Parliamentary Elections

Christian Rights and Political Maneuvers

Free Patriotic Movement protesters shout at soldiers in Downtown Beirut, Thursday, July 9, 2015. (The Daily Star/Mohammed Azakir)

Free Patriotic Movement protesters shout at soldiers in Downtown Beirut, Thursday, July 9, 2015. (The Daily Star/Mohammed Azakir)

It has been two busy weeks for the Christian leaders. Two very busy weeks. In September, and in case things stay the same, the second most important Christian-allocated post, the Lebanese army command, becomes vacant. And the idea of having the presidency and the command of the army vacant is making all the Christian leaders change their tactics this month with their political maneuvers.

The first “Christian right”: Surveys, polls and strong presidential candidates

One of the very first political maneuver we saw this month was the LF and FPM’s decision to go through with an initial deal of polling Lebanese Christians in order to see who is the most popular Christian leader. For a country that didn’t even do a census since its independence and that postponed its parliamentary elections twice in the last three years, the idea of a census is both ridiculous and useless: Parliamentary elections would be far more accurate, include all Lebanese, and actually produce a parliament that would fairly represent the Lebanese. The only thing a poll could give us are results that no one will trust and that will be used by the winning Christian leader to spam us with till the rest of his life (because, as Geagea and Aoun believe, the strongest Christian leader should become president). Both leaders think that they could use a win in the poll in order to pressure Lebanon’s parliament to elect them. You know, since a parliament that extended his terms twice, postponed democratic elections, and barely convenes, will be surely pressured by a 4600-person poll made by Statistics Lebanon.

“Marada Movement leader Sleiman Frangieh, an ally of Aoun, said that while he supported the poll, its outcome would not affect his voting choices. He said that he would vote for Aoun no matter what the result.”

So to be clear here, no one cares about the poll, and the poll doesn’t matter. In fact, quasi-replacing the elections with a poll is an insult to our intelligence.

The only relevant reason the poll was proposed by Aoun and endorsed by Geagea is that both leaders want to keep the monopoly of Christian leadership to themselves. The increasing threats of a new young influential president of the Kataeb and an aspiring feudal leader from the north probably pushed the two Christian leaders to go through with the poll. While the poll won’t get us anywhere regarding the presidential deadlock, it would be a smart maneuver by Aoun and Geagea to acknowledge the supremacy of one another as Christian leaders in their respective camps. So in other words, the agreement to ask the Christians “who is more popular, Aoun or Geagea” was actually a treaty between the FPM and the LF to confirm Sami Gemayel and Sleiman Frangieh as minor players. And how do we know that? Gemayel voiced remarks on the initiative.

The second “Christian right”: Federalism, decentralization and presidential elections

The Kataeb’s response came quick. The two major Christian leaders were trying to isolate Gemayel by using a Christian right known as “strong Christian president” as an alibi. Gemayel’s response was very accurate as he responded with another Christian right: “Federalism”. Gemayel played his cards well here: The two major Christian players have major ties with Lebanon’s main Muslim parties, and they cannot risk losing support from them by openly supporting such an initiative. One of the main characteristics of the Taef constitution – and in order to suppress the Christian wartime separatist sentiment – is that it confirms the unity of the state, indirectly forbidding any attempt of federalism, while on the other hand promoting “decentralization”. Like most of the articles of our clear constitution, you can interpret that word in many ways. Among Muslim parties, federalism is a big no-no. Sami Gemayel is offering the Christians something the FPM and LF could never support (If they would like their presidential candidacies to remain intact). Gemayel is quickly understanding the rules of the game: When to play the sectarian card, and when to keep it on hold.

99%

Gemayel and Geagea also tried to undermine Aoun’s intiative of Christian polling by confirming that they were still allies on the second of July.

We agree with Kataeb on 99 pct of matters

(The 1% are probably the constitution, the electoral law, the presidential elections, the cabinet formation, the parliamentary elections and everything else that matters in this life and the other)

99% = Pissing off the FPM?

The third “Christian right”: Protests, sons-in-law and early deals

But the most important event this week was the FPM’s decision to take the streets in order to ask for Christian rights.

But what were the protests about? No one precisely knows. The parliament extension? The presidential elections? The new commander of the army? The fact that Salam is trying to be in charge? Christian rights? The poll?

According to Aoun,

“They are eradicating Christian existence in the East through the use of swords, and are trying to abolish our presence through politics.”
“For this reason we are preparing for a popular movement to confront all that is happeningWhat is going on inside the cabinet, as well as prolonging of the Parliament Council’s term, are actually intended for two aims, namely to take control of the government’s decision and to control Christian representatives’ positions, namely the Presidency and Army Command.”

I don’t know if that made things clearer, but Aoun’s protests, which turned out to be a big failure, and were accompanied by a mini-clash with the army and a faux-pas by Gebran Bassil in the cabinet  – video – (although some might praise the FPM’s number 2 and consider standing up to the PM in the council and screaming on one another a great achievement) were intended for one purpose: Separating the presidential elections from the appointment of the new commander of the army.

As I said in a post last month, the appointment of Shamel Roukoz as commander of the army means that Kahwagi, who will no longer be commander of the army, will slowly lose momentum as a presidential candidate in favor of other candidates, while at the same time Roukoz seems the man to fulfill the legacy of Aoun. Once Roukoz becomes commander, he will likely be the FPM’s potential candidate for the presidency – while maintaining a consensual image. That would mean that if the FPM plays its cards well in the next general elections and Roukoz succeeds as commander, the FPM could be looking in 2021 at a party whose Roukoz is leading its men in the executive power as president, and whose Bassil is leading its MPs in parliament, while Aoun would remain the “Godfather of the party”.

The problem however for the FPM is that it does not wish to make concessions in order to bring Roukoz into the army command. The more the FPM waits till September (that’s when Kahwagi’s term expires), the more Kahwagi’s term is likely to be extended, and the more the FPM will be in a weaker position to appoint Roukoz. The FM will ask for concession in exchange for backing Roukoz, and we all know that the concession is going to be Aoun dropping his candidacy.

