Samir Geagea

Lebanon’s Divisive Presidency

Aoun Geagea Kanaan Riachi 18 January 2016

The following analysis was first published in Sada on February 2, 2016.

After surprising developments in November, Saad Hariri of the March 14 alliance’s Future Movement endorsed Sleiman Frangieh of March 8’s Marada Movement for president, bypassing March 8’s favored candidate, Michel Aoun. Hariri’s support for Frangieh—who had previously indicated he would not stand in the way of Aoun’s candidacy before he announced his bid on December 17—was meant to drive a wedge between members of the March 8 alliance, but is now backfiring on Hariri’s own March 14 alliance.

March 14 was endorsing its own candidate, Samir Geagea of the Lebanese Forces (LF). However, Hariri endorsed Frangieh, seeking to showcase him as a consensual candidate from the very heart of March 8—and attract parties from all sides to a possible deal without granting a victory to Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). Initially, the strategy appeared to work: at first, March 8’s Amal Movement and the independent Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) rallied around the new bid. Meanwhile the FPM was left blindsided as Aoun suddenly appeared a less serious candidate than Frangieh, formerly a junior ally from the weakest of the four main Maronite parties. Moreover, by supporting Frangieh, the Future Movement was trying to lure Hezbollah away from Aoun. They hoped that open support for Frangieh, who has close ties with the Syrian regime, would encourage Hezbollah to switch its votes toward Frangieh and in so doing destroy the Hezbollah–FPM alliance that forms the cornerstone of the March 8 coalition.

But realizing that support for Frangieh would have shattered their ties with the FPM and discredited the party in Christian popular opinion, Hezbollah stood with Aoun. Instead, Hariri’s endorsement of a March 8 candidate drove wedges within his own March 14 alliance. The Lebanese Forces, the leading Christian party of March 14, saw Hariri’s act as a betrayal. Not only was the party humiliated when its ally endorsed a different candidate than Geagea, Frangieh’s strong backing in northern Lebanon would threaten the LF’s influence in its most important region. The LF, and Geagea himself, retaliated by endorsing Aoun—a wartime rival—keeping Geagea’s 2007 promise that if it came to it, he would “preserve his Christian credibility by breaking with Hariri” rather than support a “weak figure” for president.

While Geagea’s endorsement of Aoun is a huge moral boost for the latter’s presidential bid, it is in fact of little practical significance. The Lebanese Forces have only 8 MPs—with Frangieh abandoning support for the Aoun candidacy, Aoun loses the 3 MPs from the Marada Movement and is in the end only getting 5 more votes. As Aoun is 81 years old—and Gebran Bassil, his recently appointed political heir, has twice in a row lost parliamentary elections in his home district of Batroun to the LF’s Antoine Zahra—an alliance between the LF and FPM would make Geagea the natural presidential favorite for the next presidential elections.

Geagea’s endorsement of Aoun was also driven by concerns over the LF’s parliamentary clout. The Lebanese Forces, though the second-largest Maronite party after the FPM, commands only 8 out of 128 MPs in parliament and had limited leverage when it came to Lebanese politics. For the past ten years, they had relied on their alliance with the much larger Future Movement. So when the Future Movement abandoned the Geagea candidacy, it was clear that the alternative is to enhance their parliamentary share through a potential alliance with the FPM. While it is still too soon to know if the presidential endorsement will effectively turn into an electoral alliance, such a move could benefit both parties in the next parliamentary elections if they unite against the other Maronite lists.

The goal of Hariri’s endorsement was to bring down the March 8 alliance, but instead, the three biggest parties of the March 14 alliance are now divided. The Lebanese Forces party is supporting Aoun, the Future Movement is supporting Frangieh, and the Kataeb Party is refusing to support either of them. It is now too late for the Future Movement to endorse Geagea again, who formally dropped his candidacy when he backed Aoun’s bid, and Frangieh is refusing to withdraw from the race unless the Future Movement endorses Aoun. By contrast, the main alliance of March 8 is still holding together—at least for now. Nasrallah’s speech on January 29 reiterated Hezbollah’s support for Aoun, and the party has not lost its ties with the FPM. Though the Amal Movement’s stance is still unclear, these other two largest March 8 parties remain united.

Aoun, Geagea, and Hezbollah are now on one side of parliament, with Frangieh and Hariri on the other side. In the middle are parties like the PSP, who went back to endorsing their original candidate, Henri Helou, and the Amal Movement, which has yet to make a formal endorsement. This means that Aoun’s bid is not yet certain to gather the absolute majority in parliament. Without these 65 votes guaranteed, presidential politics go back to square one.



Before the Christian Wedding: Aoun and Geagea on WikiLeaks

Samir Geagea (C-L) welcomes Michel Aoun (C-R) to his headquarters in Maarab, north-east of Beirut, on January 18, 2016. Aldo Ayoub, Lebanese Forces, AFP

Samir Geagea (C-L) welcomes Michel Aoun (C-R) to his headquarters in Maarab, north-east of Beirut, on January 18, 2016. Aldo Ayoub / Lebanese Forces / AFP

This is the 12th post in a series of monthly posts covering (forgotten/ignored) WikiLeaks cables about Lebanon.

Samir Geagea’s endorsement of Michel Aoun as the Lebanese Forces’ official candidate is Lebanon’s political development of the month – arguably the year. And while Lebanon’s biggest parties are yet to take the final stance on the issue, I thought it would be nice to look at the evolution of the Geagea-Aoun ties from a different point of view, via the WikiLeaks cables.

This post is a compilation of WikiLeaks cables where Aoun discusses Geagea, and Geagea discusses Aoun (there are far more cables of Geagea discussing Aoun for the simple fact that Geagea speaks to the American ambassador a lot more than Aoun). I have only kept the Aoun-Geagea parts of the cables (that I found by searching “Aoun Geagea” and then looking at the most 160 relevant results) and you can check the full cables by looking them up (using their canonical ID) on WikiLeaks.

If you think that it is useless to look at more than 30 outdated WikiLeaks cables where Geagea says that Aoun is arming the FPM and Aoun says that he was not March 8 and was forced to go there, let me correct you with one quote:

But, Geagea warned, if he has to choose between backing a weak figure like Robert Ghanem to preserve March 14 unity or preserving his Christian credibility by breaking with Hariri over a bad presidential choice, he will chose the latter. Geagea said that he would have no choice but to build an alliance with Aoun“- November 9, 2007.

Perhaps Hariri should have paid more attention to what his main Christian ally was telling the American ambassador…

FOCUS ON THE DATES – I organized the cables by chronological order. Enjoy.

2007 January 18, 16:57 (Thursday)

5. (C) One thing that would break the Christians and March 14 would be a compromise in the presidency, Geagea said adamantly. Why, he asked, should there be a compromise in the presidency, rather than a compromise speaker or prime minister? Geagea had given some thought to allowing Aoun to become president, but said that there is no way to know which way Aoun would go after reaching that overriding goal. He said that Aoun obviously prefers chaos to losing the presidency, and that he might push for violence without clearly understanding the results. Saying that he had been approached with the idea of allowing Aoun the presidency by both Jumblatt and Hariri, he had made it clear that he would not support it, and was assured that it would not be proposed by either without further discussion with Geagea. In this light he pointed out that paradoxically, Amal and Hizballah are currently “allies in non-violence.”

10. (C) Geagea reported that he is not talking to Aoun or his followers — he says that Aoun has no advisors, only followers — very much lately. This is because Aoun’s situation has become critical and Geagea does not wish to resuscitate Aoun’s declining political fortunes. Geagea believes that Aoun will find someone to run in the Metn by-election against former President Amine Gemayel, although it is difficult to see how Gemayel could lose. Aoun really believes that his candidate will win, which is further proof that his poor judgment carries a high risk for the country. As for Speaker Berri, he is “shy” and won’t meet, even declining a ceremonial visit by Geagea on the recent Muslim Eid holiday. Berri said he was not receiving visitors.

2007 February 12, 17:01 (Monday)

9. (C) According to Geagea, Aoun can now go in either of two directions: one is to dialogue without street action; the other is to arm his people. Syria is telling Aoun that they could provide him the arms and officers to train and fight alongside his people. Aoun is inclined to stick to the first choice of dialogue, but will ask the GOL for a license for his supporters to carry arms. Aoun is said to have gathered his people after January 23 and to have told them they did not do their job adequately in rallying the masses. He then replaced a few of his top lieutenants, moving out some and putting in their places former military officers. Geagea described Aoun as uncompromising, uwilling to listen BEIRUT 00000229 003 OF 003 to his close advisors, and acting only on what he thinks will take him closer to his goal of becoming president. Aoun finds himself in the midst of his own Greek tragedy: he knows he will not become the next president, and yet is spending all his efforts in trying to reverse the current situation in a last-ditch effort to become president.

