Future Movement

Lebanon’s Youngest Presidential Candidate and a Prison Feud

Meet the latest president of the Kataeb

Meet the latest president of the Kataeb

This is the 13th post in a series of monthly posts covering the presidential elections. This post is about the month of June 2015.

It’s been a weird month: Three important events happened in the thirteenth month of presidential vacancy, but they’re not really related to one another, so let’s check them anyway.

Lebanon’s youngest presidential candidate?

Perhaps the main event of this month was the election of Samy Gemayel as the new leader of the Kataeb party. While last month’s post focused mainly on the succession war that is about to happen in the FPM and on the importance of naming Shamel Roukoz commander of the army for M8’s largest Christian party, the transfer of power in the Kataeb was already underway: Gemayel officially declared his candidacy for the Kataeb presidency on the third of June, and was officially elected to succeed his father on the 15th of June. I could act shocked that such a young leader was elected president of such an old party, but then again, it was always too obvious that the presidency of the Kataeb would eventually be given – even if by elections – to the eldest heir of the eldest heir of Pierre Gemayel. What is shocking here is Gemayel’s speech on the third of June. While announcing his nomination for the top Kataeb post, Gemayel said, among other cliché sentences most Lebanese politicians use (Like ending corruption and seeking dialogue), the following sentence:

“And because it is a Lebanese project, then it is not sectarian, and should be open to all Lebanese sects.”

Actually, there’s more:

“The MP said he would exercise all efforts to show Muslims that the Kataeb, which was once seen as one of the most sectarian collectives in Lebanon, is open to their membership, noting that he was seeking to reform the Christian party into a pluralistic entity.”

A day may come when Lebanese political parties will lose their sectarianism, unite together in secular coalitions, and laugh on the years they fought one another in brutal religious civil wars, but that day was not the 3rd of June 2015. (And yes, I just quoted Aragorn from The Lord of the  Rings)

Samy Gemayel’s speech/press conference was not a call for Muslims to join his party as much as it was his way of saying that he would serve both Muslim and Christian interests if elected president. And when I say president, I mean president of the Lebanese republic, and not the president of the Kataeb party. It is said that when his grandfather Pierre Gemayel wanted to become Lebanese president, he was told that he couldn’t be at the same time the leader of Lebanon’s Christians and the head of state: It would have seemed as if Christians were solely in power. Gemayel’s speech was beautifully written, and it was beautifully written for a reason: He might be the youngest Christian leader among the Maronite four (if he is to replace his father), but he now heads Lebanon’s oldest, most organized (and arguably third biggest) Christian party. His father’s chances were relatively high after Samir Geagea suffered the humilation of losing the first round of the presidential elections to no one in April 2015, but one year after the presidential vacancy, his father is likely to remain a former president. His father’s candidacy is likely to be transferred to him and it seems he’s not playing it like Aoun and Geagea, who are showing themselves as consensual candidates because they ally themselves to Muslim parties. He is playing a much more advanced consensual card: He wants to show that he comes from a party that would gladly accept – and even encourage – Muslim membership, and that not only is he one of the Maronite four, but a truly centrist and non-sectarian politician.

The right last name

Sometimes in Lebanese politics, all you need is the last right name.  The right last name is what Sleiman Frangieh and Kamal Jumblatt used to undermine Saeb Salam in the early 70s, by naming Takieddine Al-Solh in 1973 and Rachid Al-Solh in 1974 as Prime Ministers in order to curb the Salam/Karami influence. And ironically, the right last name is what gave Tammam Salam the upper hand in 2014. Salam had other worthy centrist competitors – even billionaire ones –  yet it is him who currently presides over the cabinet.

Like Salam, Samy Gemayel has the right last name. Like Salam, Samy Gemayel is a member of a coalition, but at the same time leads a faction of the coalition that arguably has the most ties with the other side. The only thing he does not have is a “consensual advantage” over his opponents. We all know that the likelihood of the Kataeb becoming secular is equal to the possibility of aliens forming sectarian parties and colonizing the Sun. And even if he insists on enforcing the decision of making the party wide open to Muslim membership, his authority as a young a leader of the Kataeb will be challenged. So until proven otherwise, Gemayel’s call for the Lebanese Muslims is nothing but a political maneuver he’s using to prove his centrism and become an accepted candidate to the presidency.

The month of leaks: WikiLeaks and TortureLeaks

It has been a tough month on M14. WikiLeaks leaked its Saudi Cables, and while the leaks weren’t very kind to both camps, they were naturally harsher on M14 (since its leaders naturally tend to talk more with the Saudi officials). But the much bigger problem for the Future Movement this month was the leak of torture videos from Roumieh prison. Here’s a brief summary of everything that is politically relevant about that issue:

“I accuse Hezbollah of leaking the videos,” Rifi told a joint news conference with Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk. “The people have seen two videos. There are about four videos, and only Hezbollah had access to some of them.”

Machnouk did not seem to support Rifi’s allegations, saying he had “no accurate information” regarding the source of the leak.