This is what all of  these maneuvers have been about. Aoun wants the cabinet to discuss the commander of the army’s appointment from now, in order to avoid any deal that could be forced upon him in September. This is why he is also calling for the demonstrations, and trying to prove that he is the most popular leader with the Geagea polling deal. He wants the appointment of Roukoz as soon as possible and is playing the sectarian card by saying that Salam is abusing his powers via refusing to discuss the matter. Constitutionally speaking, it’s the Sunni PM that sets the agenda in the cabinet meetings (article 64) although the Maronite president is allowed to “introduce, from outside the agenda, any urgent matter to the council of Ministers” (article 53). But there is no president right now which gives the FPM the chance to play a double sectarian card: The FPM leaders are arguing that the PM doesn’t want to discuss the Maronite commander of the army, and is refusing to let the biggest Christian party in the cabinet use the authorities of the Maronite president (Ironically, it’s the Aounists who are boycotiing the election of the Maronite president). Anyway, Aoun doesn’t want to be put in a position where he’ll have to choose between his presidential candidacy and the appointment of his son-in-law as commander of the army, and the panic of these last few days is only a small sample of what we’re about to experience in the next couple of weeks (Aoun actually used the English word  “unpredictable”).

With a double vacancy in the Christian posts on the horizon, expect the Christian parties to become hyperactive. Everyone wants to win the Maronite lottery, and they’re going to use every Christian right (whatever that means) they can find in order to maneuver and gain the upper Christian hand by mid-September.

Even Frangieh undermined his major ally’s demonstration, and that means a lot: (1) He wants a piece of the cake too, and (2) Aoun and Geaga were right to be cautious and contain their minor allies. The Maronite patriarch’s say should also be emphasized: He undermined the poll, and warned Aoun against the protests. A major inter-Christian fight on the Maronite posts is about to begin, and the Muslim allies’ opinions are surely going to matter: Just look how Berri remained silent on the stormy cabinet session.

Meanwhile in Arsal, terrorists were fighting over cherries.

413 days since the 25th of May. 249 days since the 5th of November.

Eleven Months of Vacuum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gebran Bassil

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

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

Walid Jumblatt

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

Tammam Salam

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

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

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

Nabih Berri

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

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

The Three Blows

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

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

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

Yemen and the Baabda Declaration

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

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

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

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

Also, 3 days since Salma Hayek came to Lebanon.

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

Ten Months Of Vacuum

Meet the members of The Consultative Gathering

Meet the members of The Consultative Gathering

Yeah. I know. Ten.

Before I begin, here’s a small recap of the ninth month of presidential vacancy: It started with Hezbollah launching an operation in the Shebaa farms. When Israel did not respond, Hezbollah was supposed to gain momentum on the Lebanese political scene. But Hariri launched an epic maneuver, and Hezbollah did not politically escalate. In the end, it was a tie.

The second half of February and March are more exciting. Way more exciting.

The Two Presidents’ Men

In the last half of February, PM Salam wanted to amend the cabinet’s voting mechanism after several cabinet members began exercising veto power, stalling several of the government’s projects. What happens next? 7 Lebanese ministers meet and decide to form a “consultative gathering”. The ministers are the ones who are loyal to Amine Gemayel and to Michel Sleiman. The rapprochement between the ministers was logical: They all either belong to one of the smallest Lebanese parties in parliament or represent a former president that no longer has any concrete power (not even one MP). The 7 MPs have two more things in common: In a time of presidential vacancy, (1) they all answer to two of the three former presidents that are still alive while (2) not belonging to any of the two main Christian Lebanese parties. Deep down, it’s not about the voting mechanism, as it is about two political groups marking their territory. The two presidents know that they have no power in parliament that would ensure their same important presence in the next Lebanese cabinet. And they also know that they have an enormous amount of prestige (as former presidents) and that the mainstream Muslim parties are annoyed by the LF, the FPM and the two parties’ rivalry preventing them from supporting Aoun, Geagea, or any other alternative than Aoun and Geagea. Again, this is not about the voting mechanism: This is an advertisement. They are showing the Muslim leadership that there is a possible alternative to the FPM/LF choice: A new “prestigious” presidential Christian alliance that is very weak on the ground (and thus that will not ask for too much power – even if it wanted to), and that could still be –  to some extent – representative of Lebanese Christians. The two presidents are asking for political relevance, and in exchange, they will be an asset to weaken the LF, the FPM, or a possible (yet highly unlikely) LF-FPM alliance. For example, if the FPM and the LF reject Kahwaji as consensual candidate, Hezbollah and the FM could count on this new gathering to support the presidential candidacy of Kahwaji. After all, who cares about the other politicians if the biggest party in parliament and the most armed one – along with two former presidents and the army – endorse you?

And the advertisement worked: One of the closest Christian ministers to the FM, Michel Pharaon (Boutros Harb is also a member), joined the new gathering led by Sleiman and Gemayel. Now of course, this rapprochement between the two presidents could eventually have no impact at all, but one should keep in mind right now that the mainstream Muslim parties would have more leverage with their Christian allies (the FPM and the LF).

Hariri also succeeded to undermine the power of PM Tammam Salam (hello there, rivalry) by indirectly encouraging discontent in the cabinet. It’s been a good month of the Future Movement, especially that a new March 14 “national council” likely to reinvigorate the Mustaqbal-led coalition has seen the light.

Approximately one year after the presidential race began, the Maronite Four might be welcoming a new member to their closed group, President Michel Sleiman. The Maronite Four could soon become the Maronite Five.

The Maronite Two

The Aounists and the Lebanese Forces are also about to reach an understanding. The process – whose unannounced intention was probably to slow down the Hezbollah-FM dialogue – has accelerated probably due to the Gemayel-Sleiman rapprochement. The progress in the LF-FPM dialogue could mean two things: (1) That the two main Christian parties are trying to keep the president’s seat to themselves. In other words, the document of understanding could say that only both politicians would be eligible to run for presidency and no one else. Proof? On the 15th of March, Michel Aoun told us once again that he would only agree to a strong president and not to a consensual accordWelcome back to 2014. But it could also mean that (2) no consensual candidate would become president unless the two Christian parties agree on him. This written paper, as useless as it might seem, should put an end to the Muslim parties’ maneuvering and make Aoun and Geagea panic less about the possibility that Hezbollah and Mustaqbal would go through with a consensual candidate of their own. But in the end we (and they) all know that at least one of the Christians leaders will eventually agree to his ally’s terms. But hey, as they say an Arabic, el mhemm el niyye. An FPM-LF document of understanding should hinder for some time any M8-M14 agreement on Kahwaji (or any other consensual candidate for that matter).

