Saad Hariri

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.

 

 

Advertisements

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 Aoun-Hariri rivalry on WikiLeaks

aoun-and-hariri-endorsement

Michel Aoun, right, with Lebanon’s former prime minister, Saad Hariri, left, as Mr. Hariri said he will back him to become president. (Image source: Reuters)

This is the 20th post in a series of monthly posts covering (forgotten/ignored) WikiLeaks cables about Lebanon.

Because spoiling political agreements between the Zuamas by sharing Wikileaks cables of them talking behind each others’ backs has become a tradition on this blog (see here, here and here), this month’s WikiLeaks cables I’m sharing are about Hariri and Aoun speaking (unspeakable) things about each other.

Inspired by Hariri’s endorsement of Aoun that is finally ending more than two years of presidential deadlock, the cables quote (among other things) Aoun calling Hariri “inexperienced” and Hariri calling Bassil “crazy” and Aoun a “disaster” .

Note that in the second cable I’m quoting, from March 2006, Aoun clearly states that”once Aoun is president, he foresees no problems cooperating with Hariri as Prime Minister”, although “he went on to label Hariri inexperienced, and unwilling to share power”.

Well, who knew that 10 years later, in 2016, the two Zuamas were eventually going to share power?

I only kept the relevant parts of the most relevant cables I found. Enjoy.

MGLE01: HARIRI AND JUMBLATT DISCUSS STRATEGY
2006 February 24, 15:01 (Friday)
06BEIRUT563_a

Hariri was confident that he could gain Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri’s support for efforts to remove Lahoud. “He is easy to bring in,” said Hariri. He even thought there was a chance Hizballah could be persuaded. MP Michel Aoun, sighed Hariri, was the real problem. Aoun believes that “it is him or nobody else” for the presidency. 3. (S) Thinking out loud, Jumblatt asked Hariri about a compromise wherein Aoun would be the “godfather” of the next president. It was apparent by Hariri’s expression that Jumblatt had not raised this idea before. Hariri asked Jumblatt what he meant. Jumblatt replied that Aoun could name the next president as long as it wasn’t Aoun. Hariri dismissed the idea, joking that Aoun would “choose someone crazy” like Gibran Bassil (son-in-law, senior advisor, and sycophant to Aoun). ”

Link to the full cable.

 

MGLE01–AOUN READY TO COOPERATE WITH EVERYONE WHO SUPPORTS HIM
2006 March 24, 09:09 (Friday)
06BEIRUT929_a

5. (C) Once Aoun is president, he foresees no problems cooperating with Hariri as Prime Minister. “As long as they obey the law and follow the constitution.” But Aoun had a warning for March 14 as well. He accused members of March 14 of the habit of abusing power. The members of the group were involved in business scandals in the telecommunications, construction and contracting sectors, Aoun claimed. When the Ambassador pointed out that Hizballah runs illegal telecom and internet service and receives covert funds from a foreign government, Aoun acknowledged that “Berri, Jumblatt, and everyone except General Aoun” was involved in such activities and they would have to “stop it,” to make way for a new era in public policy when Aoun is in charge. Aoun is still unimpressed with Saad Hariri as a political leader, “He acts like a Saudi prince.” Aoun went on to label Hariri inexperienced, and unwilling to share power. He doesn’t even share power within March 14. They are very obedient to Hariri,” Aoun claimed.

Link to the full cable.

 

MGLE01: HARIRI SAYS HE IS READY TO CONFRONT HIZBALLAH AT NATIONAL DIALOGUE
2006 April 25, 15:56 (Tuesday)
06BEIRUT1277_a

8. (C) Hariri then asked the Ambassador to deliver a strong message to Aoun. Stridently, Hariri said that the Embassy must scare the Aounists. Don’t meet with Aoun. Rather, invite Aoun’s senior adviser Gibran Bassil to the Embassy and “chew him out,” Hariri said. “Tell them we know what you are doing and we are watching you; we know you are pushing Aoun to Hizballah,” Hariri advised. “You need to scare Bassil.” Hariri also advised that the Embassy deliver similar messages to Aounist MPs. Hariri continued that he wants to find the killers of his father, but Aoun does not seem to.

Link to the full cable.