2007 April 27, 15:06 (Friday)

9. (C) Geagea argued in favor of his getting together with Michel Aoun to discuss presidential candidates. Geagea noted that Aoun’s participation is perferable because, despite his waning popularity, Aoun will still have at least 20 percent support after the presidential election. Certain groups around Aoun will never support March 14 or the Lebanese Forces. He commented that the other sects could not oppose any candidate supported by both Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and the LF, the two dominant Christian groups. Geagea said his own people and Aoun’s maintain contact at a low level. He believes that some of the FPM members are not happy with Aoun’s policies. Both the Ambassador and Geagea agreed that Aoun is probably not getting from his own team a true picture of his diminished support. Geagea agreed that the chance for success in getting Aoun to pick another presidential candidate other than himself, in agreement with the LF, might be slim, but it is worth trying.



10. (C) Geagea noted that while Maronite Patriarch Sfeir is likely to push for presidential elections, the Patriarch will not name his preferred choice nor help negotiate on candidates among the factions. Geagea plans to select one or two candidates * preferably people both he and Aoun can agree on * and then quietly vet the names with the Patriarch. Once Patriarch Sfeir knows (and approves) of the

BEIRUT 00000602 003 OF 003

candidate, Sfeir will become even more vocal in calling for presidential elections, unofficially signaling his support. Geagea thinks this will have the dual effect of getting the Patriarch’s “unofficial” blessing for the March 14 candidate and, if Aoun is still allied with the opposition, embarrass Aoun. After Geagea has vetted candidates with the Patriarch he will discuss them with his 14 March allies, who will be unlikely to go against a candidate supported by the Patriarch.

10. (C) Geagea does not expect to implement his plan anytime soon because he wants to give Aoun time to switch alliances or negotiate candidates with Geagea before March 14 enters into its candidate selection process. He noted that, for now at least, it is unlikely Aoun would be willing to break with Hizballah and ally with March 14. Perhaps closer to the elections ) as Aoun realizes he will lose more credibility and support if he opposes presidential elections as Geagea expects the opposition to do – he may decide to join the majority as a last chance to maintain some political influence.

2007 May 17, 16:52 (Thursday)

3. (C) Geagea has tried to discuss presidential candidates with Christian politician General Michel Aoun on several occasions, but the General refuses to engage in any dialogue that does not have him as the only potential candidate. The General, as president, is an “impossible” outcome for Geagea. He plans to continue pushing Aoun to agree on a (non-Aoun) candidate. Geagea commented that Aoun’s public attacks against him and Druze leader Walid Junblatt have become less frequent. He believes that Aoun’s criticism drew attention to Geagea’s prominent position in the March 14 coalition and debunked Aoun’s claim that March 14 Christians are subservient to the coalition’s Muslims (a rallying cry Aoun has used to scare Christians to his side). Asked about Aoun’s seemingly large financial base, Geagea claimed he has heard rumors of Qatari funding for the General’s nascent “Orange TV” station.

2007 August 6, 05:21 (Monday)

4.(C) Under this scenario, there would be three declared candidates: two from March 14 and General Michel Aoun, the candidate of the March 8 opposition. Geagea urged that the U.S. treat all candidates, including Aoun, equally. For example, any USG official who comes to Lebanon during the election period should meet all three. Stressing the importance of not cold-shouldering Aoun, Geagea said this was the way for the U.S. to acknowledge that pluralistic democracy in Lebanon was functioning as it should. While it was important for the U.S. to publicly support Aoun’s candidacy, privately it could pressure Aounist MP’s by suggesting, for example, that they might be placed on the U.S. visa ban list. The U.S. should concentrate on building momentum for elections, leaving it up to March 14 MPs to ensure that a candidate committed to March 14 policies emerges as the winner.

2007 August 31, 15:30 (Friday)

5. (C) Terming Hizballah “the master of the game,” Geagea asserted that armed Hizballah members and their supporters were preparing for armed clashes should they see that March 14 is determined to proceed with the election with only a simple majority. Furthermore, according to Geagea, opposition candidate Michel Aoun’s supporters all over Lebanon were preparing themselves for confrontation, with about 1000 receiving military training in the Biqa’–a dangerous development, as it would be the first time Aounists resorted to arms.

2007 September 18, 12:48 (Tuesday)

3. (S) Geagea said that Hizballah is being careful to avoid direct military support to Aoun, which, if discovered, would discredit Aoun with the Christians and Hizballah (with its claims that its arms are directed against Israel only) more generally. Instead, Hizballah is providing arms to Franjieh. Franjieh then opens his arsenals to Aoun, making the arms transfers, if leaked, appear to be one Christian opposition leader helping another with personal protection. One of the main recipient of the arms from Franjieh is MP Selim Aoun, an Aoun bloc MP on Ily Skaff’s Zahleh list. Selim Aoun is charged with distributing the arms to others in the Aoun camp and has established strategically located cells of 50-70 fighters each. Franjieh is providing some of the training facilities and has recently opened Marada offices far beyond its Zghorta headquarters in order to serve as rallying and training points as well as safehouses. Zahar al-Khatib plays a key training role of Aounist fighters, again in order to keep Hizballah somewhat at arms distance from Aoun.

2007 September 30, 12:07 (Sunday)

3. (C) Geagea explained Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) leader General Michel Aoun’s recent about-face (reftel) as an effort to win new allies after his first strategy, wearing his opponents down by force and threats of chaos, failed. Moral in Aoun’s circle is down, he said. Recognizing the writing on the wall, i.e., that Amal, Hizballah, and perhaps even Syria are looking for a consensus candidate for the presidency, Aoun realizes that to salvage any chance he has of becoming that candidate, he has to mend fences with March 14. He is therefore opening up “tous azimuts” — or in all directions. Aoun will only accept a candidate other than himself if he realizes he has no hope and March 8 is unwilling to go the route of chaos (i.e., a vacuum or two government scenario).

5. (C) Geagea dismissed the Ambassador’s last concern, noting that building bridges had never been Aoun’s forte; on the contrary, his constantly shifting alliances only revealed that he is willing to negotiate with the devil to achieve his personal ambitions. Geagea agreed, however, that over half of Lebanese Forces Christians would (despite decades of antipathy) like to see a reconciliation with the FPM as a way to build Christian strength and solidarity.

7. (C) Geagea, pondering for a moment with his chin resting in his hand, stated, “this is bizarre.” Why did Aoun see UN Envoy for Lebanon Geir Pederson three times this week? he asked aloud. The Ambassador responded that, according to Pederson, Aoun was “in love” with March 14. It’s the only way we can change him, Geagea countered, otherwise he will “float again.” As he had always told Saad Hariri, getting Aoun’s agreement on a consensus candidate would be a good thing for March 14.

13. (C) Moving to a one-on-one conversation with the Ambassador while pacing in his driveway, Geagea said that the real problem is that both Hariri (who genuinely wants Nassib Lahoud) and Syria (who hopes for LAF Commander Michel Sleiman as president) have zeroed in on Robert Ghanem as their fall-back choice. Both Hariri and Syria want a weak president, easily manipulated, and they will end up sharing Ghanem between them, Geagea said. Ghanem has no significant Christian support, meaning that independent Christians will once again feel cheated out of an office that is their right. This sense of alienation will drive them back into the arms of Michel Aoun, and the resurgent Aoun will humiliate and marginalize March 14 Christians, who will have gained nothing from their alliance with Hariri. Geagea admitted that his outreach to Aoun was in part designed to create a unified Christian veto against Ghanem.

2007 October 23, 07:06 (Tuesday)

6. (C) Geagea acknowledged that there is movement within the Aoun camp, with Michel Aoun reportedly “perplexed” (a word Geagea also used in describing others). Geagea reported that at the meeting with the EU foreign ministers at the French residence, Free Patriotic Movement leader General Michel Aoun appeared desperate for his own candidacy, speaking little and in a restrained voice. Given Geagea and Aoun’s shared disinterest in Sleiman, the possibility of Sleiman as the European choice prompted Geagea to dispatch LF vice-president George Adwan to meet Aoun the day after the meeting with the FMs. (Note: While Geagea has in the past several weeks used intermediaries to pursue contact with Aoun, sending Adwan is a marked rise in rank. End note.)

7. (C) Geagea maintained that Aoun still harbors hopes. He said that Aoun needed to be told directly that he will not be the next president, and that Aoun’s advisors will never do this. Geagea dismissed the oft-repeated rumor on the Beirut political gossip circuit that he had actually offered Aoun the possibility of naming the candidates, with March 14 electing one of Aoun’s choices (as long as it precluded Aoun himself). What he actually offered, Geagea said, was the possibility to Aoun that the two of them decide together who would be acceptable candidates. Parliament would elect a president off of a list determined by Geagea and Aoun, who represent an estimated 90 percent of Lebanon’s Christians. But Aoun refused to go along with this suggestion.

