Politics

Burn the Witch

Bombshell from the Battle of Arsal, offered to Bassil from Hezbollah in order to be used as a Vase – May 2019

“The Lebanese Government resigned today after two days of nationwide riots over the worst economic crisis the country has experienced in years.

The Prime Minister announced his resignation here after angry demonstrators tried to storm his residence and the neighboring villa of the President. Soldiers and policemen guarding the officials fired over the heads of the protesters to disperse them.

Big clouds of black smoke hung over Beirut after thousands of demonstrators burned rubber tires, and set up roadblocks to stop traffic. All roads leading in and out of the capital were closed and large-scale disruptions were reported in all parts of Lebanon from Tyre in the south to Tripoli in the north. Protests were also held in most Christian districts after a four-day general strike was called by labor unions as of Tuesday. Shops, banks, schools and offices were shut. Marches quickly turned into riots as demonstrators broke up in bands who went around smashing bank signs. Most of the glass doors and windows in a building housing the Chamber of Commerce in mainly Muslim West Beirut were broken.

In the Christian part of town, a crowd of several hundred people tried to attack the residence of the Justice Minister but were turned back by the police. In Tyre, demonstrators on Tuesday attacked and set ablaze the residence of the Finance Minister. […]

The Government’s resignation leaves the country, with its civil war wounds still unhealed, in a power vacuum. Officials said the Prime Minister had not intended to step down until agreement had been reached on a new Cabinet, but that today’s riots, which involved his own home, speeded the resignation.

Popular fury had erupted over the near collapse of the national currency and soaring prices of essential commodities. The value of the Lebanese pound in relation to foreign exchange has been on the decline for the last three months, but in the last two days it slumped to an all-time low, selling at over 2,000 pounds to one American dollar compared to one third that rate at the beginning of the year.

Shops and gasoline stations refused to deal in Lebanese pounds and insisted on being paid in dollars.

An empty treasury after years of civil war plus lack of foreign assistance and reluctance by investors to pour money into the Lebanese market have contributed to what amounts to a real depression. The Government’s inflationary policies, such as increasing the salaries of civil servants by 120 percent at the beginning of the year, have been cited by economists and politicians alike as the real cause for the crisis.”

Close your eyes. Keep them closed. Imagine a small Mediterranean country – Beautiful shores (minus the trash), sunny roadtrips (minus the potholes), majestic landscapes (minus the quarries), friendly people (minus the civil war), beautiful archaeology (minus everything they’re dismantling). You can live with all those things – But you can’t live without money. Now open your eyes, and imagine that country broke. Imagine a devaluated currency. Imagine a government that can’t pay wages. Imagine an economic collapse. Imagine a financial tsunami. Imagine riots. Imagine banks and government offices being burned down.

Can’t imagine all those things? It’s Okay. They say imagination is only abundant among Lebanese politicians on the eve of elections (remember Hariri’s 900000 job opportunities?).

So since you are probably not a Lebanese politician, the quote above, from a New York Times article, was actually describing Lebanon on the 7th of May 1992 – I simply removed the names of the politicians who were in charge back then.

This is how the financial abyss looks like for the Lebanese and their politicians – and it never ends well. A lot has changed since the economic collapse of 1992 , but the only thing that has been stable for the past 30 years in Lebanon has been the Lira. It turns out, however, that you don’t need a 15 year Civil War to destroy a country’s economy. 30 years of corruption, uncontrolled public spending and squandering, chaotic debts and ignorance of the country’s financial woes can apparently lead to the same ending. By the end of 2018, and after more than a decade of ignoring state budgets in favor of bickering who gets to rule the country, Lebanese politicians started to realize that they had left the country in a financial and economic mess in the process – and that they were the ones who had to deal with the situation. Cash-flow was needed – so the CEDRE conference happened, but for the CEDRE funds to be unlocked, reforms were necessary. And for a party that changed the name of its parliamentary bloc from “Change and reform” to ” Strong Lebanon” after 13 years, reform was apparently not supposed to be a priority for the FPM – and yet here we are.

Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears a Crown

Gebran Bassil spent 15 years fighting his way into the Parliament, and it took his father-in-law twice that time to maneuver his way into Baabda palace. But by the first of February 2019, both had finally made it – The FPM controlled the presidency, had the biggest bloc in parliament, the swing vote and the blocking third in the government – and with the help of its allies, was finally in command of the Republic. For the first time in ages, Gebran Bassil’s party had total control and was 3 years safe from a parliamentary election or a parliamentary one. Although it looked as if the Syrian regime was back in command, for the FPM, the war was finally won. But with great power, comes great anxiety. Just like every Maronite who is past the age of puberty, the ambitions of Gebran Bassil don’t stop at the gates of Batroun’s parliamentary seat. You don’t need a PhD in nuclear physics to know that Bassil wants to succeed his father-in-law as President – and three obstacles stand in his way.

  • The first obstacle is the agreement that Aoun made with Geagea just before he became President, an agreement that made Geagea the second-in-command in the Christian scene and the de-facto heir to Michel Aoun’s presidency.
  • The second obstacle is that Bassil has very little support outside his political party. Geagea sees him as a competition in his own constituencies, Frangieh and Gemayel as an existential threat to what remains of their political influence. For Joumblatt, he’s arrogantly encroaching on the Joumblattist ancestral lands in the Chouf – making major electoral progress in the 2018 elections. For Berri he is a political newcomer who threatens the status-quo that the speaker has established for three decades. For Hariri, he is a timed political bomb in a fractured government, and for Hezbollah, only the heir to a political alliance that defined Lebanese politics for a decade and a half but grows weary with every day passing on.
  • The third major obstacle is simply due to bad luck and half a century of mismanagement. Gebran Bassil’s party is taking command at the worst possible timing in Lebanon’s modern financial history: Lebanon’s biggest economic crisis in three decades looms on the horizon, and there are only three ways out of it: The necessary financial and economic reforms will either hurt the ruling elite, the middle and low classes, or both. That is bad news for the Lebanese political clientelist-sectarian oriented system that thrives on the symbiosis of both components. Lebanese politicians have a tendency to get out of Civil Wars stronger and thrive on political crises, but there is one thing they do not come back from, and that is an economic crisis – Just ask Omar Karami.

It is the ultimate goal of any ruling party to stay in power. So with great power comes great political anxiety, and with economic crises a greater political anxiety. With greater political anxiety comes electoral panic, and electoral panic awakens the survival instinct of the Lebanese politicians – the only thing they actually brilliantly excel at: Sectarianism and racism.

Névrose de Destinée

Perhaps it is simply bad luck for Bassil’s party – after years and years of marginalization – to finally be the party in command at a time when everything is falling apart – or perhaps it’s all those years of parliamentary and government freezes that the FPM orchestrated in its quest for power that are finally coming back to haunt them. One thing is sure though: It’s not going to be an easy ride for the FPM now that they’re in power, and no matter what they do to try and fix Lebanon’s economic and financial woes, they will make a lot of enemies in the electoral constituencies where they plan on thriving in the 2022 elections. What elections, you say? Three elections: Parliamentary, municipal and – most importantly – presidential elections. Provided the ruling elite doesn’t postpone any of those elections – 2022 will be a key year in Lebanon, and a financial crash or harsh austerity budgets won’t look good for those who were there when they happened. Which is exactly why those in power had to figure out a way out.

Thor in the Republic

For the past couple of months – and especially since the third Hariri cabinet was formed – Lebanese politicians started curiously focusing on something they had previously ignored for decades: Fixing the electricity sector. Getting 24/7 electricity in the republic had always seemed like a virtual reality headline intended to recruit votes ahead of parliamentary elections, but now the ruling cabinet had been actually working very hard to come up with an electricity plan just a month after the cabinet was formed, and three years and a half before the earliest scheduled election. On April 8, the Council of Ministers finally adopted a new electricity policy paper, aimed at reforming the electricity sector. And while the plan has flaws, isn’t perfect and might very well never be implemented – it represents something very unusual in the way Lebanese politicians deal with things: (1) It’s a plan (2) that is real, (3) that was conceived right after elections, (4) and that has long-term implications. And how long-term are we talking here? 2022 is the big year for the plan. Deir Ammar 2’s output will increase to 550 MW, and power plants at Zahrani and Selaata will both come online, each producing 360 MW. This is the year that the plan forecasts EDL becoming profitable for the first time in decades. EDL’s deficit will shrink from $1.4 billion in 2019, to $574 million in 2020 and $307 million in 2021, and make humble winnings of $118 million in 2022, if everything goes according to plan.

Twenty Two Far for D-Day

But it doesn’t matter if the electricity plan works out before the elections. In Lebanon’s modern history, approximately 3 governments fall during every 4-year parliamentary term, and in Lebanese politics, 2022 is a very distant future for safeguarding our politicians’ survival in power. You can come back in 2022 and flaunt the fact that Nada Boustani’s electricity plan worked and that your party (or government) was the one who brought the the light back to Lebanon, but you’ll need another plan to power through the darkness phase until that happens (Yes, the pun was intended). But what darkness, do you ask?

NOT an Austerity Budget

” Today, it’s a trickle, and at this rate we might have a couple of years, based on published reserve numbers, but if it accelerates, which is looking likely, D-Day would strike in 2020.”

That was Dan Azzi at An-Nahar, trying to predict an approximate opening date for Lebanon’s looming fiscal fiasco. For the past year, the main focus of Lebanese lawmakers was the implementation of an “austerity” budget that would make it easier for the country to unlock the CEDRE funds. The parliament finally approved the budget on the 20th of July 2019 after 6 months of deliberations and negotiations with the representative of the different sectors.

But how do you create an austerity budget in a country like Lebanon where everything is dependent on the clientalism of those in power, and where even during official hiring freezes, thousands of employees are employed?

You don’t. You vote a regular budget and – wait for it – call it an *austerity budget* – Which is exactly what they did.

The 2019 Budget of the Lebanese republic is a lot of things, but there is one thing its is not. Unlike the official story being told by the members of the cabinet, it is not an austerity budget, and – unless a miracle happens – it will hardly influence the crisis on the horizon (for more info on the how the new budget is not an austerity one, I suggest you listen to this great podcast discussing it in detail).

The entire show mightactually be a strategy from the Lebanese cabinet to say that the 2019 “austerity” budget was not enough, as an excuse to actually implement real austerity reforms in the next budget without facing a more aggressive popular discontent than the one the government is currently dealing with. In the end, the 2020 budget should actually be discussed in a couple of months, and only time will tell if stronger fiscal measures will be taken by the government.

Goal-directed Anti-Syrian Sentiment

“Immigration is not intended to do good to mankind, but instead (aims) to harm the diversity and forgiveness in Europe and dismantle the human values that the European Union is built on.”

Lebanese politics is all about patterns and maneuvering. On the 10th of June 2016, Lebanon’s foreign minister at the time, Gebran Bassil, had one thing in mind. There was a presidential election to win, internal elections to influence, and parliamentary elections to prepare for. So he did – like any Lebanese politician would – what he does best: He played the sectarian card, and waited on results. Lebanon had a political crisis, a presidential vacancy, and a trash crisis that undermined the current political elite. For Bassil, the Syrian refugee crisis was not a burden – it was a political tool to rally the Christians around his party and to advance politically. When the foreign minister of Lebanon – a country’s whose diaspora is at least 5 times the size of the local population, a country whose economic system survives on the money coming in from its immigrants, a country that takes pride to be a population of traders and merchants – goes out and says from Finland that immigration is not intended to do good to mankind, it’s that the foreign minister either doesn’t understand how diplomacy works for a nation of immigrants, or that he willingly knows how it works and still chooses to continue with his strategy for the greater goal of personal political success.

Exactly 3 years later, in June 2019, and while Gebran Bassil was waging a different political war – having already won the presidency for his father in-law and the parliamentary elections with the party he leads – his primary strategy in achieving his goals was still the same. On the 8th of June, Bassil tweeted a video showing a crowd of FPM youth gathered outside a restaurant, singing the national anthem, calling for only Lebanese to be employed. While that was not the first time Bassil spearheaded or took advantage of the rising anti-Syrian (refugees) sentiment in the country, it was a major milestone: The FPM had found their new purpose. For years, the main objective of the FPM was centered around the idea of winning back the “Christian rights” – proposing electoral laws that maximized the Christian parties’ influence in parliament such as the Orthodox Gathering Law, blocking the presidential elections for three years in the name of getting a ” Strong Christian President in Baabda”, maneuvering like there’s no tomorrow in order to secure the maximal share of ministers appointed by the Christian parties, and finally waging an electoral battle in the name of claiming back Christian representation in Parliament. The price to pay was allying at times two of Aoun’s major rivals (Hariri and Geagea) while dropping long-term allies such as Sleiman Frangieh. Nevertheless, the FPM emerged from the political maneuvering stronger than ever, winning every single political battle in the past three years. As the leading political party among the Christians, the FPM’s struggle to maximize Christian representation in parliament and in government was naturally also a struggle to increase their influence and power across the political spectrum. And once the political influence was secured, it was time to keep it that way.