[…]

Rifi visited Machnouk at the Interior Ministry in an apparent move to defuse tensions following media reports that accused the justice minister of leaking the footage and orchestrating the ensuing street protests in Beirut, the northern city of Tripoli and other areas in a bid to undermine the interior minister’s reputation.

Rifi dismissed rumors of a feud with Machnouk, saying he enjoyed a “fraternal” relationship with the interior minister.

Machnouk also denied reports of a power struggle with Rifi. “There is no disagreement in the broad lines of main politics or in personal ties. Our friendship has been going on for a long time,” Machnouk said. “We are in agreement that what is happening served only extremism and would lead only to undermining moderation. No one has an interest in undermining moderation.”

The FM has always had very different ways of doing politics, depending on its electorate. In the North and in the rural regions, where the electorate tends to be more Islamist-friendly and more religiously homogeneous – Sunnis are 85% in Donniyeh, 80% in Tripoli, and 66% in Akkar – the FM’s politicians tend to use a more sectarian discourse  (Rifi is a perfect example since it is well-known by now that he intends to lead the FM’s Northern parliamentary fight in the next elections). In Beirut, where the Sunni electorate is less than 50%, more moderate, and actually shrinking, and where a large number of Christian MPs are affiliated with the movement, the Sunni Beiruti FM politicians are by far the most moderates among the Sunnis of their party. The smart double standards of the FM have permitted them to keep their electorate in check for more than ten years now – even Hariri often switches from one side to another depending on the context – but the clash between the two wings of the party was bound happen eventually. Do not be fooled by both politicians’ denial of the power struggle. The power struggle is there and it’s real. And the very fact that, in a joint press conference, Mashnouk refused to accuse Hezbollah while Rifi took pride in blaming M8’s leading party tells us that a mini-war is underway in the Future Movement, and that the relation with Hezbollah will be a key element in this rivalry.

Turns out it was a smart move from Hezbollah to give the FM both the justice and interior ministries after all.

Roumieh and Baabda

So as the FPM tries to make Roukoz commander of the LAF without giving in too much to M14’s demands, and as Geagea tries to disrupt those plans with the declaration of intentions, and as Hezbollah continues its fight in Syria, and as an internal mini-struggle for power starts to unravel in the Future Movement, only one thing is constant: We still don’t have a president, and no politician has ever cared less about that fact.

 399 days since the 25th of May. 262 days since the 5th of November.

Advertisements

Eleven Months of Vacuum

Lebanese children hold placards and a giant Yemeni flag during a demonstration organized by Hezbollah, in front the United Nations headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, April 5, 2015. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

Lebanese children hold placards and a giant Yemeni flag during a demonstration organized by Hezbollah, in front the United Nations headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, April 5, 2015. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

Ten years ago, the Syrian army was withdrawing from Lebanon. In April 2005, “Syria was out”. But the truth is, Syria was never out. Syria was everywhere. Syria is everywhere.  For a brief moment, it seemed as if the politics of Syria and Lebanon would be at last separated from one another. But we were wrong. In the seven years that followed, the political coalitions in Lebanon were built on nothing but their stance regarding Syria, and for the 3 years after that, Lebanese politics became about the Syrian Civil War. The government will be formed when things in Syria settle down, they said. The president will be elected when things in Syria settle down, they said. Even the parliamentary elections would be held when things in Syria settle down, they said. And that last thing, it was said twice. Lebanese politics became a part of the Syrian Civil War. The Syrian Civil War became part of Lebanese politics.

But then came April 2015. The rival coalitions were not arguing about Syria anymore. At least not as much as they had argued during the past half century.

Congratulations, Lebanon. You have finally been promoted. Instead of arguing about Syria, Lebanese parties are now arguing about Yemen. You know, because we have a proper budget, no public debt, a president, a functioning cabinet, an elected parliament, no threats on our southern and northern borders, and most importantly, a successful democratic sovereign free republic. A republic so successful that its parties and elected representatives have spare time to discuss the politics of a country whose capital lies 2200 Km south of Beirut.

Anyway, enough nagging, and let’s look at the political events of the eleventh month of presidential vacancy.

Yemen, Yemen, Yemen. Did I forget to mention Yemen?

First, Hariri supports the “Saudi intervention” in Yemen. Then, Hezbollah condemns the “Saudi aggression” in Yemen. Then, the Future Movement supports the “Saudi intervention” in Yemen. Then, Nasrallah criticizes Saudi Arabia. Then, the Future Movement criticizes Hezbollah. Then, Hezbollah criticizes the Future Movement. Then, the Future Movement criticizes Hezbollah. Then, Nasrallah criticizes Saudi Arabia. Then, Hariri criticizes Nasrallah. Then, Hezbollah criticizes the Future Movement. Then, the Future Movement criticizes Hezbollah. Then, Hezbollah criticizes the Future Movement. Then, the Future Movement criticizes Hezbollah.

That, dear reader, was a short summary of the three productive weeks we had between the 27th of March and the 17th of April.

