Michel Sleiman

2013’s Last Political Maneuver

Charles Helou’s Caricature as a Jesuit priest by Pierre Sadek

Pure Chaos. That’s what the past two weeks have been all about. Hezbollah is having a more aggressive tone by the day. This week Nasrallah compared March 14’s Tripoli declaration to a declaration of war. The Syrian regime is accusing the Lebanese cabinet (that is ironically pro-Syrian regime) of interfering in Syrian affairs. Jumblatt lashed out at Aridi after the latter resigned from the caretaker cabinet. Relations are  deteriorating between Future Movement and the president who apparently gave his blessing to the 9-6-6 governmental formula. At the same time, relations between M8 and the president aren’t very good with the rumors that Sleiman might ask Salam to form a de-facto cabinet. Christian leaders are distancing themselves from each other ahead of the presidential elections while awkwardly  unifying their stances against the extension of the president’s current term. Nabih Berri stood up for the president and announced that the latter did not ask him for an extension of his term.

But is it total chaos or something is actually cooking out there? Let’s state the facts again.

The Example Of Charles Helou

It is said that Charles Helou, Lebanon’s fourth president (1964-1970) was rather a weak president. Helou felt that Fouad Chehab was still the one controlling everything, and that he was no more than his puppet in the presidential palace, so he resorted to several tricks by strengthening the anti-Chehabist opposition then by  inciting the two camps against each other, hence slightly reinforcing his position. This “Jesuit” strategy (Charles Helou went to a Jesuit school and a Jesuit University) even led the late caricaturist Pierre Sadek to draw him in his caricatures as a Jesuit priest. Why am I mentioning this? Because Michel Sleiman acted exactly the same as Helou this week.

Back To 2013

Michel Sleiman is stuck between M8 and M14. The designated prime-minister Tammam Salam broke a few weeks ago Rachid Karami’s 43 year old record in forming a government. Today marks the ninth month since Mikati resigned from premiership. We kind of got used to vacuum in power, but 9 months is really, really too much. 9 Months is how long it takes a pregnant woman to deliver a child. Meaning that some Lebanese babies actually spent their whole intra-uterine life while there was absolutely no functioning cabinet. How cool are these Babies ? (In other words, Fi ahla men Lebnen?).

Meanwhile, in 3 months, the parliament will have to convene to elect a president that will replace Sleiman 2 months after that date. Sleiman is causing panic. He’s not officially denying the rumors that he will form a de-facto government of M14 or independent figures, while at the same time telling Fouad Siniora that he has no problem with a 9-6-6 formula. So what really happened this week and why the sudden aggressive stances from everyone? It’s because each camp thinks that the other is far more closer to forming the government. And the Aridi-Jumblatt issue, along with the Syrian regime’s frequent criticism of Jumblatt and of Mikati’s caretaker cabinet indicate that even the Syrians – that supported the Mikati government (at least preferred it on Hariri’s one) in 2011 – want it gone for good.

The President’s Brilliant Maneuver

Now that the Mikati caretaker cabinet is falling apart (topped with the Aridi-Safadi raw), it is a lot more likely for a government to be formed, especially ahead of a probable presidential vacuum. With no elected president to succeed him, Sleiman will transfer his powers to the interim cabinet in power putting him in a far better negotiating position. The only remaining piece of the puzzle – and that’s what the president did this week, à la Charles Helou, is giving the impression to M8 that they are fighting a lost battle because he’s pro-M14, and to M14 that he doesn’t care about them because he’ll do what M8 wants. That should make them both (M8 and M14) more malleable concerning their governmental demands (due to fear of a cabinet solely composed from members of the other camp) and hence accelerate the formation of the government.

Between the Christian leaders’ veto on the extension of the president’s term and their inability to decide on the name of the new president, Michel Sleiman found himself in a stronger position on the negotiation table. If he won’t see his term extended, he’ll make sure to use the M8/M14 rift (along with the probable presidential vacuum) in his advantage regarding the government’s formation.

The Presidential Race Begins

Naharnet Michel Aoun Nominates Geagea For Presidency

In what is probably the most misleading article title since the beginning of time, Naharnet tells us that “Aoun Links Cabinet with Presidential Elections, Says he Nominates Geagea“. In the same context, Berri apparently said that he won’t deal with the matter before March 25, when the 60-day Constitutional deadline for the election of a new president starts. But since every possible politician is talking about the presidential elections, I find it hard how he’ll manage to do that. So what is exactly happening 5 months before the 25th of May? 