Burn the Witch

Lebanon has had Syrian refugees for 8 years now – but never in those 8 years has the anti-Syrian sentiment been so strong. For the past 6 months – curiously around the time the new austerity budget was being discussed – Bassil has been waging a political-diplomatic battle against the Syrian refugee’s presence in the country, tweeting about the issue more than Donald Trump tweets about his wall, touring the country as if it’s elections season, singlehandedly trying to raise (at the same time, in the spirit of sectarianism and coexistence – go figure) the alarm about the risk of “Tawtining the Syrian refugees” and yes, I used Tawtin as a verb, judge me if you want – before eventually getting to the point: To use the economic alibi of the Syrian presence in the country to his advantage. In his tweet on the 2nd of June, Bassil asked to protect the Lebanese labor force – indirectly (not that indirectly anyway) blaming the unemployment on the Syrian refugees, and – by simple generalization – throwing the entire weight of the Lebanese fiscal and economic crisis on the Syrian refugees. After years of political vertigo, the FPM had finally found their new raison d’être, their distraction and way out of the financial crisis. No more Christian rights to collect? Talk about the refugees. Unemployment problems? Talk about the refugees. Fiscal problems? Refugees. Too much immigration? Refugees. Too much debt? Refugees. Want to distract the entire republic from possible austerity measures? Refugees. For the past two months, The FPM’s politicians, spearheaded by Bassil, have been on an endless adventure focused on the refugee crisis. (See here, here, here, here, here, and here – You might as well check Gebran Bassil’s entire twitter feed that has somehow metamorphosed in the past couple of months into an anti Syrian refugee blog). In fact, Gebran Bassil went so far in his campaign that he started talking about a genetic feeling of belonging to Lebanon that only the Lebanese would understand.

This was not quite Nazi Germany, but in their quest to consolidate their newly-found power, The FPM needed to create a new “witch” for them to burn in times of crisis, a non-Lebanese threat, a scapegoat, something to keep the Lebanese busy with, a new raison d’être – especially that there are no Christian rights to collect anymore. The legend of 1975 also says that using Muslim refugees as a boogeyman is a nice way to unite Christian under your banner.

Choose Your Scapegoat

In fact, the FPM went so far in their anti-Syrian rhetoric that the Washington Post described them in an article on the 26th of June as “ultranationalists“. And the very fact that the FPM politicians were now seen as the right-wingers among the Christian parties did not go well down with the traditional right-wingers, the Lebanese Forces. The FPM has always been seen as the centrist, moderate Christian party, but now it became so ambitious and wanted to gather all Christian factions under its wing – the right wingers and the centrists.

So how would the Lebanese Forces respond to the rising “ultranationalist” side of the FPM? By reminding the country that there was only one true right-wing party among the Christians, and that is the party led by Samir Geagea: In what seemed like a move that was out of the blue, the LF’s representative in the ministry, Camille Abou Sleiman, decided in July to crackdown on illegal Palestinian refugee workers, causing uproar in the camps and leading the Palestinians to go on a general strike. But Abou Sleiman’s move was not a miscalculated one, nor was it out of the blue. Through his sectarian and racist campaign, Gebran Bassil had miraculously activated the dormant Lebanese Forces and started a sick game where the Christian parties would now compete on who can crackdown more on refugees.

Every Lebanese party needs a scapegoat, and it seems the LF and the FPM had found theirs. So if the FPM was going to be seen as the party that led the country to the financial abyss, they might as well blame someone else for it, and show themselves as the ones trying to fix that refugee problem in the process. You only burn the witch after 8 years if you want that devaluated Lira to go unnoticed.

The Silence of the Lambs

While the FPM was gaining grounds in their newly found political purpose, Saad Hariri was surprisingly letting his foreign affairs minister run his affairs unchecked (pun intended, again). Aside from a few critical remarks to Bassil by calling his comments racist, Hariri did absolutely nothing else to contain the anti-Syrian sentiment.

Hariri and Bassil share the same cabinet together, and Bassil’s Machiavellian tactics are intended to save the face of the government that is Hariri’s before anyone else. Is it also that wise to clash with someone who can command a majority of the parliament votes? Hariri lost the elections and his presence in cabinet depends on two things now: The presidential settlement with the FPM, and his achievements towards the public. Providing cover for Gebran Bassil’s maneuvering allows him to consolidate both things; The alliance with the FPM, and a possible distraction in case the financial woes get bigger for the government. In the end, any crisis would hurt the Prime Minister’s career more than anyone else. In any other situation Bassil’s political campaign against Muslim refugees would have led to a divide between Lebanon’s Muslim and Christian parties and would have driven Lebanon to the brink of a Civil War, but this time keeping the PM’s seat will come at a price for Hariri, and if it’s not gonna be the Lebanese Lira, it will have to be Syrian refugees.

Why Have an Economy When You Can Have War

Walid Joumblatt’s PSP has always relied on a careful juggling of alliances between Lebanese politicians. So when the FPM and the FM began their tumultuous love journey ahead of the 2016 elections, it was clear the equilibrium that Joumblatt needed to thrive would be shattered. The fatal blow came however with the new electoral law that only shrunk the PSP’s share in parliament. Under the new political order, what remained of the March 14 alliance only controlled 11 ministers in the cabinet. That carefully calculated number meant that Joumblatt could actually rely in times of trouble on the blocking third by calling upon his closest allies: the LF and the FM. From outside March 14, Joumblatt could only count on Berri to support him in government. But Berri’s share is 3 ministers, and without the support of Hariri’s 5 seats in government, all hell could break loose for the PSP in Lebanese politics: Unable to rely on any blocking third (11 ministers), Joumblatt would lose any political influence he had in the central government.

So when the FM and the FPM started getting close again in the past few months and when it became obvious that Hariri would let Bassil roam free in his political campaign and that Hezbollah was willing to provide any political cover Bassil needed, it became clear for Joumblatt that he had effectively lost any bargaining chip he had. In order to try and sow discontent between the leading members of the ruling coalition, Joumblatt took it upon himself to put an end to Bassil’s increasing influence by calling Bassil racist at the start of June. But when words seemed powerless, Joumblatt tweeted on the 25th of June that he was no longer going to comment on political events through social media. So just when you thought that Joumblatt was calling for a political truce, the PSP decided to protest Bassil’s visit to the Aley district on the 30th of June. The protest turned into clashes, and the clashes led to a bloodbath with the death of pro-Arslan bodyguards. And while Hezbollah quickly tried to calm things down and worked to contain its allies, Joumblatt had sent a clear message to the leaders of the ruling coalition : He is still unpredictable, and isolating him would have major consequences.

As if it was still 1985, the Prince in the Chouf had effectively stopped the convoy of a foreign minister from entering a specific region in Lebanon, but contrary to popular belief, the military clash between the PSP and the LDP/FPM did not escalate quickly. It’s been happening for months, and those months of political maneuvering and scapegoating had to eventually spill over somehow.

The 2019 budget is over, long live the 2020 budget debate.

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Let The Wookie Win

Lebanese Government - 2019

Meet the new Lebanese Cabinet

You take a newspaper. You read a headline. Berri is Speaker of the Parliament. Elie Ferzli is deputy Speaker of the Parliament. A politician with the last name “Hariri” is Prime Minister. It says that the Lebanese President is Pro-Syrian. It says that the President’s relatives are now members of the parliament.

Is it the year 2000? Is this a dream? Did we finally discover time travel? You are confused, so you decide to read another article. It says that Ali Hassan Khalil is now minister of Finance. You are even more confused. Surely, it must be February 2014? Or is it December 2016?

No. The year is 2019. And you’re living in Lebanon, where you don’t need to travel in time because the past, the present and the future are the same. Politics is either inherited, or the politicians are immortal.

Yeah. You read that right. The year is 2019. After Nine months of jockeying and political maneuvering, the ruling parties have finally agreed on the new Lebanese government. In a parallel universe, this could have been the year 2009, when it took Saad Hariri 5 months to form his government. Or 2011, when it took Najib Mikati 5 months to form his government. Or 2014, when it took Tammam Salam 11 months to form his government.

So did Lebanese politicians fail during those 252 days? Never. Lebanese politicians never fail. They discovered 251 ways that are not helpful to form a government. And that is an achievement so great that they are already worthy of a parliamentary extension.

Name your ally

The major problem that delayed the 2018 2019 Hariri government is that there still is no clear parliamentary identity since the 2018 elections. Hezbollah is allied to Amal, the FPM and the Marada, while being the FM’s main political rival. The FPM is closer to the FM than it is to Amal and has a confusing alliance with the LF and a recent rivalry with the Marada. The LF aren’t on good terms with Hezbollah, and while Arslan is allied to the FPM and Hezbollah, trying to maintain a relative political autonomy, no one exactly knows where the PSP stands.

Lebanon has been surviving with the exact same parliament for the past ten years, with – until late 2015 – alliances that were more or less stable. There were “March 8”, “March 14” and “the independents”, and the broad definition of every coalition was its opinion regarding Hezbollah – with some politicians, like Joumblatt or Mikati jumping boats every once in a while. But when in 2015 Hariri decided to support Frangieh for the presidency, all hell broke loose. Geagea allied himself with Aoun, and then Amal endorsed Frangieh. Finally, Hariri allied himself with Aoun, and the March 8 and March 14 coalitions fused into one another like a Lebanese TV series. This generated a new political status quo where there were no longer two stable coalitions dominating the political spectrum (Like it was between 2006-2016), but instead, micro-alliances between the major parties that led to very weird electoral alliances, where most parties allied themselves to different rival parties depending on the electoral constituency.

The infographic and the four awesome tables below – courtesy of the Lebanese Center for policy studies – illustrate examples of the arrivism of the Lebanese ruling parties, who did not shy away from running with and against the same rival party in different districts if it suited them best to do so.

Tables like those would have been a major shock in the 2009 elections, where the March 8 and March 14 coalitions ran coherently against each other, with the exception of Jezzine (where the FPM and Amal disagreed and supported different candidates). But when the electoral law changes, electoral alliances change accordingly. And when electoral alliances change, political alliances have a tendency to change with them. So the 2018 elections created a new political equilibrium. The FM and the PSP blocs shrunk in size, while the FPM, the LF, Hezbollah, and Amal saw their blocs increase in numbers. Which means that the new Lebanese parliament now looks like this:

Distribution of seats by Bloc - LCPS

Distribution of seats by Bloc – Image courtesy of the Lebanese Center for Policy Sudies

The Old and the New

While the political jockeying in the Pre-2015 era used to be about Hezbollah’s role in Lebanese politics, most of the bickering since then has been about Aoun’s Presidency. While the LF were theoretically supposed to run in the elections alongside the FPM after both parties reconciled , the rivalry reemerged during the parliamentary elections. With the exception of Sabaa’s Paula Yaacoubian – the newcomer parties did not manage to get into the parliament, and although most of the ruling parties kept a representation in Nejmeh square, the 2018 parliament drastically changed from the 2009 one. While most of the focus was on how much the President’s allies could secure a majority in Parliament, Hezbollah silently achieved what it had been seeking since the 2005 elections. There is now a parliament that not only has a relative FPM majority, but also – and in the 2005 terms – a March 8 absolute majority. The blocs led by the FPM (29 MPS), the Marada (3 MPs), Amal (17 MPs), and Hezbollah (13 MPs) – In other words, Hezbollah and their allies = The March 8 Alliance – have a theoretical numerical superiority in Parliament. The accurate number is difficult to determine since a number of Pro-Hezbollah MPS (such as Osama Saad and the Six other Pro-Hezbollah ministers that form the “Consultative Gathering“) are not part of a bloc, and some of the FPM’s new allies like Michel Mouawad have not been tested yet on Hezbollah-related questions. Nevertheless, the absolute number of pro-Hezbollah MPs in the new parliament is surely higher than 65, and that new status quo is now very evident: Nabih Berri of Amal is speaker, while Elie Ferzli is his deputy, making the 2019 parliament – at least at first glance – look exactly like the Pre-Syrian Withdrawal 2000 Parliament.

It might have taken Hezbollah fifteen years, a twelve-year alliance with Amal and the FPM, two presidential vacancies, two electoral laws, and three elections, but they finally have the upper hand in Lebanese legislation.

Who rules in the Lebanese Parliament?

The Lebanese parliament’s authority when it comes to legislating, to electing the President, to naming a Prime Minister, and to giving a vote of confidence to his government, means that the key to ruling the country lies in securing a majority of the country’s parliament. And while what used to be known as The March 8 alliance now has a majority in parliament, it used to be known as the March 8 alliance for a reason. For the past three years, the FPM has been distancing itself from Amal and the Marada and has been slowly stitching a new alliance with the FM. The FPM might be okay with Hezbollah, but they outspokenly hate every other party around it. The FPM also have no absolute majority, only a relative one, and are in need of the weakened FM to balance Hezbollah’s influence in Parliament. Isolating Hariri and giving the Premiership to someone else would have also causes uproar and is diplomatically incorrect from the FPM after Hariri made Aoun’s election possible.

In other words, the new Parliament has a Pro-Hezbollah majority, but aside from that, you won’t find more than three major parties that can agree with one another well enough to form a majority government. And that is a one-way road to a “unity cabinet”, similar to the ones Lebanon had in 2008, 2009, 2014 and 2016, where every one of the leading parties in parliament is represented. And when you want to include everyone, things have a tendency to take more time.

Keeping with the tradition

According to the Legend, there is a difficult algorithm that every Prime Minister must use when forming his government: There’s a limited number of seats and portfolios to split fairly on the different parties that wish to participate in the cabinet, while also respecting sectarian affiliations. Then you have to take into consideration what coalition of parties manages to get a blocking third, what parties can form a majority in the government, and who can bring the government down or vote for a controversial decision. It’s a tough procedure, especially when every single member of the ruling parties wants a little bit more of the pie. In simpler terms, Lebanese politicians are ready to starve the people who elected them for nine months, for the sole purpose of an extra portfolio or an extra seat that might come in handy ahead of parliamentary elections or when a political clash happens.