2007 October 26, 14:05 (Friday)

9. (C) Aoun predicted that these Aoun-March 14 contacts would not produce results. He expressed a willingness to deal constructively with Saad Hariri, but only after Saad “shows that he’s serious.” Describing at length a series of BEIRUT 00001678 003.2 OF 005 half-hearted and aborted attempts at an Aoun-Hariri face-to-face meeting, Aoun pronounced that Hariri “doesn’t know what he wants. When he does, he knows where I am.” As for Walid Jumblatt, Aoun said that he would not see him until he toned down his anti-Hizballah rhetoric. If Aoun saw Jumblatt now, he would harm his position in the Shia community and gain nothing in return. Moreover, Aoun said, “I am still waiting” for Jumblatt to visit him after Aoun’s May 2005 return from exile. “Let him come see me,” Aoun concluded. As for Samir Geagea, Aoun gave a wordless dismissive flick of the hand. The meeting earlier in the week with former President Amine Gemayel “was not serious.”

2007 November 9, 14:21 (Friday)

16. (C) Geagea said Aoun had called him the previous Saturday suggesting a meeting, to which Geagea replied he was welcome any time (i.e., at Geagea’s residence in Maarab). Aoun reportedly didn’t accept, suggesting the Patriarch’s residence in Bkirke instead. Geagea agreed, but then Aoun did an about-face and insisted on his residence in Rabieh. Suleiman Franjieh, meanwhile, told Geagea the week before that he was ready to meet at Bkirke, presumably as a knee-jerk reaction to Aoun’s meeting with March 14 MP Samir Geagea, his cousin and arch-rival. Franjieh then suddenly changed his mind, due, Geagea guessed, to Syrian opposition.

17. (C) Does Aoun recognize that he won’t be president, the Ambassador asked. Yes and no, Geagea replied; “he will fight until the end.” Then he risks losing everything, the Ambassador pointed out. That’s your calculation, Geagea responded, Aoun doesn’t calculate.

19. (C) But, Geagea warned, if he has to choose between backing a weak figure like Robert Ghanem to preserve March 14 unity or preserving his Christian credibility by breaking with Hariri over a bad presidential choice, he will chose the latter. Geagea said that he would have no choice but to build an alliance with Aoun, lest all of his followers shift to Aoun on their own. “You have to work on Saad,” Geagea said. “Convince him that he can’t ignore his Christian partners,” persuade him that, in the Sunni struggle against Hizballah, Hariri will need the Christians on his side. “Thank God for Walid,” Geagea commented, referring to Jumblatt remaining steadfast in his support of a strong, credible President. Geagea lamented that Hariri is so ready to abandon the “half plus one” electoral strategy, when that may be the only option to get a strong candidate with Christian credibility who is not Michel Aoun.

2007 November 10, 10:24 (Saturday)

6. (C) Aoun, claiming he was more March 14 than many from March 14, said he did not need to defend himself. I want to be neutral, he claimed, saying he was not March 8; they forced him there. He had tried to build national support by finding a way to rein in Hizballah, but his attempts were misunderstood and now seemed like a bad move. Maybe I didn’t convince people, he said, if so, I assume the responsibility. Let Samir Geagea and Walid Jumblatt figure out to make Lebanon free and independent, he said, predicting that, with Aoun out of the picture, Hariri would need a minimum of understanding with Hizballah to avoid a confrontation.

2007 November 26, 16:45 (Monday)

8. (C) In response to the Ambassador’s inquiry, Geagea said that head of Free Patriotic Movement Michel Aoun would not be able to discredit a president elected by a half plus one majority because such a president would be a strong president, assuming that the U.S. got the Arab and European states behind him so strongly that Syria and its allies would accept him as inevitable. In fact, Geagea added, a strong candidate would split Aoun’s bloc because its members place a high priority on getting a president in Baabda and some MPs could abandon Aoun to win favor with whomever is in power. If Aoun sees that March 14 is serious, he would be more concerned about securing his own role and that of his bloc in the cabinet, than about denouncing the president, surmised Geagea.

2007 November 30, 07:58 (Friday)

4. (C) Saad is naive, Geagea complained; he thinks if someone is friendly toward his family, they’re a good choice. If that better gets along with Hizballah, even better. Saad doesn’t want problems with Hizballah, he just wants to keep things as they are. You can’t play politics with this! Geagea exclaimed. Although Geagea agreed that electing Sleiman would diminish Aoun’s support, he warned that Sleiman would be too busy focusing on Christian-Christian relations to deal with important issues like border control and Hizballah’s arms. We want a commander who doesn’t meddle with us, he insisted, not someone who will use his position to build a political movement that will compete against us by bringing Aoun supporters on board.

2007 December 17, 18:21 (Monday)

14. (C) Geagea noted, however, that it was important to respect Sleiman, and therefore wait until after December 31 to pursue a half plus one majority. He said that March 14 leaders should communicate with Sleiman so that he understands that he cannot become president after that point. The next step, he continued, would be to elect a half plus one president and immediately move him into the presidential residence at Baabda. Such a move would prove invaluable in terms of securing Christian public opinion for March 14 and usurping public opinion from Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun. Geagea believed the Patriarch would welcome the new president and a majority of the population would follow suit.

2008 February 15, 18:47 (Friday)

6. (C) Asked whether the Arab League initiative would succeed, Geagea responded with a short, “No.” Syria does not want a presidential election, he added. This was clear from Amr Moussa’s last meeting when Hariri asked whether, if March 14 accepted a 10/10/10 cabinet, the opposition would agree to holding the election. This surprised Aoun, whose answer was no, Geagea claimed, prompting Moussa to ask Aoun how he could say no when Berri had said yes. Berri and Aoun then spoke privately, after which Aoun said “maybe” if additional conditions on cabinet portfolios were agreed. Aoun’s position is rigid, Geagea agreed; it is not based on strategic calculations but rather on one his desire to be president.

2008 March 4, 16:13 (Tuesday)

6. (C) Revisiting Moussa’s most recent attempt at negotiations, Geagea said electoral reform remains an obstacle, even within March 14. Geagea is calling for proportional representation, a system he argues would advantage March 14 Christians and break Hizballah strongholds. Moreover, he added, proportional representation would divide Free Patriotic Movement Michel Aoun’s opposition bloc by at least 50 percent. Another advantage could be the election of March 14 Shia MPs, he posited. However, he acknowledged, some of Saad Hariri’s MPs may lose and Jumblatt would need convincing, and requested that the U.S. urge them to support proportional representation.

2008 April 22, 13:58 (Tuesday)

12. (C) Third, March 14 should convince members of the Armenian Tashnaq party to break its alliance with Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun. Geagea remarked that Aoun is in deep trouble because of internal dissent in his party and he is trying to do whatever he can to divert attention away from his problems. Geagea suggested that the Armenian Tashnaq are a way to counter Aoun, adding that since MP Michel Murr’s split with Aoun, it will be easier to move Tashnaq from Aoun. Nevertheless, Geagea predicted, it will not be simple because Tashnaq inexplicably clings to Aoun. Geagea quoted the Tashnaq as saying that “elections-wise, we are allied with Murr, and politically, we support Aoun.”

2008 May 15, 19:35 (Thursday)

2. (C) Charge Sison, accompanied by A/DCM and DATT, met with Free Patriotic Movement leader General Michel Aoun at his office in Rabieh on May 15. Aoun confirmed that he would attend the National Dialogue meeting beginning May 16 in Doha, although he expressed unspecified concerns with the draft Arab League communique. Absence is never justified, he stated. Aoun further said that he did not like the formula of the Dialogue (involving the 14 top political leaders — the same formula used in the 2006 Dialogue), elaborating that he believed the number should either be increased or decreased. He complained that Christian leaders such as Phalange leader Amine Gemayel, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and Boutros Harb had little representation in parliament, and there should not be a majority of insignificant leaders present with only a few powerful opposition leaders. All the participants should have equal political weight, he argued. Nasrallah would not go to Doha, though he probably would send a representative, Aoun said. He was unsure whether Speaker Nabih Berri would attend, though Berri’s advisor later confirmed that Berri was going.

2008 June 4, 17:33 (Wednesday)

5. (C) Geagea emphasized that PM Siniora really needs to appoint ministers that will solidify March 14 support, especially among Christians. Geagea said selecting “popular” Christians who will be seen as strong proponents for the Christian community is important. He pointed out that under the 16-11-3 cabinet agreed at Doha, (Ref A), the majority will get sixteen out of the thirty cabinet positions. Geagea asked, “why not make the selection of these cabinet positions count?” Geagea said now is the time to counter opposition MP Michel Aoun and his image as the “defender of the Christians,” and Siniora’s selection of strong Christians for the cabinet is the best place to start.

2008 July 2, 16:27 (Wednesday)

10. (C) Recognizing that Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) leader Michel Aoun cannot “truly be broken” until the next parliamentary elections, Geagea was adamant that March 14 and President Michel Sleiman stop consulting with the opposition on the cabinet formation. Geagea, noting that Prime Minister Fouad Siniora fully agreed with him as of ten days ago, advocated that the majority move ahead with forming the cabinet, to include Aoun, without running every proposal by him.

