Michel Aoun

The War for Shamel Roukoz

Lebanon's next commander of the army?

Lebanon’s next commander of the army?

This is the 12th post in a series of monthly posts covering the presidential elections. This post is about the month of May 2015.

It has been a busy month in Lebanese politics. Last time I wrote something, Lebanese politicians were still arguing about Yemen. In May however, it was the name of the next commander of the army that kept everyone busy.

Moukhtasar Moufid

In the very first days, the remnants of the Mustaqbal-Hezbollah April political clash were still there: Hezbollah’s bloc accused the Future Movement of violating Taef. At the same time, the FPM and the LF were finishing up their declaration of intent, and were agreeing to boycott the legislative session until some of their demands were met, like prioritizing the election of the president, and working on the electoral law (Here’s a reminder of the irony here, since the FPM are the ones who are boycotting the presidential elections). But as things were finally calming down on the Muslim front between Hezbollah and the FM, signs of a major battle between Hezbollah and Syrian militants near the northeastern border were looming. And to make things even more complicated, the debate on the security appointments started: The ISF chief retires on the 5th of June, and the army commander on the 23rd of September.

In case you wondered, that’s what the post will be mainly about – since I believe we’ve all had enough of the routine weekly fights between M8 and M14.

Deal or No Deal

As I said in November, the presidential elections are not about the president. In fact, no one cares about the president. Not even Lebanon cares. The proof? we have been without a president for more than a year. And for more than a year, the country has perfectly adapted to a life with no head of state. The cabinet meets regularly, the parliament doesn’t meet regularly and life goes on. So basically, nothing changed. The presidential elections are more about a deal than about a glorified chair. The presidential elections are about the electoral law, the security appointments, the formation of the next cabinet, the position vis-à-vis the Syrian war, and many more details. And to be more precise here, the president is not even part of the presidential elections deal. In fact, he’s the guy who is supposed to oversee its enforcement.

And for 12 months, there has been no sight of any attempt of  a deal. However, the terms of the security officials are due to end soon, and this could be an occasion for our politicians to start drafting a package they could agree on.

This could also be the moment where we become without a president, a commander of the army, elections, and plunge into chaos, emptiness and darkness.

*plays classical music*

Anyway, there’s an opportunity to move forward here, and of course, the maneuvering has already begun.

The War for Shamel Roukoz

One of the most important parts of the deal is the name of the next commander of the army. Lebanon is overwhelmed by refugees, the Islamic State is at our gates and the Syrian spillover is not likely to stop anytime soon. That makes the commander of the army a key player in the next couple of years. The country’s stability is depending on the army, now more than ever. For Michel Aoun, March 8’s presidential candidate, the name of the next of the next General in charge of the LAF matters even more: His son-in-law, Shamel Roukoz,  currently heads the army’s special forces (The Maghawir) and could fit well as a commander of the army. Michel Aoun is likely to retire really soon (Here’s a reminder that Aoun is currently 80 years old), and unless them FPM has someone with influence in a top post, the future of the party will be in Jeopardy when the transition comes. The FPM needs someone to follow like Aoun, and Roukoz seems the man to fulfill the legacy. Once Roukoz becomes commander, he will likely be the FPM’s potential candidate for the presidency – while maintaining a consensual image. That would mean that if the FPM plays its cards well in the next general elections and Roukoz succeeds as commander, the FPM could be looking in 2021 at a party whose Roukoz is leading its men in the executive power as president, and whose Bassil is leading its MPs in parliament, while Aoun would remain the “Godfather of the party”. Last week, Michel Aoun was asking for the election of the president via direct elections (That wasn’t the first time he proposed the idea) while at the same time promising that he will not allow that the same officers (in other words, Kahwagi) stay in charge. This aggressive maneuvering is not because Aoun wants to weaken his main presidential rival, but rather because he knows – like probably everyone else in the FPM – that the future of the FPM depends on Roukoz’s appointment as commander. Once he becomes commander of the army and gets the right political backing, he would be in a position to be as influent as his father-in-law and ultimately succeed him as the party’s leader and idol. Let’s face it, he’s far, far more popular than Bassil.

