Tammam Salam

Chamel Roukoz and a Struggling Lebanese Government

Chamel Roukoz. the newcomer to Lebanon's crowded political arena

Chamel Roukoz, the latest newcomer to Lebanon’s already crowded political arena

This is the 14th post in a series of monthly posts covering the presidential elections. This post is about the months of August, September and October 2015.

If I haven’t written any monthly analysis post since July 2015, it’s for a reason: In the summer of 2015, Lebanese citizens decided to protest and ask for their rights. The parliament was unconstitutional, parliamentary elections had been cancelled twice, presidential elections had been postponed for lack of quorum for the past year, and the government was an epic failure. Lebanon was arguably facing one of the biggest refugees crisis since World War II, and as if the electricity and water shortages and the corruption weren’t enough, a new garbage crisis had become unbearable. And what was the cabinet fighting (and in a way, still fighting) about? If Michel Aoun’s son-in-law was going to become commander of the army or not. BECAUSE PRIORITIES. There was nothing to analyze there. September 2015 was almost the same, with the government not responding to the basic protest demands (such as an environmentally friendly trash solution) being the extra cherry on the top.

But this month was (politically speaking) awesome. Forget for a moment that there is a protest movement in Beirut today. Sit back and relax. It’s time to enjoy the complexity of Lebanon’s politics.

Ending the war for Chamel Roukoz

Perhaps the most important events these past few weeks were the ones related to Michel Aoun’s sons-in-law, Chamel Roukoz – the commander of the Lebanese Army’s special forces – and Gebran Bassil. For Roukoz, the matter might seem at first a bit complicated, but it’s actually quite simple: Aoun wanted to appoint Roukoz as commander of the army when LAF commander Kahwagi’s term was about to expire. At some point, there were rumors that Aoun would be ready to give up his presidential candidacy and discuss a consensual presidential candidate in case Roukoz would have been made as commander. The fact that Kahwagi was – and still is – the strongest consensual candidate out there (Lebanon’s last two presidents have been army commanders) only made the possibility of a deal more likely: (1) Kahwagi becomes president, (2) a vacancy happens in the army command, (3) Roukoz becomes commander of the army. Even some rival parties opposing Aoun’s FPM indirectly hinted about the possibility of a Roukoz-Kahwagi deal. Yet today, that very deal is history. At the time, the FPM felt that it had the upper hand: It could have kept blocking the presidential elections forever, and at the same time, the government wouldn’t have dared to keep Kahwagi for another year without consensus on the extension of his term, especially since Aoun had been playing the sectarian card and calling for “Christian rights” for some time now. At least that’s what the Aounists thought.

Yet motivated by an indirect green light by Berri and an absence of veto from Hezbollah (probably in order to avoid an unnecessary – especially in the current circumstances – political clash with an army command the party of God has no problem with), M14 responded to Aoun’s maneuvering by extending Kahwagi’s term. It was a clear message to Aoun that M14 weren’t going to succumb to his blackmail in the cabinet, that the FPM would only be awarded the army command in case they halt their presidential quest, and that the FPM would not see Roukoz appointed as commander without something else in exchange. M14 was trying to force the deal on Aoun: By then, the only way through for Roukoz was by vacating the army command and the fastest way to vacate the army command was by electing the commander president.

The FPM saw it as a declaration of war and escalated their discourse while calling for protests in the name of Christian rights (For the FPM, that meant electing Aoun as president and appointing his son-in-law as commander).  When it was finally clear to everyone that Berri doesn’t care about the FPM interests in the army, that Hezbollah had bigger problems than a local feud about two generals, and that Aoun had no intentions of giving up the presidency for the army command, Roukoz – who had reached the age of retirement – did not see his term as commando regiment commander extended. In the  early days of October even potential compromises on keeping the status-quo in the army were dismissed. On the 15th of October 2015, only days after an FPM rally in Baabda, and weeks after another FPM rally in which Gebran Bassil was introduced as the new FPM chief, Chamel Roukoz spoke to a group of protesters that gathered  to support him at a rally and told them that he “was promoted to the rank of Lebanese citizen“. Congratulations, Lebanese citizens: Your politics just became slightly more complicated.