Meanwhile, Sleiman Frangieh, who is probably feeling abandoned by everyone (by “everyone” I mean the Gemayel- Sleiman and Aoun-Geagea talks), launched his own political maneuver and preemptively self-proclaimed himself March 8’s number-two presidential candidate after Aoun pulls out.

Quand le chat n’est pas là, les souris dansent

Right now everyone is acting as if there’s a president in office: Berri wants to call for a parliamentary session amid presidential vacuum (It’s arguably unconstitutional, but hey, who cares). Moreover, the Lebanese cabinet is acting as if it’s not a caretaker one anymore: It spent at least two weeks trying to figure out a decision-making mechanism while there’s no president in power, instead of actually pressuring the parliament to elect a president. Our minister of foreign affairs too forgot that he was a caretaker cabinet member, and decided – like Phileas Fogg – to embark on a journey around the world signing treaties in 10 Latin American countries. (Someone should tell him that signing historic treaties with Cuba is not a priority right now)

Because that’s what care-taking apparently means: Doing everything you can do before someone in charge (a president) comes and tells you that you can’t do it.

When Lebanese politicians suddenly become too greedy, it usually means two things: (1) The status quo is going to end really soon (notice the very high number of decrees that Lebanese cabinets pass in the weeks before leaving power), or (2) the status quo is going to stay for a lot of time, and everyone wants to make sure that their slice of the pizza is in the fridge ready to be eaten whenever they get hungry. Meanwhile, on the southern side of Mount Lebanon, Walid Jumblatt is trying to benefit as much as possible from the vacancy and finish his transition of power before a president who is likely to be from the Chouf tries to interfere from the Beiteddine palace.

But one thing is for sure. It’s no longer about a electing a consensual candidate now. It’s about who would look like the winner once the consensual candidate is chosen.

305 days since the 25th of May. 141 days since the 5th of November. 3 Million years till the next parliamentary elections. 

I don’t know if it matters anymore , but here’s the monthly reminder anyway: We still don’t have a president.

Introducing Taymour

Yep, that's Right. The kid next to Kamal Jumblatt in that picture is no other than Walid Jumblatt

Yep, that’s Right. The kid next to Kamal Jumblatt in that picture is no other than Walid Jumblatt

Looking further ahead, “Walid Beyk” believes his elder son Taimur will be prepared to assume the leadership of the Lebanese Druze community whenever Jumblatt decides to “retire and get my green card.” Emitting a low sigh and rubbing his bald head, Jumblatt worried though that his ‘Generation Y’ younger son, Arslan, is less enthralled by the whole Druze feudal ethos (of course, Jumblatt himself was a motorcycle-riding hippy when he was suddenly thrust into the Druze leadership following his father Kamal’s assassination in 1977).

Found on a WikiLeaks cable dating from August 2006.

Taymour. Read this name, and remember it well. Because in the next few months, Lebanon’s parliament is going to gradually see the rise of a new young politician who will one day lead the Lebanese center and eventually be Lebanon’s new Kingmaker. Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt confirmed last Tuesday he will hand over his seat in Parliament to his eldest son, Taymour. In remarks to local daily As-Safir, Jumblatt said Parliament Speaker Berri has promised he would hold by-elections in May after the Druze leader submits a letter of resignation to Parliament.

So Why Now?

If you’ve been following Lebanese politics closely for the past few years, this shouldn’t be too surprising. Like you just read in the cable, Taymour had probably been Jumblatt’s preferred choice to lead the PSP since the last decade. Taymour started participating in a lot of his father’s meetings since the last parliamentary elections (here’s an example of one with Nasrallah 2009). In 2011, Taymour was made the second in command of the PSP. While rumors of Walid Jumblatt giving up his parliamentary seat for his son have been ongoing for quite a time now, Jumblatt chose the perfect moment to end his presence in parliament and formally put his son in charge of the PSP bloc.

1) The Perfect Parliamentary Timing

As I said on this blog a couple of months earlier, Jumblatt’s presence in parliament has seen a steady decline since 2000. It shrunk from 16 in 2000 to 7 in 2011, after 4 of his MPs abandoned him following the Mikati nomination to the premiership. Anyway, it’s very unlikely that Jumblatt would control more than 12 MPs in the next parliamentary elections, let alone keep the 11 MPs he currently has. This why Jumblatt doesn’t want to wait till the next parliamentary elections to get Taymour into Nejmeh Square, because he probably wants him to be elected while there’s still the biggest number of MPs next to him in parliament, which would help his son a lot by giving him some sort of guidance. Also, it would give the impression that Taymour doesn’t have any rivals in the Chouf: While it is very likely that M8 and M14 would field contenders in regular elections, I find it hard to believe that any of the two coalitions would be ready, by their own, to challenge Jumblatt on a Druze seat, in his home district, especially if it’s a by-election: Because if you piss off the PSP while they’re in the middle – and especially while there’s no president, Jumblatt won’t be in the the middle anymore, there will be a president (that you won’t like), and most importantly, Taymour Jumblatt will still win the seat in the Chouf => Not a smart move to challenge the PSP right now. (This opportunity doesn’t come every day for the PSP)

2) The Perfect Governmental Timing

Walid Jumblatt’s minister in the cabinet, Wael Abou Faour, is now Lebanon’s sole raison d’être. Since November 2011, the minister of health has been launching heavily mediatized campaigns to force different Lebanese hospitals, restaurants, factories, pharmaceutical companies, and shops to abide by the guidelines of the health ministry. It might not look like a big deal, but for Lebanon, it was a revolutionary move. Two months ago, I said that it was probably because Jumblatt wanted to (1) maximize his chances at the Rashaya-West Bekaa district in the upcoming elections and (2) at the same time start a transition of power while having the upper hand. Today, I believe we can confirm it. Jumblatt wants to be the man who decides the outcome of the 2017 elections in the southern Bekaa while preparing his transition of power.