The FM and the PSP realize how badly their Christian rivals want the post, and are playing it smart. Instead of vetoing the appointment, they’re outmaneuvering Aoun by accepting the nomination (Here’s a link of Hariri saying yes to Roukoz, and another link of Jumblatt saying yes to Roukoz), before probably requiring some concessions from the FPM: (1) Someone not named Michel Aoun as president, (2) a gentler electoral law towards the FM and PSP’s interests, and (3) Hezbollah agreeing to some of their terms.

Le Piège

But that’s not all of it. Giving Roukoz the green light comes at a price: The FM insist on naming Roukoz commander after the presidential elections, making it a difficult task for Aoun to accept that deal: What if the next president doesn’t want Roukoz to lead the army? (after all, the president is according to the Constitution the “Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces” and should have a say in the nomination of the commander). What if things don’t work out, and the FPM ends up losing both the presidency and the army? It’s a risky prospect for Aoun. Yet the main problem for the FPM isn’t about naming the new commander before or after the presidential elections. It’s about the context of the nomination. There is something big about to start in Arsal, we just don’t know when it will happen. March 14 are calling for the army to exclusively take charge of things in the northeastern regions , and it’s not only because they want Hezbollah out of the equation. In case you have noticed, the army – although having clashed with the militants there last August – is slowly dissociating itself from the upcoming battle and the outgoing skirmishes and tensions. And that’s for three main reasons: (1) It would probably lead to the death of all the military hostages, only making things worse for the army and its command, (2) it would put the Lebanese army at the heart of the Syrian conflict, and most importantly, (3) it would be the political deathbed of any commander of the army aspiring to become president. One should read the FM’s statements in depth: They accept Roukoz as a commander of the army, while at the same time asking for the army to exclusively be in charge of defending Arsal’s jroud. For the FPM, that means two things: That Kahwagi, who will no longer be commander of the army, will slowly lose momentum as a presidential candidate *Michel Aoun smiles*, while at the the same time Shamel Roukoz will have to  (1) clash with the militants in Arsal – bringing him in direct confrontation with the Sunnis – and (2) contain Hezbollah a couple of Kilometers next to one of their core centers of influence (Baalbak). Not to mention how much the population will be angry when 30 hostages from all over the republic get slaughtered by the militants once the army tries to take control of the situation near Arsal.

For the FPM, appointing Roukoz as commander seems like one of the two steps needed to secure the presidential elections of 2021 (since the commander of the army is usually the candidat-favori). For the FM however, appointing Roukoz seems like the easiest way to try to sow discontent between the FPM and Hezbollah, and between a possibly consensual candidate and the Sunni electorate.

*Michel Aoun stops smiling*

374 days since the 25th of May. 210 days since the 5th of November.

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.

On The Maronite Patriarch And Presidential Elections

Paul Peter Meouchi

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

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

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

(Link)

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

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

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

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

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

August 29, 2007

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

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

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

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

(Link)

2. It can be bad for Christians

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

(Link)

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

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

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

(Link)

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

That was move number 2.

July 27, 2014

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

(Link)

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

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

That was move number 3. 

July 20, 2014

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

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

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

(Link)

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

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

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

70 days since the 25th of May.

Double Standards And A ‘Limited’ Constitutional Amendment

Article 49 Lebanese Constitution

“I suggest a limited constitutional amendment that allows the presidential election to be decided by the people directly over two rounds,” Aoun said Monday at a news conference.

Aoun suggested that Christians would vote in a first round, with the top two vote-getters then facing a vote by all of the Lebanese public.

Aoun said a direct election would prevent a presidential vacuum from occurring in the future. Most importantly, Aoun explained, Parliament would need neither a two-thirds majority vote nor a two-thirds quorum with an absolute majority to elect a president.

[…]

Aoun also called for a new electoral law under which each religious group would elect its own members of Parliament, saying that under the current law, Christian MPs were being elected by Muslims.