Mini-heart attack yet? Don’t panic. Aoun isn’t actually going to nominate Geagea (Naharnet forgot to put the word mockingly before says in the title). However, Aoun said that he wants a strong president and he clearly won’t nominate Geagea  (since he mockingly nominated him). On the opposite side, he is distancing himself from his ally (and apparently presidential rival) Sleiman Frangieh by asking for the election of a president from the first round (requiring the two-thirds of votes) while Frangieh previously said that he had no problem in electing the president with absolute majority (Here’s a nice post from October explaining why). Meaning that Aoun is likely to nominate someone from the FPM (him?).

Khabsa within M8

Frangieh and Aoun are endorsing two different electoral strategies, meaning that they will probably not be endorsing each other. This small competition is only the beginning. There will come a time where other M8 parties will have to choose between Frangieh and the Aounist candidate . So with who will side Hezbollah? The whole confusion emerging from within the March 8 coalition also means that the other centrist parties would have a much more free hand and will be more able to distance themselves from the March 8 camp or put conditions on the shattered M8 alliance. Jumblatt and Mikati in stronger positions also means that the president would be in a better place in case he wishes to extend his mandate. March 14’s silence and Tammam Salam’s passivity show us that the deal – if a consensus is to be reached – won’t strictly be about the government but rather the whole crisis, and its recent newcomer: The presidential elections.

Too Much USJ And No Jumblatt

Did I miss anyone? Correct! Jumblatt’s quiet attitude for the past few weeks – only 3 weeks earlier he was engaged in a violent media war against M14 and M8 – indicates that everyone is considering his options. After all, Jumblatt is still the kingmaker, and his stances will with no doubt influence everything. In fact Jumblatt’s silence is probably behind most of the parties’ cautiousness. No one wants to rush to the losing side. And the identity of that side will be clearer once Jumblatt takes a decision. 

If you’ve been following the news this week you’d be aware of the student elections in USJ and their violent aftermath (see here, here, here). One must keep in mind that USJ is one of the biggest and most prestigious universities in Lebanon, and its political relevance comes from the fact that it is a Christian University mostly attended by Christian students. Other than the demographic cause, the campus where most of the trouble happened is in the heart of Ashrafieh, while the University itself is the Alma mater of roughly half of the Lebanese presidents. That’s why the university elections at USJ matter more – strategically speaking – to the Christian leaders than the elections at the Lebanese University, AUB, LAU or any other university. Although the tensions are more of a yearly tradition now, this year I can’t but relate the unusually high tensions (Classes were suspended for two days in Huvelin campus)  to the near presidential elections. For the reasons stated above, whoever the winner is at USJ , it’s a huge boost for him ahead of the presidential elections. Probably explains why Aoun lashed out at Geagea and why Samy Gemayel entered in a media / propaganda war against Michel Aoun and M8 following the elections.

Reminder: We still don’t have a government.

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The Late Rise Of Michel Sleiman – Part II

Lebanon's President Michel Sleiman during his visit to Uruguay. ANDRES STAPFF / Reuters

Lebanon’s President Michel Sleiman during his visit to Uruguay.
ANDRES STAPFF / Reuters

I highly recommend that you take a look at part I

“President Michel Suleiman has said that the army-people-resistance formula can no longer be used for the new cabinet’s policy statement over Hizbullah’s involvement in the war in Syria, al-Liwaa newspaper reported on Wednesday.” (Link)

Not even 6 days passed since the first of August’s speech, and the president sent another political bomb against Hezbollah, in a week of show of force.