Divide and conquer

Rewind four months. By June, the FPM had  managed to maximize their dominance in Lebanese politics: The Lebanese Forces gave them the Christian upper hand when Geagea signed the declaration of intent in Rabieh, and the Kataeb, who had just finished a transfer of powers, were isolated by their exclusion from the declaration of intent talks and were in no postion to compete. The FPM had only one head, its second-in-command was the no.2 in the cabinet, and it was fighting to control the army command and the presidency.

Now the FPM has a godfather (Aoun), a president (Bassil), two vice presidents, an isolated nephew (Alain Aoun), a son-in-law who might as well be more popular than all of the above, and currently looks like a Neapolitan mafia (the amount of sons-in-law in the party is too damn high) where no one knows who’s in charge. For the FPM, October 2015 was one of the worst months since the 2009 elections: A potential negotiation card  for the presidency was lost, the war they had started in the cabinet ended in a humiliating defeat, a key asset in a key institution (army) was lost, the FPM’s most popular / influential ally in the Bekaa – Elias Skaff –  passed away last week leaving a vacancy that other parties in Lebanon’s west could quickly fill – especially that Skaff’s sons are young, and that Skaff himself had been already outside power for too long (6 years is huge for politician who served as an MP from 1992 till 2009). Elias Skaff had distanced himself from the FPM since the 2009 elections, but then again, he was the only local ally the FPM could have reached out to in the Bekaa before the upcoming parliamentary elections. To make things worse, instead of figuring things out in the summertime internal elections, the FPM is now in a pre-chaotic state. Who gives the orders in the FPM? Aoun? Bassil? Who does the FPM answer to? Bassil? Aoun? What to do with Roukoz? Bring him in since he’s too popular? (Or keep him outside since he’s too popular?) Can the FPM nominate Roukoz instead of Aoun to the presidency? What would that make of Bassil? These are dangerous times for the FPM. They are losing to M14, losing support within M8, losing to rival Christian parties, and – most importantly – facing the biggest administrative crisis in the history of the party (and they’re in denial about it). The pro-Roukoz protests happened way too early after his retirement, and that means that the former commander of the maghaweer might be onto something which would pose a threat to Bassil’s already weak fan base. Even the rumors – saying that Roukoz might be appointed as Lebanon’s ambassador in France – hint at a potential Roukoz-Bassil political clash. And the best way for Aoun – and the FPM – to avoid that clash would be by separating both men by thousands of Kilometers until Gebran Bassil gains a bit more ground within the FPM. So to sum things up, M14 didn’t just humiliate the FPM. By refusing to keep Roukoz in the army and in the shadows of Lebanese politics, they gave the FPM the ingredients necessary to start a succession war.

Changing the discourse

Another interesting thing about the transfer of power within the FPM is the change of discourse. For years, the Aounists have talked in a secular and “anti-corruption” way. Now they no longer focus a lot on the corruption talk and instead take a more sectarian approach. Deep down, it’s a natural transition: They can’t really blame the parties in power for the corruption with the same intensity – especially since they have been in power more than any party for the past 7 years and that the new FPM president wasn’t even elected and isn’t exactly what you call a role-model for an anti-corruption discourse (M14 keep accusing him of corrupt measures during his time in government) – so they had to take the sectarian way (“Christian rights”) in order to counter the rising threats from the LF, the Kataeb and from the more popular underdogs within or even allied with the FPM. The shift, that slowly started around 2013 (remember the Orthodox gathering electoral law?) became the cornerstone of the FPM’s new political strategy. In the end, the fastest way to win the heart of your sect (and party) back is by boosting your supporters’ ego and telling them you’re here for them (and their rights). The whole “reforming the system and rooting out corruption from within” doesn’t work so much anymore, especially with the recent waves of anti-government protests.