Existential obstacles

So should Arslan get a seat in the cabinet and should it be from Jumblatt’s share? Should it be from the FPM’s share? Or should it be from the President’s share? Are Aoun and Bassil the same person, and should they be awarded combined ministers, or separate ministers? And what is the President’s share anyway? When do you give the President three ministers? Should you give him five? Is it constitutional to give him ministers anyway? Or is it unconstitutional to give him nothing? And how do you calculate the number of ministers for every bloc? Are the LF worthy of a key ministry? Should the LF be treated equally to the FPM? Should Hezbollah’s pro-Sunni bloc get a minister? Should that minister be from the President’s share? Should it be of the Prime Minister’s share? Should we give that seat to Aliens from Mars because they are independent? Or should we create two new random portfolios in the cabinet in order to generate a political equilibrium on a table in an Old Ottoman Serail in Beirut? What’s wrong with 32 ministers anyway? And since we’re there, why not create a cabinet of 128 ministers? Should the portfolios be rotated among the parties? Or are they now inherited among politicians? And what are going to name the ministers without portfolios? Are we going to name that politician who’s just here to vote when his time comes, the minister for combatting corruption? (2016 government) Or the minister of state for information technology? (2019 government) Or the minister for Social and Economic Rehabilitation of Youth and Women? (2019 government). Can’t we just name him the minister for industrial, agricultural and intellectual revolution of the Lebanese newborn child? Or should we just name him the minister for skiing and swimming in the same day?

You have to understand Lebanese politicians. Those are difficult, existential questions. Existential enough to postpone a government formation for thousands of days. Yet they only managed to do it in only 252 days. And that is an achievement. So great that they are already worthy of yet another parliamentary extension. Did you know that they also managed to fit 4 women in the government despite the fact that the algorithm was already too complicated? We should probably give them a third parliamentary extension just for thinking about representing women in 2019. There you go. Your three extensions. Just like the 2009 parliament 😍.

The algorithm is a lie

But that complicated algorithm that they take refuge behind every time a government formation is stalled is a lie. The procedure of splitting the pie might take nine months, but two years ago, when Hariri formed his second government, it didn’t take more than a month and a half for the government to see the light. A decade and a half ago, most governments were formed within ten days, sometimes within 72 hours. Almost the same obstacles stand in the way of every government formation, and yet sometimes seeking the solution takes a month instead of a year. Which begs to ask the question, how incompetent can you be so that even writing an excel sheet of 30 names becomes a task so impossible that you need nine months to complete it? Taking hundreds of days to carefully decide the names of 30 ministers – who are more or less the same 30 ministers in every cabinet – is a tradition Lebanon’s Zuamas are not willing to break. The normal lifespan of every Lebanese parliament is 4 years, and the people in charge at the top waste up to 20% of that time to decide how the pie is split (And then they proceed to eat the pie).

Nine months later: Numbers still don’t lie

Now that we’ve established the difficulty of writing 30 names on a piece of paper, it’s time to look at the new Lebanese government and how the parliamentary blocs are represented:

Share in Cabinet versus share in Parliament - Infographic courtesy of Benjamin Redd for The Daily Star

Share in Cabinet versus share in Parliament – Infographic courtesy of Benjamin Redd for The Daily Star

When you stare with joy at the colors of that infographic, you realize that the grosso-mode rule to determine the number of ministers for every bloc would be to divide the number of MPS by 4 or 5 – Sometimes it’s a bit more, sometimes it’s a bit less, depending on the portfolio of ministry you’re getting and on how much you are loved by the other parties.

In the charts, the FPM’s share seems a bit bigger because it also includes the President’s four ministers. And that only means that March 8’s parties’ domination in parliament becomes even more apparent in the cabinet due to the President’s share. Between the 4 ministers representing the President, the 6 ministers representing the FPM’s bloc, the 6 ministers representing Hezbollah and Amal, the minister representing the Marada, the minister representing the Consultative Gathering, and the minister representing the Azm, you would realize that when the time comes, Hezbollah can rally a majority of 19 ministers out of 30, one vote shy from the two-thirds, even without the help from the PSP’s two ministers, and force decisions on a cabinet that is theoretically led by its major rival, Saad Hariri (unless Hariri resigns, pushing Hezbollah to form another majority government without the FM).

But when you look at that chart from another perspective, things seem different: In theory, and if you include the consultative gathering’s minister, the FPM have 11 votes in the cabinet, which is the blocking third the FPM have been seeking for a long time. The fact that the FPM have been looking to get a blocking third in a cabinet they technically control under a President that is their founder is another level of political paranoia that supposes that they need a leverage when one day everyone will turn against them, but is also an indicator that they might start changing alliances: Historically in Lebanese politics, when a party usually looks for the magic number of 11 ministers in a government, it’s usually the minor party of the unity cabinet. However, how much of those 11 ministers would truly stick by Gebran Bassil’s leadership is something else: One of those ministers is a Pro-Arslan Druze, an other is a Pro-Hezbollah Sunni, the third is Salim Jreissati (who has sometimes been considered as closer to Hezbollah than Aoun), and the fourth is Elias Abou Saab (who is always portrayed in the media as being close to the SSNP) in a government that doesn’t have a single SSNP representative. And if one day a miracle happens and the Marada, the FPM and the LF decide to form an alliance, they can theoretically form a majority by themselves in the cabinet (Also, probably start a Civil War, but nevermind)

When you look at the charts from the LF, FM and PSP perspective, the three parties that used to be the backbone of the March 14 alliance have 11 ministers (5 FM, 4 LF, 2 PSP), curiously, the exact number they need to have a blocking third in the government, and that’s even without the help of  Mikati’s Azm party representative in the Cabinet.

For the FM, their losses in the parliamentary elections translate into a drop from 7 ministers to 5 ministers (without counting Mikati’s representative), but they managed in a way or another to keep the key ministries that were already theirs. Nevertheless, should they one day decide that an alliance with the FPM is more sustainable than the one they have with the LF, both parties can secure a majority in the cabinet without the help of anyone else (and get close to controlling a majority in the parliament).

As for the LF, they have somehow failed to increase the number of their seats although they doubled in size in the parliament, probably because their shares were exaggerated in the previous cabinet when compared to their previous parliamentary size. And for the same reason, the FPM went from 11 ministers in the previous cabinet to 10.5 in the current one (I’m gonna count the consultative gathering minister as half ).

Takeaway message? It’s a pro-Hezbollah cabinet where anyone of the parties can control the government or bring it down with the help of another party, and where alliances are not very well established by now. So if/when the cabinet eventually falls, or someone resigns within it, it’s probably because the cabinet was formed when the lines of the political coalitions in parliament were blurred. Brace yourselves.

And now to the good stuff…portfolios

Here’s how the old cabinet compares to the new one:

The old and new Cabinets -Infographic Courtesy of Benjamin Redd for the Daily Star

The old and new Cabinets – Infographic Courtesy of Benjamin Redd for the Daily Star

Numbers are usually given a big importance in Lebanese politics because decisions in the cabinet are usually subject to a vote, but the type of portfolio every party controls can be equally important. All the ministries that were with the FPM are still with the FPM (or the President), and that includes the defense and justice ministries (Read: Hezbollah keeping the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in check and keeping good relations with the Lebanese army since a direct ally is handling both defense and justice). The FPM also kept the foreign ministry and the very important energy and water ministry in their hands.

And while the Marada still have the same important public works portfolio (Read: Well maintained roads in electoral districts before elections) with the same minister, the LF have downgraded in portfolios without upgrading in the size of their share even though they have a bigger parliamentary bloc now (It’s the reason why the cabinet formation has been stalled for the first couple of months). That disproportional downgrade in quality is probably due to the fact that the FM didn’t give up any of their key ministries even though their numbers in parliament dwindled. And while the LF kept the prestigious deputy PM seat, they lost the health ministry to Hezbollah (one of the ministries that gets the most funding in the country) and got the labor ministry instead of the information minister (who is the spokesman of the cabinet).

Amal and Hezbollah on the other hand didn’t directly increase their cabinet shares but now have three small allies that are not the FPM (Frangieh, Arslan, and the consultative gathering) which gives them a Bassil-less influence in the cabinet. Hezbollah also now control the very important of health, while Amal keep the finance ministry.

As for the PSP, they get a minor victory since Arslan’s share was denied and considered to be part of the President’s share (at least on paper). They also get to keep the education ministry, but their influence is still reduced since with only two votes in the government (in every government before 2016 they used to have three ministers)

Let the Wookie Win

Aoun went to exile for 15 years to reduce Syria’s influence in Lebanon, and now is at the head of a government he helped create – that might be as Pro-Syrian as the one he helped overthrow. Aside him rules Hariri, who also spent 12 years trying to reduce Hezbollah’s influence before finally leading their coalition in government. Right under him sits an LF deputy Prime Minister – representing a party that refused to participate in a cabinet with Hezbollah and politically exiled itself for that purpose from government between 2011 and 2016. The PSP that was once the backbone the swinging vote in most political matters, has seen its influence being reduced to 2 cabinet votes. The Parliament is once again led by Berri and Ferzli, the Syrian regime’s closest allies and the same politicians who used to lead it when the Syrian Army was still in Lebanon. All of Lebanon’s leading parties that protested on the 14th of March 2005 against Syrian influence are now either allies of the regime or members in a cabinet dominated by its allies. Almost every major party in the cabinet has spent at least 15 years opposing Hezbollah and the Syrian regime’s influence, even almost triggering Civil Wars in 2008 and 2011. Most of those parties ran in the 2009 and 2018 parliamentary elections promising to stand against Hezbollah, and yet they all sit as minor partners next to Hezbollah and its allies in the first government after the 2018 elections. Which begs the following question: Why make an effort to make a party look like a Wookie and then proceed to stop the Wookie, when in the end, you’re going to let the Wookie win and even participate in that victory? What were the past 15 years for? Was it all for the purpose of sitting on a glorified chair? And what is the point of elections when the opposition and the majority end up coalescing in the same ineffective ” National Unity” cabinet every single time – or is it a national unity in failure?

Supporters of the new Lebanese political era that began after Michel Aoun was elected like to call it العهد الجديد , two words that roughly translate into “The New Era” or even “The New Testament”, a marketing strategy that gives the Lebanese an impression that they are now being ruled by saviors.

But there is nothing new about this era – nor are the Lebanese being saved by anyone. The politicians are the same warlords that have been ruling in times of war and peace, the Parliament looks like a replica from pre-2005, economic instability is the cause du jour in the country, and the new unity cabinet – destined to fail like all of its predecessors – is just a recycled old one where disagreements have started 9 months before it was even born.

But all of this is details. What matters that there is now a minister of State for the rehabilitation of Youth and Women. Whatever that means.

The Future and the Past

Destroyed Lebanese Parliament 1976

We know them. We know their civil wars. We know that they would burn a parliament to the ground in their quest to rule a country. We know them.

The last time I wrote on this blog, in November 2017, I  blogged – in disgust – that Lebanon as whole is a country that is a hostage of Saudi-Iranian politics. 

When a Lebanese Prime-Minister resigns under pressure from Riyadh while Iran tries to make use of that resignation, know that the “independent” Lebanese Republic in 2017 and 2018 is no more independent than the Lebanese republic was under the French Mandate in the 1930s.

This year’s elections are indeed about free will more than anything else. It is time to take back our Parliament: As the month of November 2017 made it perfectly clear, there is only one war that matters in Lebanon, and it shouldn’t be the Saudi-Iranian one on Lebanese soil. It’s the electoral war that rids Lebanon from the influence of both countries and the turmoil they bring with them. And the elections are here.

Lebanon was on the verge of a civil war in May 2008, but the Lebanese kept the same members of the parliament in 2009. In November 2017, under the patronage of that exact political class, Lebanon was once again on the verge of a civil war. And there is only one way to break that vicious circle: It’s by finally holding those members of the parliament accountable.

I spent the past 6 years trying to figure out what Lebanese politicians were doing, and with every political maneuver, I did my best to expose on my blog how rotten this entire establishment is. This Sunday, we all have a chance to change things. The new electoral law isn’t perfect, but it gives an opportunity to newcomers to make it through. The only thing you guys have to do is to vote for them. Think about the past 10 years. Do you really want another 10 years of this?

 
The entire purpose of this blog was to document the maneuvers Lebanese politicians did to keep their asses on those chairs. And it all leads to this moment.
I’d like to think of the hundreds of pages on this blog as a horror story. A long, cruel horror story with a simple goal: Warn you of the current political class.
Again, think about the past 10 years. Do you really want another 10 years of this?
 
I understand many of you aren’t sure about Koullouna Watany or about the other new independent candidates, but we know the ruling parties. We know them all too well.
 
We know their maneuvers. We know their sectarianism. We know their garbage. We know their tricks. We know their weapons. We know their civil wars. We know that they would burn a parliament to the ground in their quest to rule a country. We know their fake stability. We know their goals. We know their corruption. We know their empty promises. We know their fake alliances.  We know our debt. We know our infrastructure. We know our potential. And we know their failure. We also happen to know their entire families, since they have been ruling us since the past century.
 
We know what they are. And nothing – NOTHING – can be worse.
 
In the end, It really is an extremely simple choice we’re making on May 6: The future, or the past.
 