 

LEBANON: HARIRI SEES NO END IN SIGHT TO POLITICAL DEADLOCK
2009 August 19, 16:51 (Wednesday)
09BEIRUT933_a

3. (C) During an August 18 meeting with Ambassador and PolOff, Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri described Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) leader Michel Aoun as a “disaster” and insisted that he had told the FPM leader several times he would not acquiesce to reappointing Aoun’s son-in-law and go-to man Gebran Bassil as Minister of Telecommunications. “It’s ridiculous to make Gebran Bassil a minister. I’d rather go home and not form a government,” Saad declared. (Note: Bassil lost his race for a parliamentary seat in the June 7 elections. Both President Michel Sleiman and Hariri oppose appointing failed parliamentary candidates as ministers. End note.) A spent and somewhat muted Hariri dismissed the possibility of a compromise with Aoun based on granting Bassil a different ministry and disparaged Aoun’s decision to use a fiery televised press conference to reject Hariri’s invitation to meet to discuss government formation. “You can ask for whatever you want as long as it is not in the media. If you put it in the media, that’s it. You’ve drawn a red line.”

Link to the full cable.

 

 

HARIRI DESCRIBES CHALLENGES FACING LEBANESE ARMED FORCES
2009 October 23, 15:40 (Friday)
09BEIRUT1169_a

8. (C) A visibly tired Hariri described himself as “very angry” at Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun’s public rejection of his cabinet proposal on October 21. “We were so close; why did he go to the media? We could have discussed his concerns in private,” he complained. Describing Aoun as “full of surprises,” Hariri explained that he was analyzing the source of Aoun’s outburst but that “it is important not to stop” efforts to form a government. Hariri outlined his hope to rebuild a relationship with Aoun to “pull his umbrella from the other parts of March 8.

Link to the full cable.

 

The Orange and the Blueberry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the lack of quorum means right now

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rift

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

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

The fall and rise and fall of Ashraf Rifi

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

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

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

The gulf engulfing Lebanon and the Gulf

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

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

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

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

Just kidding. There is no bright side. Zbele.

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

How Hezbollah Took Power In 2011

Soldiers advance towards stone-throwing Sunni Muslim supporters of outgoing Prime Minister Saad Hariri near Tariq al-Jadidah in Beirut January 25, 2011. (REUTERS/Hasan Shaaban)

Soldiers advance towards supporters of outgoing Prime Minister Saad Hariri near Tariq al-Jadidah
in Beirut January 25, 2011. (REUTERS/Hasan Shaaban)

Presidential politics are becoming very repetitive these last two months, which is why I’m going back till 2011 today, in order to try to decipher one of the most complicated and underrated large-scale maneuvers any Lebanese party did since the Syrian withdrawal. Today’s post is on how Hezbollah managed to go through with a one-sided government without starting a mini-sectarian civil war, something M14 failed to do when they tried to achieve the same goal of ruling all by themselves in 2007/2008.

How It All Began

So let’s make a small, very simplified summary of what happened in January 2011: M14 wanted (to fund) the STL, M8 didn’t want (to fund) the STL, things started to escalate quickly, and as Hariri (who was still Prime Minister back then) was preparing to meet Obama on the 12th of January 2011, M8’s ministers in the cabinet resigned, forcing the government to collapse (The irony here is that Mikati would eventually indirectly fund the STL without asking the M8-run cabinet for the funds via a very weird loophole that he managed to find by using the money of the Prime Minister’s budget). But the thing is, Hezbollah and its allies did not have what politicians in Lebanon love to call the “blocking third”. Unlike the previous cabinet of Fouad Siniora (2008) where Hezbollah had 11 ministers out of 30 and M14 – the majority back then – still held more than half of the seats, the new Hariri cabinet of November 2009 was supposed to be a “refreshing experience”: The majority (M14) did not hold the majority of seats (only the half, 15/30), and the minority (M8) were not awarded the blocking third – 11 seats – but only 10 seats out of 30, a number that is high, yet not high enough to bring the government down in case M8 decided one day to withdraw support. The five other seats were given to the President, who was considered to be the only centrist player in the game back then. That’s how the government of November 2009 saw the light after 5 months of negotiations. Today the number “five” is nothing to the eleven months that Salam took to form his government, but back then such a number was shocking. So when the 10 ministers of M8 resigned in 2010, the cabinet was not supposed to collapse, at least not directly. Like 2006, M8 was expected to maneuver and play the sectarian card, by saying that the cabinet had no credible Shia representation, and hence – according to a very vague article in the constitution’s preamble “( J) There shall be no constitutional legitimacy for any authority which contradicts the pact of mutual existence”  the president should consider the cabinet resigned and seek the formation of a more legitimate and representative one. That’s what everyone thought M8’s maneuver was, at least for the next couple hours. The speculation ended when President Michel Sleiman’s Shia representative in the cabinet (The last of the 6 resigning Shia ministers), who was always rumored to be more of a sympathizer of M8 than a centrist, submitted his letter of resignation.