3) The Perfect Presidential Timing

There’s something very important about the timing here. Jumblatt didn’t only decide to give up his seat before the parliamentary elections, he decided to give it up before we even had an elected president. And it’s not only because Jumblatt wants to finish the transition before M8 and M14 agree on a deal that is likely to isolate him in the center. We all know by now that – one way or another – the PSP always finds itself in the ruling coalition. What scares Jumblatt here is the identity of the new president. While Sleiman was an ally, the new president might not be one. The last time we had a president from the Chouf (Camille Chamoun), a civil war erupted in the mountains, and Kamal Jumblatt wasn’t reelected in 1957 (And the best part? Kamal Jumblatt was actually an ally of Chamoun when he became president). Jumblatt is aware that a president from the Chouf would gather a certain amount of influence, especially among the Christians of the district. He is also probably more than capable of handling that problem. 2015 is not 1955. He just doesn’t want the transition of power to happen in Mukhtara while a president from the Chouf is interfering from the Beiteddin palace.

And Guess who is from the Chouf? Presidential candidate no. 1, Commander of the Army Jean Kahwaji.

And yes, I am clearly hinting here that the upcoming transition of power in parliament might mean that Kahwaji is the most likely candidate to win right now.

With a new Kingmaker in parliament, hopefully a new King.

300 days since the 25th of May, 136 days since the 5th of November. 3 Million years till the next parliamentary elections.

Reminder: We still don’t have a President.

Eight Months Of Vacuum

Wael Abou Faour

December was by far – politically speaking – the most boring month of 2014. So Let’s take a look at the very first maneuvers of 2015, and see how they are linked to the events of the last months of 2014.

Abou Faour’s Health Campaign

Now as you can all remember, PSP minister of health Wael Abou Faour started a food health campaign in November, revealing to the Lebanese endless lists of restaurants and supermarkets which sell commodities that do not meet food criteria. While there are technical reasons for being skeptical about the campaign (the minister stakes this entire crusade on a very shaky foundation: Trust in government), this is not the subject of this post. Nothing isn’t political in Lebanon, and after all, Abou Faour is a minister representing a political party in the cabinet. Although there might be few exceptions of politicians who actually purely work for benefit of their citizens, I will not give Abou Faour the benefit of the doubt – almost everyone else has already given him that. In this post, Abou Faour’s food health campaign will be analysed as a political maneuver, and as a political maneuver only.

It’s All About Elections 

Two questions come to mind here:

  • Why now? (Jumblatt had ministers in almost every cabinet for the past decade, so why would the reforms start now?)
  • Why Abou Faour, and not Akram Chehayyeb? (the PSP-affiliated minister of agriculture)

Every Lebanese probably asked himself the two questions and subsequently made up a weird conspiracy theory including Shawarma, Taymour, and a nuclear war with Salmonella infected Falafels.

Now the first thing to know about Abou Faour is that he is not only a minister, but a member of the parliament too. And not only is he a member of the parliament, he is an MP representing the districts of Rashaya – West Bekaa. For those of you who don’t know that yet, Rashaya – West Bekaa might be the turning point in the next parliamentary elections.

Traditionally, when the PSP heads to elections, it has always 6 districts in mind: Only one of those districts, Aley (5 seats), has a Druze majority (53%). Jumblatt would always have to compete with Talal Arslan over there, but it should be an easy win even if the PSP decides to run without its allies. The next key district for Jumblatt is the Chouf, the third largest constituency in Lebanon with 8 MPs. In the Chouf, the Druze are around 31%, the Sunnis are approximately 28%, while around 40% of the electorate is Christian. The Chouf would become a fierce electoral battle if Jumblatt decides to run against Hariri in the elections. In the end, the outcome would depend on the Christian votes, but it is more likely for Jumblatt to win once he allies himself with 3 or 4 powerful local Christian politicians (most probably the mayors of the biggest towns). However, Jumblatt has a lot to risk here, especially if he’s not allied with the M8 Christians, and an LF-FM alliance could eventually outnumber him in votes in case he’s all by himself.

The four other districts are minor ones for the PSP, where the Druze have only one MP representing it. In the Beirut III district, the Future Movement is in charge and Jumblatt would for sure lose Ghazi Aridi’s seat if he’s all by himself over there. In Baabda, the only way Jumblatt might dream of getting back the Druze seat is by allying himself with M8 (Christians≈52%, Shias≈24%, Druze≈17%, Sunnis≈6%). I know that it might look at first that the Sunnis and the Druze might together outweigh the Shias, but they don’t: If there was any chance for an LF-FM-PSP alliance to emerge victorious in Baabda, it would have done it in 2009. In Hasbaya-Marjeyoun, the Shias are 57% of the electorate. You all know what that means for the southern Druze seat (currently in the hands of Berri’s Amal Movement).

The only minor district that the PSP can effectively manipulate is the West Bekaa – Rashaya one. With 6 MPs representing it (two of them are members of Jumblatt’s bloc), this is the district that is likely to change the identity of the winning coalition in the next parliamentary elections: Walid Jumblatt’s political power is not only defined by his 7 or 11 MPs that are in the middle: It is also defined by the 14 MPs of the Chouf and West Bekaa-Rashaya that he is able to provide for the coalition that allies with him.

So Why Abou Faour, And Not Akram Chehayeb?

It’s because Aley is in Jumblatt’s hands no matter what happens. The West Bekaa – Rashaya constituency isn’t. Abou Faour represents the district of West Bekaa – Rashaya, one of the most mixed districts of Lebanon. The Sunnis are 48% of the electorate, the Shias and the Druze are each 14.5%, while the rest are Christians (around 22%). Now, although it might seem at first that a Sunni-leading party such as the Future Movement would always control this constituency (because of the large Sunni electorate), it’s not the case at all. In fact, in 2009, M14 – That included Jumblatt back then – only managed to win by a relatively small margin of (more or less) 5000 votes. Which means that M8 only needs 2500 ballots to switch allegiance in the next elections for them to win those 6 seats – provided (of course) that people would still vote for the same parties they voted for in 2009. This is where Jumblatt and the PSP votes come in. The 14.5% Druze votes are more than enough to provide a victory for M8. And the more popular Abou Faour is, the more the Christian electorate over there would be friendly towards him, the more it would be an easy win for M8. In the worst case scenario (Like a Hezbollah – Future Movement alliance), Jumblatt could always make use of a popular Abou Faour in order to strengthen his position among the Christians or the Sunnis of the Chouf and try to control his home district all by himself.