So do me a favor. Please, please don’t make me wake up to the same politicians on May 7. I’d like, for once, not to be writing the same old names on my blog.
I know I haven’t been here for the past 6 months (blame exams), but in the end, there’s really nothing that changed from the previous six years. Just more promises and less electricity (among other things).

The Saudi-Iranian Mandate for Lebanon

A screen grab from Hariri's resignation speech delivered from Saudi Arabia on Nov. 4, 2017 (The Daily Star)

A screen grab from Hariri’s resignation speech delivered from Saudi Arabia on Nov. 4, 2017. (Image source: The Daily Star)

On the 11th of November 1943, French forces raided the houses of several Lebanese officials, including the President Bechara Khoury and his Prime Minister Riad Solh, three days after the Lebanese Parliament had unilaterally abolished the French mandate in Lebanon. Emile Edde was appointed as President, the parliament was dissolved, and Lebanon’s leaders were arrested and imprisoned in the Rashaya citadel. France eventually yielded to Lebanese and international pressure, and the release of the prisoners on the 22nd of November has since been celebrated as the Lebanese Independence Day.

That was the last time a foreign country so obviously pressured a Lebanese Prime Minister to resign. Enter 2017.

Exactly 74 years later, on the 4th of November 2017, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri unexpectedly resigned from Saudi-Arabia, ending almost a year of stability and shared rule between Lebanon’s rival parties, blaming Hezbollah and Iranian interference, and citing assassination plots against him. Contrary to popular opinion, the resignation of a Sunni Prime Minister from a Hezbollah-led coalition ahead of parliamentary elections in 2018 made perfect political sense. There was however something fishy about that entire political development: Hariri had resigned from Saudi Arabia, in a previously recorded televised speech, using an extremely violent rhetoric, unseen since at least Hariri was last ousted from power in 2011.

The textbook definition of regional pressure

Ideally, Hariri’s resignation was a Machiavellian maneuver to win next year’s elections, except it wasn’t – in fact it might have put the entire electoral process in jeopardy. It was rather a result of Saudi pressure on the Lebanese Prime Minister who also happened to also be a Saudi-Lebanese citizen with a business empire in Saudi Arabia. The fishy resignation address was enough to raise suspicion, but a regional context of Saudi-Iranian political escalation, a succession crisis in Riyadh, as well as the arrest of several Princes in Saudi Arabia that exact same day was enough to highlight the amount of (financial? non-financial?) pressure the Saudis could have exerted on the premier to resign. Even in the aftermath of the resignation, Hariri didn’t head back to Beirut to officially present his resignation and instead stayed in Saudi Arabia for two weeks, fueling rumors that he was under house arrest and was being treated like the other arrested Princes in Saudi Arabia. The confusion in Hariri’s party, the Future Movement, even raised more eyebrows, and the party’s call for their leader to return home only added more substance to the rumors. By the end of the first week of the resignation, stories started emerging on how the Lebanese Prime-Minister was immediately treated as a prisoner from the moment he landed in Saudi-Arabia.

While both Saudi-Arabia and Hariri denied that the premier was forced to resign and was under arrest, increasing Lebanese and international pressure to clarify the situation led Hariri to take part in a live interview in order to prove that he was indeed free in Saudi-Arabia, but even that interview was full of awkward and uncomfortable moments for Hariri. And when it was eventually decided that Hariri would leave Saudi-Arabia to his first destination outside the gulf – France,  it looked as if the Prime Minister was going into exile (especially that the move was preceded by a visit from the French President to Saudi Arabia). Even the New York Times speculated that Hariri’s kids remained in Saudi Arabia as a leverage on the PM.

Winning the narrative

The foreign interference in Lebanese politics was so high this month even Lebanon’s politicians weren’t really understanding what’s happening at the beginning. The Lebanese President tried to stall at first, asking Hariri to come home, then considered the Premier to be under arrest when the President’s demands that the Premier returns to Beirut were ignored. Berri, probably in denial that something was happening outside his control, refused to accept the validity of the resignation, and Nasrallah quickly tried to win the narrative while trying to calm things down , considering that Hariri was being forced to resign, turning Hariri into a victim and Saudi Arabia into a culprit, and implying there was a rift between the regional and local leaderships of the anti-Hezbollah camp. I don’t think there’s anything more humiliating to Hariri than being defended by Nasrallah as a hostage in Saudi Arabia, and soon enough, almost every pro-Hezbollah party in the country embraced Nasrallah’s political stances. By defending Hariri and refusing to escalate, March 8 parties were successfully containing the Saudi political offensive on Hezbollah, which led to even more escalation from Saudi Arabia that considered Lebanon – via Hezbollah – had declared war on it, 2 days after the resignation, soon calling all Saudi citizens to leave Lebanon. Nasrallah would later on counter those stances on the 10th of November by saying the exact opposite thing the Saudis said. As for the stances of the rest of the Lebanese politicians, they should be regarded as temporary speeches that would vanish and reappear as new developments unravel between Saudi-Arabia and Iran, stances that also have absolutely no impact whatsoever on the de-facto state of Lebanese affairs. As Hariri eventually leaves Saudi-Arabia, the take-home message is that every minute Hariri spent more in Saudi-Arabia was a disaster for the Future Movement and his allies in Beirut. Foreign interference in Lebanese politics by a regional power hasn’t been as evident since at least 2005, and as a leader of a bloc that ironically calls itself “Lebanon first”, every single part of Hariri’s trip to Saudi Arabia backfired on his party, his Lebanese allies and Saudi Arabia. In the end, Hezbollah was winning in the chaos, which was not really a win for Hezbollah since it could have been what the Saudis wanted in the first place. Or is it?

The republic of (conspiracy?) theories

In fact, according to the first theory explaining the regional motives of the resignation, Saudi Arabia was removing Hariri from power in order to force the creation of an entirely pro-Hezbollah government as part of a plan to push Israel to go to war with Hezbollah. A second theory, fueled by Hariri’s meeting with Vilayati the day before the resignation happened, is that Hariri was trying to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran. A more developed version of this theory (bring the popcorn), circulated on Social media, is that Hariri resigned because he tried to plot – helped by the other arrested Princes – an Iranian-backed coup against the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohamad Bin Salman, a coup that was unraveled by the Crown Prince in the hours before the resignation and the arrests. Another theory claims that Saudi-Arabia was planning to replace Saad Hariri with his brother Bahaa’, with multiple parties secretly endorsing the Prime Minister’s brother (what is this, The Godfather?). Another, more simplistic theory, is that Saudi-Arabia was simply trying to escalate things with Iran as a distraction while the Crown Prince MBS consolidates power. Or perhaps Saudi Arabia simply wanted to escalate things with Iran in Lebanon after struggling to improve its influence elsewhere.

There is a fine line between theories and conspiracy theories, and in such a context, everyone is free to draw the line wherever he wants – The most important thing remains PopcornAs Elias Muhanna from Qifa Nabki puts it: Saad Hariri is the Schrödinger’s Cat of politicians: Until Hariri emerges from the sealed box of Saudi Arabia  (feel free to replace “sealed box” with “house arrest”, “exile” or any other “leverage” on the PM), he is simultaneously prime minister and not prime minister of Lebanon, and it will be a while till we truly know and understand what happened in the Kingdom as well as the Saudi motives for the resignation.

The Saudi-Iranian Mandate for Lebanon

The common denominator for all those theories? It’s full of Saudi Arabia and Iran (on the bright side, not a lot of Syria).

There is too much foreign interference right now by Saudi Arabia and Iran, and when a Lebanese Prime-Minister resigns under pressure from Riyadh while Iran tries to make use of that resignation, know that the “independent” Lebanese Republic in 2017 is no more independent than the Lebanese republic was under the French Mandate in the 1930s. If a miracle somehow happens and politicians agree to proceed with the 2018 elections, Lebanese voters will have a choice: Either renew their trust in the 2009 members of the Parliament, confirm the Saudi-Iranian mandate for Lebanon and turn the country into an arena for proxy wars, or finally start heading towards a sovereign independent country that answers to no one but its people.

Lebanon’s ruling political parties and politicians might try to conceal this chaotic month with future calls of dissociation policy and coalition “happy ending” governments such as the ones we had to endure for the past decade. But as long as they are militarily equipped by one country, or pressured to resign by another, there will never be a free will in Lebanese politics.

Lebanon as whole is a country that is a hostage of Saudi-Iranian politics, and as the month of November 2017 made it perfectly clear, there is only one war that matters in Lebanon, and it shouldn’t be the Saudi-Iranian one on Lebanese soil. It’s the electoral war that rids Lebanon from the influence of both countries and the turmoil they bring with them. And that war is here.

To be honest here, the blog had always tried to figure out the little details of Lebanese politics without trying to rely on regional events. There was a certain beauty in the madness of Lebanese politics, but the madness is now erupting into a regionally induced chaos and Lebanon will be the first to pay the price. Lebanese politics always made a little bit of sense – except this time – and it’s for the simple reason that there is nothing Lebanese right now about Lebanese politics, which is why I will stop posting on the blog until the cloud of regional interference clears a little bit.

 

 

The Republic of Resignations

Hariri and Bassil

PM Saad Hariri with Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil and two other government officials at the Grand Serail. Friday, February 17, 2017. (Image source: The Daily Star). As Lebanese parties start their drama ahead of next year’s planned elections, this picture is here to remind you of the hypocrisy of Lebanese politics.

On the 4th of November 2017, one year after he was named Prime Minister (on the 3rd of November 2016), and in what might be the most unpredictable political stance of 2017, Prime Minister Saad Hariri unexpectedly resigned from his post of Prime Minister, citing Iranian interference, Hezbollah’s arms, and fear of assassination as motives for his resignation, and opening a new chapter in Lebanese politics.

An unpredictable and unexpected resignation

Until the last days of October 2017, things seemed to work out relatively smoothly between the anti and pro-Syrian regime parties of the Lebanese ruling coalition, with the appointment of a Lebanese ambassador in Damascus being the latest example of political events that could have blown up the coalition but didn’t. Other examples include state budget talks, voting an electoral law, passing a new tax law, and a new oil tax law. True, there were numerous confrontations between the ruling parties in 2017, but for the first time since at least 2010, there was peace and love in Lebanese politics. Who would have thought in 2009 that Hariri would name Aoun as his presidential candidate in 2016? That Aoun would afterwards name Hariri prime minister? That a government could be formed so fast in Lebanon? That they could agree on the garbage file or any other file? That an electoral law could ever be agreed upon by almost all of the ruling parties?

The idea that Amal, Hezbollah, the Future Movement, the FPM, the LF and the PSP could happily coexist together in a government led by Hariri in a Aoun Presidency seemed so surreal that everyone got adapted so quickly to it, and Hariri’s resignation will come as a shock for many Lebanese who got used to the climate of political cooperation between the anti and pro-Syrian regime parties that had been flourishing since last autumn.

Actually, not that unpredictable and unexpected

There remained however a major obstacle that couldn’t let that unconditional love (note: Read “unconditional love” with sarcasm) thrive in Lebanese politics: Lebanon’s parliament recently voted an electoral law based on proportional representation, which meant that it was now impossible for the Lebanese ruling parties to run together on the same ticket because such a scenario would open the door for third-option parties to thrive on the absurdity of such an alliance, and threaten the status-quo just like what happened in the 2016 Beirut municipal elections – except that this time the newcomers would be able to actually win seats because of the new proportional electoral system. It’s wiser for the traditional political parties to run against each other than to run together against a third option. As an example, it makes more sense for the Aounist electorate to vote against Hariri and for the FM electorate to vote against Aoun, and it would be easier for all the traditional parties to win back their electorates by creating sectarian tensions against one another than it is to win elections by proving that their cozy comfy alliance with a previous Civil War rival is healthy (also read this with sarcasm) and that they aren’t corrupt.

In the Lebanese political context, hate is more efficient when it comes to winning votes. Hariri’s resignation, including his violent anti-Iran quote in his resignation speech (“Our nation will rise as it did in the past and it will cut off the hands that are reaching for it”) was an essential requirement for him to distance himself from Hezbollah – with whom the Future Movement has been sharing power SINCE 2014 – and re-establish the two camps that shaped 2009 pre-electoral Lebanon: The March 8 and March 14 coalitions.

The Mikati-Rifi prophecy?

The only thing more predictable than Lebanese politicians is Lebanese politicians, and even in their unexpected Jumblatt-like stances, like Hariri’s recent resignation, Lebanese politicians do the same polititcal maneuvers when they are forced into similar circumstances. Hariri’s violent breakup with Hezbollah was thus likely  to happen anytime before the end of 2017: In my last post on this blog, in August, I had said that with the objectives of the ruling parties completed in parliament […] one should expect an environment of political escalation between Hezbollah and the FM as they progressively start to brace themselves for elections.

In fact, the unpredictable nature of Hariri’s resignation was part of a very predictable maneuvering pattern in Lebanese politics. On the 4th of November 2017, 13 years and 2 weeks after his father resigned from the Prime-Minister post ahead of scheduled elections, Saad Hariri did the exact same thing. But the Hariris are not the exception. In fact, they tend to be the rule: On the 22nd of March 2013, Najib Mikati resigned from the premiership of a Hezbollah-led cabinet, 2 months ahead of scheduled elections.  Less than three years later, on the 22nd of February 2016, two months before scheduled municipal elections, Ashraf Rifi also resigned from the Justice ministry of another cabinet in which Hezbollah was participating.