2008 September 2, 09:56 (Tuesday)

13. (C) At the close of the meeting, DAS Hale asked Geagea about General Michel Aoun’s popularity in Lebanon, and the nature of his relationship with Hizballah. Geagea said that Aoun is not as popular as one might think, that his popularity had actually reached a low. Nonetheless, he said Aoun will always have a base of supporters who will stay with him regardless of how he performs. Geagea said he thought Aoun was firmly allied with Hizballah. “I thought at first it was tactical, just to get the presidency, but now he is totally there.”

2008 October 8, 11:00 (Wednesday)

8. (C) Geagea reported that his efforts at Christian reconciliation, following his September 21 rally and public apology, were being stymied by former minister and MP and Christian rival Suleiman Franjieh. According to Geagea, Franjieh insisted that the reconciliation talks include his ally, Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun. Scoffing, Geagea reported that he refused the request, saying, “Even Aoun does not want to be there!” He suspected that Franjieh requested Aoun’s presence to ensure there would be “another heavyweight” in the room.

2008 November 24, 16:37 (Monday)

6. (C) Geagea said the university and professional association elections, while not a perfectly reliable representation of electoral trends, were still a valid indicator, and March 14 was doing well in them. He thought March 14 was making gains in public opinion, partly because Aoun was making speeches the Lebanese people could not understand, and making trips to Iran and Syria the Lebanese people do not like. Nevertheless, Geagea said his March 14 allies were causing problems. He alleged that Saad Hariri depended heavily on cash handouts to win influence which the public sees as bribery. Geagea also worried Hariri was too confident about his prospects in Tripoli, which Geagea said was “not locked up.”

2008 December 30, 10:22 (Tuesday)

3. (C) Geagea averred that rival Christian leader and head of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) Michel Aoun’s November trip to Damascus had sapped his popular support. “Aoun is weak. The Christians can’t digest his embrace of Syria, especially his returning from Damascus empty-handed.” Geagea speculated that Aoun may believe the Syrians will help him win Christian seats in the south (Note: Aoun is allied with Amal in the South. End note.) by pressing Hizballah and Shi’a Speaker of Parliament and Amal party leader Nabih Berri to include FPM candidates on their slates in districts such as Zahleh and Marjayoun. “But I don’t understand this trip to Damascus, and I don’t understand why Hizballah isn’t giving him better guidance. They’re smarter than he is.”

2009 January 29, 15:59 (Thursday)

4. (C) Admitting that the March 14 alliance was struggling to agree on hich candidates would run in each district (Ref A) Geagea insisted that their rival Aoun has “more problems.” In Zgharta, he illustrated, Franjieh formed his own list at the exclusion of any Aoun candidate, yet Fares Karam, an Aounie, reportedly is insisting on running. Aoun does not have any candidates in Akkar, Geagea said, and is competing with the SSNP for a slot on the list in Koura (Ref B).

5. (C) Aoun’s son-in-law, Telecommunications Minister Gebran Bassil, has still not decided whether he will run in Batroun, Geagea relayed, where independent candidates might take votes away from Bassil. Geagea said that in Batroun, the population equally divides its support among LF, Aoun, and MP Boutros Harb of March 14. Geagea described Jbeil district as supportive of President Michel Sleiman, rather than Aoun.

6. (C) Geagea said that independent candidates in Kesarwan — “those monkeys” — threatened both his and Aoun’s popularity. He criticized Mansour Ilbon for publicly attacking the LF and Kataeb, and said that Farid Haikal el Khazen was confusing because he is “pro-Syrian, anti-Aoun, and wants to be independent.”

7. (C) Geagea remarked that March 14 does not have a credible candidate to run against Agriculture Minister Elie Skaff in Zahle, who is allied with Aoun. Zahle MP Nicholas Fattoush, elected in 2005 on March 14’s list, was again a possibility for March 14, Geagea said, but he was “not liked” in his own district.

2009 January 29, 15:27 (Thursday)

7. (C) Aoun said that despite a “rather negative” relationship with independent Christian leader Michel Murr, he believed he might be able to come to some sort of limited agreement with the Murr family on parliamentary seats in the heavily Christian Metn district. He based this belief on a special bond he said he had formed with Murr’s son Elias, the current Defense Minister, when, according to Aoun, he “saved Elias from being executed by Samir Geagea.” (Note: Elias Murr was reportedly with Lebanese Forces leader Elie Hobeika in 1986, when LF rival Geagea sent fighters against Hobeika for participating in tripartite talks in Damascus with the Amal militia and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. Aoun sent troops in to assist Hobeika and Murr. End note.) As a result, said Aoun, “we cannot be enemies.” While he stressed any accord would be very limited in scope, Aoun believed he could come to an agreement with Elias Murr.

2009 February 26, 17:32 (Thursday)

12. (C) Geagea assessed that Syria and Iran were behind the BEIRUT 00000233 003 OF 004 recent souring of relations among Lebanese leaders. He accused Aoun of fomenting Christian fears of Sunni extremism, and generalizing the fear to the Sunni sect as a whole, in an attempt to sway Christian votes away from March 14.

2009 March 11, 16:03 (Wednesday)

9. (C) Geagea also urged a solution to the issue of Lebanese prisoners in Syria. A A/S Feltman acknowledged that, of Geagea’s listed concerns, detainees was the only issue the U.S. envoys had not raised in Syria. Feltman asked Geagea whether movement on Lebanese detainees in Syria would be a victory for Christian opposition MP Michel Aoun, particularly before June elections. Geagea said Aoun, in fact, was “on the defensive” on the detainee issue, and positive steps by the Syrians would not benefit him. The transfer should occur between the Lebanese and Syrian governments, Geagea stressed.

2009 May 5, 18:06 (Tuesday)

8. (C) Geagea presented the Ambassador with the somewhat surprising prediction that Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun and his Change and Reform Bloc would win only 12-15 seats in the new parliament (compared to 21 currently), and therefore should not play a large role in any government formed. The Ambassador followed up, asking how March 14 would do in specific primarily-Christian districts. Geagea claimed March 14 would take three or four seats in the Metn (out of eight), as well as in Zahle (out of seven). He called Jbeil a “disaster,” implying that his alliance would lose all three seats because of independent Nazem Khoury’s refusal to run with March 14 SYG Fares Souaid. He believed FPM’s Gebran Bassil would definitely lose in Batroun, giving both the Christian seats there to March 14. He acknowledged that March 14 would lose seats compared to its 2005 numbers in Baabda, Zgharta, and Koura, but thought independents in Keserwan might take two seats. “We have made a lot of mistakes in preparing the elections, but I have never been worried,” he said. (Comment: Just in the districts BEIRUT 00000501 003 OF 004 mentioned — which exclude districts such as Jezzine, where Aoun will definitely win seats — using Geagea’s very optimistic estimates, Aoun’s bloc would win 14 seats. Most pollsters believe Aoun’s bloc will easily win more than 20 seats, and Suleiman Franjieh’s Marada Party — which sits in Hizballah’s parliamentary bloc — will take at least two formerly March 14 seats in Zgharta. End comment.)

2009 May 11, 06:40 (Monday)

7. (C) Geagea predicted that Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun’s decision to form a list in Jezzine that will compete against his March 8 ally, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, cost him Shia votes in Baabda and Jbeil. According to Geagea, the emergence of competing lists was a failure on Hizballah’s part to mediate between its Christian ally, Aoun, and its Shia ally, Berri. Geagea relayed that he recently joked with Hizballah MP Mohammed Raad, asking him if he was ready to “give Aoun to March 14.” Raad reportedly laughed and answered in the affirmative.

2009 May 19, 16:03 (Tuesday)

6. (C) Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun had also lost support as a result of Nasrallah’s speech, in Geagea’s opinion. Nasrallah’s speech had raised fears in Christian communities, some of which were overrun by Hizballah fighters in May 2008. Christian concerns, as a result of these speeches, would affect elections, Geagea said. Aoun’s statements and gestures proved he was “losing and nervous,” Geagea assessed. Although Aoun did not have the means for violence in the case of an unfavorable electoral outcome for the opposition, his allies did, Geagea opined.

2009 June 10, 12:34 (Wednesday)

3. (C) Noting that Christian voters determined the results of the elections, Geagea opined on what caused the Christian voters to sway towards March 14. He explained that there are a plethora of factors that could have caused this phenomenon to occur, but believed that Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun made a strategic mistake by aligning with Hizballah. Historically, the Christians have been aligned with the state, noted Geagea, explaining that Aoun’s decision to ally with Hizballah instead of with President Sleiman or the Patriarch caused March 8 to lose the majority in the elections.

2009 August 21, 17:14 (Friday)

4. (C) Geagea dismissed the possibility that President Michel Sleiman would possess the key to unblock the situation. “It will come from Riyadh,” he assessed. He urged that the U.S. to push the Saudis to talk to Syria, “but don’t let them in (to Lebanon’s internal affairs).” Geagea was unsure whether Hizballah was actively directing Aoun to play the role of the spoiler. “We don’t know if they are encouraging him, but for sure they are having fun with (the process),” he assessed in support of his conviction that Hizballah and Iran were satisfied with Aoun’s latest antics. “They get what they want, but without consequences,” he judged.