Perfect Regional Environment
One should never forget the President’s background. He’s the officer that became a general, the general that became president, and the president that was sworn into office after a Saudi-Iranian truce happened under Qatar’s Doha agreement in 2008 with Syria’s blessing. To ignore the timing of the president’s controversial speech would be a heresy. Iran changed a president last week,  Syria’s in pieces, while Egypt’s new revolution-coup is no more than a Saudi/Sisi/Army-Qatari/Morsi/Muslim Brotherhood competition. Not only are the regional allies fighting with their traditional rivals, they’re now also competing with each others or fighting a civil war on their own territories.
What kind of president thanks Qatar and foreign countries in his inaugural speech? (True story – check it out).
The one that depends on foreign countries for his rule. Once Syria is busy with its bloody conflict, Israel and the Palestinians are starting a new wave of negotiations for the first time since years, Qatar and Saudi eyes are on the 100 Million people Egypt rather than that small state the world calls Lebanon, and a new moderate president rises in Iran, it means that Sleiman is not only more independent and free than ever, it also means that this new status is desired by the regional leaders. Sleiman is no longer the result of an agreement between them, but rather the man who can put them on one table, the same way Chamoun was the link between Egypt and Iraq in the 1950s. Notice Sleiman’s meeting with the new Iranian president two days ago.
Bashar Al-Assad Who?
Approximately 1 year ago, Sleiman understood – after the Mikdad kidnappings events and their aftermath – that he was no longer in a position where he should ask the Syrians, but rather the opposite. It is Bashar Al-Assad who is in need, not Sleiman. You cannot deny that Lebanon is in Syria’s sphere of influence, provided that there is a Syria to speak of. Another similarity with the rule of Camille Chamoun: Chamoun took power in a decade where Syrian rulers were more interested in watching out for possible coups than in looking on the other side of the border. With no foreign intervention, and no direct Syrian tutelage, Sleiman might be the first president since decades who named a prime minister with no Syrian intervention.
Lebanon Doesn’t Fit Two Michels
In 1824, just before Emir Bachir II Chehab sent Bachir Jumblatt to be hanged, he told him a sentence that applies to the current situation: “الجبل ما بيحمل بشيرين” (The Mountain doesn’t fit two Bachirs). The March 8 alliance had better days, and Michel Aoun is more abandoned than ever. If there is someone who will be left out from a possible government, it might be him. The two generals are known to be rivals since the beginning of time, and now that one is sitting on a seat the other was eager to sit on, things only got worse. Wherever you find a General Michel, the other General Michel is on the opposite side. The times are rare when both of them stand together (The parliament’s extension was a very rare event), and now that one is deep down, it is far easier for the other to rise. You can add to that the fact that Samy Gemayel is very young, and Samir Geagea lost a part of his supporters after he turned against the Orthodox Gathering Law. The Christian population is getting more reluctant to its current traditional leaders, and Michel Sleiman is out there, gaining support of the daily defectors from the FPM and the LF.
Legitimacy Acquired
When Michel Sleiman was sworn-in, the Lebanese Forces refused to vote for him because he was elected in the aftermath of a special constitutional amendment that made it possible for the commander of the army to become president. Every time Sleiman wanted to do something, the FPM always accused him of not being legitimate because he was elected against one of the articles of the constitution. It’s not easy for a president to discuss controversial issues – let alone take decisions – if his legitimacy is questioned, but what if he became the most legitimate authority available? On the 20th of June 2013, Lebanon’s parliament terms expired. Even though the mandate was extended for 17 months, the president serving his normal mandate became by far more legitimate than the parliament, its members, and any government that will take their vote of confidence. The president can now speak more freely than ever, unafraid to be questioned in his legitimacy.
The Supreme Commander?
In Al-Akhbar’s Jean Aziz critique to the president’s speech, there is something very important to be noted: the commander of the army’s presence on the head of the armed forces is now depending on a ministerial decree than governmental approval . That makes the position of the commander very vulnerable with one result: The president, as a former commander of the army – and as the supreme commander of the armed forces – becomes a key player, especially that the army constitutionally answers to the government, that by the way does not exist anymore. Michel Sleiman suddenly has rather important military powers,  clearly having an impact on his political stances and speeches.
Also, look at the timing: Michel Sleiman becomes president on the 25th of May, the Liberation day, and his controversial speech comes on army day, one day after the weak ministerial extension of the army commander’s term. Tout est calculé.
Speak as you want of rocket-messages falling on Baabda and of the fact that the president moved against Hezbollah because of the EU ban, but all of that is details. The president is stronger because it’s the right time and the right place to show strength. While everyone was confused and taking one foot back, the president was the only one moving forward. That’s how and why he made that speech on the first of August, and confirmed it in today’s statement.
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The Late Rise Of Michel Sleiman – Part I

Lebanon's President Michel Sleiman during his visit to Uruguay. ANDRES STAPFF / Reuters

Lebanon’s President Michel Sleiman during his visit to Uruguay.
ANDRES STAPFF / Reuters