Abou Faour also represents the Bekaa which means that no matter how much Jumblatt “strengthens” him, it would be impossible for the minister of health to challenge Jumblatt’s  influence in the Druze heartland of southern Mount-Lebanon. The next few years are a transition period for the PSP as Taymour, Jumblatt’s son, is expected to become the first in command in the PSP. Strengthening any member of the old guard in this particular timing, such as the traditional MPs of Aley or the Chouf, would be a risky strategy for Jumblatt. Hence the choice of Abou Faour.

And Why Now? (The Hezbollah –  Future Movement Dialogue, You Fools!)

Abu Faour clearly loves the conflict. He describes his work as “battles” and the food scandal as an “invasion,” although he constantly reiterates that he could not have achieved this without the support of his party leader Walid Jumblatt. According to him, it was during their recent trip to Moscow, when he began to receive the results of their investigation that Jumblatt gave him the green light to go ahead.

It was his idea that we have to open this fight. He told me OK, go on. I’ll be with you, I’ll protect you.

(Taken from Abou Faour’s interview with the Daily Star)

Rumors of a Hezbollah – FM dialogue started in November, approximately at the same time when Abou Faour’s campaign had started. The meeting eventually happened in December, and was apparently successful. More sessions were scheduled, and the Christian parties of both camps also decided they wanted to have a dialogue of their own (I’ll come back to that later). Like I said earlier, the power of the PSP comes from their 11 MPs in the middle but also from the ability of the party to provide any of the two coalitions with a victory in two key districts: The Chouf, and WB – Rashaya. Jumblatt is only strong as long as the M8 – M14 conflict is strong. Once both rival coalitions strike a deal, they can easily dictate their own terms and throw Jumblatt out of the political equation. A Sunni – Christian (LF/FPM) alliance could easily control the Chouf by reaching out to the two-thirds of its electorate that aren’t Druze, and a Sunni-Shia-Christian alliance could also throw Jumblatt’s two Bekaa MPs outside the parliament. The only district that Jumblatt would control is Aley, and that’s only if the electoral law stays the same. Joining the districts of Baabda and Aley (like in the 2000 electoral law) would mean the end of the PSP’s presence in the parliament. Now of course, it is highly unlikely that any of the two coalitions – even if allied together – would take such drastic measures, but Jumblatt knows that his role will be marginalized after any kind of M8-M14 rapprochement. The size of his bloc has also shrunk from 16 MPs in 2000 to 7 in 2011 (although 4 MPs rejoined his bloc in 2014). Here are some images that illustrate the downfall of Jumblatt’s political power over the past few years. (Source)

Evolution of Jumblatt's bloc by district - WL Evolution of Jumblatt's bloc by sect - WL

Bottom line: Jumblatt knows that he is getting weaker. It is no longer 2000 for him, and he has to change his tactics. The stronger and more popular Abou Faour is, the more Jumblatt can manipulate both alliances with the battle of West Bekaa Rachaya (in case M8 is running against M14) and the more can Jumblatt hope to electorally defend his home district of Chouf (in case M8 and M14 make peace and eventually decide to curb his influence by throwing him outside of the parliament).

And I know what you’re thinking: It’s still too early for elections. But it won’t be too early once M8 and M14 strike a deal that might include an electoral law, a president, and early elections. No one likes the man in the middle. Especially when there is no middle anymore.

Lebanese Forces – Free Patriotic Movement

While Lebanon was busy these past two weeks tweeting #jesuischarlie or #jenesuispascharlie and discussing Mia Khalifa and Miss Lebanon’s selfie, it missed the event of the decade: Aoun was tasting Geagea’s chocolate truffles. The moment Hezbollah and the Future Movement wanted to start their dialogue, their Christian allies decided to do the same. Now the tricky part here is to know whether the inter-Christian meeting is to support the HA-FM dialogue or to hinder it. The Christian parties aren’t concerned with HA-FM agreements, as long as their Muslim allies don’t abandon them as candidates in the presidential elections. Which is why the Christian leaders are rushing to meet each other after it was said that the first HA-FM dialogue session was successful. Deep down, Aoun and Geagea’s biggest fear is that the Future Movement and Hezbollah agree on a consensual presidential candidate. And their maneuver to counter this possibility was smart: Geagea’s sources hinted that he was ready – if certain conditions are met – to vote for Aoun in the presidential elections. Geagea knows that it is impossible for Aoun to make it through – Aoun would never accept Geagea’s conditions, and even if Aoun accepts Geagea’s terms, we still don’t know if Berri and Jumblatt would provide quorum – but he eventually forces Hezbollah to stick with Aoun now that the FPM’s candidate is supported by the LF. In other words, he forces the Mustaqbal to stick with him, while appearing as a kingmaker. Aoun looks like the most powerful (yet not powerful enough) candidate, and eventually any consensual FM-HA candidate loses momentum – even if it’s for a short period of time.

Connecting The Dots

So in one paragraph, here’s everything that happened in the past two to three months: Hezbollah and the Future Movement decided to have a dialogue. As soon as the rumors started, everyone panicked: Aoun agreed to sit with Geagea, Geagea agreed to support Aoun, and Jumblatt decided – via Wael Abou Faour – to preemptively mark his electoral territory.

Reminder: We still don’t have a president. (It’s been eight months)

242 days since the 25th of May. 78 days since the 5th of November. Three million years till the next parliamentary elections.

Lebanese Politics – 2014 In Review

Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam casts his vote to elect the new Lebanese president in the parliament building in downtown Beirut on April 23 2014 (AFP-Joseph Eid)

The two most important political events of 2014: A new cabinet, and presidential elections. Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam casts his vote to elect the new Lebanese president in the parliament building in downtown Beirut on April 23 2014 (AFP-Joseph Eid)

2014 was a very busy year in Lebanon. It started with no cabinet in power, ended with no president in power, and saw a postponement of the parliamentary elections. But there’s a lot more than that, so I decided to make a compilation of all of Lebanon’s political events in 2014, while linking them to one another. Voila.

