Nabih Berri

Berri on Aoun in WikiLeaks

aoun-hariri-berri-baabda

Image source – National news Agency

This is the 21st post in a series of monthly posts covering (forgotten/ignored) WikiLeaks cables about Lebanon.

There were many shocking political events in Lebanon  during 2016, but between Geagea’s alliance with Aoun, Hariri’s endorsement of Frangieh, Frangieh’s rivalry with Aoun, Hariri’s endorsement of Aoun and Aoun’s decision to share power with Hariri, a very important political developement went unnoticed in the mainstream media, and was probably at the center of all of the previous political maneuvers: The dynamism of the Berri and Aoun’s political ties.

Since President Aoun and Speaker Berri are now (by law) the two most important politicians of the country, and since they’re supposed to be allies (remember the March 8 alliance?), but apparently aren’t (since Berri was the only major Lebanese politician not to vote for Aoun in the 31st of October’s presidential election), this month’s WikiLeaks cable I’m sharing is a 9 year-old one about the 2007 presidential election. In the cable, speaker Berri awkwardly says that “Michel Aoun had the right to be president”, that “Aoun could not just be cut out of the negotiations”,  that “the majority of Christians are with Aoun”, that isolating Aoun “would be like leaving a cat alone in a room by itself”, that “he knows Aoun is irrational”, while also noting “his personal dislike of Aoun”, and “saying Aoun was not his ally but an ally of Hizballah”.

So yeah, this conversation kind of… sums up what awkwardly happened 9 years later… right?

I only kept the relevant parts of the cable that are about Berri and Aoun. Enjoy:

LEBANON: A/S WELCH WARNS BERRI TO HOLD ELECTION
2007 December 21, 15:46 (Friday)
07BEIRUT1985_a

AOUN CANNOT BE IGNORED

———————-

16. (C) Berri said “all Lebanese are now behind Michel Sleiman,” but Aoun had the right to be president because the strongest representative of the Shia held the Speaker’s position, the strongest of the Sunni would hold the prime minister’s seat (referring to Saad Hariri), and under this logic, Michel Aoun, the leader of the Christian party with the largest number of seats in parliament, should be President. He noted that the largest party in parliament is Saad Hariri’s Future Party, followed by Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, then Berri’s Amal party, then Hizballah. He added that Aoun’s party controlled 20 of the 64 seats allotted to Christians; therefore, Aoun could not just be cut out of the negotiations.

17. (C) Berri also thought that A/S Welch’s visit to Lebanon on December 15 and 16 was a “snub” to Aoun, highlighting the fact that A/S Welch is perceived to have purposely avoided a meeting with Aoun, because A/S Welch visited Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, but not Aoun. In Berri’s view, the majority of Christians are with Aoun, and in the future Sleiman would be the only man able to challenge Aoun’s popularity. He noted that many Christians left Aoun’s party after he signed his pact with Hizballah, but these Christians did not cross over and join Geagea’s party, because the Christians know that Geagea is a “criminal.”

18. (C) A/S Welch stated that “Aoun is a problem,” adding maybe it is Aoun’s ambition or the support he receives from outsiders that persuades him to act as irrationally as he does. A/S Welch continued that most politicians can be reasoned with if there is a disagreement between two parties, and that a solution can ultimately be reached, but that such a scenario was impossible with Aoun. “How do you deal with Aoun?” he asked Berri. Berri said that the key was for A/S Welch to visit Aoun. Berri continued that isolating Aoun “would be like leaving a cat alone in a room by itself.” DAPNSA Abrams replied that nothing comes out of a Aoun visit. A/S Welch said that he would not meet with Aoun, but that Ambassador Feltman would upon his return. A/S Welch added that Berri was a skilled politician, and that he should leave Aoun behind.

19. (C) Berri lamented that he could not leave Aoun behind because Aoun is an ally of Hizballah, and Hizballah will only deal with March 14 through its interlocutor, Aoun. He said that March 8 decided to make Aoun its negotiator to give him the ability to take credit for a possible solution. He confided to A/S Welch that he knows Aoun is irrational. Berri also noted his personal dislike of Aoun, saying Aoun was not his ally but an ally of Hizballah. He highlighted the fact that Aoun voted against him for the speaker’s position and tried to convince other Christians in parliament to do the same (Note: Berri also revealed that Aoun admitted to him that his insistence on a two-year mandate for Sleiman was only a bargaining chip to secure other concessions. End Note.) He told A/S Welch that he reached out to Ambassador Feltman for help on dealing with Aoun and that if A/S Welch talked with Aoun, he would feel more accepted and less like an outsider.

20. (C) A/S Welch reiterated his belief that Aoun would not lead March 8 anywhere. Berri then asked A/S Welch to ask Hariri to speak to Aoun, which A/S Welch said he do. A/S BEIRUT 00001985 004 OF 004 Welch noted that if Berri really wanted to move things along, he would use his influence over Hizballah to influence Aoun, who is a “nobody” without Hizballah’s support. Berri said he held no such influence over Hizballah and that Aoun’s power comes from his own popularity amongst the Christians,

FRENCH EFFORTS

————–

21. (C) Lastly, Berri asked A/S Welch about the Paris donors’ meeting for the Palestinian Authority (PA) and inquired whether or not France would be in contact with Syria in order to find a solution to the current political crisis. A/S Welch said that the French did not think they could succeed working with the Syrians any longer. A/S Welch added that the French were very disappointed with the results of their efforts, referring to the now dead French initiative. A/S Welch noted that French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was very disappointed at the outcome and that he personally blamed Syria.

22. (U) A/S Welch has not cleared this cable.

GRANT

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Aoun – Hariri : The Downfall of the BlueBerry ?

 

aoun-hariri

Aoun speaks during a joint press conference with Hariri in Beirut, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016 (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

 

“Based on agreements, I announce my support for the candidacy of Gen. Michel Aoun,” Hariri declared to loud applause.

“Aoun will be a president for all Lebanese,” he added. “This is not a settlement, this is a sacrifice.”

Yes. On October 20, 2016, Saad Hariri officially endorsed Michel Aoun as his presidential candidate, abandoning his previous endorsement of Sleiman Frangieh, and changing the rules of the Lebanese political game.

A little bit of context

When Berri gave hints, right after his agreement with Bassil on the oil dossier two months ago, that he was willing to accept a Aoun presidency as part of a bigger deal (He called it “السلة المتكاملة”, which literally means “the complete basket”), he indirectly suggested  a possible deal that also included a  Hariri premiership and a consensual electoral law (package deal confirmed by Nasrallah’s speech in August, that also included Berri as speaker). Berri’s “blessing” meant two things:

  1. Hariri would be seen in the mainstream media as the one preventing the election of a Lebanese president and a Aoun presidency in particular – going against the candidate of the de-facto Christian majority in parliament and on the ground – which would discredit him and sabotage his alliance with the LF even more, making Berri the first responder to the election of Aoun, and turning the Amal leader into a hero although he was practically doing nothing but maneuvering to get a better deal for Amal.
  2. Hariri would also be blocking something that was going to eventually happen, since Aoun no longer had a relative majority in parliament, but around 65 MPs. In fact, while Michel Aoun and Samir Geagea were forging their alliance in February  and everyone else was panicking, the FPM-LF alliance practically meant nothing back then: Aoun had the public support of the March 8 alliance (minus Amal and Frangieh) and Frangieh had the (not so public) support of Amal, the PSP and the FM. That meant that both candidates had around 45 to 50 votes (since you can never predict how smaller “offside” blocs such as Mikati’s and Murr’s bloc would behave with a Frangieh-Aoun confrontation in parliament), and both Frangieh and Aoun still needed around 15 to 20 votes to guarantee their election after the second round (you need 86 votes to make it through after the first round). The main obstacle for Aoun was that Amal did not eventually support him, while the main obstacle for Frangieh was that Hezbollah – basically the core of the M8 alliance – never really fell to the temptation of saying yes to him instead of Aoun –  which was the goal of the entire FM maneuver of  endorsing Frangieh in December. In other words,when it finally seemed that all of M8 (minus Frangieh’s 3 MPs), as well as the LF, and some random MPs from M14 became on board with a package deal that supposedly included a Aoun presidency, that gave Michel Aoun around 65 MPs, and with almost half of the parliament already on his side, more MPs flocked towards his nomination: For minor independent MPs, that’s the regular procedure when you know that a deal will happen since there’s already a majority that approves it, and that if you stand against it, you’ll get isolated by the deal. And in September, that’s exactly what was happening to MP Makari of Koura who distanced himself from the FM and to MP Pharaon of Beirut who said he was favor of an all- inclusive deal that ends the presidential crisis. Check the most important table in Lebanon right now to see how Aoun became really (really) close to 65 MP mark once M8 (including Berri) and the LF became on his side:2009 lebanese parliament seats

 

 

Berri (and all of us) probably  thought that Hariri would try to block the Aoun presidency for some time, and then eventually come back with a package deal that probably doesn’t have a Aoun presidency in it but instead other electoral law benefits to the entire M8 alliance, hence ending the presidential crisis by weakening the FPM within March 8 but reinforcing March 8 on the national level.