In a way, 2013 Najib Mikati and 2016 Ashraf Rifi had warned us that a day like the 4th of November 2017 would eventually happen:  It is unwise for a Sunni politician to run for elections while being allied to Hezbollah. And for a politician who elected Hezbollah’s candidate as President, running for elections as a sitting Prime-Minister of a Pro-Hezbollah President after sharing power with Hezbollah for almost 4 years, is even more unwise. The timing of Hariri’s *unexpected* resignation is perfect: It gives an impression that Hariri is not a pawn of Aoun or Hezbollah (since he didn’t apparently consult with any of his partner in power before proceeding with his resignation), and sends an other interesting message. In fact, Hariri’s resignation from being Aoun’s Prime Minister happened outside Lebanon, in Saudi Arabia, and is technically very similar in terms of humiliation to what the FPM and Hezbollah did to Hariri when they brought his government down while he was meeting Obama in the United-States in 2010 (Hariri has probably waited for this moment for 7 years). It is usually preferable that the PM resigns from Baabda palace, and Hariri’s method of resignation, far away in Saudi-Arabia, is a message to both the FPM and Hezbollah: Aoun knew of the government resignation by phone. Revenge is a dish best served cold. Or via a phone call.

The resignation also creates many problems for Hariri’s Sunni rivals: Should the new designated Prime Minister come from outside the Future Movement or without its blessing, he will be definitely seen as Hezbollah’s puppet before elections. In a way, Hariri’s timing and place of resignation made it quite impossible for any of his major rivals to thrive instead of him in the premiership or make use of their new Prime Minister post for the upcoming elections, and the Prime Minister job opening at the Grand Serail will be a trap for any Sunni politician with an ambition to topple Hariri in the future. Just ask the Karamis of Tripoli.

The first consequence of the 2017 Adwan electoral law

One of the worst aspects of the new electoral law that was designed by Bassil and Adwan started to unravel: While the electoral law was based on proportional representation for the first time in the history of Lebanese parliamentary elections, it implemented a weird Kadaa-based preferential voting system that made it easier for sectarian parties to pick up MPs from their sect (so that the FPM and LF manage to win the Christian seats), which would potentially lead to even more sectarian-based political campaigning. A Hezbollah-FM electoral alliance would thus not be as efficient for those parties, and the two rivals would benefit the most from the new electoral system and would pick up same-sect seats the most if they run against each other instead of running on the same-ticket. The new electoral law doesn’t make it easy for cross-sectarian alliances to thrive, so Sunni-dominated-FM and Shia-dominated Hezbollah had no electoral reason to keep their alliance alive and run on the same ticket (like they did in 2005) .

In a way, it also helps explains why Hariri weirdly resigned from Saudi-Arabia: He could have resigned from the Grand Serail in Beirut, but he wanted to send an exclusive message to Lebanon’s Sunni population that he was the Kingdom’s chosen Lebanese politician, and that not voting for him in the next elections would be a vote for Iran. The Adwan-Bassil new electoral law gave a possibility for politicians to win seats from the same sect in a proportional system, and the resignation in Saudi-Arabia was a bold move from Hariri, with one goal: Turn the sectarianism button on, and rally as much as possible of the Sunni electorate in order to get the most possible religiously homogenous  parliamentary bloc in 2018.

A magnet for the LF?

Most of the events months of September and October 2017 went unnoticed in Lebanese politics, with the regular bickering between Lebanese politicians progressively escalating, inspired by the approaching elections. There were however several stances and political developments that set Hariri on this path: On the 9th of September, the deputy-PM and the LF’s highest ranking politician in the executive power said that Hezbollah infringes on Lebanon’s sovereignty, on the 13th of September Geagea was criticizing Iran, on the 16th of October, Geagea said that the return of Assad’s influence to Lebanon was a red line, and by the 23rd of October, Geagea was threatening a resignation of the Lebanese Forces ministers from the cabinet. Geagea and Gemayel had travelled to Saudi Arabia at the end of September, and while the LF and the FM were taking major anti-Hezbollah position in the government, new tensions started appearing when Berri took advantage of a chaotic context regarding the preparations for the elections, and said that the parliamentary polls should be brought forward if the magnetic card wouldn’t be used, which kind of stressed out everyone even more, eventually proposing a draft law to slash the parliament’s extended term. The debate on the mechanism of the next elections continued for two months, creating tensions between the FPM and the FM, with interior minister Machnouk arguing that “the pre-registration of voters has become inevitable,” while seeing an  “inability” to create voter cards—as per Bassil’s insistence– due to lack of time.

Regional influence and local politics

In his last cabinet meeting, a couple of hours before he resigned in Saudi Arabia, Hariri had reportedly told his cabinet that Saudi Arabia was “keen on Lebanon’s stability”, despite the fact that it was previously reported this week that Hariri was asked by Saudi-Arabia to distance himself from Aoun, and that it was also previously rumored in the mainstream media that the same things were asked of Geagea and Gemayel who visited the Kingdom in September. Saudi Arabia’s role in the resignation is crystal clear, and Hezbollah will probably use Hariri’s place of resignation against him (in electoral campaigning) till the end of time.

Several developments probably led to the resignation. The FPM-FM (Bassil-Machnouk) heavy political clash on the electoral mechanism of voting may have played a part in the collapse of 2016 Lebanese coalition , Saudi-Arabia’s rising influence and Hariri’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia where he met a Saudi minister who had taken a hobby of publicly criticizing Hezbollah might have given Hariri the Saudi-Arabaian green light (reminder that Hariri also resigned from Saudi-Arabia), but Geagea distancing himself from Hezbollah (inspired by the talks he did in Saudi-Arabia at the end of September?) should be seen as the main culprit in the collapse of the LF-FPM-FM-Hezbollah alliance. Hariri, via the timing of this resignation, was also probably trying to attract the LF away from the FPM by building on the Lebanese Forces tensions with Hezbollah in the cabinet. The LF are at a stage where they should choose between an electoral alliance between the FPM or the FM, and the FM exiting the Hezbollah-FPM-FM-LF coalition (via Hariri’s resignation) at a time when Geagea was criticizing  Hezbollah, could push the LF away from an electoral alliance with the FPM. It was Hariri who pushed Geagea towards Aoun in the first place when he endorsed Frangieh as his presidential candidate in 2015, and now an opportunity to bring Geagea back into the fold of a March 14 alliance had presented itself. Another key political development that played a part in the resignation was the reconciliation between Hariri and Jumblatt on the 9th of October, followed by the PSP’s criticism of Syrian regime via Marwan Hamadeh at the end of October.

With an alliance with the LF and the PSP now possible, Hariri’s abrupt resignation was possibly the first step towards achieving his ultimate goal of reforming the 2009 March 14 alliance ahead of the 2017 elections.  It remains to be seen how Geagea and Jumblatt would eventually react to the resignation and time will tell if Hariri’s maneuver will work, especially that the electoral law has changed, but it was nevertheless the best timing for Hariri to proceed with his move, a move that was necessary if he wanted to truly challenge in the next parliamentary elections while being seen by the Sunni electorate as a leader of a coalition that rebelled against the status-quo rather than a puppet Prime-Minister who had allied himself with the parties he initially ran against in the 2009 elections.

The republic of chaos-control

Four days prior to Hariri’s resignation, Aoun was celebrating the achievements of his first year in power, while not long ago, Hariri was also doing the same. When elections come, there will be a struggle between the FM and the FPM to define who was the main man behind the success, and who was the culprit behind the shortcomings of the cabinet. A particular example of shortcomings was during July and August when the Lebanese ruling parties allowed and banned rival protests regarding Syrian refugees, started a war in the Arsal and Ras Baalbak outskirts, and eventually set free hundreds of ISIS terrorists, while using all those distractions to pass a new tax law that was eventually deemed unconstitutional.

When they fail, Lebanese politicians change the political debate at a speed that makes it difficult for anyone to keep up with, while making sure they remain at the epicentre of any new political debate. This method of chaos control is frequently used by the traditional parties and the new political developments in Lebanon turned the Summer of 2017 into a distant past for everyone involved, while Hariri’s resignation from premiership at a time when the government was the least efficient leaves the responsibility of the fiasco of the Summer of 2017 resting solely on the shoulders of the FPM (via Aoun), although it is too soon to see how the Lebanese parties plan on campaigning before elections.

Another parliamentary extension?

Governmental resignations are not very promising when it comes to holding elections on time, and the last time a government resigned before elections in 2013, we ended up with 3 parliamentary extensions (it took 11 months for the government to be formed and the elections were due to be held in 2 months). Lebanese politicians now have the perfect opportunity to procrastinate regarding the formation of a new government that would oversee elections, and their true resolve on holding parliamentary elections on time will be tested soon enough. The sooner a new government is formed the more likely elections will happen.

The FM and the FPM knew exactly what they had to expect in government when they decided to go forth with their alliance in 2016, and the entire drama that will unravel in the next few weeks only has one goal: Electoral campaigning, and the reconstitution of the March 8 and 14 alliances that were shattered by the Presidential elections.

In other words, expect a lot of “Hariri is a Saudi puppet who resigned in Saudi-Arabia” vs “Iran wants to control Lebanon and we will not accept its meddling” in the coming weeks, and welcome back to 2008, Lebanon. It’s been a while.

This was the 31st post in a series of bimonthly / monthly posts covering developments in Lebanese politics since June 2014. This post is about the months of September and October 2017.

The Republic of Distractions

Senior state officials commemorate GS anniversary in Beirut, August 26

Senior state officials commemorate General Security’s 72nd anniversary in Beirut, Lebanon. Saturday, August 26, 2017. (The Daily Star/ Mohammad Azakir)

On the 16th of June 2017, Lebanese politicians pulled what could arguably be considered as the biggest parliamentary achievement since the Doha agreement of 2008. After 7 years of procrastination, 4 years of planification, and 6 months of deliberations only dedicated to that cause (also overshadowed by calculated procrastination), Lebanon’s ruling parties finally agreed on a new electoral law. The plan was crystal clear: Adjourn the agreement on a new voting law as much as possible (from December 2016 to June 2017), and design a law that suits the interests of the ruling coalition as whole and gives an impression of reform while practically keeping the status-quo (click here for a dedicated analysis about Lebanon’s new electoral law) . Before President Aoun was elected in October 2016, the biggest obstacle that almost made the Aoun-Hariri consensus impossible was the fact that Aoun’s term was going to last till October 2022, while Hariri would only serve till the next theoretical parliamentary election, which – at the time – was May 2017. In an ideal world of Lebanese politics, that would have meant that Hariri’s term would last 6 months while Aoun’s rule would span for 6 years. For the Future Movement, it was out of the question to trade a government they controlled (The Salam one), with a regime that had Aoun at its head and no guarantees about its long-term cabinet future. It was thus crucial for Hariri to create an equilibrium to that consensual formula, by extending his premiership term. The only way to do that was via postponing parliamentary elections, and the only way to postpone elections was by procrastinating for months about a new electoral law, not preparing for new elections under the current law (Notice how both (1) the FM made sure to keep the interior ministry – that handles electoral preparations – under their command in the new Hariri cabinet, and (2) how Aoun refused over and over again to hold elections under the 2008 law), and eventually vote a new electoral law at the last-minute, coupled with a parliamentary term extension that no one would object to.

The plan was a solid one, and just like that, in June 2017, Hariri was given 11 more months in power (in exchange for crowning Aoun in his Baabda Palace), until April 2018, effectively tripling his theoretical stay, and giving enough time for the ruling parties to change alliances accordingly to the new law and reactivate their patronage networks ahead of the 2018 rescheduled spring elections.

Lebanon’s Zuamas had probably planned that entire scenario in October when Hariri “suddenly and surprisingly” agreed to support his Arch-nemesis Michel Aoun as President, and the 8 months-old speculation became reality when Lebanon’s parties finalized their collective maneuver on the 17th of June 2017. Lebanon’s ruling parties had successfully wasted precious time procrastinating on an electoral law in order to push for a parliamentary extension, and now that the parliamentary extension became reality, the time was for distractions.

The sky is the limit for our politicians’ political maneuvers, but the greatest of all machinations remains their ability to distract the people, and sometimes even their rivals, with a particular event, while they vote a law or implement a new rule. The Summer of 2017 will go down in history as a perfect example.

Throwback February

At the very end of February, Lebanese politicians were still bickering on what electoral system is best for the country, with Amal and Hezbollah asking for full proportional representation, the PSP refusing it, and the FPM, LF, FM and other parties trying to look for something in between. However, out of nowhere, they decided that it was not only time to discuss the state budget, but it was also the time to fund the new salary wage scale by imposing new taxes. By the 20th of February, and just when it was clear the Lebanese President was not going to sign the electoral decree that calls for parliamentary elections (in theory, it was in order to pressure the MPs into voting a new electoral law, while in practice all it did was paving the way to a third cancelled parliamentary election in a row by cancelling planned elections), Lebanese politicians started discussing the new controversial taxes they wanted to impose as part of the new budget. The ruling parties made sure that the public’s attention started shifting to the new economic policies instead of the parliamentary elections that were scheduled to happen in three months.

