Hezbollah

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.

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.

Is Michel Aoun Switching Sides?

Hariri-Aoun Meeting in 2009 (AFP)

Hariri-Aoun Meeting in 2009 (AFP)

At first sight, Lebanon seems politically normal. No parliamentary sessions, no functioning government, a bad economy, ambassadors visiting politicians, and like always, no solution to the deadlock. However, in the last few days, three consecutive incidents in the March 8 camp almost went unnoticed.

Drawing The Red Lines

The Tomahawk effect that kept all the politicians silent for two weeks is obviously fading away. And while everyone was focused on Berri’s initiative to solve the crisis, another interesting development was marginalized. Michel Aoun, who made sure in the past 3 months to keep his criticism against Hezbollah centered on the party’s political stances, indirectly attacked Hezbollah’s military activity in a statement accusing M14 of initially providing cover for Hezbollah’s telecom network. And that statement wasn’t the only one. A meeting between the FPM leader and the U.S. ambassador Hale ended in a Aounist approval of the Baabda declaration that was recently questioned by Hezbollah.

If It Ain’t Broke Don’t Fix It

Hezbollah clearly understood that something was going wrong. Or why else would a delegation of the party go visit Aoun, only to make sure that the ties between the two allies were still the same? If the ties were still the same, why bother fixing them?

The Wind Of Change

For Aoun to question his 7 year-alliance with Hezbollah at a moment’s notice would be an act of political insanity. Switching sides implies that the second side is indeed willing to accept you as a member. And that is probably what Aoun is trying to do with his small yet remarkably strong statements. You might view that describing the new stances by strong is an exaggeration but one must not forget that the FPM is Hezbollah’s main national ally and by far his strongest political ally, meaning that any criticism, no matter how small it is, is in fact more harmful than the strongest M14 – or even Amal – political stance against Hezbollah. Aoun is checking out if any of the M14 leaders will understand his small hints and welcome his statements. Stronger statements at a faster rate – without an M14 welcoming attitude – might throw Aoun all by himself on the outside, which is not a good thing for a Lebanese politician.

Yet Another Political Maneuver

The issue is far more complicated than the FPM pissing off Hezbollah in a Christian area for popular gain (By rejecting the telecom network in Lebanon’s biggest Christian city). Another Hezbollah Christian ally, Sleiman Frangieh, is preparing himself for presidential elections.  Frangieh is younger than Aoun but is also (arguably) the biggest pro-Syrian among Hezbollah’s allies, making him a perfect candidate for the Hezbollah-led alliance in case the war in Syria reaches a certain level of hostilities. Hezbollah might embrace the Frangieh candidacy, and that can justify the FPM’s decaying relation with the party.  Aoun wants to make sure that it will be him – or one of his Maronite protégés – who will be the official M8 candidate for the May elections, and his new stances can be seen as a small political maneuver (or even blackmail).

The Lessons Of  1988 And 2008

When the Americans were trying to push for their own candidate in the 1988 presidential elections, Aoun – who wanted the presidency for himself –  criticized the U.S. motives and announced that  Lebanon is not an American protectorate. What happened next – you guessed it – is that Aoun was eventually removed from power because he went against the regional tide.  In 2008, when Aoun failed again to notice that the regional context implied that a centrist president should take power, General Suleiman was elected president. This time though, Aoun seems to have understood the rules of the game. By being slightly more moderate in the wake of the American-Russian agreement on Syria (and even ironically agreeing with the American Ambassador this time), and by trying to settle his issues with most of the Lebanese parties, Michel Aoun is discretely trying to go with the flow and adapt to the circumstances of the next presidential elections.

Hezbollah’s Awkward Silence

Lebanese Army soldiers near the site of the explosion close to the Lebanese-Israeli border (REUTERS/Ali Hashisho)

Lebanese Army soldiers near the site of the explosion next  to the Lebanese-Israeli border (REUTERS/Ali Hashisho)

This is huge. For the first time since 2006, Hezbollah responds to an Israeli aggression on Lebanese soil. There was the Ayoub plane, among many other confrontations, but nothing compares to the event of midnight Tuesday. And the very fact that an Israeli patrol got ambushed in Alma Al Shaeb by Hezbollah members only gets mentioned in details in Ibrahim Al-Amin’s Al-Akhbar article without getting the usual glorification of Hezbollah raises many questions. Hezbollah stayed silent on the issue, and even its media, Al-Manar, didn’t deny or confirm Al-Akhbar’s story but simply  copied it  on the website with a disclaimer that they are not responsible of the content of the article.

B..B…But Why?