Bring the government down (or not)

Anyway, enough of FPM politics for today. Time to focus on the recent dynamics of Lebanon’s cabinet crisis. The Lebanese cabinet is made up of most of Lebanon’s parties, and hence sums up the awkwardness of Lebanese politics:

(1) The FPM clearly isn’t planning on ending the boycott on the government that refuses to comply to their demands and that threw Roukoz outside.

(2) Marwan Hamade of the PSP and the FM’s highest ranking minister (interior, Machnouk) in the government threaten to bring the government down after criticizing and accusing M8 of obstructing the cabinet’s work.

Then, (3) Hezbollah, via Nasrallah, tells the FM that they’re too cool to care about the Mustaqbal maneuvers, and defends the premier while also sending the following message to M14: “if you want to leave, leave“(♫♫♫)

Then, (4) Jumblatt, fearing on his kingmaker role that he might lose in case the government falls (Michel Sleiman is no longer in power which – if the cabinet resigns – leaves him all by himself in the so-called “Lebanese center”) sends Abou Faour on the offensive to undermine Hamadeh’s stance.

Then, (5) THE KATAEB CRITICIZE THE PREMIER. I would like to note here that the Kataeb’s share in the cabinet is the one of the biggest (if not the biggest) share they have ever had in a government – especially for a 5 MPs party – so throwing it all on the prime minister can be compared to digging your own grave. Oh, and they also undermined the FM by hinting that Mustaqbal adopted their “M14-ish” line of thought, and not the other way around. In a parallel universe, that was the Kataeb’s way of saying to the Christian electorate that they care about their feelings too and that they – unlike Aoun – are ready to piss off the Muslim boss (in the name of “Christian rights”?). Beat that, FPM!

(Meanwhile, the Lebanese Forces have decided to leave politics and focus on drug awareness campaigns, because Lebanese Forces).

Finally, (6) the premier, who probably knows – like everyone else – that no one is ready to bring down a government in which they thrive on the status-quo, took it upon himself to end this “my dad is stronger than yours which is why I will bring the government down” discourse and indirectly told everyone that (his dad is Saeb Salim Salam which makes him stronger than everyone) if they won’t calm down and try (or at least pretend) to figure out how to solve the trash crisis, he will be the one who will bring down the government. That wasn’t the first or even second time he made such a resignation threat. Maybe third time’s the charm?

Welcome to Lebanon’s rejuvenated politics: As the FM and Hezbollah start another round of political clashes, Jumblatt and Berri are trying to keep the cabinet – under pressure from everyone in power and everyone outside power – from collapsing. On the other side of the political spectrum, in the Christian autonomous political kingdom where the sun and moon never meet, things are changing fast: The FPM is the new LF. The LF is the new Kataeb. The Kataeb are the new FPM. And most importantly, the FPM lost their war and now plan on moving on with two heads and a different discourse.

Time will tell if their strategy will work. But for now, enjoy the deadlock (and the big dumpster the world calls Lebanon).

520 days since the 25th of May. 355 days since the 5th of November.

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To Fall or not to Fall: What’s Next for Salam’s Cabinet?

I was in doubt whether to put a picture of Gebran Bassil and Salam together or a vintage image of Saeb Salam during the 1958 revolution, but you  just can't say no to Angelina Jolie. Image source: AP

I was in doubt whether to put a picture of Gebran Bassil and Tammam Salam together or a vintage image of Saeb Salam during the 1958 revolution, but you just can’t say no to Angelina Jolie. Image source: AP

This is the 13th post in a series of monthly posts covering the presidential elections. This post is about the month of July 2015.

For the past two months, things have been very rough in Lebanese politics. Aoun and Geagea signed a declaration of intent, a mini-feud erupted between two Future movement ministers, a new era started in the Kataeb, and the FPM launched a full-blown maneuver in the cabinet in order to secure the appointment of Shamel Roukoz as commander of the army. All of this was also accompanied by a prison scandal and a garbage crisis. Can Lebanon get even more creative?