After 8 Months Of Pressure, M8 Yields (Well, Not Really): Introducing The 8-8-8 Formula (January 2014)

(And yes, I’m aware that there are five eights in the sentence above)

2013 ended very badly for M8. In the last two weeks of December, and after several months of “divorce with M8”, the president threatened to form a neutral independent cabinet excluding M8 and M14. In the same time frame, one of Future Movement’s most prominent politicians was assassinated. With every step forward in Syria, Hezbollah was facing increasing pressure in Lebanon. The designated prime minister  could have been seen as an M14 member or as a centrist, but one thing was for sure: He was definitely not a member of the March 8 alliance. By the first week of January, it was too much to handle for the party: The March 8 alliance conceded to M14’s demands and accepted M14’s 8-8-8 government formation even though they had previously vetoed it. By January 2014, M8 hadn’t only lost its Mikati government: It was now deprived – and via the 8-8-8 formula – from the blocking third in the executive power. The president was at the time getting closer to M14, which means that the 8-8-8 deal had one consequence for M8: they were theoretically out of the executive power. However, and since Jumblatt was still closer to them at that point, it would have seemed like a smart maneuver for M8: They would give all the responsibilities to M14 by granting them an indirect majority (Sleiman and Salam would be considered centrists) while at the same time keeping a certain degree of control (one of the centrists was supposed to be mutually pro-Berri and Sleiman and the Jumblati share among the centrist seats was sort of an “M8 garantee”. And in the end, even if M14 had won the government, it would have been still accountable to a pro-M8 parliament – Jumblat was aligned with March 8 at the time: Win-Win for everyone. But something else was also developing at the time: The Free Patriotic Movement had already started a slow but steady transition towards the Future Movement, hoping to strengthen Aoun and to declare him as a consensual presidential candidate 6 months before Sleiman left office.

Two things to remember from January: M8 were (not really) losing the battle for the government, and its seemed for a while that a tripartite Hezbollah-FPM-FM alliance was in the making.

Lebanon’s Longest Governmental Vacancy Ends (February 2014)

After 11 months of stalemate, and weeks of sectarian discourse, the government was finally formed on the 15th of February. The FPM finally managed to turn the ministerial rotation into a weird victory: Gebran Bassil was proudly transferred from the energy ministry to the ministry of foreign affairs, and the defense and interior ministries were officially out of M8’s influence. Rifi became minister of justice, and Berri’s aide got hold of the ministry of finance. The Kataeb were thriving with 3 ministers in the cabinet (even more than the FPM) while the boycotting Lebanese Forces were abandoned by their M14 allies and were left all by themselves in the opposition. And Walid Jumblatt was still holding on to his kingmaker position: Officially, the cabinet was an 8-8-8 one. But in reality, it was more like a 9-8-7 cabinet or even a 13-11 one. After all, Salam and Sleiman’s ministers were closer to M14, and Hannawi was a common Berri/Sleiman representative, making Jumblatt’s rather small share an equally important one for everyone. And speaking of the president, he was given 3 portfolios but only 2 votes: In other words, the political class was trying to reinforce his prestige while at the same time denying him any power after the post-Sleiman era. ٍIt was an early sign that the six-year term that started in 2008 was ending.

The cabinet formation had a clear impact on the presidential elections: the biggest winners of the all-embracing cabinet were the FPM and the Kataeb: Strong with their big shares in the executive power and their “moderate” decision to participate with the rival parties in the same cabinet, Amine Gemayel and Michel Aoun would soon seem as the most likely candidates among the Maronite Four to win the presidential elections.

The War For The Policy Statement (March 2014)

The cabinet had been formed, but it wasn’t yet functional. The M8 and M14 alliances managed to split the cake but still had to agree on a common ground for the cabinet: The policy statement. After weeks of bickering, an agreement was finally reached at the last moment between the two coalitions: M14 abandoned their “commitment to the Baabda declaration” clause and replaced it with a vague “commitment to all the decisions of the dialogue committee”. In exchange, Hezbollah agreed to remove the famous “Army, People, Resistance” clause and put instead of it a very weird sentence about “the right of Lebanese citizens to resist the occupation”. The rest of the policy statement was particularly normal – involving calls for unity among other things – except for the part where a plan for a decentralization law was mentioned. Michel Sleiman was trying to achieve something / anything at all before the end of his term. And out of the five cabinets he formed, he chose the cabinet with the least life expectancy to start the reforms.

Forget About The Cabinet – The Presidential Elections Have Begun* (April 2014)

By April, Lebanon felt the presence of a functioning cabinet for the first time since ages. But the new government’s decrees were overshadowed by a war starting in the parliament: The main four Maronite candidates (Aoun, Gemayel, Geagea, Frangieh) met and decided than no one other than them was entitled to become president. The maneuver was clear: The Christian parties of M14 and M8 don’t trust their allies so they decided to preemptively meet and put a Maronite veto on any other “weak” candidate the Muslim parties might nominate (They were trying to keep Kahwaji and Obeid and everyone else out of the race).  The Christian parties didn’t want anyone but the Maronite Four – while not agreeing on any one of them. Each Muslim party vetoed half of the candidates, and Jumblatt vetoed them all. In an attempt to end any Hariri-Aoun rapprochement before it even happened, Samir Geagea nominated himself very early as a presidential candidate, ending any hope that he had of winning, but at the same time ending the possibility of a Mustaqbal-Aoun deal. It was a smart maneuver.

But M8 were even smarter. At first, they spread rumors that Emile Rahme, a very minor pro-Hezbollah Maronite from Aoun’s bloc would be facing Geagea in the first round. Then, they realised that it would even be more humiliating for Geagea to lose the first round without having a candidate competing against him: There were more white ballots than Geagea ballots. The first round of the presidential elections gave us an idea about M8’s strategy for the next few months: They had destroyed Geagea’s candidacy and were now intending to sponsor and elect Aoun as a consensual candidate, or else they would not let the parliament meet again by denying quorum. At the same time, Jumblatt was reuniting his bloc, “the democratic gathering” (That collapsed in January 2011) and fielding his own “centrist” candidate, Henri Helou.

*And The Presidential Elections Shall Never End (May 2014)

By the end of April, there were three things to keep in mind: Jumblatt was yet again confirming his Kingmaker position, M8 had won a symbolic victory, but M14 had time on their side: The longer M8 postponed the elections, the longer the people would turn against them. M8 had no problem shutting down the parliament as long as it didn’t lead to the election of an anti-M8 president, and M14 had no problem letting them shut down the parliament since they knew that eventually the trick would make Aoun very unpopular ahead of the parliamentary elections in November. May ended with no president in power and four warlords aspiring to fill the empty spot.