If theoretically Hariri would be made prime-minister, he would leave at the first parliamentary elections, 9 months from now, with no guarantees of having him back in power after the elections. Aoun, on the other hand, would have been elected for 6 years, and a deal that simply tries to exchange a 9 month-term premiership with a 6 year term presidency, without a clear plan about an electoral law or a parliamentary elections would be unwise for Hariri (the potential prime minister).

To sum things up, Hariri was supposed to say no to a Aoun presidency, at least with no clear road-map with what was going to happen with the governmental formation (what would the governmental shares be in the government? 15-10-5 like 2010? 8-8-8 like 2013? Who are the centrists anyway?) and the electoral law. There were too much unknown variables to have a presidency deal, and Berri’s maneuver was his way of reducing the FPM/LF pressure on Amal (the FPM were boycotting the cabinet and the dialogue sessions) to elect Aoun president by throwing all the blame on Hariri.

Plot twist

By the 17th of September, the media was buzzing with rumors that Hariri was surprisingly going to endorse Aoun as his presidential candidate. While it wasn’t clear where the rumors originated from (an FM MP said that very same week that Aoun wasn’t an independent president and that he doesn’t represent the Christian’s public opinion), Berri panicked, and said that he preferred Frangieh over Aoun.

Blue berries and strategic mistakes

That strategic mistake from Berri made it clear to everyone that he was not willing to vote for Aoun after all, even if everyone stood by the former general. In fact, until that very moment, it did not make sense for Hariri to endorse Aoun since, as explained earlier, it would be unwise to make such a huge concession (presidency) without making sure that he had something “worthy” (electoral law, governmental share) in return. But now that it was obvious that Berri wasn’t willing to vote for Aoun even if Hariri endorsed him, the FM leader started one of his smartest maneuvers since November 2015: He began hinting, via visits to every politician that has ever exited (he visited Frangieh on the 26th of September, met with Gemayel on the 28th, also meeting Jumblatt that same day) that Michel Aoun was indeed an option, causing further panic in the Amal camp – especially after Hariri also met Berri that week: According to reports, Berri was willing to accept “half a package deal” involving “an agreement on the electoral law, the finance minister post, creating an oil ministry and retaking the energy ministry portfolio.”

There was no Aoun presidency in Berri’s half-package deal – at least in the press reports,  which might have made Hariri realize that he could harass Berri and sabotage the March 8 alliance by circulating the name of Aoun as next president: By the 30th of September, Aoun was meeting with Hariri (yes, that escalated quickly). Berri tried to mask his strategic political faux-pas and tried to hide his Aoun veto by saying in that week that “he has no personal dispute with any candidate”, but it was already too late, and soon enough, Berri (and Frangieh)  understood that it was useless to *hide their emotions and try to mask their opinions*: Berri publicly clashed with the patriarch, which really isn’t something he usually does, and the FPM did not surprisingly escalate when it came to October’s cabinet meetings, only partially boycotting it twice, on October 6 and October 13th, for obvious reasons: And while they were actually sending a friendly message to everyone by dropping their full cabinet boycott, Frangieh was vowing to stay in the race despite everything, as Berri’s sources still said that he would never nominate Aoun.

Introducing the sectarian card

When rumors of Hariri endorsing Aoun become even more relevant, Berri did something he never does: He used the sectarian card, and accused the FPM and the FM of making a deal behind his back and going back to the “Sunni-Christian duality era”. In the last 5 years of Lebanese politics, speaker Berri had never, ever used the sectarian card. The aounists have been talking about the national pact too much recently (inserting the word “ميثاقية” in every speech), and Berri probably thought he could use the FPM’s weapon against them. The FPM however had the momentum both in the political arena (via Hariri’s meetings) and on the ground, via the 13 October anniversary protest. Hezbollah’s awkward (official) silence also wasn’t of much help to Berri, so the FPM, experts in using the sectarian card, smoothly stopped Berri’s “you are turning back on Shias” rants by…not escalating (best strategy ever).

But it was already too late for anything anyway. Hariri had already figured out his master plan: In fact, Berri was trying to throw all the vacancy blame on Hariri, so when Hariri was sure (probably by the end of September) that Berri wasn’t on board with the Aoun presidency even with Hariri’s approval, the former prime minister came up with his brilliant maneuver of endorsing Aoun:

  1. By endorsing Aoun without the consent of Berri and without the blessing of Hezbollah, Hariri is basically reuniting the two main cores of M14 (the FM and the LF) under the banner of Michel Aoun. (This is a historic sentence that I never thought I would write)
  2. With a very high-ranking March 8 official such as Michel Aoun in the presidency, Hariri can more easily secure the premiership for himself as he is the leader of the March 14 coalition: A centrist president means a centrist prime minister, but a president from the core of one coalition can only mean that the core of the other coalition would serve under him: That rules out as next prime-minister, Mikati, Salam, Siniora, and any other Sunni politician that ever wanted to compete with Hariri on a national or even local level for the premiership.
  3. With a centrist president in power, Hariri can probably suggest the name of someone else as prime minister as well as receiving an electoral law compromise afterwards. But with someone the rank of Aoun in power, Hariri can get a better deal, and he’ll be getting those concessions mainly from Hezbollah and Amal since his endorsement of Aoun would put the FPM leader in the center of the Lebanese political game, as Aoun – with Hariri and Geagea’s endorsements – would ironically have more M14 MPs than M8 MPs by his side.
  4. Hariri shatters the March 8 alliance by handing the presidency to Aoun and leaving Hezbollah in the middle trying to mediate between Amal and the FPM. The FM suddenly becomes closer to all of the Christian parties (of whom he endorsed three figures: Frangieh, Geagea, and Aoun), while also making Amal and the Marada clash with the FPM and Hezbollah. Smooth. Very smooth.

A loss nevertheless

While it is still unclear how Saudi-Arabia gave Hariri the green light to endorse someone as controversial to the Kingdom as Aoun, two things are very important to note here: As much as this is the first political defeat for Berri since ages, Hariri is in no way a winner right now from this endorsement. Hariri has now conceded a defeat – although he made it look like a national victory in his speech – by endorsing Hezbollah’s official candidate, and Ashraf Rifi is going to slowly take away Hariri’s electorate and continue what he started in May (no one likes the moderates and those who make deals). With no apparent electoral law in sight – although there might be one under the table, who knows – Hariri will have lost (in the vacant presidency) a key negotiating card with the FPM, and although he is probably coming as prime minister under Aoun, he’s going to have to fight for his place in the next parliamentary elections – especially as there was no agreement on a parliamentary extension. As president, Michel Aoun can directly control the formation of the cabinet, and with no agreement on that either, Hariri is going to struggle to form his government, and will have to pay the price – sooner or later – with Lebanon’s political elite but also with his electorate, for going forward with a Aoun nomination without having any guarantees – not even anything about Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria: What are they going to write in the ministerial declaration? Hariri mentioned a deal in his endorsement, but endorsing Aoun, without clarifying every microscopical detail in the deal – a la Doha agreement – would be major rookie mistake.

Perhaps Hariri was forced to take this path (he was right when he said it was a sacrifice), partially because of Amal’s stances in the summer. He might have successfully taken the speaker down with him and unified March 14 in the process while shattering the Amal-Hezbollah-FPM trio, but he weakened himself before the scheduled parliamentary elections, and has prematurely abandoned his negotiating cards.