It was no longer a 10 minister-resignation political maneuver in order to force some terms on the ruling alliance. It was an 11 minister-resignation and the beginning of a political coup.

Patience Is a Virtue (Part I)

From that moment on, things accelerated quickly: There were signs of Sunni discontent in Beirut and the M14 controlled regions and in the end, the President, who was probably under intense pressure from both sides,  postponed the parliamentary consultations for a couple more days. As things were calming down on the political front, the front-runner was still Hariri (even Nasrallah said the Hariri would probably be nominated again at the time), as Jumblatt was still more or less part of M14 and his share in the parliament and the cabinet was still considered to be part of M14’s one. Then the unexpected happened: Rumors spread that Hezbollah had dispatched armed members of the party in Beirut, referred to by M14 as “the Black-shirts” (M14 was probably trying to compare them to Mussolini’s Camicia Nere). M8, who still had no clear candidate in mind (there were talks that Karami or Hoss might be nominated by M8, but the rumors were quickly dismissed) dropped a political bomb: They announced that they had formed an alliance with Tripoli’s key politician, Najib Mikati. Mikati had also brought with him 2 other MPs from Tripoli to the M8 side. Jumblatt – who was known to switch allegiances quite often – switched allegiance and supported Mikati’s nomination to the premiership. His 11 MP-strong bloc collapsed, and four of his MPs, who turned out to be closer to the FM than to him, stood with Hariri. Strong with Jumblatt’s 7 extra votes and Mikati’s extra 3 votes, the March 8 alliance was now, and for the first time since 2005, the ruling coalition in parliament. On the 25th of January, it was Najib Mikati, and not Saad Hariri who was designated Prime Minister. Riots started in Beirut and Tripoli. (Remember the “Day of Anger”?) Hezbollah couldn’t go forward with M8’s plan to rule without calming down the Sunni streets before making any additional step. And thus began a 5 months period of vacancy and negotiations that was probably intended for that sole purpose.

Patience Is a Virtue (Part II)

The first step of calming down the M14 regions was by giving the impression that M8 did not want to rule all by itself. For several months after Mikati was designated, M8 and M14 carried on endless negotiations that were intended to make the new cabinet a consensual “unity government”, similar to the Hariri one, except that it wouldn’t be led by Hariri. Hezbollah knew that the FM was going to put conditions, and we all knew that Hezbollah would refuse them and that M14 couldn’t possibly accept to be a minor player in the executive power especially after the way M8 removed Hariri from it. So giving the impression/illusion that a consensual cabinet was on the way was a smart maneuver.

But that first step wasn’t enough: The Arab spring had just begun, so Hezbollah had to make sure that the cabinet would not collapse right after it was formed. Hezbollah knew that the FM couldn’t escalate things/riot against the Christian FPM in the way they would do so against Hezbollah (since any demonstration against the FPM could turn into one against the Christians and would eventually weaken M14 in the Christian regions). This is why Hezbollah’s second step was to make the cabinet confrontation a Christian-Sunni one and a Christian-Christian one instead of a Shia-Sunni one. It was only a matter of time before Aoun asked for half of the cabinet’s seats (we all saw that coming), and Hezbollah’s silence on the matter made Sleiman and Mikati, who both expected to have 1 or 2 Christian ministers, panic. It also made M14’s parties shift their criticism towards Aoun and his Christian base instead of Hezbollah and its Shia base. Thus began 2 or 3 months of internal struggle over those seats between Aoun, Mikati, and Sleiman. The statements in Lebanese politics were no longer about how Hezbollah threw the FM outside, but how Aoun and the others were fighting over the leftovers of the M14 seats. As a matter of fact, the main maneuvering tactics that the cabinet adopted during its rule were based on the idea that if Aoun argued with Mikati and Mikati argued with Aoun, both would look like “heroes” within their sects and it would eventually lead to a whooping M8 victory at the 2013 general elections.