(Link)

New Month, New Maneuver

For the past 10 months, FPM leader Michel Aoun was negotiating with Hariri. The deal – as shocking as it might seem – probably consisted of electing Michel Aoun as president in exchange for naming Saad Hariri as the new Prime Minister. The result would have been the collapse of the March 8 and March 14 alliances and the creation of a new coalition that includes the FM, the FPM, and the Shiite duo. Walid Jumblatt would become as influential as Wiam Wahab, and the M14 Christians wouldn’t dream of entering the parliament again with the current electoral law.

The deal might be logical, but as I said earlier, It’s highly controversial. Hariri would have to abandon his Christian allies after a decade of struggling, he would have to risk losing certain members of his bloc to the opposition, and more importantly, he wouldn’t be the coalition’s new leader. He would only be its Prime Minister – something that might even change after the parliamentary elections. Hariri would have looked like the man that would risk anything and everything in order to sit on a chair in the Grand Serail. Not a brilliant idea after all.

Michel Aoun’s plan of negotiating with the FM was smart enough to form a government, but it won’t lead to his election as a president – At least that’s what it seems after 10 months of talks. For a man who spent half a year trying to prove that he is a consensual figure, his proposal to elect the president by universal suffrage – making it impossible to have consensual winners – indicates a 180° change of policy.

Double Standards?

The problem with Michel Aoun’s suggestion is that it contradicts itself: Aoun is embracing at the same time the Orthodox Gathering electoral law and a constitutional amendment that permits the president to be elected by universal suffrage. In other words, Aoun wants maximum Christian representation in the parliament (Only the Christians would be entitled to elect the Christian MPs), while abandoning the country’s top Christian post to an electorate that is 62% Muslim – Currently the electorate is the parliament, that is 50% Christian 50% Muslim. True, the Christians in the first round would narrow down the candidates (and hence prevent a surprising arrival of a Muslim Candidate to the last round) but the final decision in the second round would be within the hands of an electorate that is predominantly Muslim.

Michel Aoun knew what he was saying. The March 8 alliance got 55% of the votes in the 2009 elections, that’s why universal suffrage would most probably lead to his election. And since the electorate is mainly a Muslim one, he had to give the impression – at least to the Christian audience – that he wasn’t planning on “giving up” the top Christian post. That’s why, in his “plan to salvage the presidential elections”, he spoke of something completely irrelevant to the presidential elections: The only parliamentary electoral law that allows the Christians to elect 50% of the deputies.

Limited Amendment?  

Imagine for a moment that the Sunnis ask for two parliamentary consultations in order to name the Prime Minister:  The first round of consultations is exclusively with the Sunni MPs, the second with all the others. Imagine changing the rules of electing the speaker of the parliament: In the first round, the voting is exclusively a Shia one. In the second round, all the MPs would vote and choose the new speaker from the list of the remaining candidates. What I’m trying to say here is that Aoun’s constitutional amendment will open a Pandora box of amendments, and will eventually complicate the system even more. And there’s nothing limited about that constitutional amendment: When you elect the president with universal suffrage, you have to change the article related to the presidential elections. Such a move also compromises the whole Taif system since the parliament loses its ability to elect the president and hence becomes weaker and less legitimate, which means that the parliament would have to give up some of its powers to the president too . But the president is not elected by a 50-50 assembly anymore, and he isn’t consensual, while still being a Christian. So how do you solve this riddle without starting a civil war? And there’s also the part where every sect elects its own MPs. And the part where a constitutional amendment needs to be signed by the president. (Reminder: We still don’t have one)

This is not a limited constitutional amendment. This is a change of regime.

41 days since the 25th of May.

A Month Of Vacuum

Baabda Palace Chair

The last time I wrote a blog post, Michel Sleiman was leaving office. One week before that, vacuum was more probable than ever. And here we are, one month after the 25th of May, with no president, with a caretaker cabinet, and with a parliament whose term expires in November. What a lovely way to start the summer. Not much has changed since last month. Michel Aoun is still trying to strike a deal with Hariri – the latest maneuver was his vow to protect him if he’s elected as a president – while Geagea is still maintaining his candidacy in order to block any possible agreement. The PSP – and to a greater extent Nabih Berri and the Kataeb – are enjoying the show, hoping that a centrist closer to one of them might emerge as a consensual candidate.