The only real winner here is Aoun.

Well, Aoun and Geagea (Since Geagea has all his allies now on the same side).

Technically, Aoun, Geagea, and the philosophical concept of patience and waiting 3 years in order to get what you want.

Oh, and by the way, the Aoun-Hariri presidency-prime minister deal was expected 3 years ago. 3 YEARS AGO.

Let’s see what happens next. There’s a presidential election session on the 31st of October. Should be interesting.

This was the 25th post in a series of monthly posts covering the presidential elections. This post is about the second half of September, and the month of October 2016.

880 days since the 25th of May (presidential vacancy). 1239 days since the 31st of May (parliamentary extension) .

Deal or No Deal?

 

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The Lebanese supreme council of the tribal federation trying to reach a deal for the millionth time in three years this month. (Image source: September 5th 2016, The Daily Star/Parliament, HO)

This is the 24th post in a series of monthly posts covering the presidential elections. This post is about the month of August and the first half of September 2016 (the second half of summer).

Sit back and relax. This is going to be a long, long, long post. You have been warned.

Let’s start by playing a little exciting game. The game is called “calculating the number of members of parliament that haven’t been elected for 8 years yet are still eligible to elect a president and vote laws although they practically do nothing other than give speeches and maneuver all year”.

In order to play this little game called “calculating the number of members of parliament that haven’t been elected for 8 years yet are still eligible to elect a president and vote laws although they practically do nothing other than give speeches and maneuver all year” (yes, I copied and pasted that entire paragraph, just because I can), one needs a table that makes it easier. Lucky for you excited gamers, there’s a table for you here on the blog:

2009 lebanese parliament seats

In the dark cold month of February, and while Michel Aoun and Samir Geagea were forging their alliance and everyone else was panicking, I uploaded that table to tell the world that their alliance practically meant nothing: Aoun had the public support of the March 8 alliance (minus Amal and Frangieh) and Frangieh had the (not so public) support of Amal, the PSP and the FM. That meant that both candidates had around 45 to 50 votes (since you can never predict how smaller “offside” blocs such as Mikati’s and Murr’s bloc would behave with a Frangieh-Aoun confrontation in parliament), and both Frangieh and Aoun still needed around 15 to 20 votes to garantee their election after the second round (you need 86 votes to make it through after the first round).The main obstacle for Aoun was that Amal did not eventually support him, while the main obstacle for Frangieh was that Hezbollah – basically the core of the M8 alliance – never really fell to the temptation of saying yes to him instead of Aoun –  which was the goal of the entire FM maneuver of  endorsing Frangieh in December. So as predicted in February, the deadlock stayed and stayed and stayed although the alliances had completely shifted.

How it began

Then came the (politically) hot month of July: Berri and Bassil made a deal on the Lebanese gas and oil dossier,  and Berri suddenly started saying nice things about the FPM, which is why I assumed back then – like everyone – that there was a very high probability that Berri’s bloc would eventually vote for Aoun since the FPM and Amal are more or less on good terms since the beginning of this Summer. But that was pure speculation.

Panique

So Frangieh – in a probable panic mode – was meeting Gemayel in in his northern Lebanon home, perhaps in order to lure him into making the 5 MP Kataeb bloc side with the Marada leader to counter the recent Aounist momentum. The FM meanwhile were doing the same: The FM bloc met in Beirut and decided, via a 23-3 “internal” vote  that they would not stand with Aoun in the presidential elections. The vote was made public for obvious reasons: Sending a message to everyone, that even with a Berri blessing, they would still stand against the election of Aoun.

Deal?

In Lebanese politics, a no never means no (sometimes I say very deep quotes). Seriously though, a no in a Lebanese political negotiation means that you want something more. And that’s what the FM probably meant with their very public No. They would not elect a president for 6 years without something in return that would have a long-term effect as the term of the Lebanese president.

Wait? What?? Deal???

And Berri got the message fast. Less than 5 days after the internal FM vote, Berri publicly promoted a package deal – confirming that electing the president alone doesn’t solve the crisis. Right after that happened, we saw three interesting stances:

In other words, the FM were hinting that with a good deal they would be ready to abandon the Frangieh candidacy if a good deal is on the table, Salam was hinting that the alternative would have to be someone else than Aoun, and the FPM…were still holding on to Aoun (surprise!). Probably depending on the deal, the name of the president would have to change. If the deal favors the FM a lot, Aoun would become president. If not, the name of the president would be the result of a more moderate compromise.

What package deal?

For this, we’re going to fast-forward… one day: on the 13th of August, Hezbollah SG Hassan Nasrallah finally indirectly told us what the package deal – for the M8 parties at least – would look like: In his speech commemorating the 10th year since the July war, Nasrallah voiced his Party’s commitment to supporting General Michel Aoun for Presidency, adding that “House Speaker Nabih Berri, our long term partner, is our only candidate for heading the Parliament Council,” while expressing “openness” with regards to the Premiership issue after the Presidential elections.

Let me translate the proposal: Aoun becomes president. Berri gets a share of the oil that makes Amal happy enough to vote for Aoun and stays as speaker. The FM get the premiership.With Aoun in power, Hezbollah makes sure that a cabinet hostile to its policies in Lebanon, Syria, and beyond would not see light in the near future. On the Christian side, Geagea becomes the de-facto second in command behind Aoun and an FPM-LF alliance crushes all the smaller parties in the Christian districts in the next parliamentary elections (The proof: The FPM and the LF said in the same week that they want an electoral law with a joint green light from both parties) which means bigger shares in parliament for Aoun and Geagea. Everyone is happy. Everyone gains more from this deal.

Everyone except the FM, the Kataeb, the Marada, and the PSP

When it comes to the FM, the premiership (for Hariri probably) is “a prize” too little for them to approve in the context of such a deal. The prime minister would leave after the first parliamentary elections, and even if the FM coalition wins, there’ll aways be a chance that Hariri would be ousted from the premiership like what happened in 2011 (throwback to when we almost had a civil war).

For the FM to agree on a 6 year long term deal, they would have to be given something that benefits them on the long run… and that would be an electoral law that favors them. Exchanging the premiership with the presidency, without having any guarantee about the next electoral law would be a rookie mistake that the FM are not willing to do no matter how tempting the presence of Hariri at the head of the government might be for the FM.

There’s also the part where the parties have to share the ministers in the next government, but that’s also a temporary developement and the key issue will always  be the electoral law, because governments come and go but parliaments tend to stay in this country (throwback to that time Lebanon’s politicians extended the parliament term twice).

For the Kataeb and the Marada, they clearly lose because they gain nothing in government and will have to face the LF and the FPM in parliamentary elections with an electoral law they will have no say in, while the PSP kind of lose their kingmaker status if a deal passes through without them in the middle being able to block everything.

This is exactly why the Kataeb panicked and decided to escalate their trash crisis struggle and take things to an entire new level by closing down the landfills in August with their protests – just to be clear, closing landfills is the right thing to do but I’m tackling the issue here from a political maneuvering point of view.

In case you’re not following, more trash escalating means inducing more anger from the Metn electorate against the FPM and LF before elections which means higher odds for the Kataeb to secure Gemayel’s home district in the next elections (here’s a post from two months ago that explains the Kataeb escalations in detail). The Kataeb stopped their trash escalation this week, but their strategy remains the same: Make the FPM and the LF suffer as much as possible in the Metn before June 2017 arrives because it’s the only district where they can hope to make it to parliament all by themselves.

The commander of the army: Complication or advantage?

One of the things that complicate the deal right now is that the commander of the army’s term is expiring, which means that the ruling parties have another thing to share ( = add to the deal). As a potential next president, Aoun obviously wants the LAF commander to be close to him – the Lebanese president after all presides over the Supreme Defense Council and is the commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces which falls under the authority of the Council of Ministers (article 49 of the constitution), which might explains why the FPM is refusing to extend the term of the commander of the army with the absence of a president in power.