Meet Our Old Friend – The Presidential Vacancy Is Back (June 2014)

Aoun’s presidential victory in April did not last long enough: In June, the leader of the FPM made a major strategic mistake by suggesting that he – alongside Hariri and Nasrallah – represented a triangle of salvation that could not be broken up. Naturally, March 14 would start the Summer of 2014 with an original propaganda : “Aoun wanted to give up the 50-50 Christian-Muslim representation in exchange of his elections as president.” Nasrallah quickly countered M14’s offensive by (1) reminding Aoun that the triangle included Berri, (2) throwing this controversy on the French, and (3) confirming that he had vetoed the 33% Christians -33% Sunnis – 33% Shia representation deal when the Iranians asked Hezbollah about it. Once again, Nasrallah saves the day.

Aoun Wants To Change The Constitution And The Patriarch Wants To Explain It Differently (July 2014)

July was weird. Aoun, who had previously spent a whole year getting closer to the Future Movement while trying to fashion himself as a consensual, all-embracing candidate, suddenly decided – and probably because of the M14 June maneuver – that it wasn’t worth it anymore, and threw in a political bomb: He wanted to amend the constitution and let the president be elected by universal suffrage. The irony here is double: Aoun, who had spent the last two years lobbying for an electoral law maximizing Christian representation in the parliament, was now letting a Muslim majority decide the fate of the top Christian post. Moreover, it would also mean that the winning candidate would in no way be a consensual one, showing Aoun as a political opportunist that would do anything to become president, even if it meant being a consensual and a non-consensual candidate at the same time. While M8 tried to show him as a politician that believed in true democracy, M14 described him as an opportunist that would easily change the constitution and his convictions to win the elections. So it was a tie in July between M8 and M14 – and Jumblatt was taking advantage of this tie and maximizing his political gains. Rumors about a deal including a two-year presidency for Aoun started circulating in Beirut. Finally, the tie between M8 and M14 ended in late July, when the Maronite Patriarch launched three maneuvers against the M8 alliance. M14 were eventually right in their long-term maneuver: The longer M8 freezed the presidential elections, the faster it would lead to their downfall. July 2014 saw Rai’s first violent stances against M8. And for a Patriarch that has been for long considered as pro-M8, that’s not something good at all for M8: Rai’s first move was considering the boycott unconstitutional and declaring that a half+1 vote would be enough to elect a president. Rai then decided to undermine Hezbollah’s anti-ISIS propaganda by calling for dialogue with the group. Rai’s third move was saying that the president should come from outside M8 and M14. For the first time since March, M8 was starting to lose the presidential race.

Hariri Is Back, Arsal Is On Fire, And Rifi Ruins M14’s Comeback (August 2014)

With M8 having their first major setback since Mikati resigned, Hariri decided to rise to the occasion and maximize M14’s gains. In the beginning of August, Islamist militants from Syria seized the border town of Arsal. The Lebanese army hence started a campaign to regain control of the town. There were two consequences: a political one, and a military one. Militarily speaking, the commander of the army was proving once again that he was capable of handling tough situations. In a way, Arsal 2014 was for Kahwaji what Nahr El Bared 2007 was for Sleiman in 2008. Politically speaking, the chaos on the border was a huge asset for Hezbollah: The Syrian civil war was no longer only across the border, and Hezbollah had now a legitimate reason to crush the rebels on the other side of the mountains. In the same week, four FM politicians – in confusion – revealed four completely different stances regarding Arsal. For a while, it seemed like a propaganda boost for M8. Until Hariri decided to seize the moment, and returned to Beirut with a billion dollar to arm the army. In 48 hours, the rhetoric would completely shift: Hariri was yet again the moderate, the chaos among the FM disappeared, and Hezbollah’s presence in Syria – now with a Lebanese army that should be more capable of defending the border – was no longer justified (at least from M14’s point of view). What would’ve been a massive win for M8 turned out to be whopping political victory for M14. At least until Rifi decided at the end of the month to make a very stupid decision of banning the burning of ISIS flags because they had religious scripture. M8’s propaganda would thrive because of this story and M14’s short yet powerful comeback would end.

Forget About The Presidential Elections – We’re Heading To Parliamentary Elections (September 2014)

September began with the following dilemma: What is the most important priority, the presidential elections, or the parliamentary elections?

And September ended with the following answer: We should head to parliamentary elections.

So what happened in September? For the first time since ages, the Lebanese Forces realized that they were not in a weak spot. And they decided to manipulate everyone – including their allies.

In early September, M8’s parties were all in favor of parliamentary elections – after all, what do they have to lose? On the other hand, the Future Movement was struggling with the idea of heading to parliamentary elections: Hariri warned that the FM would boycott the elections should they happen, while at the same time the FM minister of interior handled the idea very badly and made sure no effort was spared to prevent elections. Hezbollah’s anti-ISIS propaganda would have won M8 the parliamentary elections and made the presidential battle far easier for Hezbollah and their allies. But there was one slight problem for the FM: They didn’t have enough votes to pass a parliamentary extension in the parliament. The FM and the PSP were the only parties embracing the parliamentary extension at the time, and the FM badly needed the Lebanese Forces’ votes to make sure that Lebanon wasn’t going to parliamentary elections. The LF were for the first time in control. For a while, it seemed that they decided the fate of the parliamentary elections. So they decided to manipulate everyone, including their own allies. Their early decision to vote for elections meant two things: They were willing to punish the Mustaqbal for leaving them on their own outside the cabinet in February, and they were willing to strike a deal without the O.K. of their allies. After 10 years, the Lebanese Forces had finally understood how to play the game of Lebanese politics. With the parliamentary elections getting closer, Lebanon also witnessed a media war between Al-Akhbar and Al-Mustaqbal.