Distraction 1.0

But there was a problem: While the public was successfully distracted with the prospect of new taxes and a modified salary scale, Lebanese politicians couldn’t vote on raising taxes in the middle of a parliamentary crisis and ahead of a planned parliamentary extension with no electoral law in sight. It was too risky as a strategy, and similar faux-pas of angering the public had previously led to protests and more momentum for the opposition parties and groups (From the Kataeb to the multiple Hirak movements). So the politicians eventually aborted their mission of raising taxes after waves of protests probably started reminding them of the Summer of 2015. After all, this time Aoun and Hariri were both in power, which meant that protests would directly threaten their influence, unlike 2015 when both leaders weren’t personally in power and could sympathize/endorse some of the protests’ ideas as a way of “smoothing” their role in power.

By the end of April, the salary scale was not voted in parliament, the taxes funding it were not voted in parliament, protest fatigue quickly happened, but the electoral deadlines had passed. The first part of the mission was accomplished (electoral distraction), but the second part (raising the taxes), was postponed.

The law and the outskirts

The electoral law wa finally agreed upon in June, and the month of July starts with Jumblatt hailing the army’s endeavors to maintain stability, followed by Hariri “hailing the heroes of the Lebanese army” a day later – a stance also reiterated 10 days later, which was then followed by Hezbollah leaders calling for the defeat of Daesh. A couple of days earlier, the Lebanese army had foiled a terrorist attack near Arsal, and Lebanese politicians saw in that developement an opportunity like no other to maneuver. Leaders from both sides of the spectrum started calling for returning the refugees to Syria, and the sentiment culminated, with Hezbollah using the momentum to start a media war on ISIS and the Syrian rebels occupying the Lebanese North-East outskirts since 2014. By the 11th and the 14th of July, Both the FPM and the LF were calling for the Syrian refugees to return, and what started as a maneuver by Hariri (in a bad timing since there was a fallout between Hariri and Jumblatt at the time) to highlight the army’s supremacy – the army that answers to his cabinet – in the North-East and undermine Hezbollah backfired and gave Hezbollah an opportunity to strengthen their propaganda.

For years, Hezbollah had been fighting in Syria with no valid direct alibi for their presence except their alliance with the Syrian regime. Now, with ISIS and Nusra’s military presence in the outskirts of Arsal, Hezbollah had finally found the opportunity to justify their actions towards the Lebanese public ahead of parliamentary elections – notably the Christian swing-voting electorate that isn’t always too happy about alliances with Assad.

Launching an offensive on the militants in the outskirts that are a few Kilometers from Baalbak would also serve as a boost for Hezbollah in a region where the party is already popular but where elections that are supposed to be held on a proportionality basis might threaten Hezbollah’s influence.

Lebanese Politicians 1 – Panicking Lebanese 0

With the anti-refugee sentiment getting stronger by the day and rumors of Hezbollah preparing for an offensive in the North-East, activist groups called for rival demonstrations regarding the Syrian refugee crisis, and for a moment, it just seemed as if the scenario of 1975 was being repeated and the rival protests were heading for a clash. Fear led to exaggeration, exaggeration led to speculation, speculation led to censorship, and we all took the bait. The Lebanese government had allowed two rival protests regarding refugees and the army to take place, and then banned all protests after an impression was given that the protesters were going to clash.
What did I forget to tell you? A tax hike parliamentary session was taking place that Tuesday, and by banning all possible protests and focusing on an imminent civil strife, the ruling class had just directly used the refugees issue to make things easier for them in parliament without anyone noticing.

Distraction 2.0

But you can’t really raise taxes in this country without anyone noticing, and the alibi of backing the wage hike with the new taxes in the middle of a refugee crisis simply wasn’t enough in a corrupt Lebanon. A bigger distraction was thus needed in order to raise the taxes: On the Tuesday the 16th of July, the day Hezbollah launched skirmishes against Arsal militants ahead of its planned offensive, parliament began by voting the new salary scale into law after waiting it out for 5 years.

There are times when political agreements seem secret and mysterious, but the coalition’s agreement on July’s events was too obvious to be true: By the 20th of July, Hezbollah was finally moving in on Arsal militants – something that was deemed unfavorable in FM circles for years – in the exact 48 hours when FM leader and PM Hariri was leaving for Washington – the last time Hariri was in Washington in his official role as Prime Minister, Hezbollah brought his government down in the most humiliating way imaginable.

Hariri’s visit had a very awkward timing: It was arguably Lebanon’s most important economic and military week since at least 2014, and if a Lebanese Prime Minister should have stayed in the country for only 1 week out of the 54 available in a year, that week would have been good candidate. It seemed as if Hariri was running away from his responsibilities, but it was more than that: He was avoiding any clash with Hezbollah about their offensive against Syrian militants on Lebanese territory, a clash that seemed a necessary distraction for the Lebanese who just had their taxes increased. In a way, a “disappearing” Hariri gave Hezbollah a free pass to launch the offensive while Hezbollah gave Hariri and his cabinet a cover to raise the taxes, and the diplomatic trip to Washington was comfortably there to make that awkward trade a smooth one.  Now of course, FM and M14 leaders criticized Hezbollah for acting without the government’s approval, but Hariri wasn’t here to oversee that awkwardness as Prime Minister or to criticize the party of God as FM leader – at least in the early stages of the offensive (he eventually criticized it in a mild way on the 26th of July) . And even within March 14, there was some ambivalence about Hezbollah’s role, with Geagea positive about that Offensive (was this the Michel Aoun within the Samir Geagea speaking?), whereas other Future Movement officials were blasting the party. It is interesting to note that Geagea changed his opinion 4 days later, blasting Hezbollah’s arms and calling the Arsal battle collateral advantage (was this the Saad Hariri within the Samir Geagea speaking?) : It’s really amazing how 4 days can Jumblattify any Lebanese politician. Speaking of Jumblattifcation, Jumblatt, who traditionally sides with the winning side, was traditionally siding with the winning side. Classic.

Introducing the Don’t Know Don’t Care policy

Hariri’s trip to the United States was no less awkward than its weird timing:  Lebanon is ‘on the front lines fighting’ Hezbollah, Trump said at a news conference following his Oval Office meeting with Hariri. I’m not sure what Hariri and Trump discussed in their meeting, but Hezbollah’s relationship with the cabinet in which it is member, as well as its offensive on militants in the North-East was obviously not part of the conversation. And the best thing about all that? The leadership of Hezbollah – a party that brought down Hariri’s cabinet while he was meeting Obama in 2011 – didn’t even bother to comment on that entire issue. In the name of mutual benefits, there was an obvious truce between the FM and Hezbollah that month, and events that could have led to military clashes in 2008 or even 2011 or 2013, went unnoticed by both parties’ leaderships.

By the 29th of July, Hezbollah had accomplished its military mission in Arsal, but also its political one in parliament, helping the Aoun-Hariri alliance raise taxes in a context of military distraction.

Elections are coming

In the world of Christian politicians, however, it seemed that the LF-FPM alliance was starting to crumble:  Hours after Gebran Bassil hinted that his party was seeking all three seats in the Jezzine governorate – excluding any LF share from the equation, Geagea was stating that he was confident of his party’s win in parliamentary election, while saying that electoral alliances have not been finalized yet. I’m not sure if that’s how the LF and the FPM flirt with each other now, but it seemed as if both parties were trying to take the upper hand in negotiating the number of seats for each party. There is definitely no previous agreement on how they’re going to share a united parliamentary list of candidates, and this would open the door for the FM and Hezbollah to manipulate each of their historic allies in a hope to break up a Christian alliance that has been more awkward for the Muslim parties than anyone else. The FPM, anxious to light up the country with electricity after 9 years in power – ahead of the parliamentary elections (for obvious reasons), were dealing with corruption scandals, while Aoun and his son-in-law were touring in his home district of Batroun and launching infrastructure plans. Election season is coming, and Lebanese politicians remember.

The threat of losing in the next elections was ever-present as always for the FPM and its allies in the coalition, and in the spirit of building on their current political upper hand ahead of unpredictable elections and unpredictable alliances that would precede it, they consolidated their influence both in the judiciary and in public administrations by removing judges (who were influencial in thwarting some of the corruption scandals) and replacing them with others – so much for separation of powers – while appointing their own men as public servants in a strategy to weaken the only party in the parliamentary opposition. The FPM was removing pro-Kataeb public servants and rewarding its own men with new key positions.

The FPM and LF’s maneuvering ahead of parliamentary elections was also clear in the cabinet’s minor and major decision. On the 16th of August, lawmakers approved the establishment of a new administrative division (governorate) of Keserwan-Jbeil, splitting the historical Mouhafaza of Mount-Lebanon into two for the first time in the history of the republic. That move was a selective administrative decentralization towards a district expected to be the heart of the Christian political battle in 2018: Whoever wins Keserwan is usually given the title of legitimate Christian representative by the media. The new Mouhafaza was smart propaganda, giving the impression that the FPM and the LF were working in favor of Christian interests, while using the Kataeb demands of administrative decentralization against them, also drawing a virtual line between the Kataeb Metn stronghold and the potential territory up North the phalangists could ‘conquer’ in June 2018. That move also creates a “Southern Mount-Lebanon” that is now more religiously mixed than ever, potentially giving Jumblatt more influence over 4 Cazas while feeding a policy of sectarian isolation that would only benefit the FPM, the LF, and the PSP.

Who fights for the North-East?

In its battle against militants in July, Hezbollah established control over Nusra’s territories in the outskirts of Arsal, but had not yet attacked the outskirts of Kaa and Ras Baalbak controlled by ISIS. This was probably due to the fact that Hezbollah wanted to keep some action for other times of need, and for the fact that a clash between ISIS and the Lebanese army, that answers to the Hariri cabinet, would be more appropriate for Hariri than a clash between the LAF and more mainstream Syrian rebels such as Nusra.

From the end of July, it was well established that Hezbollah would have a lesser role in an offensive on the North-East’s ISIS controlled territories – especially that they lie on the outskirts of two Christian towns, Kaa and Ras Baalbak.

When Berri said that the army would play a bigger role in Ras Baalbak as soon as the battles in Arsal’s outskirts ended, and reiterated this stance 5 days later from Tehran, it looked as if Berri was trying to lessen of Hezbollah’s increasing influence in the Bekaa as part as a genius political maneuver from the speaker. What was actually happening however, was something entirely different. By refusing to attack the remaining outskirts, Hezbollah – in the spirit of its detente with the FM – was giving Hariri what he asked for: His cabinet’s control of the military operations in the North-East.

Nasrallah nevertheless wanted to include Hezbollah in this operation to claim Hezbollah’s victory, but in a way that made it less awkward for Hariri, his cabinet, and the army: He stated that Hezbollah and the Syrian army would attack Daesh from the Syrian side of the border. That statement would cause chaos in Lebanese politics: In that context, agitating March 8 ministers wanted to use the momentum to their advantage. Three ministers publicly said that they would visit Syria in order to improve/normalize relations with the Syrian regime as official representatives of the Lebanese cabinet. That move would embarrass Hariri, whose cabinet quickly un-endorsed the official character of the ministers’ visits, But the visits happened nonetheless, and the ministers still insisted they were participating as representatives of the government anyway.

While you can obviously feel the chemistry between the coalition members (this is sarcasm, in case you were wondering), a political clash like this one would have blown up governments in the past. In other words, the truce that had been active since June 2017 was still in place in August. No one cared about escalating a diplomatic confusion in Syria. The 2017 taxes and 2018 elections were everything that mattered.

Distraction 3.0

It’s not nice to go down in history as the President who sole economic achievement in his first year in power is raising taxes. It’s also not nice to be that person when elections come knocking on your son-in-law’s door in 9 months. Which is why Aoun was reluctant about immediately signing the tax law, especially that Hariri’s absence from the country would have given the impression that the taxes were mainly Aoun’s idea and responsibility. So Aoun, who clearly knows his Lebanese politics, refused to sign the voted tax law at first, waiting an entire month before signing the new numbers and percentages into law. Still, a distraction was obviously preferable at the moment of signing.

So on the 19th of August, and after 2 weeks of momentum building for the Ras Baalbak and Arsal offensives, the army finally launched the Fajr Al-Jouroud operation against ISIS in the North-East, eventually winning in its battles against the terrorists and quickly liberating most of the Daesh occupied territories on the outskirts of Ras Baalbak and Al-Qaa within days, preparing for the 4th stage of the Assault on the 23rd of August.

Guess what happened in the meantime? In the middle of the military battle, Aoun, who had visited the outskirts in the weekend in a show of support for the army,  signed the salary scale and tax laws three days later, on the 22nd of August…and almost no one noticed. Smooth.

Quadripartite formulas and imaginary victories

“This great achievement (…) is one of the results of the golden Army-people-Resistance formula, added to it the Syrian Army”

Hezbollah chief Nasrallah threw a political bomb on the 24th of August, expanding March 8’s tripartite formula by adding to it the Syrian army, embarrassing in the process Hariri and his anti-Syrian regime allies, and picturing an offensive that was led by the army against terrorists in the Lebanese outskirts as part of a battle in the Syrian regime’s greater war. That quote obviously caused an uproar within March 14 and its media: Hezbollah had obviously tried to hijack a Hariri victory after offering it to him on a silver plate, showing a Lebanese government cooperating with the Syrian regime.