In the last months preceding the formation of the government, the media focused on something they called “العقدة السنية” (The Sunni complication). That was Hezbollah’s last maneuver of the 2011 vacancy. After the Aoun-Mikati-Sleiman mini-battle ended, Hezbollah’s two key allies in Tripoli (The Karami family and Mikati’s men) wanted to be represented in the cabinet. But the cabinet doesn’t have an endless number of Sunni seats, and most if not all of the post-Taef cabinets have had a fixed amount of seats for every sect (Maronites, Sunnis and Shias have each an equal share of 6 seats in a 30 ministers cabinet). This gave the impression that it was no longer a Sunni-Shia struggle for power, but rather a Sunni-Sunni bickering. M8’s major parties, after letting this feud go on for a while, ended the vacancy with a gesture that everyone still remembers. Berri gave up one of his Shia ministers so that M8 seemed like it did a sacrifice in order to satisfy its Sunni allies, while Hezbollah was now ruling with a cabinet that had a Sunni relative majority (7 Sunnis, 6 Maronites, 5 Shias) for the first time since years. Tripoli, the epicenter of the “Day of Anger” riots, was awarded more ministers than any other region. That maneuver made every M14 statement that would include the sentence “Hezbollah is undermining the Sunnis / Tripoli” irrelevant. The only way of describing that maneuver is by quoting Berri: “Eventually I lost a minister but won Lebanon“. They had in fact won Lebanon for two more years with that tactic.

Moreover, M8, with its endless 5-months inner fights looked like a very weak coalition that wouldn’t last long. That illusion of not lasting long led the M14 public to be more forgiving about the presence of a one-sided cabinet. It was way better for the new opposition to bring down a failing cabinet right before the 2013 elections (weirdly enough, that’s what eventually happened, although we never had those elections…) than to violently oppose it before it even got to action. And that’s how the 2011 cabinet saw the light and managed to overcome the different crises that shook the country in 2012 and 2013.

La Morale

In a way, today’s political impasse is a lot similar to the one we had in 2011. Everything is not what it seems it is. In the future we’ll look at this presidential vacancy in a  different perspective than we do now, just like M8’s mini-tactics were in fact a huge political maneuver (whether it was intended or not) that could have been summed up with the word “patience”.

Reminder: We still don’t have a president.

350 days (30,240,000 seconds) since the 25th of May. 186 days (16,070,400 seconds) since the 5th of November. 

Ten Months Of Vacuum

Meet the members of The Consultative Gathering

Meet the members of The Consultative Gathering

Yeah. I know. Ten.

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

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

The Two Presidents’ Men

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

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

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

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

The Maronite Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nine Months Of Vacuum

Guess What I Found In a 1926 Newspaper?

Guess What I Found In a 1926 Newspaper?

Technically speaking, the ninth month of vacuum doesn’t end before next week, but the number of events that happened in these last twenty days is too damn high, so I decided to link them to one another  as soon as possible.

Behold, the glorious ninth month of presidential vacancy.

The Context

On the 28th of January, Hezbollah finally found the opportunity they have been searching for. Israel had launched a week earlier an airstrike in the Syrian Golan, killing an Iranian General and several commanders from the party, including the son of Imad Mughniyah, who was also killed by Israel in 2008 and was never avenged by the party. Whether the Israelis intended it or not, the strike was actually a very nice propaganda boost for Hezbollah. As I said in a post at the time, it would eventually help Hezbollah in their struggle to put the Syrian opposition and Israel in the same box. And I was right (Yay): A couple days after things calmed down on the southern border, Nasrallah made sure to point out how the Israelis and Jabhat Al-Nusra are both working together to “sabotage the resistance”. Hezbollah could have used the Israeli strike alone to strengthen this discourse, but not responding at the Israeli attack would have been a blow to the morale of the party. On the 28th of January, Hezbollah retaliated to the Israeli strike in the most calculated way possible: The attack happened from the Syrian Golan (where Israel had attacked the earlier), on a contested Lebanese-Israeli-Syrian territory (so not even Israeli), and the casualties were also relatively limited: 2 Israeli soldiers were killed while the Israeli strike killed an Iranian General and several Hezbollah commanders. For Hezbollah, the number was high enough to prove that they weren’t afraid of the consequences and that they wouldn’t let Israel target their men without retaliating anymore. But the number was also kind of low for Israel to respond: They were heading to elections in 40 days: The Israeli ruling coalition would have risked ending a failed military operation (like in 2006) right before the elections, and besides, the number was relatively low when it was compared to Hezbollah’s casualties a week earlier. By choosing the worst context for the Israelis to start a war (by launching the attack on disputed territory, by not kidnapping any IDF soldier, and by choosing the worst timing ever for Israel) Hezbollah wanted to send a message, not start a war. They gambled, and they won. Israel did not attack, and Hezbollah subsequently gained the upper hand – militarily in Syria, and politically in Beirut. (If you’re asking yourself how they won politically in Lebanon, look at how Jumblatt lauded Hezbollah’s ambush)