This is Hezbollah’s salvation. The president is turning against them, Jumblatt is showing more hostility every day. The Caretaker Prime Minister felt abandoned by Hezbollah when the party didn’t nominate him for the premiership again,  while the new PM has to form a government according to the wills of an anti-Hezbollah majority. Aoun’s drifting away from the March 8 Alliance, while Nabih Berri and Saad Hariri are flirting . And just when you think things couldn’t get worse, Bashar Al-Assad lost control on East Syria, Hezbollah is facing wide criticism over his role in the Syrian conflict, while diplomatically his military wing just became a terrorist organization in the EU. Even though Hezbollah’s still far from being politically dead – The governmental deadlock still shows the party’s political strength to veto decisions even if he can’t take them anymore – his silence on the issue is pretty weird. Such an Israeli intervention gives Hezbollah some of the legitimacy he lost after the Qusayr Battles. Nasrallah can go right now on TV and respond to Sleiman by telling  him that the resistance is still needed and efficient, and the Alma events are the clear evidence . When the Ayoub drone was launched into Israel – While Hezbollah was in power and the Qusayr battles hadn’t even started –  the party didn’t miss an occasion to remind us of the achievement even though he didn’t need lots of propaganda back then (compared to his status now). But when Israeli troops get intercepted in a Lebanese border town – At a moment Hezbollah needs a boost of popularity more than anything – the party chooses silence?

Collateral Damage

Hezbollah stayed silent, but so did Israel. Hezbollah is facing diplomatic challenges with the new EU ban along with political and military setbacks in Lebanon and Syria. He can’t even risk opening another military front on the Israeli border, and that’s why he probably chose to stay silent in the aftermath of the ambush. The Israelis got his silent message, and there’s no need to make a big media issue out of it that might escalate things too quickly for a party already involved in battles hundred of Kilometers north of the Lebanese-Israeli border. Same goes for the Israelis. They don’t have time for diplomatic/military clashes: The Israelis are relaunching peace talks with Palestinians for the first time since 2010, and the last thing they want is being accused of an aggression against the Lebanese. For both Israel and Hezbollah, their clash is a clear violation of the 1701 resolution, because it indicates hezbollah’s presence south of the Litani and Israeli presence on the other side of the border.

Test Test

There’s a decent reason why the Israeli troops covertly entered 400 meters inside Lebanese  territory. They might be planning a new attack, collecting intel, or even simply visiting a town to help boost the bad tourism season. But the most likely reason is that they want to take the pulse. 2013 is not 2006, and there’s a completely new and different situation in the Middle East. The Israelis are probably checking  if Hezbollah’s still out there watching them and – in case he is out there – if he is ready to clash with them with the worsening of the Syrian war. Either Hezbollah has an informer on the Israeli side that told him about was happening that day, or it’s not the first time Israelis enter Lebanese territory in the same way – so they can be noticed the first few times by Hezbollah and see if he’ll clash with them – to make their test of Hezbollah’s readiness and presence.

 Sometimes silence is a virtue.

Hezbollah, Terrorism And A Political Maneuver

The Easiest Way to create problems between the Lebanese government, Hezbollah, the UNIFIL and the European Union?  (Ramzi Haidar-Getty Images)

The Easiest Way to create problems between the Lebanese government, Hezbollah, the UNIFIL and the European Union? (Ramzi Haidar-Getty Images)

Hezbollah might be achieving military advances in Syria, but diplomatically, he’s facing a major setback. On monday, Hezbollah’s military wing got listed in the European Union as a terrorist group.

Useless Move By The European Union?

The European Ban doesn’t mean a lot to Hezbollah. Hassan Nasrallah doesn’t spend his vacations aux Champs-Élysées, and Hezbollah’s weapons don’t particularly reach the Lebanese south via Frankfurt’s airport. The move will only complicate things with the Lebanese state, which was probably what Israel wanted in the first place. Hezbollah is represented in the Lebanese government and it is likely to stay that way meaning that the European Union’s projects might face difficulties or even stop, and it isn’t in the great interest of the EU to look like they’re abandoning the Lebanese state. No one wants to get the mainstream American image in Lebanon. And that’s just a small consequence.

European Soldiers On Lebanese Soil

We tend to forget that easily, but there are 3742 soldiers on Lebanese territory that are members of EU states armies. That can’t be any good for the UNIFIL that is supposed to act as a neutral force in the south. The French, Spanish and Italian forces (among others) will have to distance themselves a bit and the designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist group might create a very tense atmosphere.