But this week’s rumor beats all the other political events of this month (Aoun’s interview in which he said he would vote for Frangieh, Jumblatt’s statements, and FPM rallies): In the dark alleys of the Lebanese republic, they say that Lebanon’s Prime Minister Tammam Salam is threatening to resign this week.

No President + No Cabinet = No Parliament

According to article 75 of the constitution, The Chamber meeting to elect the President of the Republic shall be considered an electoral body and not a legislative assembly. It must proceed immediately, without discussion of any other act, to elect the Head of the State. In other words, the parliament becomes an electoral body when it meets 10 days before the expiration of the president’s term, by virtue of law (yeah, right), in order to elect the president. The founding fathers probably meant that the parliament also loses all its legislative powers once a presidential vacancy happens, but since it’s not clearly written there, the Lebanese parliament meets sometimes during presidential vacancies in order to legislate (the biggest example is when the parliament convened on November 5, 2014 in order to extend its term till 2017 ).

According to another article (article 69), When the Council resigns or is considered resigned, the Chamber of Deputies shall automatically be considered convened in extraordinary session until a new Council has been formed and has gained the Chamber’s confidence. When a cabinet usually resigns, the parliament is also discouraged to legislate because the founding fathers probably meant that the extraordinary session was for the vote of confidence and nothing else. But since it’s also not clearly written there, the Lebanese parliament meets sometimes during cabinet vacancies in order to legislate (the biggest example is when the parliament convened on May 31, 2013 and extended its term for 17 months).

What I mean here by these awfully complicated paragraphs is that Tammam Salam’s threat of resignation is huge: Once he leaves office, the parliament, and due to the two – two is too much – articles of the constitution, would probably be forced (for good this time) not to legislate until a president is elected, and since the two coalitions don’t seem to agree on any candidate right now and the parliament isn’t assuming its electoral responsibilities, that means that the Prime Minister’s resignation would not only stop the executive power from functioning, it would also entirely paralyze the parliament.

(And to make things even more complicated, the parliament needs its legislative power in case it wants to amend the constitution and elect a civil-servant like Kahwaji president.)

The bigger picture…

To be clear here, the parliament barely meets during the regular days, and  meets even less now with the presidential vacancy. Aoun and Geagea had previously agreed that they would not attend any legislative session as long as there is no president in power (although they are arguably the main politicians to blame for the vacancy since they are refusing to agree on anyone else other than themselves). This mini-maneuver that both politicians had agreed on – by freezing the parliament in order to pressure the election of a president – will hence heavily backfire: Not only will they lose their blackmailing power, their stubbornness will also be now responsible for one of the biggest deadlocks Lebanon has ever seen: No parliament, no cabinet, no general elections and no president for a record time (Lebanon broke the 1988 record of presidential vacancy three weeks ago). The only thing that could solve this major deadlock is an agreement on a president, and the March 8 alliance, being the one that is officially denying the quorum (probably since M8 fears a last-minute agreement between M14 and Jumblatt on a candidate such as Henri Helou), will mainly be responsible for the deadlock.