2006 + 2015 = 2016

Another reason why the FPM is focusing on the LAF commander issue right now is  because they currently have more leverage than they will ever have: They’re the only major Christian party that still has an active presence in government and this means that appointing/extending the term of a commander of the army (something relatively important) without their blessing can be considered to be illegitimate (There shall be no constitutional legitimacy for any authority which contradicts the pact of mutual existence, article J, preamble of the constitution). Ten years ago (in 2006), March 8 blocked two years of political life in Lebanon with this article (when they argued that  a government – the first Siniora cabinet – without any Shia ministers had no legitimacy and had to resign), and it eventually worked to their advantage in the Doha agreement. And this is exactly what the FPM is doing now with their boycott of the cabinet sessions as well as the supreme council of the tribal federation sessions (the national dialogue got suspended too, in case you wondered) . So yeah, welcome back to…2006.

Yeah. Just kidding, it’s 2015, since FPM and the other parties also have the possibility of exchanging the amy command with the presidency as part of a huge package deal (in case you forgot about the 2015 Roukouz-Kahwagi-FPM dilemma, here’s a little reminder).

When it rains, it pours

Berri said in August that he was going to be with Hariri whether the former PM did something wrong or not (why so suddenly nice, Mr speaker…), while MP Raad of Hezbollah said that the situation was ripe for the election of president, so it seems that the speaker – as well as Hezbollah – are definitely on board with the deal. One might even say that Berri wants to force a deal: He warned that “the country is to face crossroad by year’s end if there’s no agreement“. And although the FM said that Nasrallah  has no right to impose Aoun as sole candidate, there is nothing the FM can do now since Aoun has ≥ 65 MPs behind him, except blocking the quorum session (ironically like M8 are doing right now). But this FM “negativity”, like I said earlier, might just be a temporary answer to get more concessions from the Aounist team (Aounist team = the parties who want to vote for him ): the definite proof? A Hezbollah MP said that “Mustaqbal may benefit most from Aoun’s election“.

Even Geagea wants the deal. Actually, forget Geagea: Even M14 MP Michel Pharaon wants a package deal.

Deal or no deal?

In other words, all of M8 (minus Frangieh’s 3 MPs), as well as the LF, and some random MPs from M14 are on board with the deal: That gives Michel Aoun more than half of the parliament on his side (cc the game we were playing before at the beginning of the post), and with the half of the parliament already on his side, expect more MPs to flock towards his nomination: Let’s call it the Pharaon syndrome: You know that the deal will happen since there’s already a majority that approves it, and if you stand against it, you get isolated by the deal. So you might as well embrace it, and hope to get something in return…like a parliamentary seat for Pharaon who will be crushed in the next parliamentary elections in case the LF and the FPM blacklist him (it’s definitely going to happen if he doesn’t stand with them), so you can say it’s his way of “redeemint himself” (by endorsing Aoun) . And in September, the Pharaon syndrome was everywhere: Even MP Makari (who represents a Christian district in the North and who’s closer to the FM than the LF), distanced himself from the FM.

All the politicians are playing it safe, and for a reason: A deal is coming, and you’re either on the winning side, or the losing side will abandon you. That’s why the minor politicians on the losing side are flocking to the winning side.

OrangeBerries!

Berri’s indirect support gave Aoun a theoretical absolute majority, and once Aoun was there, his numbers only started getting higher. M8 just has to know what to concede so that the FM (and immediately after that the PSP) goes forward with his nomination and avoid another deadlock that would lead nowhere.

It won’t be easy to find a governmental formation and an electoral law that pleases the FM, but we’re almost there..almost.

I can’t believe I’m actually going to say it, but right now, Aoun has the highest chances of becoming president. Aoun’s chances are so high right now, Frangieh and Bassil clashed in the dialogue session on who represents the Christians more. But with the deal still in the making, Aoun is not going anywhere just yet, and if March 8 aren’t willing to concede something big (#electoral_law), we might instead find ourselves with the FM asking for a president that’s more to the middle between “March 8” and “March 14”: Two candidates fit the profile according to the partisan media: Jean Kahwagi and Jean Obeid. Which also probably explains why…the media has been circulating reports of Jean Kawhagi gaining momentum in the presidential game.

On the bright side, Lebanon’s politicians are actually looking for a solution to the deadlock. And it only took them three years to get here. Only three!

843 days since the 25th of May (presidential vacancy). 1201 days since the 31st of May (parliamentary extension) .

 

 

The Orange and the Pistachio

Aoun and Frangieh

Aoun meets with Frangieh on December 9, 2015 in Rabieh. I also have no idea who the person in the painting is, although trusted sources (“مصادر مطلعة”, à la Lebanese media) say she might be the next Lebanese president. (Image source: Annahar)

This is the 19th post in a series of monthly posts covering the presidential elections. This post is about the month of March 2016.

The month of March 2016 was overloaded with political developments. Let’s start with the garbage. After receiving the green light from the supreme council of the tribal federation , the Lebanese government took it upon itself to end the trash crisis by:

1) turning a beach resort (Costa Brava)… into a landfill.
2) reopening the Burj Hammoud landfill that was {as it turns out, temporarily} closed since 1997.
3)”temporarily” (yeah, right) reopening another landfill – Naameh – that was ironically supposed to be the government’s temporary emergency plan to close the Burj Hammoud dump in 1998 and that temporarily lasted for more than 17 years.

So while the government was back to square one, spending the second half of March solving the consequences of a problem by making the initial problem even worse, Lebanon’s politicians were finally free to focus on their maneuvers (and of course, the municipal elections in May).

The revelation of the year

I’m going to start with the  most important development of the past six months (even more relevant than Hariri endorsing Frangieh or Geagea endorsing Aoun). For the first time since it became clear the presidential battle was featuring Aoun against Frangieh, speaker Berri (finally) officially took a side, and called for the election of Sleiman Frangieh as president. In February, we received formal proof that Berri wasn’t going to vote for Aoun, but not that Amal was officially standing with Frangieh. True, we had always felt the he wasn’t exactly a fan of Aoun and his excitement when Frangieh’s name was mentioned in November was too real to hide, but Amal’s leader, had – until March 2016 – always kept a very vague stance when it came to the presidential elections, probably in order to give an impression that the March 8 alliance was still less damaged than the March 14 one by the recent Frangieh-Aoun confrontation. But then again, Berri didn’t just endorse Frangieh on the 19th of March: He called upon Hezbollah to vote with Frangieh too. That was a political declaration of war for the FPM. Why did Berri do it? and why now? Perhaps Berri was encouraged by the official endorsement of Frangieh by Hariri on the 14th of February. There are multiple theories – and frankly – it doesn’t really matter, because what is done is done: Berri’s move will now encourage Jumblatt to be more public about his support to Frangieh,  and has officially ended the March 8 and 14 alliances – at least when it came to presidential politics.

The war on Bassil continues

As the diplomatic crisis with the Gulf continued this month and Rifi, who saw opportunity in the disorderwas still trying to make the best out of it, the political war against the new FPM leader Gebran Bassil continued. It was the environment minister, Mohamad Machnouk, who was tasked by his ally, PM Salam to represent Lebanon at the Indonesia summit, which was (more or less) an insult against Lebanon’s foreign affairs minister, Bassil. So as the cliché political clash between Salam, Hariri, Nasrallah, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Jupiter, and Mars about the Israeli conflict, Saudi Arabia and Hezbollah’s weapons continued, the FPM was by the last week of March under a huge amount of pressure: Frangieh was gaining momentum again, Aoun had officially lost Berri, and Bassil was blamed by March 14 for the entire diplomatic crisis. Even Hariri chose to kindly remind the world that he will not vote for Aoun and “threw the presidential file in Hezbollah’s court”. That very same week, al-Liwaa newspaper reported that Russia is backing the election of Marada Movement leader MP Suleiman Franjieh as president, and Hariri’s meetings with both Lavrov and Putin in the last days of the month are enough to make any other presidential candidate panic. I don’t like conspiracy theories, but the last time Hariri met in Europe with someone relevant from the other camp, that someone became his presidential candidate.

The bomb. The political bomb. 

