elect a president hailing from a Christian political party or face a constitutional crisis. Since the Muslim factions of M8 and M14 would have united the FPM and the LF in the opposition, it becomes harder for the political class to extend the terms of the current president because it would bring the LF and FPM even closer to one another and lead to massive Christian discontent.

2) The government collapses just after its formation. New parliamentary consultations lead to events similar to the ones leading to Mikati’s cabinet, with Safadi – Michel Aoun’s  favori – being nominated to the post of Prime Minister.

One thing is sure though : If you think Michel Aoun is negotiating from a weak spot, don’t.

Reminder: We still don’t have a government.