“The evolution of the Resistance was a need during the impotence of the state and the persistence of this Resistance was achieved by virtue of the support granted by the Lebanese people, the State, and the Lebanese Army.
The success of the Resistance in the mission of vanquishing the israeli occupier springs from the courage and greatness of its martyrs and yet, the farms of “Shebaa” which are still occupied and the enemy’s persistence in threatening to violate our sovereignty impose upon us to elaborate a defensive strategy that will safeguard the country concomitantly with a calm dialogue to benefit from the capacities of the resistance in order to better serve this strategy. Accordingly, we will manage to avoid depreciating the achievements of the resistance in internal conflicts and subsequently we will safeguard its values and national position. […]

Moreover, the recent security incidents gave the impression that the Armed Forces did not assume the complete and required role. In this regard, it is noteworthy that the issue of ensuring the minimum level of agreement and securing the required political cover contribute to ward off such incidents in the future. In addition to this, it is essential to reinforce the morale of the Armed Forces on the national level, to equip these troops and to encourage the educated and promising youth to join the Army. ” – Michel Sleiman, from his inaugural speech (25 May 2008)

5 years later:

“It has become urgent to consider and adopt the National Defense Strategy, in light of the ongoing regional transformations and the changes that have affected the main function of the Resistance’s arms as they have crossed the Lebanese borders. Such review must be undertaken on the basis of the conception that I had submitted in that regard to the people and the national dialogue committee which considered it as a basis for discussion, and which was referred to by the UN secretary-general in his last reports to the Security Council; also based on our clear, precise and constant differentiation between resistance and terrorism, and in view of shielding our capability to resist and defend Lebanon exclusively. It is about time for the State, with its Army and higher political leadership, to be the main regulator and the decision-maker for the use of such capability.
In parallel, after Lebanon succeeded in liberating most of its territories from the Israeli occupation thanks to the converging efforts of all its national forces of resistance and deterrence, we will not forget to follow-up on the implementation of the Army armament and equipment program […]
The time is long gone when the Army was forbidden from defending Lebanon and when the state was forbidden from defending the Army. The Army is and will never be a buffer force between small Lebanese armies, militias or armed groups under the pretext of defending some cause that concerns a specific group, sect, neighborhood or region… the Army is the legitimate representative of the Lebanese nationalism and the constant embodiment of Lebanon’s unity and the Lebanese people… the Army has been and shall always be a symbol for every transition from a present governed by concerns and fear to a future freed by determination and hope.” – Michel Sleiman,  from his speech, August 1, 2013
Our President has changed. He’s speaking with a different tone, about things no one in his position would’ve probably dared to even discuss. When a simple idea, very marginal in an inaugural speech becomes the center of one of the last speeches he makes before (supposedly) leaving office, you know something is cooking out there.  (I highly recommend reading the full two speeches to see the difference)
The Last Reform
When you read the president’s promises made on May 25 2008, and you compare them to our current situation, you don’t know whether you should laugh or cry. “Political stability”, “dialogue”, “rotation of power through free elections”, “electoral law which ensures the sound representation”, “independence of judicial authority”, “younger and more competent administration”,” reformative educational policy”, “engaging the Lebanese communities in diaspora”, “activating the economic cycle”, “emphasis on tourism”, “confirming the participation in the establishment of the International tribunal”, “freeing the prisoners and the detainees”, “recovering our sons who sought refuge in Israel”, “defensive strategy”, “forbidding security violations”.
To make it worse, the president back then ended the speech by adding the sentence “Let us avoid drowning in promises”, implying that the promises made on the 25th of May were the least measures that should be taken between 2008 and 2014. When the Lebanese President will stand out of Baabda on the 25th of May 2014 – if his term doesn’t get an extension –  he would be leaving Lebanon in the complete opposite scenario (If the status quo remains the same): No political stability, no dialogue, no rotation of power, no free elections, no electoral law, no sound representation, no independence of judicial authority, no younger administration, no competent administration, no reformative educational policy, no engaged Lebanese communities in diaspora, no economic cycle activated, no tourism, no participation in the international tribunal, no detainees freed, refugees in Israel barely recovered, no defensive strategy, and nothing but security violations. To sum it up, in five years of rule, the president did not only achieve nothing, he also transferred Lebanon from the bad to the worst. It is too late to start any of the reforms, and the last meaningful possible salvation the general can think of for his 6 years and that can be equivalent to all the others  combined is ending his term with a defensive strategy in place and finding a solution to Lebanon’s never ending debate.
The New Camille Chamoun
In a previous post, I compared the genius political skills of Nabih Berri to the maneuverings of Camille Chamoun. Even though Sleiman isn’t as wise as Chamoun, he is at the very end of his mandate in the same position Chamoun was at the beginning of his in 1952. At the beginning of his mandate Chamoun was known for frequently changing his prime ministers without getting lots of criticism for it from the Lebanese in general and the Sunnis in particular. The main Sunni leader Riad Al-Solh was assassinated before Chamoun took power, and the very fact that there was a void in leadership entitled Chamoun to put several persons in office in the first half of his term: Khaled Chehab, Abdallah Al-Yafi, Saeb Salam, Sami Al-Solh, and Rachid Karami. It was possible for Chamoun because none of the leaders was charismatic/popular/old enough to be removed without angering the population. The very fact that he could change the PM at any time – till 1955 – without being questioned put Chamoun in a very strong position in which the PM was very weak and had to rely on the president in case he wanted a longer stay in the Serail. Sleiman is more or less in the same position today: From Paris, Saad Hariri is no longer than an ex-prime minister that is losing popular support by the day to allies and rivals . Mikati is now history. Tammam Salam can’t form his government. Fouad Siniora seems the most practical solution, after trying all the other paralyzed governments. This leads to one equation: 4 mainly  equal Sunni men, with rising dozens are aspiring to enter the Grand Serail. With two prime ministers – a designated and caretaker one – with absolutely no power, and several other alternatives  to them, Michel Sleiman finds himself the only entity in the executive authority, that is irreplaceable (8 months of vacuum in the presidency preceded Suleiman), neither designated, nor caretaking, and that will remain like that for the next 9 months. In 2008 and 2009, Siniora was the strongest one in the executive authority. In 2010, it was Hariri. In 2011 and 2012, it was Mikati. In 2013,  It is no one. Not only there is no PM in power, but even if there would be a PM in power, he could be easily replaceable by many others as there is not one exclusive Sunni leader anymore. Sleiman’s position today is the most stable among his other colleagues, allowing him to speak more freely. There is no government to please, no one irreplaceable (à la Iza Mish Aajbak, Bye Bye) prime minister to work with – let alone the presence of that prime minister in office. Presidents usually start their mandate strong and end weak. For Michel Sleiman, it seems like it’s the opposite.
I am very sorry but I had to split that post to two because it was very lengthy. Part II comes out tomorrow. Stay tuned.