To make things worse for the FPM, Nasrallah said the following sentence in his speech on the 21st of March:

العماد عون يمتلك الحيثيات لمنصب الرئاسة وحين ندعمه لا يعني ذلك أننا نرفض مرشحاً اخر

Yes, it’s in a huge font, and in Arabic, because it’s extremely important: While Hezbollah was still sticking with Aoun, Nasrallah has now clearly indicated that they were open to other possibilities (the literal translation: “General Aoun holds all aspects that entitle him to become president, but supporting him does not mean that we do not approve of another candidate”). In other words, Nasrallah was giving a very, very, very subtle OK to Berri’s earlier call (on the 19th of March) to Hezbollah to endorse someone other than Aoun, *coughs* like Frangieh *coughs*, and was probably starting a slow but steady shift from the Aoun bid to the Frangieh one, while also blaming Aoun for the deadlock (since Hezbollah is “open to another candidate”). Nasrallah also criticized the LF for criticizing them that they’re not supporting Aoun enough. It’s too early to tell, but that sentence in the huge font does look very promising to Frangieh.

Berri’s immediate response? On the 22nd of March, he said that “the presidential fruit had ripened” (whatever that beautiful piece of poetry means). So yeah, the FPM had the right to panic. There was a pattern, everyone saw it, and the media was ignoring it (and suddenly focusing on the illegal internet crisis – not that they shouldn’t have focused, but the timing is weird): Those were the typical characteristics of a deal being prepared between Lebanese politicians.

How the FPM responded: The T word

The FPM decided to take the matter in their own hands, and just like any other smart Lebanese party with more than ten years of experience in Lebanese politics, they simply changed the subject: Out of nowhere, a debate on the naturalization of Syrian refugees started, and fear of “tawteen” calls began once again. And don’t get me wrong, I’m only questioning the timing here. There was nothing before March, and suddenly, we get overwhelmed with the anti-naturalization calls: See here, here, here, here, here. Whether they had planned this together or not, the three anti-Frangieh Christian parties (Kataeb, FPM, LF) made a joint effort to say the T words as many times as possible this month. Bassil even refused to meet Ban Ki Moon because of the whole naturalization debate, and the FPM (as well as the other two parties) was once again using the sectarian card, by focusing on the naturalization of Syrian refugees: Once a Christian party says the word “tawteen“, you’ll have to wait at least one or two month before you endorse someone (like Frangieh) who is vetoed by the biggest three Christian parties, or else you create panic and kill the candidacy of Sleiman Frangieh by giving the impression that you’re going against the Christian sentiment at a time when the naturalization seems imminent.
It’s either that, or there was indeed an intention to naturalize Syrian refugees, but I’ll go with the former theory for now, because of (1) the timing of the calls and (2) the fact that Lebanese politicians are the lords of political maneuvers.
So yeah, you can say that the Christian parties have gained experience, and managed to halt speaker Berri’s political maneuver of promoting Frangieh’s candidacy in the March 8 camp. But then again, who hasn’t gained experience?
680 days since the 25th of May (presidential vacancy). 516 days since the 5th of November (parliamentary extension).

The Orange and the Blueberry

Check the color of the tie. (Image source: The Daily Star/Lebanese Parliament Website, HO)

Yes, I actually chose a picture where both ties are blue. I’m that mean. (Image source: The Daily Star/Lebanese Parliament Website, HO)

This is the 18th post in a series of monthly posts covering the presidential elections. This post is about the month of February 2016.

Perhaps the biggest lie in Lebanese politics is that power comes from the people. As the month of February 2016 demonstrates, it is the Lebanese supreme council of the tribal federation that decides on all matters. Everything else is just political bickering that has little and sometimes no meaning at all.

On the 27th of January 2016, the Lebanese supreme council of the tribal federation met with happiness and joy, and gave the orders to the Lebanese cabinet to end the deadlock. Just like that, what started as a feud over the appointment of Chamel Roukoz in the army command, and evolved into a crisis that almost brought down the government while paralyzing the cabinet throughout all autumn, was suddenly solved within hours. The Lebanese leaders shook their hands in the national dialogue session, and there was suddenly no problem at all. The cabinet was free to convene and do whatever it wanted to do, and as the media acted as if the deadlock was never here to begin with, everyone moved on with pleasure and delight and focused on solving the trash crisis by exporting garbage (:-$) – hint: even that turned out to be an epic fiasco.

So on the last days of January, we learned something very important, and this time we learned it for sure: When six months of protests and trash and humiliation don’t have any impact on the Lebanese policy makers and all it takes is eleven or twelve or thirteen godfathers sitting together on a table to get things going, know that power is not in the hands of the people. It’s not even in the hands of an unconstitutional parliament, a deadlocked cabinet, or a non-existent president. It’s in the hands of the Lebanese supreme council of the tribal federation, commonly referred to in the media as the national dialogue table.

Anyway, who cares about the people, time to go back to the politicians.

What the lack of quorum means right now

On the 8th of February 2016, the Lebanese parliament was supposed to elect its president. Unlike the previous 28294294 attempts to elect the head of state, this time it was supposed to be special (and, no, not because it was on the eve of St. Maron and that the president is supposed to be Maronite selon l’usage). For the first time since 2014, the main two candidates were now from March 8 and were both endorsed by parties from March 14. Yet just like all the previous times, March 8’s parties boycotted the session. Which why it’s time to do the math. If Michel Aoun is indeed March 8’s main candidate, and is now endorsed by all its parties (minus Frangieh’s Marada), that means that he has the support of around 55/56 MPs from March 8. Add to that the 8 MPs of the Lebanese Forces and some random votes in the center (Mikati’s bloc? Khaled Daher? Michel Murr? – especially that his swing votes in the Metn will become useless if the FPM and the LF go through with an electoral alliance, so he’ll probably eventually join in and help out the new mini-alliance of the Christian parties or risk losing his seat and Tueni’s), you end up with a candidate securing the 65 votes required for the win. [I counted the votes in a previous blog post in case you’re more interested about the numbers]

So why did the FPM boycott the session on the 8th of February 2016? There are two theories:

The first one, circulated by March 14 and their media has been alive for 12 years and can be summed up with the following three sentence: “Hezbollah doesn’t want a president. Hezbollah wants a constituent assembly. Hezbollah likes the emptiness of the status quo”.

The second theory is that the FPM does not have an absolute majority it can count on in the parliament and that participating in a session where Aoun loses by a narrow margin – with the two other candidates, Helou and Frangieh getting less votes – would be similar in impact to the 23rd of April 2014 session where Geagea got 48 votes: Yes, the candidate with the biggest number of votes might actually gain momentum, but – this is not the United States presidential primaries – on the long run we all know that Frangieh or Helou won’t suddenly withdraw from the race and endorse Aoun and that means that time would eventually kill off the Aoun candidacy the same way it did to Geagea’s. Moreover, attending a session where Helou might suddenly withdraw in favor of Frangieh can be a very risky prospect for the FPM as the Marada leader might himself end up winning an absolute majority. If the FPM (and Hezbollah)’s boycott of the session means something, it’s that the Aounists are not sure whether their other allies (or allies of ally) would stick with them. The mechanics of why the lack of quorum is happening mean that Berri will not vote for Aoun (which is why the FPM bloc is boycotting the session, since they fear he might side with Frangieh). This is where the fans (hello, March 14 guys) of the first theory come in and answer the people who believe in the second theory: If Berri is not with Aoun, it’s because Hezbollah is not forcing him to vote for Aoun, since deep down Hezbollah doesn’t want to elect a president.

If you believe that Amal is a Hezbollah proxy that ultimately answers to Nasrallah, then Hezbollah doesn’t truly want to elect Aoun but is blocking the election of everyone else, alongside the FPM, so that the alliance between Hezbollah and Aoun doesn’t fall apart. That theory has also been used by the Lebanese Forces after their deal with Aoun in order to force a clash between the FPM and Hezbollah – en vain. However, if you believe (theory number two) that Hezbollah and Amal are two separate “sovereign” parties with rival separate agendas, then Hezbollah wants Aoun to be in Baabda but just can’t convince Berri to join in on the deal.

But the reasons and the mechanics don’t really matter. Whether it’s only Amal, or secretly Hezbollah and Amal who refuse a Aoun presidency is details. What matters are the consequences: If the February presidential session that never happened taught us anything, it’s that there might be a rift among the March 8 parties that is as big as the rift in March 14.