If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them (Part I)

If you follow Lebanese politics for several years, you’ll find that the Lebanese political parties are very predictable. In the aftermath of Hezbollah’s retaliation – and once it was sure that Israel wouldn’t strike back – the logical response from M14 would have been to constantly, frequently, relentlessly criticize Hezbollah’s “attempt at destabilizing the south, risking the destruction of Beirut’s infrastructure yet again, and dragging Lebanon into a proxy war between Iran and Israel while drowning the country deeper into the Syrian conflict”. Of course, if the Israelis had launched an offensive, M14 would have waited for the offensive to end to start criticizing Hezbollah, since it would make them look as if they’re standing with Israel if they’re too harsh on Hezbollah while the battles are raging. Anyway, what I want to say here is that the Future Movement and Hezbollah had the opportunity to start a political war because of Hezbollah’s military move in Israel, but neither of them took it, although Geagea tried to tun them against one another: He was giving a press conference the day the attack happened, and criticized the party’s move. Future Movement’s response was a clear indicator that they wanted peace with Hezbollah: Of course, Siniora criticized the party for his actions (you have to please your electorate after all), but that’s not what matters: Hariri was relatively indifferent about the issue (He didn’t even tweet about the events that week) and Future Movement’s minister in the cabinet said that Hezbollah did not break the ministerial declaration (yeah, it’s in bold because it’s important). That’s actually huge: Not only does it give Hezbollah an approval from the other side of the political spectrum, it also gives the impression that Hezbollah was acting within the legal limits established by the government. The cabinet’s ministerial declaration is very vague about the resistance (remember when the cabinet spent a whole month trying to write it?) and says that “Lebanese citizens have the right to resist the occupation”. This weird sentence was a compromise between M14 and M8 that was supposed to be midway between M8’s “The people, army, resistance equation” and M14’s desire to remove the previous sentence.

Anyway, the Future Movement made a wise decision here: By stating that Hezbollah’s move was actually within the boundaries established by the weird sentence in the ministerial declaration (Yes, I won’t stop calling weird, because it’s an absolute bullshit sentence that means nothing and could mean anything at all. Even “اكل الولد التفاحة ” would have been a better choice than ” الحق للمواطنين اللبنانيين في مقاومة الاحتلال الإسرائيلي ورد اعتداءاته واسترجاع الأراضي المحتلة”), Future Movement plays it smart and shows that the cabinet – that could be seen as an M14 one – is actually in control of Hezbollah’s actions with Israel (Actually it’s everything but that: The proof? The cabinet didn’t even meet the day the attacks happened). Anyway, Future Movement chose not to clash politically with Hezbollah – despite the LF and the Kataeb’s obvious desire to do so – and played it smooth: After all, they were having a dialogue, and there’s a vacant president seat out there that can’t be apparently filled unless both parties give the green light.

If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them (Part II)

A couple of days after the attack, there was yet another opportunity to start an all-out between M8 and M14. After Geagea’s failed attempt the day of the ambush, came a leaked video about Strida Geagea that was circulated by the M8 media (specifically the Christian M8 media). It shows the LF MP saying “Nchallah ya Rab” when Journalist Denise Rahme informed her about what happened in the South between Hezbollah and Israel. As it turns out, the video was genuine but cut off and MP Geagea was saying “Nchallah ya Rab ma yisseer shi”. Anyway, this was an attempt – this time by the FPM – to start an all-out war between M8 and M14. Just like the LF and the Kataeb, the FPM were desperately trying to break the Hezbollah-FM dialogue. I said it once, I said twice, and I’ll say it every time: The Christians parties fear an FM-Hezbollah agreement more than they fear one another. Because in the end, every time both parties jointly approved something, it passed, regardless of what the Christian parties thought of it. Hezbollah ignored the Aounists twice during the parliamentary extension sessions, and the Future Movement did the same with the LF when they decided in 2014 to go ahead and share the cabinet with Hezbollah while throwing their closest Christian ally alone in the opposition. If Hezbollah and the FM agree on the presidential matter, it would be the ultimate downfall for the Christian parties. It scares them so much that they actually tried to wreak the HA-FM dialogue, first by starting their own dialogue (and then trying to end it in order to end the M8-M14 dialogue as whole), and now by trying to start a political war between M8 and M14 that would eventually end the dialogue and any chance of finding a Hezbollah-FM consensual candidate.