Does Lebanon Need The First Amendment?

By Mazen Kerbaj

Picture By Mazen Kerbaj

Jean Assy, a free patriotic movement activist, was arrested a couple of days ago for tweeting against the president. Should hate speech be protected or not by the freedom of speech? People can debate for hours and hours, and like Elie sums it up pretty well in his post,  Jean Assy has people to watch his back, Many other Lebanese – like you – do not.

Is It Freedom?

What is exactly the difference between the United States and Lebanon? Well, you got that right: Everything. But on the top of that everything, there’s the freedom of speech. With freedom of speech, comes the freedom to criticize, and with the freedom to criticize, comes democracy. And with democracy, comes everything else, be it good or bad.

Lebanon – compared to the United States – has no freedom of speech. And it’s not about the biased media, or the conspiracies, or the wasta, or whatever we tend to convince ourselves with. We do not have freedom of speech, because we do not have a constitution that guarantees us freedom of speech. Our constitution, unlike the American one, gives the parliament the right to issue laws that can regulate the freedom of speech. In the United States, the Congress shall make no law regulating the freedom of speech (First Amendment to the Constitution):

Congress Shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances

Meanwhile in Lebanon:

The freedom to express one’s opinion orally or in writing, the freedom of the press, the freedom of assembly, and the freedom of association shall be guaranteed within the limits established by law.

You can clearly see the difference between the first amendment and article 13 of the Lebanese constitution: The fact that there’s a law regulating freedom of speech, and that there’s a boundary, really says it all. And according to the law that’s inspired by the constitution, the religious leaders and president are immune to the freedom of speech. I do not understand how we dare to speak of the freedom of press, while something called the Publication Court (محكمة المطبوعات) still regulates the press and censors it. Even social media will be under censorship if the Lebanese Internet Regulation Act (LIRA) passes in the parliament.