Welcome to Lebanon, the only republic in the world that – instead of actually electing a president – spends huge amounts of time trying to figure out how a caretaker cabinet should handle the presidential powers.

A new maneuver…

Michel Aoun made a strategic mistake on the 21st of May. While he was trying – in one of his interviews – to convince the Future Movement of electing him as a president, he said something that would probably haunt him for the next few months. “Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and I should be a three-sided triangle, and triangles cannot be broken up”. Unless Aoun is a fan of political suicide, he meant that a tripartite alliance between Hezbollah, the FPM, and the FM would be the best for the three. The three parties form a majority in the parliament, wouldn’t compete with each other – they do not appeal to the same religious electorates, and would destroy any rival alliance in most of the mixed districts.

But in Lebanese politics, you don’t mention the names of one Christian and two Muslims in the same sentence. Especially if one of the Muslims is a Shia and the other is Sunni. M14 took advantage of Aoun’s political faux-pas, successfully accusing him of trying to establish a 33% Shia – 33% Sunni – 33% Christian formula instead of the existing 50% Christian – 50% Muslim one. On the eve of the 25th of May, Aoun wasn’t anymore the man who was willing to send the country to vacuum in order to become president: He became the man who was willing to challenge Christian interests and even the very foundation of the Taef regime for personal gains.

…and a fast response

“We extremely regret recent remarks accusing our camp, especially the Shiite duo, of seeking tripartite power-sharing, and someone is trying to say that we want a presidential void because we want to reach tripartite power sharing. […] Years ago, the French were the first party to raise this issue in Tehran. They told the Iranians that the Taef Accord had become outdated and asked them about their opinion regarding tripartite power-sharing. The Iranians had never thought of this matter, but they asked us about it and we said that it is totally out of the question.” Nasrallah clarified.

A media campaign by M14 accusing Aoun of trying to implement a tripartite power sharing agreement would have destroyed Aoun and the FPM in the Christian camp. Hezbollah’s response was fast – it had to be. Nasrallah scored several mini-victories in his speech:

(1) By using the words “Shiite duo” he sent a message to Aoun reminding him that Berri – who was excluded by Aoun in his interview as Aoun only mentioned Nasrallah, Hariri and himself – would not under any circumstances be excluded in any deal regarding the presidential elections.

(2) Nasrallah distanced M8 from this controversy and threw it on the French. You know he succeeded when in the following morning the Kataeb had the “moral Christian political obligation” to ask the French embassy for clarifications.

(3) Nasrallah knows how to use his words. The Iranians had never thought of this matter, but they asked us about it and we said that it is totally out of the question. In a Middle-Eastern context where M14 accuses Hezbollah of following the orders from Iran’s Qassem Suleimani, Hezbollah’s secretary-general gave the impression to the Lebanese public that Hezbollah does not receive orders from Iran and always has the last say in local politics.

So how bad is the vacuum? It’s so bad that on the 22nd of June, we’re still tackling events that happened between the 21st of May and the 6th of June…

When the fear of not broadcasting the world cup makes a nation panic more than the fear of not electing a president, know two things: (1) The Lebanese president is as relevant as a soccer ball, and (2) we have been so accustomed to power vacuum that even a football game is more interesting for a Lebanese than the prospect of electing a new president.

At least in the world cup, a team is expected to win. In the matter of a month. And It’s not a consensual winner.

Reminder: We still don’t have a president – 29 days since the 25th of May.

Presidential ‘Surprises’

Emile Rahme on Al-Manar's Hezbollah TV

Emile Rahme on Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV

The March 8 camp is preparing a series of “surprises” for Wednesday’s parliamentary session to elect a president, reported al-Joumhouria newspaper on Saturday without elaborating.

This does not however include the nomination of Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun, said March 8 sources.

They explained that the camp opted against this option because the lawmaker seeks to be a “consensual presidential candidate among all political powers, while keeping in mind that the March 14 alliance will not vote for him.” […]

The March 8 camp has therefore chosen the possible nomination of MP Emile Rahme instead of Aoun, reported the daily An Nahar Saturday.