The Christian Wedding and the Presidential Elections

Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and former General Michel Aoun celebrate with officials from both parties Geagea's official endorsement of Aoun's candidacy for the presidency. Image source - Annahar

Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and former General Michel Aoun celebrate with officials from both parties Geagea’s official endorsement of Aoun’s candidacy for the presidency. Image source – Annahar. In case you were wondering, I’m calling this agreement the “Christian wedding” because of the cake.


Political maneuvers are Lebanon’s daily bread, but very few are the moments that will truly shape Lebanon’s modern history: The 8th and 14th of March 2005, the 6th of February 2006, the 7th of May 2008, the 2nd of August 2009 and the 12th of January 2011 were the main plot twists in Lebanon’s recent political history. That was until the 18th of January 2016 happened.

On the 18th of January 2016, Lebanon’s biggest Christian rivals since the civil war ended more than 25 years of confrontation, and made (political) peace: Samir Geagea, of March 14’s Lebanese Forces, endorsed Michel Aoun, of March 8’s FPM, as his presidential candidate. For the first time in decades, the biggest two representative parties among Christians had agreed on a major issue. It was an attempt to end what is soon to become a 2 years presidential crisis that has left the country’s main post vacant because of the deadlock caused by the March 8 alliance and March 14 alliance’s disagreement. While it is far too soon to know the impact of this agreement on Lebanese politics and its outcome on the presidential elections in particular, the Aoun-Geagea agreement was almost unthinkable 8 months ago, and is on the verge of shattering the March 8 and 14 alliances for good.

As Elie of the blog A Separate State of Mind points out, the move also comes to the backdrop of a 10 point agreement that the two forged over the past 6 months. It reads as follows:

Geagea Aoun Agreement

I will comment on those points afterwards.

How it happened – Step 1

Although it was definitely unexpected, Geagea’s endorsement of Aoun was the most obvious of all political maneuvers – even too obvious to be true. Presidential elections are sacred to Lebanon’s Christian parties – the past 70 years of Lebanon’s history remind us of that every day. It is the highest post any Maronite can be elected to, and thus becomes the career goal of the Christian Zuamas. So when Hariri threw his political bomb in the last days of 2015 and hinted at the possibility of electing Sleiman Frangieh – the second in command of March 8’s Christians and one of the most pro-Syrian politicians in the parliament – while abandoning the candidacy of Samir Geagea, it was a political declaration of war.

Yet it was a rather smart gamble from Hariri: The Lebanese Forces were by far the most predictable party in Lebanese politics. For 11 years, they had stood with the Future Movement, while other alliances kept changing every year. In 2013, when the parliament was called to vote on the Orthodox gathering electoral law, they were the only Christian party that refused to do so – at the request of the FM, after they had drafted another electoral law draft together. In 2014, they stood alongside the FM once again and gave the parliamentary extension the Christian legitimacy it needed – the FPM and Kataeb had boycotted the session. In 2015, and while Lebanon’s Muslim parties – among them was the FM – were struggling to gather Christian legitimacy for a parliamentary session, it was the Lebanese Forces who saved the day once again, this time even bringing the FPM with them to the session. True, the Lebanese forces refused to participate in the 2014 unity cabinet, but that decision did not bring major harm to their long-term ally.

How it happened – Step 2

So when Hariri, as well as Berri and the PSP rallied around the candidacy of Sleiman Frangieh, the FM probably thought that the Lebanese Forces would at the very most oppose that move while insisting on the candidacy of Geagea, someone from March 14 or anyone else in the middle. But they were wrong, and should have paid more attention to the recent LF maneuvering in Lebanese politics. Every time a mini-dialogue between the FM and Hezbollah was starting, the FPM and the LF were responding  – because of the fear that Hezbollah and the FM might agree on someone other than Geagea or Aoun- by getting closer. The mini Hezbollah-FM dialogues eventually led to mini FPM-LF rapprochements (in fact, if you remember correctly, the fear of an FPM-LF alliance pushed the Kataeb, Michel Sleiman, and other minor Christian politicians to unite under one front in March). All in all, that led in the end to an agreement to agree on an agreement between Aoun and Geagea in June 2015. It was called “the declaration of intent” and was the two Christian parties’ way of saying to their Muslim allies “it’s either one of us, or we ally together against you”. The message was very obvious: If you read the June 2015 declaration, you’ll find out  that it revolves around one main idea: protecting the Christian interests, and at their core, the election of a” strong president”. And in case you still don’t know what a “strong president” means after 20 months of presidential vacancy, “Strong” = Aoun and /or Geagea.

How it happened – Step 3

The FM – unlike Hezbollah, who refused to support Frangieh – chose to ignore the message that was the declaration of intent, and supported Frangieh in a very intelligent attempt to blow up the March 8 alliance:

I explained it two years ago, last year, and I’ll explain it again: For Hezbollah, Aoun is silver but Frangieh is gold. Frangieh – unlike Aoun who has 18 MPs representing solely the FPM – doesn’t have a big bloc (4 MPs, including himself and Emile Rahme who is much more pro-Hezbollah than he is pro-Frangieh). Frangieh also has a limited electorate that he can rely on. And by limited, I mean it in a geographical, demographic, and sectarian way. Most (If not all) of Frangieh’s popular base is Christian, mostly Maronite, from the Zgharta Caza (Which is one of the smallest in terms of parliamentary representation with 3 MPs) and some of the surrounding villages in Koura. Frangieh doesn’t have foothold outside the North, belongs to a feudal family – and most importantly – faces continuous competition from other renowned political families established in Zgharta (Such as the Mouawads). In other words, Frangieh is too weak and can be manipulated by Hezbollah / Future Movement while Aoun (as a comparison) is much, much harder to keep under control. If Aoun switches sides, his ~ 22/23 MPs would be enough to change the status quo and throw a party outside the cabinet – be it Hezbollah, or even the FM. Frangieh can’t do anything with his 3 MPs (Yes, 3, because once he’s elected he loses his seat 😛 – And it’s actually 2 since you can’t really count Rahme as a loyalist). Frangieh won’t have his own base in the parliament to rely on, which means that he will fully be dependent on Hezbollah or the FM in everything concerning the legislation. Even if Frangieh wants to call for demonstrations, it wouldn’t have any impact unless Hezbollah joins him. Aoun wouldn’t need Hezbollah at all on the popular level (the 2015 summer demonstrations prove it) –  in fact it would hurt him since the counter-propaganda would make it look as if his supporters aren’t Christian – making him an “illegitimate” Christian president. Frangieh is also a lot more pro-Syrian than Aoun is, and the Frangiehs have historical family ties with the Assad family that are almost 50 years old. Which means that even if every single MP in M14 endorses Frangieh, he would always be a friend of Syria – and thus closer to Hezbollah. Aoun, on the other hand, is a lot more unreliable so he might be a pain in the ass in case he decides to switch sides or go against the Syrian regime.

La morale: If you’re Hezbollah, and have to choose between Frangieh and Aoun, you’ll choose Frangieh every time. Every time.

How it happened – Step 4

But that’s not how the party of God thinks, since Hezbollah decided not to fall in the trap of supporting the Frangieh deal and eventually stood with Aoun. Agreeing to the Frangieh deal would have probably meant that Hariri was going to become PM again, that March 14 would regain foothold in the cabinet, and that the alliance Hezbollah has with the only non-Shia party collapses (it would have discredited Hezbollah for the next decade). Frangieh was not worth shattering the March 8 alliance.

Hariri’s gamble was brilliant, but it failed. And the FM were too slow to end it. The fact that the LF were very predictable and had never moved against the FM probably made the latter party think that rumors about a possible LF support to Aoun in early January were just a bluff destined to put a halt to the Frangieh deal. Maybe it was a bluff and maybe it wasn’t, but when the FM did not respond to the rumors, insisted on Frangieh, and did not support Geagea again, the Christian wedding eventually happened.

How it happened – Step 5

2009 lebanese parliament seats

The most important table in Lebanon for the next few months. Number of seats for every party in the parliament. Note that there are 127 instead of 128 because an FPM PM has past away in the summer. Compiled with the help of Wikipedia.