…and the smaller one

One must not forget why Salam wants to resign: The FPM ministers want participate in putting the cabinet’s agenda, something the Sunni PM does on his own. They argue that the Maronite president is constitutionally authorized to introduce, from outside the agenda, any urgent matter to the council of Ministers (article 53), and as the biggest Christian party represented in the cabinet, they should hence be allowed to introduce matters from outside the cabinet’s agenda (in order to propose the appointment of Roukoz as commander of the army). They say the rules should change when there is no president in power: An earlier agreement was previously reached according to which a veto right was given to all the ministers (in normal times it’s the absolute majority of the ministers that takes decisions). When the PM refused to let them introduce matters from outside the agenda, they considered that Salam was stepping on the Christian rights and establishing his own “Daesh dictatorship”. But unlike the former agreement, it is political suicide the FPM are asking from Salam: When the deal was reached in May on giving every minister veto power, the PM was giving up the cabinet‘s authority and giving it to the cabinet. Now the FPM was asking Salam to give up the Sunni Prime Minister‘s authority and give it to a Maronite minister. The FPM has been talking about being denied their “Christian rights”, but for Salam, it’s the “Sunni rights” that are at stake here, as well as his powers as president of the executive power: Unlike the popular myth in Lebanon, most of the president’s authorities were mainly transferred after Taef to the cabinet and not the Prime Minister (for example, the army answers to the cabinet, etc..). The only “real” authority the Prime Minister has is the one figuring in article 64, 6: He shall call the Council of Ministers into session and sets its agenda, and he shall inform the President beforehand of the subjects included on the agenda and of the urgent subjects that will be discussed. Everything else is either shared with the cabinet or the president, double-checked by the parliament or too general to be considered as a true power.

Tammam Saeb Salam

The FPM are asking Tammam Salam to give up his powers in the name of a vacancy they are helping to maintain. But Lebanon tends to forget who Salam’s father was. Here’s a small reminder: Saeb Salam resigned in 1973 because the president, Sleiman Frangieh, refused to dismiss the commander of the army. Do the FPM really think that Salam Jr will give up his powers, appoint their candidate as commander of the army and live happily ever after with them because he fears that the resignation of M8 ministers might bring the cabinet down?

What the FPM are failing to see, year after year, cabinet after cabinet, is that their feud with the different Prime Ministers – Siniora, Hariri, Mikati and Salam – does not only make them look like the protectors of Christian interests: It makes of every Prime Minister a hero among his community and strengthens him. Lebanon forgot how Mikati resigned in 2013 because there was a veto within his cabinet on keeping Rifi in his position. If the 2013 parliamentary elections had happened, Mikati would have probably won in his district.

If Mikati, who was M8’s ally, refused to cross such red lines, why would Salam, who isn’t even a direct ally to M8, and whose father had a history of disagreeing with Lebanese Maronite presidents, concede defeat?

So what happens if Salam resigns?

His cabinet – that already assumes the role of the president – becomes a caretaker one, the parliament loses the remainder of its legislative power and the FPM’s demands in the government become useless (since a caretaker cabinet cannot theoretically meet). The FPM lose their chance of making a scene by throwing Salam outside like they did to Hariri in 2011,  and instead of showing themselves as victims, they become the ones responsible for literally everything: Every institution in Lebanon becomes paralyzed because of the M8 boycott of the presidential elections, and the only one who would still keep a bit of influence is Tammam Salam as president of the caretaker cabinet. Also if no solution is reached by September, the commander of the army will probably see his term extended (= bye-bye Shamel Roukoz as LAF commander), since a caretaker cabinet doesn’t officially have enough authority to discuss such an important post, especially that the country would become highly unstable once we cease to have a functioning government alongside a paralyzed parliament and a non-existent president.

If he resigns, Tammam Salam will make everyone else lose everything: The cabinet and the parliament. All the tough responsibilities (The refugee crisis and the garbage crisis to name a few) will now be in the parliament’s hands that will also be forced to elect a president before seeking to vote on any law or cabinet. Salam, on the other hand, has nothing to lose: His cabinet would become a caretaker one anyway the first minute a president is elected.

429 days since the 25th of May. 265 days since the 5th of November.

Christian Rights and Political Maneuvers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

99%

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

We agree with Kataeb on 99 pct of matters

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

99% = Pissing off the FPM?

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

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

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

According to Aoun,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile in Arsal, terrorists were fighting over cherries.