Also, it seems that the FM-Hezbollah dialogue is “still safe and sound” despite the war of words. No offense here, but isn’t a war of words the exact opposite of a dialogue? Or do we have to be in a state of war to declare the dialogue a dead-end?

Oh, and by the way, in case I wasn’t too clear, Sanaa is 2200 Km far from Beirut. Deux-mille-deux-cents Kilomètres.

Gebran Bassil

This is by far the event of the month (Hint: It’s also about Yemen). A couple of days after the Saudis launched their campaign, Gebran Bassil, the FPM’s no.2 dropped April’s political bomb: From the Sharm Sheikh summit, he told the world that he expressed support for “legitimacy in any Arab country, especially in Yemen”. Four days later, Bassil struck again: “We don’t wish to see Hezbollah fighting with the Houthis or see anyone from the Future Movement fighting alongside the Saudis”. For the second time in the same week, Bassil was indirectly criticizing the FPM’s key ally, Hezbollah. True, the last statement also included Future Movement criticism, but the very fact that Gebran Bassil dared to start a “mini rebellion” against Hezbollah means a lot, even if it’s just a simple maneuver to make the FPM look as if they care about Lebanon and Lebanon only. Gebran Bassil’s stances were actually so strong that Aoun had to intervene in the very beginning of April with reports saying that he described the Saudi war in Yemen as illegal. But that did not stop Bassil from continuing what he started: On the second day of April, he said that “National unity remains an overriding priority for Lebanon’s foreign policy“.

Aoun’s relative silence here says a lot too. I’m going to put in context: “He [Samir Geagea] said after holding talks with Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rahi at Bkirki: “In principle, there is nothing stopping Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun from becoming president, but we have to take into consideration his political platform.”” (April 3)

Walid Jumblatt

Gebran Bassil wasn’t the only one criticizing Hezbollah this month. On March 30, Jumblatt launched an anti-Iran tirade. This stance was followed by a direct critique of Nasrallah’s speech on the first of April, describing it as lacking objectivity. By the 19th of April, Jumblatt asked “What’s wrong with Nasrallah?“. Jumblatt criticizes Hezbollah every now and then, but this time it came together with a Bassil criticism. It was not a very pleasant month for the party of God.

Tammam Salam

Not a very pleasant month indeed. As if the waves of criticism coming from the FPM, the FM, the PSP, the Saudi ambassador and the Grand Mufti weren’t enough, the Prime Minister said that Beirut supported any move that preserves Sanaa’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

If you have been following Lebanese politics for the past few months, you’d notice that Hezbollah usually doesn’t get into a war of words with Tammam Salam (Because weakening him would mean strengthening his ally/rival Hariri). Well, guess what? The pressure was too high on Hezbollah this time that the party’s minister in the cabinet Hussein Hajj Hassan said in a statement that “Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s remarks on the Saudi military intervention in Yemen at the Arab League summit two days ago do not represent the views of the Lebanese government”

But to be fair here, Salam’s pro-Saudi stance (even if discreet) is understandable. It was Saudi pressure that eventually brought Salam to the premiership in April 2013. This is why Hezbollah probably didn’t make a big deal out of it and chose to calm things down in the cabinet meeting.

Nabih Berri

Even Berri tried to distance himself and Amal as much as possible from the FM-Hezbollah clash over Yemen. Within 7 days, the speaker said he supported three things: (1) Oman’s efforts to solve the crisis (April 1), (2) himself hosting the Yemeni dialogue 😛  (April 5) and (3) moving forward with the FM-Hezbollah talks he’s mediating (April 8).

With Tammam Salam and Jumblatt pushed slightly/temporarily towards M14, Berri found himself in April as the new Kingmaker in the Lebanese centre. He wants to host the Yemeni dialogue, because solving the presidential crisis in Lebanon is so 2008.

The Three Blows

Hezbollah suffered three more blows this month. The first blow was when M8 politician Michel Samaha confessed on the 20th of April that he transported explosives (with support of Syrian regime officials) into Lebanon with the aim of targeting Lebanese politicians and religious figures. (Although deep down, and as I said three years ago, this could be a good thing for Hezbollah since it would give the impression that they had nothing to do with the assassinations of the M14 politicians, and that it was Syria via its operatives all the time)

The second blow was the mysterious death of Rustum Ghazali, Syria’s man in Lebanon from 2002 till the 2005 withdrawal. While his death doesn’t have direct or even indirect consequences on the Lebanese scene, Lebanese and Syrian politics are still interconnected and it was seen as victory for M14. And a victory for M14 is never a victory for M8.

And because it wasn’t yet the worst month for M8 since the beginning of time, the third blow came from The Maronite Patriarch who accused Aoun and his March 8 allies of being responsible for the presidential vacuum. That’s the most violent criticism coming from the Maronite church since August 2014.