No True Separation

There’s no such thing as separate military and political wings for Hezbollah. The issue can become very confusing as many (if  not all) of the “political wing members” of Hezbollah are also members of the military one. A small example: Is Hassan Nasrallah considered a member of the military or political wing?

Nabih Berri Or The New Camille Chamoun

This is not the first time something like this happens. Lebanon had a 10 years travel ban between 1987 and 1997. The salvation came in 1997 when Rafic Hariri was Prime Minister and Berri was speaker. 16 years later, the speaker, the same Berri, asks Hariri’s son in the week the Hezbollah designation happened – what a coincidence – to serve as a prime minister again. Berri’s moves are so ingenious (see here and here) that he might be considered as a new Camille Chamoun. He knows exactly whom he should speak with, what to say to him, and when he should make his move. In a time when alliances are seeming to collapse, Berri wants to be the most useful politician in the cold. By asking to bring the closest Pro-American  – formerly vetoed by Hezbollah – Sunni politician as a PM, Berri makes a compromise: In exchange of handing Hariri the premiership, he makes sure that even the biggest Lebanese opponent to the party won’t work against it diplomatically. Saad Hariri might even be able to remove Hezbollah from the list like his father removed the ban in 1997. Berri would’ve seemed as the political ally of Hariri and the diplomatic savior of Hezbollah: That’s how you make sure you can still be speaker of the parliament in 2014.

Can You Smell The Competition?

First, rumors start spreading that Aoun is getting closer and closer to the Future Movement and that meetings are happening between FPM officials and the Saudi Ambassador. The next thing you know, Berri, out of nowhere, suddenly asks Hariri to come back and serve as a Prime Minister. There can be only one explanation to that: Jumblatt chose a Future Movement  ally as a Prime Minister and told Hezbollah that the party will be present in the government or there will be no government. It’s already getting too crowded in the cabinet, and if someone is going to be left out, it won’t be the kingmaker Jumblatt, nor the PM’s M14 allies, nor Hezbollah, which leaves us with Berri and Aoun, explaining the ” I love you more competition” on Hariri between the FPM and Amal. For someone who once attacked the FM almost every week one can’t but notice how Aoun’s criticism is relatively non-existent in July.

Maybe the designation of the military wing as a terrorist organisation was supposed to pave the way for a foreign intervention in Syria, but one thing’s for sure: Hezbollah’s military victories resulted in a small diplomatic failure that is starting to weaken him politically.

The End Of The March 8 Alliance?

Berri and Aoun

“There is no such thing as the March 8 alliance anymore, Berri told The Daily Star.”

That quote from the Daily Star article (entitled March 8 finished, Aoun out in the cold) sums it up. But Is really Aoun out in the cold? Or is it some kind of an ingenious Berri tactic?

Between The Lines

The key ministerial portfolio held by an Amal movement minister in the last government was the foreign ministry (of Adnan Mansour). If one reads between the lines, Berri says at some point that  “On the domestic level, our choices differ and each will follow their own course”. In other words, Berri is a political genius that just made a bluff. While saying that he will not support the FPM in their struggle for their governmental share, he implicitly states that the FPM are obliged to support him to keep the foreign ministry under Amal control because both have the same choices on a non-domestic level. And Gebran Bassil fell in the trap by agreeing with Berri that “We support Speaker Berri’s saying that we diverge on domestic matters and converge over strategic issues.” In other words, Aoun would be backing a Berrist for the Foreign ministry post but Berri would not be backing Aounists to occupy the domestic-related ministries (All the ministries currently held by Aounists such as the telecom and energy ministries)

No More Sacrifices For Allies?

Rewind to June 2011: A small dispute (Called back then العقدة السنية, meaning “the Sunni Knot”) between Hezbollah’s Sunni allies (Mikati and Karami) over the number of posts that should be held by each of them delays the government’s formation. In a government of 30 ministers, there should usually be 6 Sunnis and 6 Shias; Mikati’s government eventually had 7 Sunnis and 5 Shias. It was  Berri back then who untied the knot by sacrificing one minister of his share for Ahmad Karami. This time, Berri made his preemptive move as the Salam cabinet formation is clearly facing difficulties. By declaring the 8 March Alliance dead, Berri is dissociating himself from his allies: He will no longer be  pleasing them from his share should they want an extra minister. He is making it clear for Tammam Salam that he is not letting go a minister so that the coalition doesn’t collapse like he did in 2011.