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

Tammam Salam’s Options

Tammam Salam (AP/Hassan Ammar)

(Image Credits: AP/Hassan Ammar)

Let’s rewind six months. Tammam Salam was supposed to quickly form a government, end the electoral law dispute via a proposed consensual law from the cabinet and finally supervise the elections. But then came the parliament’s mandate extension. Then came Al-Qussair and the subsequent Lebanese dilemma. Then came Al-Ghouta and the subsequent Lebanese dilemma. Then came the probable American strike and the subsequent Lebanese dilemma. And with them came the refugees, and the subsequent Lebanese dilemma.  But now that Lebanese politics are making a slow comeback to Lebanon, the lack of solutions to the current deadlock leaves the Prime Minister Designate with several options to end the crisis.

If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them

When Tammam Salam was first designated in April, I made sure to underline how the nomination of Salam by M8 to the premiership was a political maneuver. It was meant to pressure him by making him consensual (while he wasn’t) thus forcing him (more or less) to take their opinion on the governmental formation. It was by far the most  brilliant move by M8 in 2013 that brought us to the current stalemate. If M8 hadn’t nominated him we wouldn’t be standing where we are today and an M14 government would have probably started preparations for the elections.

You Who?

What really makes things hard for the PM-Designate is that the atmosphere of political confusion during the first 9 months of 2013 and the close presidential elections left the coalitions in shatters making it  impossible for him to speak with them as united blocs. After the Orthodox Gathering law almost destroyed the M14 alliance, M8 had serious internal problems in summer. And while Aoun was very recently trying to start talks with M14, Berri was busy adding more confusion to the scene by proposing his initiative to solve the crisis (another boycotted dialogue). The apparent  bipolarisation of Lebanese politics between M8 and M14 is misleading. Salam will have to please a lot more than 2 blocs.

Veto, Veto Everywhere

There is a boring public opinion battle in Lebanon regarding the formation of a new government. Some are attacking Hezbollah and accusing it of obstructing the formation of a new cabinet. Our opponents said that they objected to the participation of Hezbollah in the government. Two weeks ago, they said that they would agree to Hezbollah’s participation, after they had disrupted the country for months. We cannot be blamed for being the ones who are disrupting the country. Our only condition regarding the new government is that it reflects the parliamentary representation of the political parties in Lebanon. The concept of the 8-8-8 government is not realistic. In reality this will be a government formed with ten March 14 ministers, that include PM-designate Tammam Salam, who is a pro-March 14 politician.”

That quote from Nasrallah’s speech (September 23) really says it all. There are vetoes coming from all the sides that named Salam. The first third of M14 wants a neutral government, the second third of M14 doesn’t want Hezbollah participation while the last third wants the 8-8-8 ministers formula. The M8 alliance wants full participation (and thus the blocking third+1, so probably 9, 10 or 11 ministers out of 24) in the government, while Walid Jumblatt – The Kingmaker – doesn’t know what he wants (and probably doesn’t want to know so he can stay in the middle and avoid another 7 May-like incident).

The Blurry Aftermath

What exactly is the Salam government’s function? The presidential elections are in May, meaning that the cabinet – if things go well (don’t get too optimistic) and it gets the confidence vote by November – would last for seven months as a non-caretaker government. So what are the objectives of Salam? Electoral law? Parliamentary elections? Presidential Elections? Postponing them (and that means a constitutional amendment)?  Or just another normal cabinet in times of elections and regional war? The very fact that no one knows what the new government will be for makes things even more complicated for the PM who can’t form a government that he doesn’t know its goals.

The Options

Remember when I told you about Tammam Salam’s options at the beginning? Unless the PM-Designate desires to commit political suicide by going against the M8 will or resigning, he has no options but to wait for a miracle – like these miracles (a, b, c)- to happen. For a newcomer – relatively weak – rising politician to resign after failing to form a consensual cabinet, it is a fatal bullet to his political career. To go against M8 would put him in confrontation with Hezbollah. If the confrontation is solely  political, it would  eliminate him as a consensual PM while featuring him as an intolerable alternative to Hariri, which is in the advantage of the two former prime ministers Hariri (who will look like a moderate M14 member) and Mikati (who will look like the strong neutral candidate). If things get nasty on the ground, that’s even worse for him.