The world was shocked in June when Muhammad Al-Qatta, a 15 year old child, got executed by Syrian rebels for blasphemy. KFC Tripoli was burned in September because of an anti-Islam movie that wasn’t even produced in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah made a (very) rare live appearance in a demonstration against that same movie. Draw a caricature mocking a Maronite Patriarch in a Saudi Newspaper, and you become bad. Speak against – Or insult, depending on your political allegiance – the other Patriarch, and you become worse. A human decides to burn the Coran 11000 Km away from Lebanon, and Lebanon’s peaceful – beware, that’s sarcasm – coexistence is suddenly under an imminent threat.

The Two types of Drivers

Two types of drivers in Lebanon exist. And no, they are not classified by gender, but by the way they react to the insults they get while driving. There’s the driver that starts insulting the other driver, stops the car in the middle of the highway, gets out of the car, beats the other driver, threatens him, possibly shoots him, before finally spending the night together at the police station. And then there’s the other type of driver: The one that hears the insult, smiles back while knowing that his mom is not a whore and he is not an animal – specifically a dog – , continues driving and reaches home where he later celebrates father’s day.

La Morale

When Jean Assi insulted the President, did the president become what Jean Assi said about him? No. It only made Jean Assi’s argument weaker. When that  American said that the Coran contains satanic verses, did it make the Coran contain satanic verses? No. It only made him look like a bigot. When the Patriach was made similar to the Devil in the caricature, did that make him the devil? I guess that’s a no too.

My Two Cents

You do not censor what you don’t like. That is not and will never be freedom. If you don’t like it, or don’t agree with it – even if it’s hate speech – you move on and/or respond to it. When you censor it, you’re acting like an ostrich hiding its head in the sand. To sum it up: You don’t fight an extremist bigot full of hate speech by putting him in jail because of his words. You fight him by letting him say what he wants, properly responding to him, and make him look like a fool.  Otherwise, the hate speech will spread faster, and there would not be any proper control over it. With the absolute Freedom of speech, you can at least know the impact of the thoughts and fight them. For Jon Stewart, a regime (Egypt) that is afraid of a Joke is not a regime. Can a regime afraid of an insult be considered one?

But Before wondering if the Lebanese need the first amendment and an absolute freedom of speech, we should start by wondering if they want an absolute freedom of speech. A right that includes with it the right to “blasphemy”, to write against the 18 sects, to draw comics about the prophet, -who knows- to side with the enemy publicly, to tweet against the president, to issue governmental and security leaks, while being simultaneously protected by the government.

Do the Lebanese really want freedom of speech?

Is Lebanon Turning Into A Military State?

Image from 2011 (Associated Press)

Image from 2011 (Associated Press)

There were days when the director of the General Security wasn’t an officer. There were days when even the presence of a General as a democratically elected president would be criticized. These days are over.

For Lebanon’s president Michel Suleiman is a General. His predecessor Emile Lahoud was also a General. The interior minister Marwan Charbel is a General. The head of one of the biggest parliamentary blocs, Michel Aoun, is a General. The new interior minister is likely to be a General. A month ago, a General, Ashraf Rifi, the former head of the ISF, was on the verge of being a Prime Minister-Designate

When Tammam Salam was tasked to form a government, Foreign Policy had a great article on how the same families in Lebanon get to stay in power democratically while the rule of families is being toppled everywhere else in the Arab World. The Frangiehs, the Jumblatts, the Hariris, the Gemayels are few examples. Even when you think it’s not present, you quickly realize that Gebran Bassil is Michel Aoun’s son-in-law, that Marwan Hamade is Gebran Tueni’s uncle, and that  Setrida Geagea is Samir Geagea’s wife

Though Lebanese tend to forget that quickly, political inheritance is not the only thing we have in common with the neighboring Arab countries. We also have ruling generals. True, the Arab spring was made to prevent Jamal Mubarak and Seif El Islam Gaddafi of inheriting power, but it was also  Colonel Gaddafi and General Mubarak that were the targets. In the same way the Lebanese don’t view the election of the same families to the parliament as a wrong matter, they don’t view the presence of Generals in power as a bad thing.

It is also not possible to elect judges, Grade One civil servants, or their equivalents in all public institutions to the Presidency during their term or office or within two years following the date of their resignation and their effective cessation of service, or following retirement.

Article 49 in the constitution prohibits the commander-in-chief of the army of being a president (unless he’s elected two years after he resigns) for a reason. However the constitution was amended several times in Lebanon’s history to let Grade One civil servants serve as Presidents.