But that was nothing compared to the military fiasco that would follow in the next few days: As ISIS surrendered, negotiations happened with the militants, and it was agreed that ISIS terrorists – that could have been captured, annihilated or even starved to death by the Lebanese army surrounding them in the outskirts – would be free to leave to ISIS-held territories in buses,  in exchange for ensuring the safe return of nine Lebanese soldiers kidnapped when Isis overran the area in 2014. The deal favored Hezbollah since it allowed the release of Hezbollah and some Syrian regime allies hostages, but was a total humiliation for the Lebanese state as hundreds of terrorists – who executed its soldiers and published execution footage – were allowed to leave, unpunished for their crimes. Nasrallah had to contain the damage quickly, and in his second speech within days, claimed victory in an attempt to change the conversation from terrorists escaping punishment to liberation and territorial conquests. But there was no pride in what happened: In the aftermath of the deal, the Lebanese authorities had allowed murderers and enemies of the state to escape punishment, and indirectly transferred and exported terrorists by allowing them to leave, in exchange of ISIS giving up the outcome of the Lebanese abducted soldiers, who turned out to be all dead – an information apparently known by the authorities since February 2015, and cruelly hidden from the martyr’s families and the public.

ISIS no longer had any leverage on the Lebanese authorities, and the Lebanese authorities had let them leave unscathed, for the simple reason that ISIS had leverage on the Syrian regime in other parts of Syria and that the Syrian regime obviously had a leverage on the Lebanese authorities. No matter how our politicians try to picture it, what started as a campaign to establish Lebanese sovereignty in the North-East ironically turned out to be the exact opposite. Does it really matter who rules the arid oustskirts if we end up with no accountability for the terrorists who bombed our cities and slaughtered our soldiers?

Sweetening the deal

In 2013, just after the parliament voted its first parliamentary extension, it gave up a gift in order to legitimize that extension, by pushing for a law advocating for protecting women from domestic violence. That same strategy lives on in 2017, with the parliament legitimizing its third parliamentary extension, its electoral law, and its tax raise by scrapping the controversial rape-marriage law and voting for an animal welfare law. The cabinet was also helping out in that legitimization process by appointing women in diplomatic vacancies.

With the objectives of the ruling parties completed in parliament via calculated distractions that ultimately served their purpose, expect an environment of political escalation between Hezbollah and the FM as they progressively start to brace themselves for elections. Summer is almost over, and with it, the time for moderation. With everything requiring consensus – such as government formations, taxes and electoral laws – decided, the next chapter is about forming the electoral alliances, and with those alliances comes political escalation.

Brace yourselves for political debates about every single thing happening in the country. It’s going to be fun. After all, we’re finally heading towards our first parliamentary election in a decade.

This was the 30th post in a series of bimonthly / monthly posts covering developments in Lebanese politics since June 2014. This post is about the months of June, July and August 2017.

The Adwan Electoral Law: From Bad to Worse?

 

Mabrouk. It’s official: As of June 16, 2017, Lebanon has a new parliamentary electoral law. It is being hailed by the ruling parties as a major achievement, as an iconic moment in the history of Lebanon, the best electoral law to ever see light in the republic. It took Lebanese politicians four years of normal parliamentary time, four other years of extended parliamentary time, three illegal parliamentary extensions, a little less than a year of governmental vacancy, more than two years of a presidential vacancy, two Presidents, four Prime Ministers, five councils of ministers and at least twenty different possible draft electoral laws (not an exaggeration), to reach Lebanon’s new electoral law. Naturally, a sane and optimistic citizen would only expect a perfect electoral law to be the fruit of that difficult and long path. But we live in Lebanon, and the reality is far from being close to that.

The Path Towards a Flawed Design

At first , the new electoral law seems to deliver on the promise of radical change from the “1960” (2008) law, as it replaces Lebanon’s previous law – which is a majoritarian system implemented in districts that vary in size but are mainly small (Bcharre had 2 MPs and Baalbak-Hermel had 10) – with a law that is based on proportional representation with bigger districts (Bcharre was merged with 3 other districts as an example). That theoretical design had been for years demanded by several reform groups as it provides the Lebanese with a more representative parliament, bringing out minorities in districts and mixing up the sectarian composition of the parliamentary blocs, thus reducing sectarianism and giving every party its fair share of the pie while giving the opportunity for new movements to emerge from the shadow of the mainstream parties who were blocking anyone else’s rise to parliament by simply making strategic sectarian-local-tribal alliances that gave them the relative majority in almost all districts.

For that reason, proportional representation was going to be a major blow for traditional Lebanese politicians no matter how they tried to twist with that design. In a proportional system, trying to bypass the electoral hurdles by buying votes would be harder and far less cost-effective, politicians would have to campaign in a way that would be far different from what they had been doing for the past 25 years, they would end up with religiously-mixed blocs no matter what, and they would still find it difficult to contain the rising threat of the newcomer parties (such as Beirut Madinati, Sabaa, You Stink, or other Hirak movements) that would nevertheless make it through, especially after the 2015 trash protests and the 2016 Beirut municipality election results.

This is exactly why, for years, Lebanese politicians worked to avoid proportional representation, at first agreeing in Doha (2008) on a modified version of the 1960 law instead of passing proportional representation, and then individually endorsing something other than mainstream proportionality afterwards, with the PSP refusing their cabinet’s proportional draft in 2012, then March 14 parties proposing a 50 districts law, which was quickly followed by a modified 37 district law in 2013,  while the FPM were at the same time trying to distort the representative and diverse essence of proportionality by trying to implement an apartheid draft electoral law that would only allow MPs to be elected by people from their own sect (the Orthodox Gathering law), and finally Hezbollah/Amal trying to scare everyone with proportional representation by suggesting to make Lebanon a single district with proportionality – something 2013 Lebanon was not ready to do.

With a governmental and then a presidential vacancy available for them to change the subject from 2013 to 2017, Lebanese politicians kept procrastinating and procrastinating, sticking to their original draft laws, and then ultimately proposing a one man-one vote law, around a dozen of proportional -majoritarian-mixed draft laws, as well as a “qualification law”, entertaining us with a play where they would at times endorse proportional representation while their rivals vetoed it and then vice-versa.

We are often given an impression by Lebanese politicians of situations that require time for them to solve because of their complexity, but in truth, their electoral law strategy was very simple: To avoid proportional representation as much as possible, by any mean available, such as giving a sense of political instability (right before the 2013 parliamentary extension), or even creating a virtual red line that it was not possible to elect a parliament in the middle of a presidential vacancy (right before the 2014 parliamentary extension).

That strategy of extending the parliament’s term and postponing the electoral law discussions worked for four years, but Lebanese politicians needed a final solution that would be more permanent for them, and with the rise of the Aoun-Geagea alliance and the return of Michel Aoun and Saad Hariri to power in the autumn of 2016, that solution could no longer be a parliamentary extension and had to be an election, preferably under a new electoral law, so that the new ruling parties would be ultimately seen as reformers , covering up 9 years of bad policies.

And so another serious quest to find an electoral alternative began in January 2017, and with every party trying to pass the draft law that fits it most, a compromise was getting impossible to reach, until  MP Adwan of the Lebanese Forces finally brokered one. On Friday the 16th of June 2017, Lebanon’s parliament officially passed a new electoral law, that I will be calling the Adwan Law for two reasons: Because it bears the name of its creator, but because it is also in itself an agression (agression = Adwan in Arabic) on the idea of fair representation, bending proportionality with add-ons to suit the needs of the ruling class and making it easier for current politicians to stay in power. In proposing his parties-tailored proportionality rules, Adwan had solved a decade-old dilemma for Lebanese politicians who were under pressure to deliver a proportionality electoral law without actually wanting to pass one. And so, just like in 2008 when Lebanese politicians rushed to praise the 2008 electoral law as a step forward towards a fair representation (before quickly disowning it afterwards), mainstream Lebanese politicians are currently promoting the Adwan law as the best electoral law for the country. But be not fooled by the political celebratory gunfire, for the Adwan law is far from being an upgrade from the 2008 law.

So How Does The New Electoral Law Work Exactly?

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A map of the new electoral law constituencies, courtesy of The Daily Star

With terms still limited to four years, the country will now be divided into 15 major electoral districts, made up of 27 sub-districts with the 128 MPs divided among them.

Parties and groups will still put up a list of candidates from across the sects but as opposed to the old, winner-takes-all system, the new law will allocate seats proportionally across the lists.

Each voter will select one list of allied candidates as well as choosing one candidate from the list as their preferential vote. The percentage of votes a list receives will determine how many candidates on that list will win one of that districts designated seats in Parliament. Whichever individual candidates take these seats will in turn be determined by the number of preferential votes they receive.

The voter is not required to cast a preferential vote. If the voter chooses more than one candidate as their preferred option, no preferential vote will be counted for that voter. In this case, only the voter’s choice of overall list will be counted. If, conversely, a voter casts only a preferential vote and does not select a particular list of candidates, then the list the preferential vote was chosen from will be automatically assigned as their choice, as well as the preferential vote.

Lebanese nationals in the diaspora will now be able to vote at embassies, consulates or other locations designated by proper authorities, as long as these members of the diaspora are registered in the Lebanese civil registry and have a clear criminal record.

One hurdle that was widely discussed in the lead-up to the signing of the law was the proposal to reserve six parliamentary seats for the diaspora. The new electoral law stipulates that six seats will be allocated for expatriates, but this regulation will not go into effect during the upcoming parliamentary elections.

The diaspora seats will be divided between three Christians and three Muslims, according to Article 112 of the new electoral law.

(The Daily Star)

If you also wish to take a look at the entire law in Arabic, you can find it here.

Tailored Proportionality

1- Preferential voting and winning lists

At first sight, the electoral law seems like it is adopting mainstream proportional representation. Except it isn’t. The law separates Lebanon into 13 major constituencies that are made up from 27 minor ones (the administrative cazas). While Lebanese citizens vote for lists that can only run in the major constituencies, they can only cast one preferential vote in that list for a candidate that is running in his minor constituency, and candidates are ranked not by the number of preferential votes they get in the major constituency, but by the percentage of preferential votes they get in their minor constituency.

 

In theory, that system makes sure that all minor constituencies end up being represented, but in practice, that system of voting distorts the idea of proportional representation, and makes it look like a weird one-man-one-vote/majoritarian/proportionality hybrid, designed by our politicians to keep the status-quo.

A (not so) simple example: Let’s say the leading list in a constituency, List A, gets 40% of the vote of the vote in a major constituency made of 2 minor constituencies and 11 seats. The first minor constituency has 110000 voters and 3 seats, while the other one has 210000 voters and 8 seats. Let’s say the winning list gets 4 seats out of 11 (because it got 40% of the vote in the major constituency) and that in the first minor constituency, the preferential vote would be 40% for candidate A (44000 preferential votes), 30% for candidate B (33000 preferential vote), 30% for candidate C (33000 preferential votes), while in the second minor district, the preferential vote is more evenly distributed, with the four leading candidates there getting 22% of the preferential vote (46200 preferential votes). In the end, all of the three candidates that hail from the first minor district would be ranked higher than the other four candidates that hail from the second minor district (because the ranking is made by percentage, and 40%>30%>30%>22%), even though the candidates running in the first minor district had a lot less preferential votes. The three candidates that make it through for list A are all from the first minor constituency, although their allies that ran in the second minor constituency won more preferential votes. What makes things even worse is that list A could have probably been more popular in the second minor constituency, but because of the electoral system, more MPs made it in that list from the first minor constituency. Replace “first minor constituency” with Doniyeh and “second minor constituency” with Tripoli, and this scenario becomes a true story that coud happen in the next elections. It’s a scenario similarly applicable in all of Lebanon constituencies.

There will thus be a tendency for smaller minor constituencies to prevail in the winning lists, which would suit both Geagea and Bassil in the upcoming elections, since both hail from the smallest minor constituencies (Batroun and Bcharreh) in their major constituency (Batroun – Bcharreh – Koura – Zgharta), which would mean that a high percentage for Gebran Bassil and Sterida Geagea in the preferential vote in their small minor districts – something extremely plausible since Batrouni Aounis would overwhelmingly support Bassil and Bcharreh’s LF voters would do the same to Geagea – would put them at a higher ranking than any of the other candidates in their list, ensuring at list two seats for those two politicians in the upcoming elections.

When the leader of the FPM and the wife of the LF leader definitely get a seat via that electoral system – with or without an LF-FPM alliance – you start to understand why the LF-FPM alliance proposed and approved that law.

 

2- Preferential voting and losing lists

When it comes to losing lists, however, things change, and – plot twist – get even worse. Because every voter is only allowed to cast only one preferential vote, and because sectarianism is at the core of the Lebanese politics, the basic instinct of the voter will compel him to give the preferential vote to the candidate from his sect. Since Lebanese electoral rivalries have been historically been made between sectarian parties (the 2009 elections being no exception), this will mean that in major constituencies, the winning list is likely to be the one affiliated with the party that has the same sectarian identity as the religious majority of that constituency, while the highest ranked candidates in that list will be the ones that belong to that sect and that are the most extreme/outspoken in that list. For the losing list, probably affiliated with a party that has the same sectarian identity as the minority religion in that constituency, the seats would also be awarded to the most ranked candidates in that list, who would definitely be running for those minority-sect seats in that constituency. The winning MPs would eventually be the most sectarian ones in every list because of that one preferential vote, which is likely to maximize Lebanon’s problems after the elections, and lead to more sectarian speeches and taunting before the elections. The Adwan law, in its own way, makes sure that moderates do not make it to parliament, and if they happen to eventually make it by winning a certain percentage of the vote, they will always get the share of seats of the minor sects in that constituency, since the major sect’s seat in that constituency would be awarded at first to the winning list’s most ranked members, who are likely to be from that sect (even if the highest ranking candidate in the losing moderate / new party list is from the majority sect in that constituency, since all the seats for that sect would be taken by the winning list at first because its candidates that belong to the majority sect would be the highest ranking winners in it ) . And as long as the new parties / moderate parties that are trying to beat the mainstream parties do not control the mainstream parties’ main seats (of the sect of those parties), they will not truly threaten the influence of those parties, slowly pushing the new parties (with time) to become the representatives of the minor sect in that constituency instead of serving its original purpose to be a cross-sectarian opposition to the sectarian ruling parties. What makes it also difficult for some of the new small emerging parties is that some constituencies, such as Saida-Jezzine and Baabda, only have 5 and 6 seats,  which means that, by the rules of the Adwan law, they would need to get 20% of the vote to get a seat, a threshold that is high and that could have been lower if some major constituencies were joined together.