And how did the members of the dialogue react to that attempt? Instead of arguing about Strida Geagea’s video, both parties simply ignored the Christian brouhaha and made their allies panic even more by removing all their political posters from the city of Beirut in order to “defuse tensions“.

If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them (Part III)

So let’s sum things up:

1) Hezbollah – Future Movement dialogue starts => Dialogue “making progress” => Christian parties panic. (That was last month)

2) Hezbollah retaliates against Israel => LF wants the FM to criticize Hezbollah => Instead the FM indirectly endorses Hezbollah => Christian parties panic more => FPM tries to start an all-out war => the FM and Hezbollah respond by signing a “poster removal peace treaty” => Christian parties panic even more.

How much more exactly? The Christian parties would panic so much, that when FM MP Khaled Daher made his faux pas last week and said the anti-Christian comments, the Christian parties were so much paranoid that even the Kataeb – who practically never publicly criticize their allies – asked the FM to throw Daher out. In a way, they were also indirectly asking the FM to up the tone against Hezbollah – after all the only way for Mustaqbal to repair the damage done by Daher would have been by criticizing Hezbollah’s sectarian foundations.

Surprise: The FM threw Daher out, and did not accuse Hezbollah of anything. And to make things worse? According to reports, Hezbollah was advancing in the Syrian south and launching one of the most violent campaigns since their intervention in Syria started. And the FM didn’t say a word about it => Panique Chrétienne Généralisée (Excuse my french)

That was it for the M8/M14 Christian parties. Hezbollah and the FM were serious about the dialogue, and for a while, it seemed that the consensual president would be “forced” on them. It was the apocalypse.

Except it wasn’t.

If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them, Then Beat Them (Part IV)

“Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria is insanity and Hezbollah has brought this insanity to Lebanon.”

“Tying the Golan Heights to south Lebanon is insanity as well

After approximately three weeks of bonding with Hezbollah, Hariri threw this bomb on the 14th of February commemoration of the assassination of his father. In 3 weeks, Hariri (1) gave the impression that he had no problem with Hezbollah’s retaliation and made it look as if Hezbollah was following the cabinet’s guidelines that were jointly set by M8 and M14. Then, (2) Hariri managed, whether he meant it or not, to cause confrontations between the members of M8, and between the LF and the FPM. He also managed to (3) undermine Siniora, (4) to throw Daher out and eventually attract a friendly Christian electorate towards M14 while (5) setting boundaries for his MPs, (6) to give the impression that Hezbollah lost him as an ally after they thought they were winning him over, while (7) showing that he is a moderate at the same time because he wants to have a serious dialogue, and (8) highlighting the fact that he is actually making a big sacrifice by negotiating with  Hezbollah, which would mean that he is (9) a patriot that values Lebanon above everything else.

These three weeks were supposed to be about Hezbollah’s achievement. Instead, they became all about Hariri, who didn’t even have an achievement.

Lebanese politicians, take notes. Because that’s one hell of a political maneuver.

Hezbollah were so embarrassed by Hariri that they needed to respond quickly in order to prevent him from taking advantage of what just happened: Not even 24 hours had passed after the Hariri speech when a Hezbollah drone flew over Israel (That’s the second one in three years). The drone wasn’t about Israel or Syria, It was a message destined to the FM: Hezbollah wanted to show that Hariri’s speeches, no matter how violent in their criticism, will have no impact whatsoever on Hezbollah’s military decisions. The proof? When Nasrallah gave his speech monday, he barely mentioned Hariri’s criticism. He only lauded Hariri’s anti-terror stance, using it to empower Hezbollah’s position, without even mentioning Hariri’s harsh criticism, as if the “insanity” part hadn’t happened in Hariri’s speech. That means two things: (1) Hezbollah wanted to undermine Hariri by ignoring him, and (2) they wanted to send a message to the Future Movement (by not escalating) that they were still ready to calm things down in order to ensure the success of the dialogue. After all, the road to Baabda goes through Beit Al Wasat and Hareit Hreik.

ِِAs the relation between the FM and Hezbollah is expected to quickly deteriorate now, don’t be too hopeful about breaking the deadlock soon. It seems that 9 months later, we’re back to square one.

Reminder: We still don’t have a president.

269 days since the 25th of May. 105 days since the 5th of November. Three million years till the next parliamentary elections.