The problem of amending the constitution and letting a commander-in-chief of the army be a president is that one day, like all the countries in the world, we might have a coup – as unlikely as it might sound – and the General can pressure the members of the parliament to amend the constitution and elect him, making his rule look legitimate. If the amendment hadn’t been done several times before, the move would have made him an illegitimate ruler. But now that it’s done, each time he gets criticized for being elected under a constitutional amendment, his response would be: “It was done before. Are you suggesting that Fouad Chehab and Michel Suleiman were illegitimate rulers? They were democratically elected by the parliament, under a constitutional amendment. And you’re telling me that there’s an opposition? Do I need to remind you that the Lebanese Forces did not vote for Suleiman  in 2008 and that Raymond Edde was a presidential candidate in 1958?”

But for a coup to succeed in Lebanon, with all the sectarianism and without splitting the army in two armies (or ten, or twenty), it would likely take three centuries. So the main problem of having generals in power isn’t primarily because of a possible coup, but rather because of the nature of the Lebanese system. I’ll make it clearer.

A and B are both represented in the parliament. A and B elect the president, have a say in everything else and can even veto some positions. A and B also have armed wings. On one sunny summer day, A and B clash. The army receives orders to stop the fighting between A and B. There are three possible scenarios:

1) If the officer slightly sides with A, he might get a favor from A. If he sides with B, he might get favors from B.

2) If he stands in the middle, stops the fighting, without actually hunting the armed men down, he gets praised by A and B.

3) If he stands in the middle, stops the fighting and hunts every armed man down, he gets vetoed by A and B.

When Fouad Chehab refused to follow Camille Chamoun’s orders to fight the revolution in 1958, it was scenario 2. When Michel Suleiman did not stick to the orders of the government on banning protests on the 14th of March 2005, it was scenario 2. Emile Lahoud, Michel Aoun and Ashraf Rifi are other examples of the scenario 1 (Who needs scenario 2 when – even if for a while – there’s an A that’s stronger than B?)

That’s why generals become politicians in Lebanon. They take sides, or stand in the middle, depending on the context. But do not be fooled, for there are two types of men standing in the middle: The man who stands between A and B, and the man who stands against A and B (While following the orders of course, that are to stop A and B from fighting)

The “Amn Bel Taradi – الامن بالتراضي”, or consensual security, the fact of stopping the fighting between A and B without actually disarming A and B and punishing them for the instability they are causing, is mainly due to the fact of having officers in power. As you can see, Scenario 3 is missing,  not because it’s too good to be true, but because officers in Lebanon made it to top posts due to the scenarios 1 and 2. So why would an officer risk  his career by going for scenario 3 while he can get easily rewarded and have all the glory he wants via scenarios 1 and 2? Even when he has the political approval from everyone to go for scenario 3, Scenario 2 for an officer stays the preferred scenario, because it doesn’t get him too much problems. The battles between Jabal Mohsen and Bab El Tabbaneh are a perfect example.

When A and B know that there will not be a response from the army, it’s always an escalation of fighting that follows. Scenario 2 usually goes like that:

1) stop a fight by standing in the middle.

2) But the fighting resumes, and it’s a more brutal battle, because the fighters know there is no punishment.

3) Stand in the middle again and stop the bigger fight.

4) Repeat step 2 and 3 several times. Eventually, it’ll be too big to control and it will be more than a small local battle.

It’s not the fault of the army, and  I’m not saying the work some officers are doing in power is bad. Fouad Chehab delayed the civil war 17 years, and Michel Suleiman is probably doing the same thing. But when Generals are democratically given power, it’s for the purpose of keeping things under control. However what happens next is an instability due to the scenario 2 – الامن بالتراضي – that will eventually lead to a total loss of control.

In a nutshell, by bringing neutral generals to power, you think you are doing good, but the scenario 2 – and its consequence, consensual security – will begin, and in order to solve it, you bring more neutral generals to power making things even worse.

On Michel Sleiman’s Defensive Strategy

President Michel Sleiman proposed to Lebanese leaders Thursday a national defense strategy that would allow Hezbollah to keep its arms but place them under the command of the Lebanese Army, which would have exclusive authority to use force.

In a country where a political compromise is always taken optimistically, where political agreements, unity governments and national dialogues are always considered  beneficial even though they are most of the time useless, ineffective and unproductive, comes the latest invention: A consensual defensive strategy. This is a big step forward. But for many reasons, such a project shouldn’t cause so much enthusiasm. (more…)