Yemen and the Baabda Declaration

Also, in other news, Michel Sleiman indirectly declared his candidacy as a “consensual candidate” if all parties accept the Baabda declaration and distance themselves from outside conflicts (inspired from the Lebanese dilemma over Yemen). His reelection would be unconstitutional: Presidents can’t have two consecutive terms in Lebanon. But then again, he was elected unconstitutionally since grade one civil servants need a constitutional amendment to be elected ( something the parliament did not do when they elected him in 2008), so who cares.

If a former protector of the constitution gets elected unconstitutionally and wants to get reelected unconstitutionally, I really don’t know what to say.

Actually, I know what to say. I’ll just repeat what I said at the beginning of the post: Lebanon is a successful democratic sovereign free republic.

341 days since the 25th of May. 177 days since the 5th of November. 773 days till the next parliamentary elections. Just kidding. We’re never going to have elections again 😀

Also, 3 days since Salma Hayek came to Lebanon.

(This last sentence was an attempt to make this political blog more “social”)

Endorsing Frangieh: March 14’s New Maneuver?

Sleiman Frangieh Timbre

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

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

(Source)

This is the beauty of Lebanese politics: Just when you thought that there would be no political maneuvers after the parliamentary extension and that we would enjoy at least three or four months of political silence, the Future Movement decides to throw this time bomb. The leading party of the March 14 alliance is apparently ready to strike a deal that involves the election of Syria’s man in Lebanon, Sleiman Frangieh, as president. True, Shab’s remarks don’t necessarily mean that there’s a consensus on the election of Frangieh among all the members of M14 (or even the FM), but even the idea of the Future Movement electing Frangieh is extremely shocking. So shocking that it might ironically be their best move since this presidential thing started.

A Thank You Note To Hezbollah?

Endorsing Frangieh might be a thank you note to Hezbollah. The party gave three gifts to the FM in the past three weeks: The first one was the official endorsement of Aoun that ended the FPM’s “Aoun is a consensual candidate” campaign. The second one was Hezbollah’s early decision to extend the parliament’s term although his main Christian ally opposed it and although it might have probably led to a decisive M8 victory – Due to the ISIS propaganda and the Christian fears. And the third one was Nasrallah’s friendly remarks about the Future Movement in his speech two weeks ago. These three stances indicated that there might be a rapprochement between the two parties (Similar to the one the FPM and the FM had in the autumn of 2013). Hezbollah had let down its main Christian ally three times in less than 3 weeks (And it’s in a context of presidential elections, making it worse for Aoun and even better for the FM). Perhaps accepting a Frangieh presidency might be a way of saying thank you to Hezbollah for postponing the elections, destroying Aoun’s last presidential hope, and not making a big deal out of the extension. And the very fact that Frangieh’s men were the only MPs from the change and reform bloc (27 MPs) that voted for the extension means that Frangieh is (1) fully independent from Aoun and (2) might as well be the intermediary between Hezbollah and the FM.

Perhaps Not A Thank You Note After All.

But how on earth would the Syrian regime’s oldest and closest ally, and Hezbollah’s primary ally in the North become an accepted consensual candidate? No matter how much you think about it, it’s surreal. Here’s something I wrote about the Frangieh presidency in October 2013 (Link for the full post):

Apparently on Thursday, Marada Movement leader Suleiman Franjieh warned of a presidential vacuum as the conflict over Syria continues and suggested that Lebanon adopts the 50 percent plus one vote formula to secure the office.

[…]

Let alone the fact that Frangieh’s allies took advantage of that particular constitutional clause (Of having the two thirds quorum in the Presidential elections) in order to block the election of an M14 candidate in 2008, the very fact that Frangieh is asking for a modification of that electoral process is very weird. Why? Let’s see why. Because Frangieh belongs to a coalition in the parliament that holds between the third and half of the seats in the parliament. That means that under the current constitutional rules, Frangieh – Let’s suppose for a while that he will be M8’s candidate – can block the electoral process by instructing his allies to boycott the session. Just to make it clear – and more complicated for you –  Frangieh said that a 50% plus one vote should be adopted. Thus theoretically, Frangieh spoke nothing about the quorum.  He only mentioned what the number of votes for the winner should be once there is quorum. So if Frangieh doesn’t want to change the quorum rule in the constitution but only the voting rule, nothing makes sense. Is Frangieh suggesting that we change the quorum or the winning vote number? Let’s see.

M8 has 40% of the votes, M14 45%, and the others (Mikati, Jumblatt …)15%  (The numbers aren’t exact, but you get the point)

Cas 1: Our lovely non functioning system (Quorum 66%, First round 66%, Second round 50%+1). Frangieh wants to run, but M14 and the others won’t vote for him. Frangieh instructs his allies to boycott. 40%>33% which means that there will be no quorum, thus no elections. In case the others will vote for him, that means he will have 55% of the votes. M14 boycotts, 45%>33%, meaning that there will also be no quorum.

