Nabih Berri

Eleven Months of Vacuum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gebran Bassil

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

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

Walid Jumblatt

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

Tammam Salam

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

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

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

Nabih Berri

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

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

The Three Blows

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

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

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

Yemen and the Baabda Declaration

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

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

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

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

Also, 3 days since Salma Hayek came to Lebanon.

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

The WikiLebanon Files (Part I): The Day Berri Called Lahoud a “Bastard”

U.S. official Jeffrey Feltman, left, meets with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011. (The Daily Star Photo/Mohammad Azakir).

U.S. official Jeffrey Feltman, left, meets with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011. (The Daily Star Photo/Mohammad Azakir).

Over the past two years, I spent a lot of time on WikiLeaks, finding cables that were unheard of and that gave an interesting insight about Lebanon’s presidential politics (see here, here, here, and here for examples). The Lebanese mainstream media rarely publishes the cables, and even when they do, they use them as part of their media wars. This is why I have decided that every month, I will keep searching for relevant cables until I find something worth sharing that the media didn’t focus on.

Since we currently don’t have a president in office, I thought that it would be nice to take a look at some of the (behind the scenes) maneuvers that were happening during Lahoud’s days in office. Enjoy.

1. (S) Describing President Emile Lahoud as a “bastard,” Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri used a 5/9 meeting with the Ambassador to seek USG help in derailing what Berri suspects is a diabolical Syrian-inspired plot Lahoud plans to implement to destroy Lebanon’s parliament. (Yes, gentle reader, the previous sentence is correct as written.) As if forgetting that he is the one holding the power to open Parliament’s doors, Berri outlined a scenario by which Lahoud, drawing on his insistence that the Siniora cabinet does not legally exist, will use a creative interpretation of the constitution to dissolve parliament unilaterally when it fails to meet in its ordinary session that expires May 31. At that point, Lahoud will argue that he is free to appoint a new prime minister and cabinet, without the need for parliamentary approval. And this sets up a scenario by which Lebanon is plunged into new legislative elections. The emerging pro-Syrian majority would then elect Lebanon’s new president, or the Lahoud-appointed cabinet would inherit the powers of the presidency. Describing the “plot” to destroy the constitutional institution he controls, Berri gave a very believable performance of vein-popping rage.
2. (S) As the new cabinet begins work, the March 14 majority would continue to recognize the Siniora cabinet and the existing parliament and proceed with its own presidential elections. Lahoud’s scheme as described by Berri would, at a minimum, set up two entirely parallel structures: two PMs, cabinets, parliaments, and presidents. But it would be more likely that Lebanon would be plunged into chaos, with institutions splitting and the army sitting on the sidelines as the two parallel structures battled for supremacy. To avoid this, Berri advocates a first step that we have long urged he grab: open the parliament, thus preventing Lahoud from dissolving it. He is now on board, but under limited conditions he seeks our help to impose with our March 14 contacts. We are inclined to do so, in order to avoid his worst-case scenario, but we have to consider carefully what tricks Berri himself has up his sleeve. When asked about the impact of potential Chapter VII approval of the tribunal, Berri threw up his hands: “approve it Under Chapter VII, Chapter 67, or whatever — I don’t care!” While Berri seemed to speak with far more candor than usual, we, of course, remain skeptical that the alliance he advocates to thwart a Syrian-inspired plot is a lasting one. End summary and comment.