(a candidate needs at least the absolute majority, 65 votes, to win the elections in the second round. In the first round the candidate needs the two-thirds of the 128 votes, and that’s 86 votes)

The Lebanese Forces had all the reasons in the world to deny support for both candidates – Aoun and Frangieh. Look at the table above: As far as everyone was concerned, Frangieh had the support of the Future Movement (as well as their closest allies (blue)?), Amal, the PSP, and himself (the Marada). That means 28+13+11+3 = 55 seats. Their close allies (in blue) are about 9 MPs, and the other centrists have around 7 votes. 55+9+7= 71. And that’s if EVERYONE approves and has no problem with frangieh. But as the example of Khaled Daher (Daher, of the FM, said he preferred Aoun over Frangieh) shows, definitely not everyone from the center and M14 is going to vote for Frangieh. It is even said – in the dark alleys of the republic – that Berri is giving his MPs the freedom to choose between Aoun and Frangieh. Moreover, the quorum needed to let the session proceed is 86 MPs, which means that you need 43 MPs to stop the elections, and Hezbollah, the (Marada-less) FPM, and their smaller allies have 23+13+2+2+1= 41 MPs. Providing quorum, without Aoun and Hezbollah’s blessing, in order to elect Frangieh, will be the most difficult task on earth.

And if the LF deny quorum, it will be an impossible task. So everything the LF could have done to thwart the election of Frangieh was to deny quorum. The absence of support from the biggest two Christian parties in parliament would have also had a huge moral impact on elections that concern the top Christian post. There was no need to go as far as supporting Aoun. Not participating in the elections would have been more than enough, and would have weakened both Aoun and Frangieh.

But the LF did not only refuse to support Frangieh: They fully endorsed Aoun, another candidate from March 8, and for several important reasons. Frangieh, for the LF, is the worst candidate that the FM could ever endorse. He is at the heart of March 8, will directly threaten Geagea’s stronger base in the North, and  – while being one of the Maronite four – is not even the top Christian politician of March 8. It’s as if there was a choice between Karami and Hariri for the premiership in 2023, and the LF choose March 8’s barely-known Abdul Rahim Mrad instead of Hariri. So you can imagine the humiliation the LF went through when Hariri endorsed Frangieh.

If you can’t beat them, join them

The endorsement of Aoun by Geagea is definitely an “eye for an eye” maneuver. But the new mini-alliance between the two Christian parties is also more than that: It makes Geagea the second-in-command of a Christian alliance whose leader is 81 year old, and who cannot constitutionally run for a second-term in six years. And while Bassil might be a natural “heir” to Aoun’s presidency, he is – until now – far less popular than Geagea (having lost twice in a row the parliamentary elections in his home district against Geagea’s candidate) who will also have the seniority. If Aoun makes it this time, Geagea is likely going to be his successor. True, it is not written in their agreement, but it’s a natural result of the deal.

The Lebanese Forces, after 11 years in parliament, have realized that they cannot defeat Aoun on their own, even with the full weight of a 40 MPs FM-led bloc. They have also probably come to realize that the FM can turn their back on them, just as every Lebanese party can turn his back on another Lebanese party. The Kataeb are a rival to their monopoly within M14, and the only real way to increase their influence is by increasing their number of MPs in parliament. In a parliament of 128, they have a bloc three times smaller than the FPM’s. An alliance with the FPM would mean total dominance of the Christian constituencies by the FPM-LF duo in the next elections, and the ousting of the Kataeb and Christian independents from the Metn, Achrafieh, and the North. Their alliance would also give them negotiating ground everywhere else, as they will probably claim that they could control and influence at least 80% of the Christian electorate. That means a lot more MPs for the two Christian parties in the next elections, and even more MPs for the LF in particular.

The ten-point agreement between the LF and the FPM, while not directly criticizing Hezbollah, is very, very similar to the Baabda declaration and calls for an independent (no sign of the word “neutral” in the article) foreign policy, more efficient border control, a new electoral law, no use of weapons, as well as other cliche sentences that have become irrelevant with time and are not even worth translating. The agreement can’t be more vague which is actually good for both political sides on the short-term. For example, the LF can say that “independent” implies “neutral”, and the FPM can say that it does not imply that. It works for both parties.

Geagea never had the support of March 8 and the center, lost the Kataeb’s support early on, and is now Future Movement-less. The LF have lost the presidential battle: That is more clearer today, that it ever was or will ever be. And this why they have opted to support Aoun’s candidacy. It’s a long-term investment that could definitely be worth the wait. For Aoun, the endorsment of Geagea is a huge moral boost, but has little impact whatsoever because of the small bloc the LF have in parliament. If Frangieh withdraws in favor of Aoun (no sign of that happening anytime soon), Aoun would have definitely secured his supremacy in parliament (the endorsement of three out of the four Maronite four) and would thus only need to find a way to secure the quorum in parliament (offering the premiership to Hariri would be an interesting thing he could try).

 The impact in parliament

The impact of the Christian wedding on Lebanese politics will be huge. If you look at the table above, the 42 MPs that were expected to deny quorum + the 8 MPs of the LF mean that Aoun now has at least around 50 MPs behind him. Without Amal’s support of 13 MPS, he doesn’t have the 65 MPs required for him to win, and even if support rises from the center (Mikata/Safadi), he will have only secured an absolute majority, which means that the other blocs could easily deny quorum and ironically use Aoun’s own weapon of denying quorum against him. And while Jumblatt withdrew his Frangieh support and is endorsing Helou once again (probably because he wants to keep a neutral stance between what seems to be a choice of the Christian-supported parties and another choice of a mainly Sunni-supported party, especially since his home district of the Chouf almost has an equal number of Sunni and Christian voters), that can only mean that the key player that will decide the outcome of the presidential elections is likely to be Berri. Amal have to choose between two Christian Zuamas who are the allies of its ally, and there are several scenarios of what might happen. It is said that Berri might even let his MPs choose freely. The FM is apparently sticking with Frangieh, although anything can still happen from now till the 8th of February – the date of the next presidential elections session. Some rumors are even hinting to the fact that Aoun might break with Hezbollah if Amal don’t support him, but that really doesn’t make a lot of sense since it would push Hezbollah towards Frangieh and effectively hand Frangieh the presidency.

The curious case of the Kataeb

While it is very clear that the Muslim parties still do not know what they are going to do with the whole Aoun-Frangieh conundrum, the Kaateb are experiencing one of the most difficult periods of their recent history. While they might actually benefit from this deal (all the anti-Hezbollah Christians of March 14 now only have the Kataeb as party to support – note how the Kataeb are actually using this to their favor with Gemayel saying that he would never support an M8 candidate and criticizing Geagea for supporting March 8’s choice), their very small bloc in parliament,  as well as the fact that both the FPM and the LF have more support in the Christian areas, mean that the Kataeb risk total parliamentary annihilation in the next elections. The FM could always share with them a couple of Christian seats in Muslim-dominated districts, but the fact that they did not support the FM’s endorsement of Frangieh, that they stood against the FM when it came to the electoral law, to the parliamentary session of 2015, and to almost every major issue (except the cabinet formation) is not in their favor. Moreover, without the LF, the Kataeb cannot challenge the FPM in the Christian constituencies, reducing their margin of negotiation with the FM to an all-time low.

Finally, a lovely reminder that the Christian wedding did not end the trash crisis. We are still drowning in garbage. Thank you.

This post was the 17th post in a series of monthly posts covering the presidential elections. This post was about the month of January 2016.

 609 days since the 25th of May. 445 days since the 5th of November.

Aoun-Geagea: Is It Truly a Declaration of Intent?

FPM leader Michel Aoun and LF leader Samir Geagea speak during a joint press conference in Rabieh, Tuesday, June 2, 2015. (The Daily Star/Stringer)

FPM leader Michel Aoun and LF leader Samir Geagea speak during a joint press conference in Rabieh, Tuesday, June 2, 2015. (The Daily Star/Stringer)

“A declaration of intent” (اعلان النوايا), they called it. Because you know, as the Lebanese say, “المهم النية”.

Surprise. For the first time since 2005, Michel Aoun and Samir Geagea met. Live. Face to face. Without having to shoot at one another like the good old days of the late eighties.

But if you have been following Lebanese politics for the past 9 months, the meeting between the leaders of the two main Christian parties shouldn’t be surprising. Both parties were having talks since Hezbollah and Mustaqbal started their dialogue earlier this year (Aoun even tasted Geagea’s truffles in January!), the talks were making good progess in April, and the declaration of intent was actually finished a month ago. In fact, if you remember correctly, the fear of an FPM-LF rapprochement led the Kataeb, Michel Sleiman, and other minor Christian politicians to unite under one front in March. So no, it should not be that surprising to see Kanaan and Riachi telling us that the FPM and the LF are intending to continue the dialogue and work within the constitution in order to protect their interests.

What is weird here is the timing of the declaration. When they finished it last month without directly announcing it, it was assumed that both parties were waiting for M8 and M14 to agree on the major issues such as the presidential elections. It’s still too soon to be sure why that specific timing was chosen, but it seems right now that Geagea was trying to sabotage a potential rumored Aoun-Hariri deal on the way: letting Aoun name the commander of the army in exchange of conceding to some of Mustaqbal’s terms such as M8 lifting its veto on some centrist presidential candidates. Only yesterday, I was talking about how important it is for Aoun and the FPM that Roukoz becomes commander of the army.  If you read the declaration, you’ll find out  that it revolves around one main idea: protecting the Christian interests, and at their core, the election of a strong president (look for the sentence in bold in the original text). And in case you still don’t know what a “strong president” means after 12 months of presidential vacancy, let me enlighten you: Strong = Aoun and /or Geagea.