Cas 2: Quorum remains untouched with Frangieh’s amendment (Quorum 66%, First round 50%+1). Frangieh wants to run, but M14 and the others won’t vote for him. Frangieh instructs his allies to boycott. 40%>33% which means that there will be no quorum, thus no elections. However, Frangieh is saying that he is making the amendment to make life simpler and easier for the parliament to elect the president. Which means that the amendment doesn’t make any sense (See, I told you!) because the quorum boycott is still here and if he wishes not to boycott and elect the president with 50%+1 he can simply wait for the second round and keep the constitution like it was (see Cas 1)

Cas 3:  Frangieh was actually talking about the quorum!  (Quorum  50%+1%, First round 50%+1).  40%<50% which means that Frangieh can’t freeze the process if he boycotts and has a very high chance of losing because 40%<50%. Unless…

Unless What?

Unless Frangieh is sure he can secure 65 MPs to vote for him. In politics you don’t actually propose something you might lose in, so there’s something fishy about this. If Frangieh meant cas 1 (or cas 2), he was probably just saying things to fill in the blanks of his speech. But if what Frangieh meant was cas 3, then something very dangerous is going on here.

Dangerous How?

If Frangieh can bring 65 votes, but not 86 (the 66% quorum that he wishes to remove in his reform) that can mean only few things. That means he isn’t a consensual candidate because he doesn’t have 66% of the votes (shocking, right?), that he will be running with M14 (See what I mean by dangerous?) against Aoun, or that Jumblatt and Mikati, along with Amal and Hezbollah and someone else will choose him as their sole candidate to the elections and throw Aoun outside which will probably make the latter closer to M14 than M8.

Read the last paragraph from last year’s post (emphasis on the words in green), and read it well. A Frangieh candidacy endorsed by M14 would ironically put Hezbollah in a very though position.

It’s as if a very poor person (Let’s call him Michel) asked for a loaf of bread, and instead, you give his other not-so-needy friend (Let’s call him Sleiman) a Burger that he can’t split – because it’s your only option. There’s nothing wrong about eating the Burger, except that Michel would hate you (and Sleiman) for it and you’ll eventually lose Michel as a friend.

You are Hezbollah, and the burger/loaf is obviously the presidency (I don’t think I need to clarify who Michel and Sleiman are).

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

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

Le Piège (Sowing Discontent Level: Future Movement)

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

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

If the FM – according to MP Shab’s hints – are seriously considering Frangieh’s candidacy, it would make Hezbollah look like a hypocrite in case they insist on Aoun or a consensual candidate, and it would create problems between the Marada and the FPM and between M8’s Christians and M8’s Muslims. A Frangieh presidency might seem like a March 8 victory, but on the long run, it will probably lead to the downfall of that alliance.

Such a maneuver from M14 would kill two candidacies with one stone: Aoun’s candidacy and Kahwaji’s candidacy. And in the process, it would kill the M8 alliance.

174 days since the 25th of May. 10 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.

Hariri, Arsal, And A Billion Dollar Comeback

Hariri And Salam

Image Credits: Reuters

Future Movement is one weird political party.

Here’s why

August 3, 2014

Following a meeting for the National Islamic Gathering held on Sunday at the residence of MP Mohammad Kabbara, the latter called for a firm conscientious stand in front of God and nation because everyone will have to answer to the people.

The gatherers issued a statement stressing that what is happening in the heroic Sunni town of Arsal is only one link in the chain of the Syrian-Iranian plan to impose submission on the Sunni community.

(Link)

Kabbara claimed on Sunday that the developments in the Beqaa town of Arsal, where the Lebanese Armed Forces are clashing with Syrian Islamists, are meant to “subjugate” the Sunnis.

(Link)

The solution in Arsal is political and we must protect our northern Bekaa from the volcano’s lava and we must preserve coexistence,” Rifi said in remarks to MTV.

“The mission of protecting northern Bekaa is the mission of all of its residents and our salvation lies legitimate state institutions,” Rifi added, pointing out that “the statelet” of Hizbullah is to blame for the current situation in the country.

(Link)

August 4, 2014

Prime Minister Tammam Salam asserted Monday that there will be no political settlement with militants from Syria battling the Lebanese Army in Arsal, stressing that the rival political parties represented in the Cabinet vow unanimous support for the military.

(Link)

Former Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri, a Sunni leader with a large following, has accused al-Qaeda-linked rebel groups in Syria of taking Arsal hostage.

(Link)

In case you were wondering, those were one of the four most prominent members of Future Movement expressing four completely different stances on the Arsal clashes between the Lebanese army and the Islamist militants. Kabbara considered that the Lebanese army and Hezbollah were subjugating Arsal. Hariri however had the exact opposite stance: He accused Al-Qaeda of taking Arsal hostage. Now regarding the Future movement cabinet members, they were also supporting two different ways to solve the crisis. Minister of justice Rifi wanted a political solution while PM Salam was ruling this option out.

One doesn’t have to be an expert to realize that on August 5, 2014 the situation within the Future Movement had reached its worst level since Hariri left Beirut in 2011. The party was out of control, with every member saying something totally and somehow perfectly different from the other.