3. (S) Shooing the aides and Embassy notetaker from the room immediately after the television cameras had panned the ordinary-looking meeting, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri opened his 5/9 meeting with the Ambassador with what struck us as a self-evident observation: “Lahoud is a bastard!” Berri pronounced, jumping from his chair. Berri, who insisted that the Ambassador not share this information with anyone, said that he had belatedly put two and two together to discover a diabolical plot by Lahoud to destroy Lebanon’s parliament. At the last moment, Berri relized that he was being used by Lahoud in a scheme that would throw him out of his own position asspeaker and possibly thrust him into permanent irelevance. “Lahoud hates me, and he knows I hate him. He thinks he’s found a way to beat me.”
4. (S) oing into detail while thumbing through the Lebaese constitution, Berri explained that the scheme tarts with Lahoud’s repeated insistence, submittd frequently in writing and orally, that the Siniora cabinet does not exist legally at all — not ven in caretaker status. This establishes a recrd that there is a constitutional vacuum where te office of the Prime Minister and the cabinet as whole should be. Thus, the powers of those offices can be argued to revert to the President himslf.
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5. (S) The next step for Lahoud is to wait until May 31, when the ordinary session of the parliament expires, without the parliament having met in a single session. At this point, Lahoud invokes Article 65, which allows for the dissolution of the parliament if, “for no compelling reason, (the Chamber of Deputies) fails to meet during one of its regular sessions. . . . While Article 65 empowers the Council of Ministers at the request of the President to dissolve the parliament, if there is no Council of Ministers, then Lahoud will argue that he is solely responsible.
6. (S) Once the parliament is dissolved (and, more importantly for the purpose of this discussion, Berri is without a job or role), then Lahoud will appoint a new prime minister. While Lebanon’s parliament calls for mandatory consultations by which the president is bound to ask the candidate who receives the most support from MPs to try to form a cabinet, if there is no parliament, then there are no MPs to bestow their choices for PM in the president’s hand. Moreover, the new PM can choose whatever ministers he and Lahoud agree upon, as well as whatever government program they want, because there is no parliament to give a vote of confidence. “A coup d’etat!” Berri roared.
7. (S) At this point, two scenarios emerge. Article 25 of the constitution calls for new parliamentary elections within three months, in the case of the dissolution of the parliament. While elections would by necessity be conducted under the discredited 2000 election law (as there is no cabinet and no parliament to approve a new law), a pro-Syrian majority would certainly emerge this time, given the near certainty that March 14 supporters would boycott both running and voting. That pro-Syrian majority in the new faux parliament would then be in place in time to elect Lebanon’s next president to succeed the stooge extraordinaire when Lahoud’s term expires November 24. The second scenario would be that no elections take place, and the cabinet appointed by Lahoud assumes the role of the presidency until such time as new parliamentary elections can be held.
8. (S) Berri said that this “plot” explains two recent developments that previously he found curious. First, he wondered why Lahoud had not “taken the pressure off me” for a month, by invoking Article 59 of the constitution. That article gives the president the right to ask parliament to adjourn for a month. Berri said that he wanted Lahoud to use that, so that he was not the only person blamed for keeping parliament closed. But now he realizes that Lahoud, had he used Article 59, would not be able to invoke the constitution in dissolving parliament — there would suddenly be a “compelling reason” why parliament didn’t meet. The second strange thing is that, according to information Berri has, Prime Minister Siniora offered to Lahoud in a recent phone call to resign, once the tribunal was established, if Lahoud would recognize his cabinet as a caretaker cabinet according to the constitution. Lahoud reportedly refused. That struck Berri initially as strange, since Siniora’s resignation offer would normally be something Lahoud should seize. But, if Lahoud recognized Siniora’s cabinet as a caretaker cabinet, then the normal consultative process would begin, derailing the coup plot.