Aoun looked like the bigger party yesterday, since it was Geagea the one who visited him in Rabieh, but don’t be fooled by the formalities, since in the end, the leader of the Lebanese Forces succeeded in bringing back the “strong president” rhetoric to life, thus pushing Aoun away from the idea of a consensual president and a Roukouz deal with the Mustaqbal and the PSP. Yesterday, it wasn’t a new alliance between the LF and the FPM that was starting. It was the consensual candidate – Roukoz deal that was being put off the table, At least for now.

Anyway, here’s the original text of the declaration (directly from the source), if you would like to waste five minutes of your times on a text that could be summed up with the sentence “We agree to find an agreement”

لما كان الحوار هو الوسيلة الفضلى لتبادل الآراء وتفاعلها من اجل صياغة رؤية مشتركة حول القضايا والمواضيع ذات الاهتمام المتبادل على جميع الصعد السياسية والاقتصادية والادارية والاجتماعية،

ولما كان التيار الوطني الحر والقوات اللبنانية قد عقدا أكثر من لقاء وبحثا أسس التفاهم في ما بينهما، فوجدا أن التنافس السياسي أمر مشروع وواجب لارساء قواعد الديمقراطية وبلورتها في نظام للحكم.

ولما كان حزبا التيار الوطني الحر والقوات اللبنانية قد أجريا مراجعة للعلاقة التي سادت بينهما خلال أكثر من ربع قرن وذلك من أجل تنقية الذاكرة من مناخات الخصومة السياسية التي طبعت تلك العلاقة، والتطلع بالتالي نحو مستقبل يسوده التنافس السياسي الشريف و/أو التعاون السياسي.
–  التزام نهج الحوار والتخاطب السياسي البناء والسعي الدائم للتوافق على ثوابت وقواسم مشتركة
– تأكيد الايمان بلبنان كوطن نهائي سيد حر مستقل وبصيغة العيش المشترك وبضرورة التمسك بالمبادئ الواردة في مقدمة الدستور بصفتها مبادئ تأسيسية ثابتة
– اعتماد المبادئ السيادية في مقاربة المواضيع التي هي على ارتباط وثيق بالقضايا الاقليمية والدولية على أن تؤخذ في الاعتبار امكانات الدولة اللبنانية والمعادلات الاقليمية والدولية
– الالتزام بمرتكزات وثيقة الوفاق الوطني التي اقرّت في الطائف والتعهد باحترام أحكام الدستور كافة دون انتقائية وبعيداً عن الاعتبارات السياسية والابتعاد عن كل ما من شأنه التلاعب بأحكام الدستور أو اساءة تفسيره
– التأكيد على أن وثيقة الوفاق الوطني قد طبقت منذ اقرارها وخلال عهد الوصاية وحتى اليوم بشكل معتور مما يوجب تصويب المسار من خلال العودة إلى مرتكزات الميثاق الوطني واحكام الدستور المتعلقة بالمناصفة الفعلية وصحة التمثيل النيابي الفعال والشراكة الصحيحة بين مكونات المجتمع اللبناني كافة بما يحفظ قواعد العيش المشترك وترجمة ذلك في قانون انتخاب يؤمن القواعد المشار اليها اعلاه وفي انتخاب رئيس للجمهورية قوي ومقبول في بيئته وقادر على طمأنة المكونات الأخرى والايفاء بقسمه

وبالتزامات الرئاسة بما يؤمن الشراكة الفعلية الميثاقية والمصلحة الوطنية العليا
– العمل على تعزيز مؤسسات الدولة وتشجيع ثقافة الاحتكام الى القانون والمؤسسات الشرعية لحلّ أي خلاف أو اشكال طارئ وعدم اللجوء إلى السلاح والعنف مهما تكن الهواجس والاحتقانات
– دعم الجيش على الصعيدين المعنوي والمادي بصفته المؤسسة الضامنة للسيادة والأمن القومي وتكريس الجهد اللازم لتمكينه وسائر القوى الأمنية الشرعية من التعامل مع كل الحالات الأمنية على الأراضي اللبنانية كافة بهدف بسط سلطة الدولة وحدها على كامل الأراضي اللبنانية
– ضرورة التزام سياسة خارجية مستقلة بما يضمن مصلحة لبنان ويحترم القانون الدولي وذلك بنسج علاقات تعاون وصداقة مع جميع الدول ولا سيما العربية منها مما يحصن الوضع الداخلي اللبناني سياسياً وأمنياً ويساعد على استقرار الأوضاع وكذلك اعتبار اسرائيل دولة عدوة والتمسك بحق الفلسطينيين بالعودة إلى أرضهم ورفض التوطين واعتماد حل الدولتين ومبادرة بيروت 2002
– الحرص على ضبط الأوضاع على طول الحدود اللبنانية السورية بالاتجاهين وعدم السماح باقامة منطقة عازلة في لبنان وباستعمال لبنان مقرا او منطلقا لتهريب السلاح والمسلحين ويبقى الحق في التضامن الانساني والتعبير السياسي والاعلامي مكفولا تحت سقف الدستور والقانون والمصلحة الوطنية العليا
– احترام قرارات الشرعية الدولية كافة والالتزام بمواثيق الامم المتحدة وجامعة الدول العربية
– العمل على تنفيذ القرارات السابقة التي تم الاتفاق عليها في طاولة الحوار الوطني
– ايجاد حل لمشكلة النزوح السوري والمتعاظمة والتي أصبحت بمثابة قنبلة موقوتة أمنيا واقتصاديا وسياسيا واجتماعيا لا سيما مع تفاقمها مع مشكلة اللاجئين الفلسطينيين وذلك عن طريق تأمين عودة النازحين إلى المناطق الآمنة داخل الأراضي السورية
– ضرورة اقرار قانون جديد للانتخابات يراعي المناصفة الفعلية وصحة التمثيل بما يحفظ قواعد العيش المشترك ويشكل المدخل الأساسي لاعادة التوازن إلى مءسسات الدولة
– الالتزام بوثيقة الوفاق الوطني لجهة اعتماد اللامركزية الإدارية والمالية الموسعة ونقل قسم كبير من صلاحيات الادارة المركزية ولا سيما الانمائية منها إلى سلطات لامركزية منتخبة وفقاً للأصول وتأمين الايرادات الذاتية اللازمة لذلك
– الالتزام بأحكام الدستور المتعلقة بالمالية العامة وبأحكام قانون المحاسبة العمومية التي تحدد موازنة الدولة وشموليتها وأصول ومهل اعدادها وتقديمها إلى المجلس النيابي وكذلك اعداد الحسابات المالية وتدقيقها وتصديقها وفقاً للأصول وكذلك الالتزام بضرورة تحديد سقف للاقتراض لا يمكن تجاوزه الا باجازة جديدة من المجلس النيابي وبضرورة ترشيد الانفاق والحد من الهدر والانفاق غير المجدي ومحاربة الفساد المستشري وإعمال قانون الاثراء غير المشروع وانشاء المحكمة الخاصة بالجرائم المالية
– التأكيد على التمسك بالمبادئ الكيانية المؤسسة للوطن اللبناني والتي هي سبب وجوده وجوهر رسالته في التسامح والتنوع والتعايش الفريد القائم على المشاركة الكاملة في الحكم والعمل المشترك من اجل اقرار القوانين المحققة لذلك وفي طليعتها قانون استعادة الجنسية وقانون تملك الأجانب كما العمل من أجل الحؤول دون القيام بأي اجراءات تخالف المبادئ المنبثقة من الصيغة اللبنانية ومن الميثاق الوطني.

وإذ يعتبر الطرفان أن اعلان النوايا هذا، يهدف إلى وضع المبادء الديمقراطية ومعاييرها كأساس لتنظيم علاقتهما، يؤكدان على ابقاء المبادئ الدستورية والميثاقية فوق سقف التنافس السياسي، كما يؤكدان على ارادتهما ورغبتهما بالعمل المشترك والتواصل في جميع المجالات والمواقع الممكنة لتنفيذ التزاماتهما المنوه عنها اعلاه ويعتزمان العمل على تفعيل انتاجية اتفاقاتهما حيث يتفقان، والتنافس من دون خصام حيث يختلفان، كما يتعهدان بالتواصل الدائم والتباحث المستمر للتفاهم على كافة المواضيع ذات الشأن العام والوطني.

375 days since the 25th of May. 211 days since the 5th of November.

What’s After The First Round?

Samir Geagea (Reuters)

Samir Geagea (Reuters)

Walid Jumblatt’s Democratic Gathering is reassembled, the March 14 coalition stands together as one unified alliance, and the March 8 coalition isn’t sparing a single effort to stop M14 from winning. Welcome back to 2009.

The Lebanese parties’ different stances are full of meanings. But first, let’s take a look at the results.