Zoom Out

According to Gebran Bassil, “Political lineups have been shattered”. By getting too busy analyzing the small details, the big picture became unnoticed. While Michel Aoun was busy shattering the March 14 Alliance into pieces via his Orthodox Gathering Law, the other side was preparing to strike back. March 8 knew what was March 14’s Achilles’ heel, but the opposite is also true. March 14’s counter-attack didn’t take long. After the May electoral confusion that nearly destroyed the ties between Gemayel, Geagea and Hariri, March 14 made their move. It was clear that Aoun wanted elections  he was going to win, while Berri saw the extension as an alibi to stay 17 extra months as a speaker. It was clear that Aoun wanted his son-in-law Shamel Roukouz to succeed Jean Kahwagi as a Commander of the army, while Berri had no interest in it. It was also clear that there was a tense atmosphere between Berri and Mikati that developed into a constitutional crisis. The plan was very simple: Let time play its role: Postpone the governmental formation until the M8 Alliance collapses. With no government, the extension of the parliament’s terms was an easier job while the constitutional crisis became evident with the appearance of certain deadlines that were irritant to Aoun and Mikati: One doesn’t want an extension of Kahwaji’s term, the other doesn’t want to see the parliament legislating in the presence of a caretaker government (probably to appear as the protector of the Sunni interests in Lebanon). Thus M14 played it smart : They stood by Berri when he wanted to extend the parliament’s term, then blocked all the speaker’s attempts to hold a session by standing with Aoun and making sure that there will be a lack of quorum. All it took was 1 month of conflicting interests between the M8 members to (apparently) end a 7 year alliance. All it took was letting the M8 alliance rule and fail due to the lack of chemistry between its parties.

No Electoral Ground

Political alliances are usually built on the foundations of the electoral alliances. In no electoral district the FPM and Amal find themselves forced to ally with each others to win. No Aounist is elected in a region having Amal votes, while no Amal MP is elected due to Aounist help. In fact, the two parties were an exception in 2009 when they ran against each other in Jezzine (while they were allies), making it easier for M14 to have a seat in the district (even if it didn’t eventually win any MP in the constituency). Once they don’t need each other to get into the parliament, the two parties won’t stick together till life in the parliament. Geagea needs Hariri to secure him MPs in Zahle and Akkar. Jumblatt and Hariri need each other to prevail in the Chouf. Baabda is ideal for an FPM-Hezbollah electoral alliance, and the Kataeb need the small Sunni and Druze votes to prevail in certain constituencies. Out of all the alliances, the easiest one to break was the Berri-Aoun one, because it had no electoral basis.

À La Adnan Sayyed Hussain?

Berri is apparently distancing himself from the Hezbollah-FPM duo and getting closer and closer to the “centrists”, comprising Jumblatt, the President, Mikati and  – who knows – Salam. Salam was trying for the past 4 months to get his formula of 8/8/8 ministers (8 for centrists, 8 for M8, 8 for M14)  accepted. Once M8 ceases to exist, Hezbollah and Aoun may get their share of 8 ministers independently from Berri, who would be taking a part of the centrists’ share. Once again, Rewind to 2011: A minister supposedly centrist resigns from the Hariri government (That included 10/30 of the ministers from the opposition). The resignation of the eleventh minister, Adnan Sayyed Hussein, who was theoretically a minister loyal to the president, brought the government down (after more that the third of the ministers resigned). Berri might be planning the same strategy again: By announcing the end of the March 8 alliance, he is in fact trying to ensure the blocking third in the government for the “ex-M8” members (by pushing himself to the center away from Aoun). M8 might be playing dead in a last attempt to maximize its share in the government.

So Is It The End?

If you consider that the March 14 coalition doesn’t exist anymore, than you are right to consider the March 8 coalition destroyed. Perhaps it is true: Nobody knows where Jumblatt stands – actually nobody ever knew – while Mikati and Berri are distancing themselves from everyone. On the two other sides: Hezbollah and the FPM struggle alone while the OG law spread confusion and cautiousness between Geagea, Gemayel and Hariri. One thing is sure though: If M14 and M8 are truly from the past now, than they fought themselves till collateral damage prevailed.

Only know you love her when you let her go. Time to see what alliance members truly love each others.

Hezbollah’s Drone: A Bit More Than An Airplane

Still Image by the IDF Showing the Drone getting shot down

The first thing that came to my mind was the kaff. The kaff – The Arabic word for slap – is very common in our society. All that has to be done is to watch some Lebanese drama series. It’s usually the point where an argument between a wife and her husband goes to the next level . One can respond to a slap with a another one, with a fight, with an insult or can simply walk away. The slap isn’t as threatening as a kick or a hit, but it’s a provocative action that can give you all the attention you want from the person you slapped. And what’s interesting with the slap is that the one who got hit doesn’t usually slap back. That’s usually in the drama series, of course. (more…)