9. (S) The Ambassador noted that there was one easy way to avoid the entire scenario: open parliament at once, as so many people have been urging. “I’m coming to that,” Berri said, stating that he needed our help. He said that he wanted to open parliament in such a way so as to avoid implying legitimacy on the Siniora cabinet and to prevent parliamentary action that could “split the country.” He said that the Speaker of the European Parliament was coming to Lebanon soon, and thus Berri was thinking about calling a session for MPs to hear the European visitor. He would have done the same for Speaker Pelosi, had he realized in April what Lahoud intended. This session to hear the visitor would count as an ordinary session, thus depriving Lahoud of the constitutional ability to dissolve parliament. But, to do this, Berri urged the Ambassador to help him convince the March 14 majority to send only MPs, not government ministers and not Siniora, and to agree to listen to the visitor and leave, without trying to force further parliamentary action.
10. (S) Help me convince them, Berri begged, to see that, even if they don’t like such a limited session, it is better than having no sessions. Berri clarified that he did not want the Ambassador to share with March 14 leaders the entire plot he described, just the fear that Lahoud could try to dissolve parliament if it doesn’t meet. “If I read about this in the papers, I’ll have to keep parliament closed completely.” (Comment: Berri was not explicit, but we think he was suggesting that he is under Syrian orders to deny any legitimacy to the Siniora cabinet. Having the ministers sit as usual on the dais behind the Speaker would do that, so he wants our help in avoiding such a scene. He is also under orders, presumably, not to allow controversial discussions such as Hizballah’s arms or the tribunal to reach the Chamber floor. But he does not seem to be under — at least not yet — an absolute Syrian order to keep the chamber completely shuttered. So, under the proposed session, Berri could tell the Syrians that he scrupulously followed their orders and had no idea that they intended the parliament to be closed entirely. We don’t doubt that Berri plays games even with the Syrians. End Comment.)
11. (S) The Ambassador asked Berri whether he really thought Lahoud was so clever as to come up with such a complicated scheme on his own. “Of course not!” Berri shouted. The Syrians gave him the basic outlines, and Lahoud’s legal advisor Selim Jeressaiti came up with the implementation plan. The Ambassador asked whether Michel Aoun would bring his bloc along. Yes, because the stereotype about Aoun being obsessed with the presidency is true. All the pro-Syrians have shown him how the status quo will never result in an Aoun presidency, whereas this situation might. “I am really worried,” Berri said.
12. (S) The Ambassador asked Berri how Chapter VII consideration of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon affected his thinking: if the UNSC established the tribunal now, would it be easier for him to call for a more normal parliamentary session? Berri said that the tribunal and the Lahoud scenario he described aren’t related at all. Throwing up his hands, he said of the tribunal that the UNSC should “approve it under Chapter VII, Chapter 67, or whatever — I don’t care!”
13. (S) Talk of two cabinets has been buzzing through Lebanon’s political circles for weeks. But Berri’s scenario — which did not strike us as that far-fetched, now that we have been musing on it all afternoon — sets up two entirely parallel structures. The March 14 majority would continue to recognize Siniora’s cabinet and the existing parliament, as would most of the international community. But what would the Lebanese Armed Forces do, if Hizballah-filled mobs start to try to take over ministries or even the Grand Serail in order to install “their” ministers? And what happens when it comes time to elect a new president? We have only until May 31 to prevent such a scenario from unfolding, if what Berri suspects is what the Syrians and Lahoud actually have in mind.
14. (S) Taking it all personally, Berri struck us as truly infuriated that someone would tinker with “his” institution. He postured as if he had been left out of the Syrian scheming (or, more correctly, let in on only part of the Syrian scheming). If he now realizes that he was being used by the Syrians to destroy the institution he heads, maybe he can be a useful ally in denying Lahoud the pleasure of picking his own PM and cabinet. But it is not plausible that Berri told us everything he knows or thinks, about this or anything else. Maybe he was part of the planning but only belatedly realized that there is no guarantee he will be back as Speaker in what would be a far more Hizballah-dominated second parliament. Maybe he doesn’t want to be torn between leaving his current position upon Lahoud’s dissolution orders, when he knows that the March 14 rump parliament will continue to meet and enjoy international legitimacy. We tend to agree that it is better to have a parliament session even under Berri’s restricted scenario than to have no parliament session at all, but we must think about how Berri might be trying to enlist us in foisting his own ideas onto the March 14 majority. We cannot recall a more significant or interesting meeting with the Speaker. Stay tuned.
Link to the original cable on WikiLeaks.