Here’s what happened next:

August 6, 2014

Saudi Arabia has provided Lebanon’s army, battling jihadists on the Syrian border, with one billion dollars to strengthen security, former Lebanese premier Saad Hariri told reporters in Jeddah on Wednesday.

(Link)

August 8, 2014

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, considered Lebanon’s most influential Sunni Muslim politician, returned unexpectedly to Lebanon Friday after three years of self-imposed exile.

His surprise return comes at a delicate time for the country after a week of bloody battles between the army and Sunni extremists from Syria have exacerbated the Lebanon’s own simmering sectarian tensions.

The seizure by the militants of Arsal, a mostly Sunni town filled with Syrian refugees and surrounded by Shiite villages, has further entangled Lebanon into Syria’s catastrophic three-year-old civil war.

(Link)

Let’s rewind 3 years

Hariri left Lebanon in humiliating circumstances. Just after his government collapsed, he was replaced with one of his former allies. He lost the majority in the parliament, and self-exiled himself in France. The self-exile part was horrible. As the FM MPs and officials grew stronger because of his absence, the Sunni void he left in Beirut was slowly being filled by rising Sunni figures such as Mikati and Safadi and by Sunni Islamists, such as Ahmad Al Asir (that everyone forgot about). By 2014, the small victory that was the nomination of Salam to the premiership backfired. While Hariri was skiing in the Alps, Siniora was starting to look like he’s in charge, Mikati and Safadi were becoming strong enough to beat Hariri in the North and Tammam Salam was suddenly one of the most successful Prime Ministers since the Syrians withdrew, successfully coping with an 11 months cabinet formation crisis, a vacancy in the presidency and keeping the middle-eastern chaos out of the country – while making everyone happy at the same time. And to make things worse, Hezbollah and its March 8 allies were getting this week the biggest propaganda boost they had ever dreamed of: (1) Syrian (2) Islamist (3) militants took control of the (4) biggest Sunni town in the Northern Bekaa and (5) attacked the Lebanese army. Meanwhile in the government, the Kataeb were striking power-sharing deals with the M8 coalition while the Lebanese forces were now tempted more than ever to distance themselves from anything that might even be hypothetically linked to ISIS and its Sunni background.

In response to a question whether he blames Hezbollah for the army’s involvement with militants in Arsal, the Lebanese Forces leader said that he did not posses any information that confirmed such a possibility at the time being.

(Link)

That says it all for Geagea. And just when you think things couldn’t go worse for Hariri, Jumblatt was visiting Nasrallah and Aoun in the same week.

So to sum things up, Hariri was losing everything. His party was out of control, his coalition was slowly drifting apart, he was losing the centrist position of Jumblatt and most importantly, he was politically losing against M8 for the first time since he left the country. It was time to come home.

A brilliant comeback…

Hariri had to solve the multiple issues he was dealing with: He had to

(1) Remind everyone of his position in the FM leadership.

August 4, 2014 (4 days before Hariri came back)

Future bloc MP Samir al-Jisr indirectly challenged fellow party member Mohammad Kabbara’s controversial Sunday stance on Arsal, saying that certain “statements must be avoided” and adding that only Saad Hariri represents the Future Movement’s official line. […]

The parliamentarian added that “the Future [Movement]’s stance is only expressed by party leader MP Saad Hariri. I personally cannot express the party’s stance, and I believe we all abide by this.”

(Link)

August 8, 2014 (The day Hariri came back)

“Defending the nation against all types of terrorism can only be through enlisting in the security and military forces that represent the state, whereas claims about supporting the Army through sectarian and factional militias can only lead to weakening the state and the Army,” Kabbara said in a statement.

(Link)

Mission accomplished.

(2) Confirm his position as the supreme Sunni leader in the country. His first stop was the Grand Serail.

With no prior announcement, Hariri arrived at the Lebanese government’s headquarters in Beirut in a Mercedes with blacked-out windows. He grinned widely as he walked into the building, where he met Prime Minister Tammam Salam.

(Link)

Mission accomplished.

(3) Make sure that M14 is still alive.

Les forces du 14 Mars ont tenu hier soir une réunion extraordinaire à la “Maison du Centre” à l’occasion du retour au Liban de l’ancien Premier ministre Saad Hariri. L’ancien président Amine Gemayel, l’ancien Premier ministre Fouad Siniora, l’ancien premier ministre Saad Hariri, le chef des Forces libanaises Samir Geagea, un nombre de ministres et de députés et toutes les composantes des Forces du 14 Mars y ont assisté.

(Link)

Mission accomplished.

(4) End the M8 propaganda by publicly endorsing the Lebanese army and removing the suspicions that Saudi Arabia might be backing ISIS by giving the army a 1 billion dollars grant from the Saudi authorities. (Also, temporarily making use of the rumors  suggested by a “Hariri source” that the United States was behind ISIS’s creation. The rumors don’t mention any Saudi role)

Mission accomplished.

…And fake hope?