The rift

As previously demonstrated, Amal indirectly/officially told the world on the first week of February that they are not fans of a Aoun presidency. True, that information wasn’t near as shocking as the idea of Geagea endorsing Aoun, but deep down every FPM official had hoped that Berri might in the end say yes to the General and help him reach Baabda. So when it became clear that Berri was more blue than he was orange in his presidential choices (in case you kept asking yourself what that creepy title meant), a full-blown political war on the Amal leader started. Although it’s a very nice thing to believe in the beauty of coincidences, I don’t think that the Christian parties’ criticism of all of Amal’s ministers in the cabinet and accusing them of disregarding the Christian interests in the country a week after Berri started sending signals that he does not to support the LF-FPM Christian consensual president can be counted as a coincidence: Minister of public works Ghazi Zaiter was accused of allocating less fund for the Christian areas (although some areas are much larger and more populous and have less funding than them [Check Najib from BlogBaladi’s arguments] – it’s why we need official state budgets anyway) while on the other hand, Ali Hassan Khalil, the finance minister, was criticized for replacing a Christian employee with a non-Christian one. Now again, the mechanics don’t matter. What matters here is the timing. Berri bypassed a Christian consensus on a Christian post (the presidency), and that was the LF and the FPM’s mediatized response (If you’re wondering why the Kataeb joined in too, it’s because of the competition on the Christian electorate 😉 )

Speaking of the Kataeb, they apparently found out about the trash crisis recently and decided that the best part to solve it was to pressure the government – in which they have one of the biggest shares – by protesting its policies in the streets as well as “fighting from inside the cabinet” (à la FPM). That recent hyperactivity within the party can be explained by the fact that they recently became the biggest Christian party not supporting an M8 candidate, and they clearly plan on gaining some momentum because of that. Time (and the electoral law type) will tell whether they’ll succeed or not. And even if Geagea and Hariri reiterated that the FM leaders’ remarks on the Christian wedding during the Biel commemoration were a joke, it is very clear – especially while looking at how the supporters of both parties acted – that there is a rising tension between the FM and the LF and that the FM and the Kataeb might get closer with time: Those extra-kisses from Hariri to Gemayel on the 14th of February commemoration were not so *innocent*. Hariri officially finally endorsed Frangieh on the 14th, and while it’s still practically impossible for Frangieh to make it to Baabda, the FM will need another minor Christian party to count on in the post-presidential elections era in case the Marada leader miraculously gets elected, and it seems day after day that relying on the LF (and of course, the FPM) will be awkward. It’s like asking Mikati and Hariri to be ministers in cabinet led by Walid Succarieh; on the other hand, Safadi might say yes to that prospect.

The fall and rise and fall of Ashraf Rifi

While the Lebanese government was proving once again what an epic failure it is, via the trash exportation fiasco and the no-kissing statement, something else was already cooking. It seemed that Michel Samaha was going out of jail, and while that information briefly united all the previous cadres of March 14 under one banner, another politician thought that it was more of an opportunity to gain momentum within his party. the minister of justice, Ashraf Rifi, whose presence in the ISF leadership brought the 2011 Mikati government down in March 2013, took it upon himself to resign from the government that wasn’t making it harder for Michel Samaha to leave his cell and that wasn’t standing with Saudi Arabia regionally (more on that afterwards). Yet it is unclear what Rifi was trying to do. When he previously stormed out of a cabinet session because of the same issue, Hariri disowned his stance and publicly criticized his actions . On the long run, Rifi’s move was smartly calculated, for him and his party: He showed himself as a “true” March14-er, taking his justice ministry seriously and refusing to “succumb to the fait-accompli and recognize March 8’s terms” (and yes, I’just sarcastically used March 14 terms in a Lebanese media context 😛 ). Rifi probably thought that the Prime Minister would ask him to reconsider his position in the cabinet and make him come back as a hero for his city, community, country, planet and galaxy so he may serve them with justice and order. But the former ISF commander is still new to Lebanese politics and he arguably did his first rookie mistake: He humiliated Tammam Salam in the cabinet, and bypassed Hariri’s stances when he refused to back Frangieh like most of the Future Movement officials. Rifi tried to rise through the ranks as quickly as possible by criticizing the negotiating/compromise qualities of his two bosses (and trying to look as pro-Saudi as possible by resigning in the middle of the crisis between the Gulf and Hezbollah), and signed with this move his mini-political death warrant. Bringing back Rifi to the cabinet would show weakness in the Future Movement leadership, give an impression that Hariri and Salam need Rifi more than anything – hint: no one cares about anyone in Lebanese politics – and eventually strengthen Rifi in the northern city of Tripoli, giving him the serious opportunity to overthrow – in an unlikely yet possible alliance with Karami, Mikati, and Safadi – the Future Movement in the next Tripoli parliamentary elections. So yeah, Salam – with an obvious green light for Hariri – signed the formal papers, and what started as a mini-political maneuver turned into a political farewell for Rifi – at least for now.

UPDATE: According to this report, Salam did not sign the formal papers yet (apparently it has something to do with the logistics and the fact that there is no president to co-sign). But he’s making Rifi wait, and there has been no important sign that the FM leadership asked him to reconsider his resignation.

Alice Shabtini became acting minister of justice and Michel Sleiman’s ministers in cabinet are now in charge of 4 portfolios (deputy prime-minister, defense, sports, justice) which is higher than all the previous numbers of portfolios that were awarded to the presidency between 2008 and 2014 (2008: 2/30, 2009: 3/30, 2011:3/30). In other words, that awkward moment when Sleiman has more ministerial portfolios after he left power than he ever had during his 6 years in power.

The gulf engulfing Lebanon and the Gulf

The event of the month is as regional as Lebanese politics gets, with Saudi Arabia withdrawing 4 billion $ in military aid for Lebanon and most of the Gulf countries issuing travel bans because Lebanon abstained during a meeting to back a Saudi-initiated resolution criticizing Hezbollah. I really hate the regional speculations à la Lebanese media, but those developments are clearly – undeniably – either (1) related to Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria and a Saudi response to that because of whatever’s happening in Syria or (2) Saudi Arabia going through financial difficulties with Lebanon clearly not being a priority to them (or any country in the world), or (3) Saudi Arabia’s way of refusing the new developments in Lebanese politics and sending a message that it would only resume aid if a certain president is elected or (4) that for Saudi Arabia, official Lebanon wasn’t worth the investment if it was going to either keep a neutral stance or refuse to contain Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria. Deep down, Gebran Bassil didn’t make that much of a mistake by keeping Lebanon’s neutral stance in the region, as he was following on the government’s official policy of self-dissociation (النأي بالنفس). Regardless of why Saudi Arabia stopped its 4 Billion dollar donation and why a rift suddenly happened between official Lebanon and the Gulf countries in February, the impact on the Lebanese economy was huge: many Lebanese citizens risk being deported for the Gulf countries which might destabilize the economy especially that the travel ban by the Arab countries officially killed this year’s tourism season. The impact on Lebanese politics, on the other hand, was the definition of what a Lebanese political fiasco looks like:

  • The Lebanese government took it upon itself to meet for 7 hours – they almost did an all-nighter – in order to find solutions to this “outrage”, while simultaneously ignoring any reasonable eco-friendly solution to the garbage crisis for the seventh continuous month, insulting with this move the intelligence of every Lebanese being poisoned by the piles of trash polluting the country.
  • March 14 were united in their common support to Saudi Arabia (:-$), and asked Lebanon to sign a petition saying we’re sorry (:-$) and that we’re never going to have a neutral stance (:-$) in our life again. It was always a blow to March 14, since the cabinet, in which they more or less have the biggest share (even if it’s a theoretically 8-8-8 one, its president is still pro-March 14) had failed to achieve the only true thing it promised in its policy statement: Use the Saudi donation to arm the army and preserve stability.
  • The FPM received a huge (HUGE) blow with Saudi Arabia’s move, was blamed for their new leader’s diplomatic faux-pas by Saudi Arabia and March 14, and responded in a very awkward way, saying that NO ONE COULD CHALLENGE THEM IN THEIR SUPPORT FOR SAUDI ARABIA .(?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!)
  • Hezbollah’s officials were angry since they too – by the obvious rules of Lebanese politics – were blamed by March 14 and its regional allies for everything wrong happening in the country (M8 would have reacted the same if the opposite scenario would have happened). Nasrallah escalated, telling the Gulf Hezbollah doesn’t care what they think, which led the Gulf Cooperation Council to officially label them as a terrorist group.
  • The best thing ever? After criticizing Hezbollah and saying to Saudi Arabia that Lebanon is sorry, March 14’s highest-ranking minister in the cabinet eventually acted…exactly like Bassil during another meeting for Arab ministers –  refusing to condemn Hezbollah, which confirms one thing: The cabinet is here to stay, and Lebanon’s political class prefers to have a fall-out with a major regional country because of a sentence in a statement rather than escalate and push the cabinet to a dangerous resignation with no president in power and unconstitutional parliament in Nejmeh square.