Hezbollah, Terrorism And A Political Maneuver

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

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

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

Useless Move By The European Union?

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

European Soldiers On Lebanese Soil

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

No True Separation

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

Nabih Berri Or The New Camille Chamoun

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

Can You Smell The Competition?

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

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

The End Of The March 8 Alliance?

Berri and Aoun

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

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

Between The Lines

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

No More Sacrifices For Allies?

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

Zoom Out

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

No Electoral Ground

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

À La Adnan Sayyed Hussain?

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

So Is It The End?

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

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

Constitutionality In The Eye Of The Beholder

Nabih Berri

Guess Whose Eyes Are These

The political system is established on the principle of separation of powers, their balance and cooperation.

Three weeks ago, Lebanon’s highest judicial court, the constitutional council, stood there silently, watching an illegitimate and unjustified extension of the parliament’s term. There’s nothing worse than having a paralyzed constitutional council in a country. What was supposed to be incorruptible, unreachable by politicians, the last hope to halt  tyrannical laws – a council dissolving illegitimate senates in Egypt and capable of impeaching presidents – turned out to be a political property as it even failed to convene; two judges were loyal to Berri and another was loyal to Jumblatt. To be fair, the council’s president that was against the extension, also turned out to be a relative of the Lebanese President. Meaning that any decision – with or against the extension – would’ve been a political one rather than a purely independent judicial one. In Lebanon you can call it sharing power,  expanding an influence or even rewarding a loyal supporter with a civil servant post. In other countries, it’s called corruption.

No True Separation

The quote at the beginning isn’t from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but from the Lebanese Constitution, its preamble, article E . So what defines a democracy? Separation of powers does play a role, at least according to Montesquieu. It prevents a single body from usurping all the powers, or even corrupting and paralyzing the two other bodies.

When half of the constitutional council members are named by the parliament and the other half is the government’s share, is it truly an independent judicial power? When the parliament – that already has immense powers of electing the President, the PM, giving the government the confidence, and indirectly ruling everywhere – fails to form a government and starts surpassing its legislative authority by voting laws with no government in power, by extending civil servant terms – a purely executive right – and by having the third of the previous cabinet as MPs, wouldn’t be considered usurpation of power rather than separation and cooperation? Would an MP give a no-confidence vote if he were the minister? Is it anything but merging the three branches of the state? If there was still one thing to be proud of in this country, it was the separation of powers between the government, the judiciary, and the parliament. Even that turned to be an illusion.

Berri’s Double Standards

Constitutionality is in the eye of the beholder. Back in 2007, when the speaker refused to call for a parliamentary session (thus paralyzing the parliament), he argued that the government was not legitimate because it did not have Shia ministers. For him, the government was not considered as a functioning executive power anymore, and the parliament – selon l’usage – cannot usually convene to vote laws with no executive authority in power, because forming a government has the priority over voting laws so that the country avoids power vacuum. I have always criticized politicians for their double standards (see here). Today is Berri’s turn: If there is one undeniable and irrefutable political  fact today, it is that the Mikati government is a caretaker one, with no authority, and even less legitimate than the Siniora government that was present in 2007, for even if Siniora’s legitimacy was questioned, he did not resign and stayed in his post till 2008.

Just one simple innocent Moulahaza: The speaker paralyzes the parliament for 18 months because 7 ministers resign, but when the government officially falls, he is so eager to call for a session in three consecutive days, with 74339240032 draft laws on the agenda – without forgetting that a postponement of the elections and an extension of the mandate was also made under no government in power –  while constitutionally, the speaker is not allowed to call for a session from the end of May till the 15th of October unless the president issues a decree (article 23) .