There are always three parts in a political deadlock: The first one is just after the crisis. It’s the amount of time till we realize that we’re actually in an endless political deadlock (June 2014, for the current presidential deadlock). The second part is the biggest part of the deadlock . It’s when people forget that it even exists. For example, that’s July 2014 when the cabinet and the parliament ignored the priority of electing a president and carried on with their usual work (for the parliament, it’s doing nothing). This week it’s the happy phase of the deadlock (the third part). It’s when everyone is suddenly so happy because they think things are going to turn out like they want. As a small comparison, it’s like when everyone thought the cabinet crisis ended when there was an agreement to name Salam as a consensual Prime minister. We ended up waiting 11 months to see the cabinet formation. Anyway, here’s why it’s the happy phase:

1) Aoun thinks Hariri is coming home to elect him.

2) Geagea thinks Hariri is coming home to elect him.

3) [Inserts the name of any Lebanese Maronite] thinks Hariri is coming home to elect him.

3) Hezbollah thinks Hariri is coming home to strike a deal.

4) Future Movement thinks Hariri is coming home to reorganize the party.

5) The people who want to elect the commander of the army as president view the Arsal events as a powerful boost that makes him more acceptable, especially in these circumstances.

6) The people who don’t want to elect the commander of the army as president view the Arsal events as a powerful boost in order to keep him in the army where he is essential, especially in these circumstances.

7) Hezbollah views Hariri’s presence in Lebanon as a way of accepting Hezbollah’s de-facto political supremacy.

8) Future Movement views Hariri’s presence in Lebanon as a defiance to Hezbollah.

9) Jumblatt probably believes all of the above.

10) Berri probably doesn’t believe any of the above.

Every possible political party thinks it’s a win if Hariri’s home. Welcome to the happy phase of the deadlock.

Oh, and we’re apparently having our parliamentary elections on the 16th of November. (Yeah, right)

79 days since the 25th of May. 98 days till the 16th of November.

Is There A Tripartite Alliance In The Making?

Hariri, Berri and Nasrallah

Back In Time… (Picture found on the internet)

An FPM-FM alliance is probably the most logical alliance one can think of in Lebanon. Together, they hold the absolute majority in the parliament. They both started as secular parties, they both have a certain sectarian identity, and they are the parties that least participated in the 1975-90 civil war. Also, they do not have the same electoral clientele, with the FM gathering its strength in the main three cities and the rural Sunni regions, and Aoun mainly controlling the seats of Northern Mount-Lebanon, which means that they will not compete with each other and there will be no rivalry: Aoun is appealing to the Christian electorate and Hariri to the Muslim one.  Aoun can use the extra Sunni votes in Batroun, Beirut, Koura and Zgharta and Zahle to tip the balance in his favor, while Hariri can use the FPM power in several regions especially southern Mount-Lebanon to hold the precious 8 seats of the Chouf. Electorally speaking, if both enter an alliance, they will probably control all the districts except Bcharri, Baalbak-Hermel, Hasbaya-Marjeyoun, Nabatieh, Zahrani, Aley, Bint Jbeil, and Tyre. That’s roughly 90 Members of the parliament under FPM/FM control. 70% of the Parliament. No LF, no PSP, no Kataeb, no Amal, no Hezbollah needed. 70% via the votes of the FPM and the FM, only.

That’s me, in November. (see the full post here)

4 months ago, the Free Patriotic Movement and the Future Movement were having their first meeting since 2005. 7 months ago, the transition had already started. 6 months ago, Nabih Berri, in one of his political maneuvers, declared the March 8 alliance dead. The turning point – apparently – was the day the elections were postponed. M14 made M8 abandon Aoun. But what no one saw back then was that M14 didn’t only make Hezbollah abandon Aoun. It forced Aoun to go on a quest to find a new, stronger ally.

We’re not talking anymore about FPM and FM members having a meeting. We’re not talking anymore about small statements or speculations. We are talking about Michel Aoun meeting  Saad Hariri in Rome and the partisan media being shy about it. We are talking about Aoun congratulating Hariri on his stances. We are taking about Ahmad Al Hariri getting confused and changing the subject when Marcel Ghanem asked him if Michel Aoun was the FM’s candidate to the elections.

We are talking about a brutal change in Lebanese politics. But what are the benefits of such a potential alliance between Aoun and Hariri?

Isolate

Here’s a fun fact: The Future Movement doesn’t need Aoun. Within M14, GMA would be a pain in the ass. They’ll have to share power with yet another ally, keep the rivalry between the FPM, the LF, and the Kataeb under control, and eventually – whether they like it or not – deal with a unified empowered confederation of Christian political parties. The FM would have created a stronger Christian bloc within M14. However, here’s another fun fact: Hezbollah without Aoun, is a Hezbollah that’s all alone (Yeah, it rhymes 😀 ). So, the plan from the FM – I believe – isn’t simply allying with Aoun. It’s isolating Hezbollah, or at least, forcing Hezbollah to enter a tripartite alliance with the FPM and the FM where Hezbollah would have to agree to some of FM’s terms. Aoun mentioned two important things in his latest television interview: That he’s on the same political wavelength with Saad Hariri, and most importantly, that he wishes to include the Sunnis in his memorandum of understanding with Hezbollah. Sums everything up I guess?