Anyway, to sum up the month of February 2016 with one word: Zbele

On the bright side, 73 MPs actually attended the latest presidential elections session on March 2 (I think it’s a record).

Just kidding. There is no bright side. Zbele.

 649 days since the 25th of May (presidential vacancy). 485 days since the 5th of November (parliamentary extension). 231 days since the 17th of July (trash crisis). 

What Would It Take To Get Aoun To Renounce His Presidential Ambitions?

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, right, receives FPM leader Michel Aoun in Beirut, Wednesday, June 4, 2014. (The Daily Star/Lebanese Parliament Website, HO)

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, right, receives FPM leader Michel Aoun in Beirut, Wednesday, June 4, 2014. (The Daily Star/Lebanese Parliament Website, HO)

This is the 11th post in a series of monthly posts covering (forgotten/ignored) WikiLeaks cables about Lebanon. 

Last week, all of Lebanon started speculating on the outcome of the presidential elections. For the first time since 2013, it finally seemed that Hezbollah and the Future Movement had agreed on a name to fill the vacancy, and that Sleiman Frangieh would eventually make it to Baabda. Yet the candidacy of the Zgharta MP still faces two major obstacles: Reservations coming from M14’s Christian parties, and – more importantly – the absence of an official green light coming from his long-term ally and president in the Change and Reform Bloc, Michel Aoun. Which is why this month’s WikiLeaks cable is about a dialogue that happened 8 years ago – when Aoun was running for the 2007 presidential elections – between speaker Nabih Berri and the American ambassador, on what it might have taken to get Aoun to renounce his presidential ambitions back then (spoiler: Berri says that it might be certain ministerial portfolios).

Also, (according to the cable) Berri called Aoun  “an…eunuch”.

Enjoy.

LEBANON: BERRI URGES U.S. TO WORK ON AOUN
2007 November 6, 15:36 (Tuesday)
07BEIRUT1736_a
CONFIDENTIAL
CONFIDENTIAL
— Not Assigned —
SUMMARY
——-
1. (C) Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri lamented the absence of parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri from Lebanon, which he said prevented efforts to reach a consensus presidential candidate on time. If no consensus candidate is named before November 12, Berri said he would set a new date for the election, probably on either November 19 or 20. Berri was optimistic that the recent discussions with the Syrians in Istanbul and continuing French diplomatic efforts in Lebanon could lead to a consensus candidate, but warned the U.S. to stop supporting a half plus one president. Privately, Berri told the Ambassador that the U.S. should work on Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun to find out what it would take to get Aoun to renounce his own presidential ambitions. With Aoun conceding the office to others, Berri said that he he would work to see a consensus candidate elected who is closer to March 14 than March 8, with Boutros Harb and Robert Ghanem mentioned as possibilities. End summary.
HARIRI’S ABSENCE COSTING TIME
—————————–
2. (C) The Ambassador, accompanied by Pol/Econ Chief, met with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and his advisor Ali Hamdan at Berri’s office in Ain el-Tineh on November 6. The Ambassador opened the meeting asking when majority leader Saad Hariri would return to Lebanon. An exasperated Berri complained that Saad’s frequent and prolonged absences were causing them to lose time. We lost the October 23 election date because of Saad’s extended stay abroad, Berri said, and now the timing is even more delicate; Saad is out and about meeting with the French in Paris to hear about Istanbul when he should be here dealing with the situation in Lebanon. If he had to postpone the electoral session again, Berri said, it would probably be November 19 or 20. (Note: President Lahoud’s mandate expires on midnight November 23; November 22 is Lebanese National Day. End note.)
THE FRENCH CONNECTION
———————
3. (C) Berri said he had heard the day before from Fares Boueiz that Sarkozy advisor Claude Gueant would visit Beirut later in the week and had requested a meeting with Berri for November 8. Gueant reportedly planned to stay in Lebanon afterwards to help encourage progress towards electing a new president.
4. (C) Sharing his readouts from the Istanbul meetings, Berri said the French representatives reportedly told the Syrians they wanted a consensus candidate and a new relationship with Syria, and that France would work on the Europeans and U.S. if Syria played a constructive role in the Lebanese election. There were no differences between the French and U.S. up until November 14; but after that France feared that March 14’s election of a president with a half plus one majority would be a problem. The French reportedly asked about possible candidates, to which President Asad replied that Syria also wants consensus and has no candidate in mind. Asad reportedly pushed the French to talk to the Patriarch, Saad Hariri, and Nabih Berri, telling them that if they were successful in reaching a solution, Syria would be on board.
5. (C) The Ambassador, noting that this echoed reports he had heard that the Syrians had proposed to the French a mechanism for resolving the impasse, wondered whether the Patriarch would play along, given his fear that people would not accept his candidates. Berri, agreeing that the names currently believed to be on the Patriarch’s short-list (Demianos Kattar, Joseph Torbey, Shakib Qortbawi, Michel Edde) were not acceptable to either side, said there were many names between the March 14 candidates (Nassib Lahoud, Boutros Harb, and Robert Ghanem) and Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun (“an eunuch,” Berri said, beseeching us not to share his comment). So, he added, “I think we can arrive at a consensus…with the help of the U.S.”
FOCUS ON CANDIDATES, NOT PROGRAMS
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6. (C) While acknowledging that the U.S. supported consensus in its public statements, Berri said the U.S. should stop telling March 14 privately that the U.S. would support a half plus one president. “I know the private messages you are passing,” he said, adding that Saad was convinced of consensus. “I know you have your opinion, but don’t interfere; it is your duty to help.”
7. (C) The Ambassador, as in many meetings before with the Speaker, told Berri the U.S. was not opposed to compromise, as long as it was not on principles. Berri retorted, “We are with 1701,” adding that since UN Special Envoy for UNSCR 1559 Envoy Terje Roed-Larsen downplayed 1559 in Rome, he saw no need to reference it either. When Saad raised UNSCR 1559, Berri stressed that he supported UNSCR 1701. After the election, it would be the first duty of the new prime minister to discuss Shebaa farms and Hizballah’s arms, he said; otherwise he, as Speaker, would have to finish what he started in the National Dialogue. If Hizballah disagreed with the government’s position, it could stay out of the government, Berri said, adding that he himself might withdraw if his party (Amal) were not given enough cabinet seats.
8. (C) Berri said he had told Saad in their meetings that there was no need to discuss principles and programs, only candidates, since the opposition would support the principles outlined in the spring 2006 National Dialogue (i.e., support for the Special Tribunal, good relations with Syria, including the exchange of diplomatic ties, and the rejection of Palestinian arms outside the camps and limited timeline for their removal inside the camps). The opposition also supported Lebanon’s Paris III commitments, he said; different elements within those commitments might have to be reviewed, he added, citing the government’s recent efforts to privatize Lebanon’s cell phone networks.
U.S. SHOULD WORK ON AOUN
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9. (C) Pulling the Ambassador into his side office for a private word, Berri urged the U.S. to work on Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun to find out what Aoun would need in return for renouncing his own presidential aspirations. If Aoun agrees to concede the presidency, Berri said, then it makes possible for a solution — a president who is closer to March 14 than March 8. As long as Aoun remains in the running, Berri said, his hands are tied. But if Aoun agrees to accept certain ministerial portfolios, then Berri would be willing to support someone like Boutros Harb or Robert Ghanem. The Ambassador asked for confirmation that he would support Harb. Yes, Berri said, if Aoun will agree to step aside. Berri said that his only red line was Nassib Lahoud, as someone “too Saudi.”
COMMENT
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10. (C) In what seemed to the Ambassador and Pol/Econ Chief like an endless lunch the day before with presidential hopeful Robert Ghanem, Ghanem did not sound very March 14-like in his statements in support of a two-thirds quorum and his lenient approach to Hizballah. We find it slightly worrisome that Berri has now placed him in this camp, suggesting that he may no longer be viewed as a potential consensus candidate.
11. (C) Berri’s continuing mantra of “the presidency will solve all of Lebanon’s problems” also is not comforting, especially combined with his dismissal of UNSCR 1559. We find it difficult to believe Berri would strike a deal with Saad without some sort of guarantees on the makeup of the new cabinet or the government’s program. That is unless, as many have warned us, Berri’s real goal is to install a weak president along with Saad as prime minister, both of whom would serve as easy prey for the opposition’s efforts to undermine March 14 and its objectives.
12. (C) Berri, fingering Saad’s absence and what he deems to be U.S. “interference,” while at the same time applauding French and Syrian support for a consensus candidate, seems to be absolving himself of any responsibility should parliament be unable to elect a president on November 12. Rather than take the bull by the horns, however, he is content to postpone the crisis until the bitter end. His appeal to us to work on Aoun is not surprising, given his apparent disdain for the General, though we can’t help but wonder, if not Aoun or Ghanem, whom the speaker has in mind as a consensus candidate. Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) Commander Michel Sleiman’s name, notably, did not come up in this meeting, suggesting that either the pro-Syrian opposition has given up on his candidacy or perhaps is merely waiting to see how things play out over the next critical days, ready to pull Sleiman back out of the hat when it seems no other solution is possible.
13. (C) Whatever Berri’s motivations, he is right that working on Aoun is something, however unappealing a task it may be, worth doing. We agree with Berri that, if Aoun would accept the inevitability that he is not going to be president, a solution to Lebanon’s presidential crisis becomes easier to achieve. End comment.
FELTMAN