Berri’s Point Of View

Berri considers that he has the right to call for a session because constitutionally when a government falls the parliament automatically convenes in an extraordinary session. Even if it’s not written in the constitution, the extraordinary session isn’t for legislation but for forming a government as soon as possible. However for Berri, it was understood as a green light to call for a legislating session. If he says so, why wasn’t it also understood as a green light in 2007? Apparently constitutionality is not only in the eye of the beholder, it also changes with time.

What’s Greater Than A Democracy?

There’s a video on YouTube “في احلى من لبنان” (What’s greater than Lebanon?) made by the ministry of tourism encouraging tourists to visit Lebanon. To sum it up quickly, they forget to tell you a lot of things : That the sea is probably the most polluted one in the Middle East (0:06), that the mountains are being crushed (0:20), that the sun exists everywhere in the world (0:26), that we have a  poor food quality (0:36) and that you’ll probably have gastroenteritis in a week. They don’t tell you that Baalbak, by far the most important landmark in Lebanon wasn’t mentioned because it was being shelled by the FSA, that the biggest three coastal cities are now militia hubs, and that a couple of years ago there used to be a poster of Condoleeza Rice at the airport road with the following saying beneath it:  “لا تشتري العبد الا والعصا معه”  (Feel free to to go on Google Translate). But my primary concern with the video isn’t that the Lebanese feel that sharing a video is more useful than protecting the museum  treasures,  stopping the destruction of hippodromes and old houses, watching over our coasts or even asking for a better touristic police. The world is not fool. Sharing videos from the thirties’ era won’t bring tourists to Lebanon, but working to improve and stabilize the country will. Stopping the weekly skirmishes, bringing a government to life, not destroying Amin Maalouf’s house – among hundreds of other cultural buildings taken down every day – might bring more tourists than sharing a one minute YouTube video telling us that we have sun, water, women (0:45) and food (like all the places in the world apparently)

And what is my primary problem? And how is the video related to the subject of the post? At 0:50 comes the biggest lie you might ever hear. A lie so big that even the Lebanese chooses to believe it. “What’s Greater Than A Democracy?“.

Put aside the ruling generals. Put aside the warlords that became humble civil servants. How can a country with no freedom of press, with no separation of powers, with no elections and with no government can be considered a democracy? The biggest tyranny is the illusion of democracy. When a Lebanese politician – an MP and apparently a candidate to the presidency, which by the way is supposed to be the protective post of the constitution – goes on TV and says that “What strengthens you is your strength on the ground, here in Lebanon, not what is written down in [the Constitution]”, tell me, dear reader, do you feel you’re in a democratic republic where five sheet of paper protect you and give you your basic rights wherever you go, or in an animal farm where you’ll be the prey of both the lion and the wolf?

Guess What!

Egypt is a democracy – well not really, the army just made a coup, but you get the point – and you know why? Because one year after elections, 30 millions take the streets, overthrow a democratically elected president  belonging to a religious party because of his mistakes, put the president of the constitutional council as interim president and organize early elections, only 2 years after they had removed another dictator hailing from the army.

The difference? You live in a country where you have been ruled by generals hailing from the army and religious parties for the past five decades, where the parliament elected on the basis of a gerrymandered electoral law extends his term and then starts acting like a government, monopolizing the executive power and legislative power. A country where even a constitutional council can’t convene.

In a democracy, the rules of the game are clear. When they aren’t, and the referees can’t take a decision,  constitutionality becomes in the eye of beholder. And when the constitution – that includes the written democratic principles – becomes in the eye of the beholder, it is not the constitution anymore, but rather a constitution among others.

Several constitutions do not unite one people.

Oil, Wages and Officials

If any Lebanese top leader, minister or lawmaker desires a salary raise, he or  she should wait for Lebanon’s offshore oil to be extracted

Yes, that was Nabih Berri speaking. The officials’ salary hike is expected to be 4 Millions L.L. for the MPs and Ministers, while the top leaders enjoy a wage rage of 6 Millions L.L. according to a law that is supposed to give a raise to the civil servants’ wages. Two small comments: (more…)