Lebanon Has A New Presidential Favorite: The Rise of Jean Kahwaji (October 2014)

In October, the commander of the army’s (undeclared) candidacy was gaining momentum. After the Arsal clashes in August, Everyone suddenly wanted to arm the army: Iran was going to donate military equipment to the army, Lebanon was going to get Russian helicopters, the army received a new U.S. arms delivery, and France/Saudi Arabia confirmed Sleiman’s 3 Billion $ deal. This meant two things for the commander of the army: He was locally getting very popular, and he was also gaining the trust of the international community. And for an officer that was rumored to be “Hezbollah’s hidden candidate”, the support he got from the United States and Saudi Arabia made him look like Lebanon’s most likely candidate to fill the presidential vacancy. Berri – whose secret rumored candidate is Jean Obeid – had to counter any possibility of electing a relatively stronger president. The result was a couple of days of bickering with the LAF commander about the wage hike details regarding the officers, and a change of stance by Berri regarding the parliamentary extension: With Berri’s decision not to go to elections, The Future Movement didn’t need the LF votes anymore which meant that yet again the LF’s decision to vote for elections was meaningless (and they would eventually go with the flow and vote with the FM since their decision didn’t matter in the end).

They Were Just Kidding. We’re Not Heading To Parliamentary Elections (November 2014)

By the end of October: M8’s official candidate, Michel Aoun was no longer an option. Hezbollah’s “hidden candidate”, the commander of the army, was the favorite, and Berri’s “hidden candidate”, Jean Obeid, was at the bottom of the list. Meanwhile, M14 was still recovering from M8’s attempt to shatter it by turning the LF and the FM against each other regarding the matter of the parliamentary extension.

It is in this context that most of the political parties headed in early November to the extension session. Now that Berri’s bloc was voting Yes, the Lebanese Forces felt that the wise thing to do (since they now needed the FM more than the FM needed them) was to vote alongside their Sunni ally. The Kataeb, who usually always go against the flow, did the same again and voted No. On the other side of the political spectrum, Hezbollah decided to go against the FPM on this matter and pleased the FM by voting for the extension: It was an indicator that Hezbollah were avoiding – at any cost – any possible Sunni discontent in Lebanon. The direct consequence of the extension session would eventually be a rapprochement between Hezbollah and the FM. Rumors of a dialogue between the two parties would soon start circulating and the meetings would eventually start in late December.

But 10 days after the extension session, M14 was preparing its counter attack and intended to sow discontent among M8’s members, the same way M8 tried a month earlier to manipulate the FM – LF relations. Suddenly, and out of nowhere, Frangieh became an acceptable candidate for the Future Movement. The irony here is that Frangieh was far more pro-Syrian/pro-Hezbollah than Aoun. In other words, this was a trap for Hezbollah: Once Hezbollah accepts the Frangieh candidacy (instead of Aoun), the Hezbollah-FPM relation should end, and the M8 alliance would eventually be shattered. The victorious FM would have gained a president, who – while being pro-M8 – was the weakest among the Maronite Four. But Frangieh saw the trap, and so did Aoun: Frangieh was quick to confirm that he would only run if Aoun withdrew. Aoun, on the other hand, had a smart response: He invited Geagea to a face-off in parliament: M8 would allow the parliament to convene only if the two candidates were Geagea and himself: Aoun was trying to preemptively end Frangieh’s hopes, while effectively destroying Helou’s candidacy. Jumblatt’s natural response was to call Aoun undemocratic, and it helped us learn something very important: M8’s biggest fear was that M14 would go to parliament in order to elect Geagea, and eventually elect Helou instead of him. After all, the centrists and M14 together controlled more than 50% of the seats, and Helou did leave Jumblatt when Jumblatt abandoned Hariri in 2011. It wasn’t Geagea that scared Aoun. It was Helou. And it wasn’t the presence of an M14 president by itself that scared M8. Once an M14 president would be elected, M8 would lose the only power it has (The power to deny quorum in the presidential elections). M14 could then form a government on its own, and vote for an electoral law that might be terrible for M8.

So, to sum up November in 8 words: M8 wants a deal, and Aoun fears Helou.

Total Vacuum (December 2014)

In December, nothing happened. Seriously, nothing. Not one political maneuver. Any hope to end the deadlock depends now on the Mustaqbal – Hezbollah dialogue.

You might also like 2013’s review.

See you in 2015!

Seven Months Of Vacuum

A Christmas tree is set in front of the Baabda Presidential Palace, Friday, Dec. 13, 2013. (The Daily Star/Dalati Nohra, HO)

A Christmas tree is set in front of the Baabda Presidential Palace, Friday, Dec. 13, 2013. (The Daily Star/Dalati Nohra, HO)

6 months. That’s all it took for the previous parliament to elect Michel Sleiman president. Now that we’re finishing the seventh month of presidential vacancy, I think it is safe to say that we are now living in a historical era: This is officially the second longest presidential vacancy the republic has ever seen (and the longest post-Taif one!). Hooray!

The record is 409 days. It’s a lot of time, but hopefully our politicians would be wise enough to guide us through 7 more months of vacancy. After all, breaking that record might be the only achievement this parliament has made since 2009.

2014 is clearly not 2008. Because seven months have already passed, and we still don’t have a president. Actually, it gets even better. Seven months have passed, and the political class forgot* about the presidential elections.

*completely forgot:

Unlike the past six months that were full of political maneuvers and surprises, December was most probably the calmest month among them all (Here’s a compilation of the monthly events for June, July, August, September, October, and November in case you’re interested). In December, nothing – relevant to the deadlock – happened. Other than the fact that Gemayel tried to fashion himself as a consensual candidate by paying a visit to the South (Gemayel’s a bit late for that phase of the game, since the battle is now about choosing a truly consensual candidate rather than one of the Maronite four), the only other political activities of this month were the government’s (epic fail) negotiations to end the Arsal fiasco alongside the attempt at distracting the people from the fiasco, the parliamentary extension and the presidential deadlock with the health ministry’s food campaign whose timing is suspicious: Food is not a political priority (actually, it is, but you get the point). The Islamic State is on the gates of the Bekaa, Israel is threatening from South, the hypocrite parliament extended its term without showing any intent to solve the presidential deadlock, and the government should be acting like a caretaker cabinet but instead, and as they say in Arabic, اخد مجدو.

And the Hezbollah – Future Movement dialogue that was supposed to be held “soon” last month, is also supposed to be held “very soon” one month later. So by this rate, should we expect a press conference in January telling us that the dialogue will be held very, very, very soon? (although it is supposed to kick off today :P)

Dear Santa, we want a president.

213 days since the 25th of May. 196 days left to break the 409 days record.

48 days since the 5th of November. 900 days till the next the parliamentary elections.