Legislation of Necessity and a Christian Boycott

How the parliament looked like before the war. Found on the internet.

How the parliament looked like before the war. Found on the internet.

The Chamber meeting to elect the President of the Republic shall be considered an electoral body and not a legislative assembly. It must proceed immediately, without discussion of any other act, to elect the Head of the State.

Lebanon, meet article 75 of the Lebanese Constitution. Article 75 of the Lebanese constitution, meet Lebanon. For this week, the parliament of Lebanon is answering the call of its speaker and is meeting – in the middle of a presidential vacancy – in order to legislate.

It is not the first time something like that happens. On the 5th of November 2014, the Lebanese parliament legislated and extended its own term. As if meeting to legislate wasn’t by itself contradictory to article 75 of the constitution (You really don’t have to be an expert to see that), the constitutional council considered that the extension law was unconstitutional. In other words, it’s like telling a little kid that he can’t eat pizza and that he can’t eat in his room, and the little kid proceeds to eat a pizza, in his room. And since the kid wasn’t grounded, he plans on eating the whole kitchen this week (38 draft laws are listed on the agenda of the Thursday and Friday sessions).

What is a priority?

For the past year, the Lebanese political system became a vicious circle. Most of the parties in power (except the FPM) are asking for the election of a president before early parliamentary elections. The FPM (as well as the protesters) have asked for early parliamentary elections before the presidential elections. For the FPM, it’s because they don’t have the majority necessary to elect Aoun, and for the Hirak (the Lebanese protests movement), it’s because the Lebanese parliament is a de facto unconstitutional non-elected one that doesn’t have the legitimacy to elect a president who will rule for 6 years. Now, once this debate is solved, and that all of Lebanon’s people and politicians agree on the identity of the priority (good luck), another problem arises: All of Lebanon’s politicians say that the current electoral law is bad, yet cannot agree on an alternative one. To make things even worse, internal struggles between different parties in the government have left Lebanon drowning in a garbage crisis since July. Even after four months of protests and outrage, there is still no solution in sight as the bickering in the cabinet continues.

To sum things up, Lebanon’s current political crisis is caused by the disagreement of the politicians on the timing of the parliamentary elections, the timing of the presidential elections, the electoral law, the name of the president, and on the way things work within the cabinet. That was until last week. This week, things become a bit more complicated: There’s a disagreement on a parliamentary session too. Is it a priority? What does the word “priority” mean in Lebanon anyway?

Muslim vs Christian

For the first time since the ice age, the biggest three Christian parties in the Lebanese parliament are sticking together. The Lebanese Forces, the Kataeb and the Free Patriotic Movement say that what Berri calls “legislation of necessity” isn’t the priority. The Christian parties consider the election of the president to be the first and foremost priority, and if the parliament should convene, it’s in order to elect a president (Ironically, the FPM are the ones denying quorum in the presidential elections). It’s for obvious reasons: The Christian parties want to keep the presidential elections alive, especially that the main candidates are current/former leaders of the FPM, LF and Kataeb. They consider that legislating in the absence of the president is considered to be unconstitutional, although all of those parties accepted ( = They still consider their MPs to be MPs) the results of a previous legislation in the absence of the president (the extension law of November 5, 2014)  even if they boycotted the session. The FPM and the LF have said that they would participate in case the electoral law would be on the agenda. This more friendly approach than the Kataeb’s absolute boycott stance is probably due to the fact that the presidential front-runners of M8 and M14 are still Aoun and Geagea.

But forget about being friendly right now. Once the main three Christian parties in parliament – they account to approximately the two thirds of the Christian seats –  boycott the session, a much bigger problem will arise: The Lebanese Muslim parties – planning on participating in the legislative sessions – will be (more or less) legislating in the absence of “Christian legitimacy”, which would permit the Christian parties to use March 8’s weapon of 2006: A vague constitutional principle from the preamble stipulating that There shall be no constitutional legitimacy for any authority which contradicts the ‘pact of mutual existence. Hezbollah used it to combat the Siniora government (whose Shia ministers all resigned) almost a decade ago, and almost anyone who claims to represent a sect can use it to veto anything. Another thing that the Christians parties and their electorate fear the most about legislating in the absence of a president is the idea of passing laws without having the highest Christian civil servant in power. True, the president doesn’t have a lot of say in the post-Taef era, but he can still challenge laws via the constitutional council or maneuver via his cabinet share (or via other ways). For the Christians parties (and electorate), passing laws without the signature of the Christian president is very scary.

In other words, all the Christian parties – in a historic moment – are joining up together to play the Christian sectarian card against their Muslim allies. That is a huge precedent in the modern history of Lebanon. And what is even more dangerous is that their Muslim allies seem not to care about this move, which might eventually lead in the future to a Christian-Muslim clash transcending the M8-M14 rivalry. You know, because Lebanon needs even more problems.

Revenge is a dish best served cold

Among the 38 draft laws on the table this week is a proposal that is supposed to lure the Christian parties and push them to take part in the legislative sessions: A draft law that would grant citizenship to the descendants of Lebanese expatriates. For ages, that was one of the main requests of the Christian parties (they believe that most of the expatriates are Christians which would strengthen their position ahead of parliamentary elections). So why aren’t the Christian parties participating?

For the LF and the Kataeb, boycotting the legislative session means that they’re pissing off the leadership of the March 8 alliance and that they too – and not only the FPM – are ready to stand up for Christian rights (= the priority of electing a Christian president before legislating in this case).

For the FPM, their boycott of the session is probably a mini-retaliation on Berri for letting the extension of Kahwagi in the army command pass and for not standing with them on the Chamel Roukoz issue. Revenge is a dish best served cold.

So as Lebanon’s Christian parties boycott a legislative session and as the Muslim parties say that the boycott doesn’t make the session any less legitimate, here’s a little lovely reminder: We still don’t have a president (and if we had one, we wouldn’t be discussing the pros and cons of legislating in the absence of a president).

535 days sincwe the 25th of May. 371 days since the 5th of November. 81 days since the 22nd of August.