(Link)

Surprise.

According to reports all over the internet, the March 8 alliance is thinking of nominating Emile Rahme as their presidential candidate instead of Aoun.

Emile Rahme’s Position

For M14, Emile Rahme is probably the most hated Christian MP. In a way, he’s like Future Movement’s Mohammad Raad, Walid Jumblatt’s Aoun/Geagea, or Hezbollah’s Ashraf Rifi. Emile Rahme is also one of the few MPs that are part of the FPM’s change and reform bloc without being a member of the FPM. Of the 27 men loyal to Aoun in the parliament, he’s one of two or three whose election depends entirely on Hezbollah’s votes. The vast majority of the change and reform bloc MPs (4 for Baabda, 7 for the Metn, 5 for Keserwan, 3 for Jbeil and 3 for Jezzine, a total of 22/27) represent North Mount-Lebanon and Jezzine, where the Christian electorate is at least more than the half in each constituency. 3 extra Marada MPs represent  Zgharta, which is also overwhelmingly Christian (even if the MPs aren’t directly loyal to Aoun but to Frangieh).

The last two MPs are a Druze loyal to Arslan representing Hasbaya, and Emile Rahme. The district Rahme represents is Baalbak-Hermel, Lebanon’s biggest Shia constituency, and happens also to be Hezbollah’s main electoral stronghold (the south is is considered to be more pro-Amal than pro-Hezbollah).

Let’s review Emile Rahme’s pros for a last time. He is Hezbollah’s strongest man in the change of reform bloc and one of the most vocal Christian anti-M14 lawmakers – in the middle between Aoun and Hezbollah – making him a prefect candidate in case M8 wants a rather politically violent candidate in face of Geagea. He’s even from a village that is next to Bcharri, Geagea’s hometown.

But Emile Rahme has an extra feature: He is the only Christian in the change and reform bloc that wasn’t elected by determining Christian votes (Baalbak-Hermel is 65% Shia). In other words, he’s considered to be relatively weak among the Christian electorate. As bad as that might sound, it’s actually something good because this quality is most likely to give him Jumblattist support. Michel Aoun would gain a president from his bloc, Hezbollah would gain a president from a district he electorally controls, Amal would gain a president that used to represent a Shia constituency, and Jumblatt would gain a president that has no popular Christian support. Both centrists and M8 win if Emile Rahme becomes Lebanon’s next president.

The Maneuver

Emile Rahme in Baabda is similar to a declaration of war for M14. Since Jumblatt is going to decide his candidate at the last minute, M14 can’t risk the election of Rahme. The only way to counter this move is by agreeing with M8 on a more moderate candidate. That candidate is no other than Michel Aoun, who didn’t yet officially announce his candidacy and said he won’t do it unless there’s a consensus on him. Emile Rahme’s candidacy (or rumors/reports of his nomination) to the presidency is a message to Future Movement from M8: Strike a consensual deal with Michel Aoun – the lesser of two evils for M14 – or risk the election of Emile Rahme.

Walid Jumblatt Is Still The Kingmaker

If M8 simply wanted to bring a ‘violent’ president from their ranks, they could have opted for Sleiman Frangieh. But the fact that Frangieh is considered to be rather strong especially within the northern Christian electorate wouldn’t make him too popular with Jumblatt. The key for winning here is to make Jumblat side by you in the elections. While M8 were proposing the name of Emile Rahme (Jumblatt might still reject him), M14 sources were speaking of two particular Maronites: Fouad Al-Saad and Henri Helou. These two MPs defected from the Jumblat’s bloc in 2011 when he decided to support Mikati in the parliamentary consultations, putting them at an equal distance between M14 and Walid Jumblatt. The leader of the PSP however ruled out this possibility, and is unlikely to support either of them for the elections – They did leave his bloc after all. The last remaining Maronite from his bloc, Elie Aoun, probably has higher chances than them.

Parliament convenes to elect the president on the 23rd of April.

35 days till the 25th of May.