To give a small example

  1. With the 2008 law, the FM would have won all 11 seats of Beirut II.
  2. With a proportional representation that didn’t have only one preferential vote, the FM would have probably won 7 seats, with only 4 of the 6 Sunni seats won by the FM.
  3. With the Adwan electoral law, the FM wins all 6 Sunni seats of Beirut II (since the most ranked candidates in the FM list are likely to be the Sunni candidates) as well as another seat or two, and the other seats go to the losing lists that are eligible to get a seat.

In other words, blocs that are unfairly overrepresented in some constituencies because of the 2008 law, will become fairly represented, but extremely sectarian. in religiously mixed constituencies, the sectarian parties that historically used to win all the seats in that constituency (because of the winner-takes-all system in the 2000 and 2008 laws), will now primarily win their sect’s seat. That would result in political blocs purely made of MPs of the same sect. While the composition of the current parliamentary blocs is at first sight sectarian, several blocs are religiously mixed: The FM, primarily Sunni, has a dozen of Christian seats, the CAR bloc has a Shiite member and two Druze ones, while the PSP has more non-Druze than it has Druzes. Under the new Adwan law, it would become easier for parties to clinch the seats that correspond to the sect they represent in every constituency (even in the ones where they lose), instead of winning all the seats of a constituency and losing all the other seats in another. That would mean that Jumblatt would be giving up 2 to 3 Christian seats, but he will finally be able to get a hold on at least 7 Druze seats (in the current electoral format he only has 5 out of 8), making the new proportional law a risk worth taking for him, probably explaining why the PSP leader eventually approved that law: With the Adwan law, ALL sectarian leaders get a grip on most of their sects’ seats, even in constituencies where they would have probably gave another seat to another leader because that sect would’ve been a minority in that district.

So in the end, instead of promoting religiously diverse blocs, proportionality, as designed in the Adwan law, eventually makes it easier for sectarian warlords to get their sect’s seats everywhere, resulting in homogenous sectarian blocs in parliament (which is why almost all of the ruling parties git excited when they saw it). And what makes this process even easier is the fact that the law makes it possible for incomplete lists to run in the elections, making it possible for minor sectarian parties in a constituency to get the seats of their sect without having to campaign for a lot of candidates (for example, Jumblatt fields a list of only 4 of 6 possible candidates in Baabda, pushes his voters to give the preferential vote to the Druze candidate, and manages to get a little more than the bare minimum to win one seat,  a seat that would eventually be awarded to his highest ranked winner in his list, the Druze one)

That point, and that point alone, makes the Adwan law far more dangerous than the 2008 law: Close your eyes, and imagine in your mind Christian-supported lists running against Muslim-supported lists, the homogenous blocs resulting in parliament, and what happens next. So much for the pact of mutual coexistence…

Sectarian Redistricting

Speaking of mutual coexistence, Lebanese politicians should receive a medal in bad redistricting. They managed to split the major constituencies in the most sectarian way possible:

  • In the North, the four Christian cazas (Batroun, Bcharre, Zgharta, and Koura) were joined together, while the two Sunni ones (Tripoli and Doniyeh) were joined together, leaving Akkar, that has strong Christian minority but a lot of Sunni voters, all by itself.
  • In the Bekaa, the same constituencies of the 2008 law remained, with a Northern Baalbak-Hermel predominantly Shia, a central Zahle predominantly Christian, and a Southern West Bekaa-Rashaya predominantly Sunni.
  • In Mount Lebanon, the southernmost districts of Aley and Chouf, that almost have two-thirds of the Druze voters in Lebanon, were joined together, while the northernmost districts of Keserwan and Jbeil, predominantly Maronite (83% and 67%), were joined together. The Metn, predominantly Christian (93%) but not Maronite enough (43%) to be joined with the northern Keserwan-Jbeil, was left alone,  while Baabda, not Druze enough (17%) to be joined with the Chouf-Aley constituency (40% Druze),  and not Christian enough (52%) to be joined with the Metn (93% Christian), was also left alone.
  • In Beirut, our lawmakers – in denial and thinking that we still live in Lebanon’s 1975 Civil War – separated, in disgusting pride, the eastern part of the city (predominantly Christian), from its western part (predominantly Muslim), reinstating on paper a virtual green line that had been absent since the end of the Civil War in 1990. So much for mutual coexistence.
  • In the South, the predominantly Sunni city of Saida was separated from it caza and joined with the predominantly Christian Jezzine, while the rest of the Saida Caza (= Zahrani) as well as the Tyre caza, both predominantly Shia, were joined together, officially creating a major constituency that is predominantly non-Shia and another that is predominantly Shia. The cherry on the top? the caza of Jezzine and the city of Saida don’t even border one another. The only thing they have in common is that they’re both in the south and have less Shias than the other cazas.
  • In the Nabatiyeh governorate, Hasbaya-Marjeyoun, Nabatiyeh and Bint Jbeil all remained together. Can you guess why? They’re all mainly Shia.

Never in the modern history of Lebanon has the electoral redistricting been so sectarian. There have always been traces of sectarian constituency making, such as separating Achrafieh, Rmeil and Saifi from the rest of Beirut in the 2008 law, but the level of sectarian redistricting in the Adwan law is by far unprecedented.

The constituency map, that tries to separate Shias from Druze from Sunnis, Maronites from non-Maronites, and Christians from Muslims, serves one purpose: To make the process of getting sectarian homogenous political blocs – already facilitated by Adwan’s preferential vote in the minor constituencies (that was explained earlier) – even easier by reducing to 6 out of a possible 15 the number of highly religiously mixed constituencies: Akkar, Baabda, Chouf-Aley (which actually favors the PSP even though it remains religiously mixed), Jezzine-Saida, West Bekaa-Rachaya, and Zahle. For those 6 constituencies, the Adwan preferential vote system will do the trick of giving Christian parties the Christian seats they desire and the Muslim parties the Muslim seats they desire.

Finalizing the March 8 / March 14 shift

To understand the true goal of that electoral law would be to understand how the people who designed it think. Since the month of November 2015 (the month when Hariri decided to endorse the presidential candidacy of Frangieh), and till the month of October 2016 (the month Berri decided not to vote for Aoun in the presidential elections), through the month of January 2016 (the month Geagea decided to endorse Aoun), Lebanese politics had been slowly shifting from what was left of the 2005 March8/March14 divide to something far more dangerous: A Christian/Muslim divide. The closest electoral draft to the Adwan law is the 2012 March 8 – Mikati proposal, which is theoretically similar to the Adwan law, also based on proportionality, and boasting 13 constituencies instead of 15 major constituencies, but with two major differences: In the 2012 law, the constituencies were designed in a way that favored a March 8 win (Baabda is with the Metn to get Baabda’s Shia influence into the Metn, Tripoli is alone to maximize Mikati’s chances, and Jezzine and city of Saida are with the Zahrani and Tyre in order to get Tyre and Zahrani’s Shia influence to Saida and Jezzine) , while the preferential vote was not made and calculated in a minor constituency, but in the major one.

Lebanon's Electoral Map

Here’s a constituency map of the 2012 Mikati Law, of which the Adwan law is a variant. Note the redistricting that happened in the South, in Baabda-Metn, and in the North.

In fact, those two distinct features (the redistricting and minor constituency preferential vote) of the Adwan law were added to get sectarian homogenous blocs, something that wasn’t that much of a priority back then – winning a majority as a March8/March14 coalition was the top goal. Now that the cross-sectarian March 8 and March 14 coalitions that used to rule Lebanon in 2012 have all been broken up and that the new coalitions that are likely to compete in the upcoming elections are sectarian ones (with the assurances given by the Christian leaders that the FPM and the LF would run together, making it difficult to see how Hezbollah and the FM would fit in the lists together with their Christian allies and where that would leave Amal and the PSP), an electoral law tailored to give the FM the Sunni seats, the FPM and the LF the Christian seats, Amal and Hezbollah the Shia seats, and the PSP the Druze seats, seemed more appropriate. Which is how and why the Adwan law eventually saw the light and was the lucky draft electoral law to be approved by the Lebanese parliament.

Ans so with the Adwan law, a 12 year era of having Muslim and Christian parties compete together against other Muslim and Christian parties officially ends.

One Man One Vote vs Proportional Representation

Casting only one preferential vote in a list also means that the candidates within that list will try as much as possible to compete with their list allies instead of focusing how to beat the other list, shifting the campaign strategies from list vs list to candidate vs candidate. That electoral system thus becomes closer to a one man – one vote system, where candidates compete in constituencies similar to the 2008 law, (the minor constituencies are almost the same as the constituencies of the 2008/1960 law), with the number of seats per list being awarded on a major constituency basis.

So in other words, the new electoral law is basically a one man – one vote law, implemented on the 1960 law electoral map, with a pinch of proportional representation.

No Women’s Quota

A women quota of 40% would have forced Hezbollah to field women candidates in its lists in Nabatiyeh-Hasbaya-Marjeyoun-Bint Jbeil and Baalbak-Hermel, which would have put the party of God in a very uncomfortable situation (it’s the only major party in Lebanon that is yet to have a woman in parliament or in cabinet). Constituencies of Hezbollah influence were kept away from other constituencies, as Jezzine-Saida were separated from Tyre-Zahrani and Baabda wasn’t joined with the Metn, although the size of those constituencies justified joining them together (Baabda and Jezzine-Saida are the smallest two major constituencies), probably in exchange of not putting a quota for women in the new electoral law?

Continental Seats

Another problem for Hezbollah has always been the diaspora, that is rumored to be more friendly to its political rivals. Including the diaspora vote in the 15 constituencies would have made that process unpredictable for both Hezbollah, its allies and its rivals. So instead, Lebanon’s lawmakers saw that it was wiser to reserve 6 seats, each for every continent, for the diaspora, in the 2022 elections, postponing that potential problem 4 years, and reducing the influence of hundreds of thousands of potential voters to 6 seats, maximizing in the process the number of seats to 134 (something they have been dreaming of since 2013).  Smooth.

Insane Complexity = Parliamentary Extension

It has been always hypothesized that a secret clause of the Aoun-Hariri presidential-premiership deal in the Autumn of 2015 had a parliamentary extension clause, (1) evening a little bit Aoun’s 6 year term and Hariri’s 6 months term,  (2) giving time for Hariri, via his cabinet, to reestablish himself in his Sunni stronghold, (3) draining in the process, via protest fatigue, the rise of the new parties that grew out of the 2015 Hirak, and (4) letting the FPM-LF alliance become more acceptable for the Christian electorate still in relative shock with how two warlords that clashed with one another militarily and politically for three decades simply made peace to facilitate their domination of the Christian constituencies. That hypothesis became more plausible when Lebanese lawmakers added 11 more months to their already illegally doubled term while voting for the electoral law on the 16th of June. The law is so complex I just spent 12 pages trying to explain how it works. You have the proportionality, the major constituencies, the minor constituencies, the preferential vote, the sectarian quotas, and that’s just a part of it (here’s a list of other bad things regarding the Adwan law, such as issues of public spending, overseeing elections, and introducing magnetic cards, among other things) . The electoral law could have been reached by January, but there was obviously no will to do so, for a simple reason: vote on a complex electoral law at the last-minute and reap the benefit of adding the maximal number of months to the parliament’s term.

In fact, an electoral law as complex as the Adwan law was the Christmas gift that gave an alibi for the ruling Lebanese politicians to extend the current status quo (by extending the parliament’s term for 11 months), keeping Hariri for at least 11 more months in power, and turning the trash crisis as well as the presidential and governmental vacancies into distant memories for the Lebanese, also giving 11 months for the ruling parties to brace themselves and prepare for elections (those roads won’t pave themselves alone).

A Law Not Worth the 9 Years Wait

Mabrouk. It’s official: As of June 16, 2017, Lebanon has a new parliamentary electoral law. On paper, the Adwan law is all about proportional representation. But in reality, and because of the additional policies that were introduced for the one and only purpose of gerrymandering, it becomes closer to a one-man-one-vote-majoritarian system inspired by the 2008 (1960) law, than it is to the true essence of proportionality.

Only our genius Lebanese politicians can pull off something like that Frankenstein of an electoral law. They’re going to try to convince you that it’s an upgrade on the 2008 electoral law. And they would be partially correct: On the short-term, it has a pinch of proportional representation that would finally give an opportunity to new, small and moderate parties to make it to Nejmeh Square (emphasis on pinch). On the long-term, it’s a Civil-War-inducing upgrade that is likely to reorganize parliamentary blocs in a predictable sectarian way while keeping the ruling Zuamas on the same chairs they have been occupying for decades – more or less.

Nevertheless, cheers to a new beginning. At least we’re having elections – plot twist – in 11 months.