Results of the first parliamentary session to elect the Lebanese president:

Round I

  1. White Ballots: 52 Votes
  2. Samir Geagea: 48 Votes
  3. Henri Helou: 16 Votes
  4. Amine Gemayel: 1 Vote
  5. Canceled: 7 Votes (For Tarek and Dany Chamoun, Rachid Karami, Elias Zayek,  Jihane Frangieh)

4 MPs did not attend (Saad Hariri, Khaled Daher, Elie Aoun, Okab Sakr)

March 14’s Moves

In an alliance known for its diversity of Christian parties and representatives, the choice of Samir Geagea isn’t a smart one  for the coalition to win. But strategically speaking, it’s the most brilliant move any of the M14 parties – except the Lebanese Forces – are capable of. Samir Geagea leads M14’s biggest Christian party. Going against him in the presidential elections seems unwise. Future Movement would have lost its biggest Christian ally while the Kataeb – although benefiting from the absence of its main rival on the short-term – would eventually suffer heavy popular losses on the long-term (Similar to what the M14 had to go through after isolating Aoun in 2005). The Kataeb is a relatively small Christian party and any loss in popularity is fatal to it. Future Movement can’t afford to lose such a heavy Christian ally in such times. It would give the impression that Lebanon’s Sunnis are abandoning the Christians, ironically further isolating the Future Movement and giving M8 the upper hand in Lebanese politics.

One doesn’t have to be a mathematician to see that Geagea’s hopes of becoming president are null. You need 65 votes to become president, and Geagea – in the best scenario possible – can gather a maximum of 60. So why go against him when he can’t win?

By supporting Geagea, the Kataeb and the FM are paving the way for their next moves. They threw all their weight behind the leader of the Lebanese Forces – preemptively knowing that he has no chance in winning. The Kataeb successfully eliminated the candidacy of their biggest rival in the coalition for the next rounds: If Geagea can’t gather enough votes to win, perhaps it’s time for another candidate to try his luck. And now that the Future Movement did what was expected from it, and supported the Christian ally, it’s ethically more Ok for Hariri to strike a deal with Aoun or agree with Jumblatt on a candidate, since Geagea can’t make it. In case the Kataeb want to officially propose Gemayel’s name, the right thing to do from the LF would be endorsing him, since the Kataeb endorsed Geagea when he needed them. ‘Terbi7 Jmile’ would be the proper Lebanese comment to say here. The proof? Even before the first session had happened, the Kataeb were already nominating Gemayel for the next electoral session.

March 8’s Move

The March 8 coalition voted white in the elections. There were reports that M8 might vote for Emile Rahme in the elections, in order to give the impression that Aoun – who refused to run against Geagea – is a moderate while on the other hand making sure that Geagea couldn’t be one. He would have been facing the  pro-Syrian Emile Rahme after all.

M14’s endorsement of Geagea was  in fact a double political maneuver:

  1. Sending a message to M8 that M14 is unified no matter how controversial the candidate is.
  2. Persuading M8 to nominate Aoun as their candidate in face of Geagea, so that both candidates get cleared out and a compromise in which a candidate that’s more centrist than both might get better chances. The Kataeb particularly wanted a Aoun-Geagea confrontation so that Gemayel would look like a consensual candidate. After all, consensual candidates have the best chance of winning in presidential elections.

M8’s response was remarkably brilliant. Instead of proposing Emile Rahme in face of Geagea, they decided to be more original and vote white. Frankly, I don’t know what’s more humiliating: To lose the elections, or to lose the elections to no one.

A Quick Look At The Lebanese Centre

While M8 and M14 are busy ‘plotting’ against one another, The centrists are reorganizing themselves. Walid Jumblatt has profited from the new M8-M14 standoffs on the new president and has reunified his bloc (The Democratic Gathering). Although some reports had confirmed that he didn’t want Henri Helou – who defected from his bloc in 2011 – as president, Jumblatt finally ended up endorsing him for several reasons.

By choosing someone that sided – unlike him – with M14 in 2011 (when Mikati was named PM), Jumblatt is playing it smart. True, he is currently closer to M8 since 2011, but he just chose the closest M14  personality to him for the presidency. Henri Helou, after siding with M14 in 2011, and after being nominated by Jumblatt – separately from M14/M8 – suddenly became a consensual candidate representing Lebanon’s centrists. Jumblat could have chosen someone from the National Struggle Front (The MPs who stayed by his side in 2011), but he did choose one of the two Maronites who didn’t: He wants to make sure that M14 has even less votes in the parliament in case it wants to try to elect a president of its own and that he’ll have the biggest bloc possible in the parliament.

Najib Mikati, who was replaced by Tammam Salam with M8’s consent, is siding with Helou for obvious reasons. As a former “centrist PM” it is wiser for him to support Jumblatt’s candidate in the presidential elections. After all, Helou is the most consensual candidate currently on the table, and hence he has one of the best chances to become president after the maneuvers stop (If there’s a veto on the commander of the army and the BDL Governor). Who’s better to serve as his PM than Mikati?

Parliament convenes again next Wednesday.

32 days till the 25th of May.

Another version of this post was published at Executive Magazine.

The Presidential Race Begins

Naharnet Michel Aoun Nominates Geagea For Presidency

In what is probably the most misleading article title since the beginning of time, Naharnet tells us that “Aoun Links Cabinet with Presidential Elections, Says he Nominates Geagea“. In the same context, Berri apparently said that he won’t deal with the matter before March 25, when the 60-day Constitutional deadline for the election of a new president starts. But since every possible politician is talking about the presidential elections, I find it hard how he’ll manage to do that. So what is exactly happening 5 months before the 25th of May? 

Mini-heart attack yet? Don’t panic. Aoun isn’t actually going to nominate Geagea (Naharnet forgot to put the word mockingly before says in the title). However, Aoun said that he wants a strong president and he clearly won’t nominate Geagea  (since he mockingly nominated him). On the opposite side, he is distancing himself from his ally (and apparently presidential rival) Sleiman Frangieh by asking for the election of a president from the first round (requiring the two-thirds of votes) while Frangieh previously said that he had no problem in electing the president with absolute majority (Here’s a nice post from October explaining why). Meaning that Aoun is likely to nominate someone from the FPM (him?).

Khabsa within M8

Frangieh and Aoun are endorsing two different electoral strategies, meaning that they will probably not be endorsing each other. This small competition is only the beginning. There will come a time where other M8 parties will have to choose between Frangieh and the Aounist candidate . So with who will side Hezbollah? The whole confusion emerging from within the March 8 coalition also means that the other centrist parties would have a much more free hand and will be more able to distance themselves from the March 8 camp or put conditions on the shattered M8 alliance. Jumblatt and Mikati in stronger positions also means that the president would be in a better place in case he wishes to extend his mandate. March 14’s silence and Tammam Salam’s passivity show us that the deal – if a consensus is to be reached – won’t strictly be about the government but rather the whole crisis, and its recent newcomer: The presidential elections.

Too Much USJ And No Jumblatt

Did I miss anyone? Correct! Jumblatt’s quiet attitude for the past few weeks – only 3 weeks earlier he was engaged in a violent media war against M14 and M8 – indicates that everyone is considering his options. After all, Jumblatt is still the kingmaker, and his stances will with no doubt influence everything. In fact Jumblatt’s silence is probably behind most of the parties’ cautiousness. No one wants to rush to the losing side. And the identity of that side will be clearer once Jumblatt takes a decision. 

If you’ve been following the news this week you’d be aware of the student elections in USJ and their violent aftermath (see here, here, here). One must keep in mind that USJ is one of the biggest and most prestigious universities in Lebanon, and its political relevance comes from the fact that it is a Christian University mostly attended by Christian students. Other than the demographic cause, the campus where most of the trouble happened is in the heart of Ashrafieh, while the University itself is the Alma mater of roughly half of the Lebanese presidents. That’s why the university elections at USJ matter more – strategically speaking – to the Christian leaders than the elections at the Lebanese University, AUB, LAU or any other university. Although the tensions are more of a yearly tradition now, this year I can’t but relate the unusually high tensions (Classes were suspended for two days in Huvelin campus)  to the near presidential elections. For the reasons stated above, whoever the winner is at USJ , it’s a huge boost for him ahead of the presidential elections. Probably explains why Aoun lashed out at Geagea and why Samy Gemayel entered in a media / propaganda war against Michel Aoun and M8 following the elections.

Reminder: We still don’t have a government.

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The Example Of Youssef Bey Karam

Youssef Bey Karam

Whenever in my childhood I had to change my name in a game, I usually used the pseudonym of Youssef Bey Karam.

That’s what a friend told me, a couple of weeks ago. Youssef Bey Karam is a paragon. He is considered by many to have led the struggle against the Turks. He is by far an independence symbol, and was always viewed as the defender of the Christians in the events of 1860.

If you go back in time, back to 1861, and ask the people of Zahleh what they think of this hero, the answer will be trenchant and limpid: He sold us out. (more…)