The road to Baabda

Aoun learned from his lessons in the previous presidential elections. In 2008, they were 2: If you’re a minority, you lose. If you’re not in the middle, you lose. Remember the words “tripartite alliance” in the previous paragraph? Memorize them well. Aoun knows how to count.  The tripartite alliance, with some help from M14’s pro-FM allies, is likely to form Lebanon’s new parliamentary majority. I believe that some parties – risking electoral annihilation from the FM and FPM alliance – would also join that alliance. For the first time, Aoun would simultaneously be:  (1) In the Middle (2) With a parliamentary majority behind him and (3) The strongest Christian leader backed by the Strongest Muslim allies available. Mabrouk: we have a candidate that meets and even exceeds the criteria.

The Rivals from within

Michel Aoun and Saad Hariri both have one thing in common: The rise of rivals. Let me take the simple example of Saad Hariri:  Najib Mikati and Mohamed Safadi are the masters of their own fate in Tripoli and no longer answer to the FM. In Beirut is rising the bey of Beirut Tammam Salam, while in Saida, Siniora is strong enough to question the supremacy of Saad Hariri. In Akkar and the North in general, the FM’s MPs are not hesitating to take more extremist stances in order to appeal to the local population – sometimes criticizing Hariri himself. Michel Aoun on the other hand faces the existential threat of M8 nominating the more loyal Frangieh instead of him. After all, Frangieh has the age factor on his side. Things are not looking good on both sides, and they both need each other in order to remind their junior allies in the upcoming elections that they remain the strongest among all.

The Lebanese Forces in denial

I have been following Lebanese politics for some time now, and as you can clearly see, I rarely comment on the stances or political strategies of the Lebanese Forces. And it’s not because of love or hate. It’s because there is hardly anything to comment on. It’s always the same stances, the same way, in the same tone. And the monotony isn’t only political. Parliamentary speaking, they hold a number of seats that is way too small to change anything. Electorally speaking, they depend on others practically everywhere while no one depends on them. And they have been absent from the executive power for the past 3 years. In other words – excuse my French and geeky medical terms – ils ont un rôle épidémiologique nul.

But something changed lately (see here, here, here). Geagea is refusing to enter a government that includes Hezbollah, and is going against the all-embracing government decision of Saad Hariri. Hariri can’t brutally change sides and flush his alliance with Geagea in the toilet after 9 years. Apart from turning the Christian population against him, it’s ethically bad for him to be seen as the man that might compromise on everything, including his longtime allies. By boycotting Hezbollah’s presence in the government, the Lebanese Forces are making the impossible to force the FM not to enter the government along with M8 so that the FM would never have the opportunity of gaining a more centrist position that would entitle them to be one step closer to an agreement with Aoun.

8-8-8 and the end of M8?

Suddenly, out of nowhere, Hezbollah agreed in January to the 8-8-8 formula. In a way, Hezbollah succumbed to fear: The fear that if Tammam Salam’s attempt (of  forming an independent cabinet) failed for lack of parliamentary confidence, GMA would name Saad Hariri as new Prime Minister (the same way Jumblatt was supposed to name M8’s candidate  in 2013 but named Salam instead). That’s probably why M8 is trying to please Aoun by giving him important ministries in the government such as the Foreign ministry.

Because of the war in Syria, Hezbollah needs a strong Christian ally on his side more than ever, and both Hariri and Aoun realize that. And that is how and why a deal pleasing the three parties might eventually see light: Hezbollah wants to keep his ally, Aoun wants the presidency, and Hariri wants to go back to the Grand Serail.

Reminder: We still don’t have a government.

Waiting for the Electoral Law- Future Movement’s Proposal Or The 37 Districts Law- Part II

Ahmad Fatfat (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

Ahmad Fatfat (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

[Part I]

In part I, I analyzed the districts of Beirut and Mount-Lebanon. I will now continue with the other districts.

The 7 Districts Of The Bekaa. Baalbek and Zahle are separated each to two districts while Hermel, West Bekaa and Rashaya become independent constituencies.

  • Baalbek-Hermel. Baalbek is separated to two regions, Baalbek 2 (1 Maronite, 1 Greek Catholic, 1 Sunni, 1 Shia) including the Christian towns with some Sunnis and Shias, and Baalbek 1 (3 Shias, 1 Sunni) that is predominantly Shia. M14 would thus be able to compete in a Baalbek 2 stripped from the Shia heavyweights of Baalbek 1. Hermel had to be separated because the largest size of a constituency should be a Caza. Being able to control 4 of 10 seats in Hezbollah’s stronghold will be a major breakthrough for M14.
  • Zahle. Zahle is separated into two districts, (more…)