That’s why – after 6 months – we’re still at the beginning, where the type (Independent/Political) of the government must be decided. The number of seats, the portfolio allocations, the name of the ministers, and the ministerial statement are yet to be discussed. And the sad part? These are the steps that actually take 99% of the time.

When a matter that should take six hours takes six months, you start to understand how much Lebanon is a failed state.

How Tammam Salam Became A Consensual Candidate

Tammam SalamTammam Salam (REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir)

Tammam Salam (REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir)

Tammam Salam. That’s the name of the man that will be tasked to form a new government once the consultations end. A consensual Prime Minister it seems.

A small background

Tammam Salam boycotted the elections of 1992 – like most of the Christians at the time – as a refusal of Syrian hegemony. Salam participated in the 1996 elections and won. In the 2000 elections he lost against Rafiq Hariri and in the 2009 elections he won in Saad Hariri’s list. That kind of makes him a centrist person. He also doesn’t speak about Syria and its crisis and doesn’t criticize Hezbollah, at least not like other Future Movement MPs. He has an Islamic influence coming from the Makassed foundation. He’s also from Beirut. The last time a PM was a Beiruti was 13 years ago. His Grandfather was Beirut’s MP in the Ottoman parliament, and was also the head of the Municipality. His father was Prime Minister under Bechara El Khoury, Camille Chamoun, Fouad Chehab, and Sleiman Frangieh. That’s four of the five Pre-war presidents of Lebanon. The Lebanese flag was also drawn in his father’s house. That last thing probably doesn’t matter, but you can see what I mean.

Tamam Salam is in the middle. Between Christians and Muslims, between Shias and Sunnis. And he’s strong within the Sunni community (A thing Mikati suffered with at the beginning). He is also a Beiruti, and not any Beiruti. He is the son of Saeb Bey Salam, and the grandson of Salim Ali (Abu Ali) Salam.

How it all started

Tammam Salam was nominated as M14’s candidate, and Jumblatt endorsed him, after refusing Rifi. Tammam Salam won’t participate in the elections if he’s nominated, which means that his success (If he succeeds) won’t be a direct threat to Mikati and Hariri. Tammam Salam visited Saudi Arabia  whose ambassador in Lebanon ironically said in the same day that the Saudis  do not interfere in Lebanese Politics – where he got the blessing he needed. Also, after the Saudi ambassador – who ironically said that the Saudis do not interfere in Lebanese Politics – visited Mikati, Mikati said he doesn’t want to be Lebanon’s next Prime Minister. Then, after leaving Saudi Arabia – whose ambassador in Lebanon ironically said that the Saudis  do not interfere in Lebanese Politics – one day before he gets nominated, Tammam Salam came back to Lebanon. Here you go, Saudi Arabia’s support.

And then?

Now’s here’s the tricky part. Hezbollah lost Mikati. Hezbollah also lost Jumblatt. And Hezbollah is losing Syria. Hezbollah can’t also repeat what he did in 2011. The elections are way too close. He made that mistake on the 7th of May 2008 and lost the 2009 elections because of it. So what will Hezbollah do? He plays it smart. M8 can endorse Karami, Tabbara, Abdul Rahim Mrad, or anyone else, but the M8 coalition will probably lose because Jumblatt won’t give his support. Instead of fighting a lost battle, they take M14’s achievement, make Jumblatt’s swing votes look useless – while they’re not at all – and push with Tammam Salam making him a consensual candidate. That’s how M14 don’t exactly look like winners, and Saudi Arabia’s increasing influence (while Syria is on fire) doesn’t look that important because Salam is suddenly everyone’s candidate. And he can be everyone’s candidate. Check the background part again.

It’s only the beginning

It’s a huge responsibility for Tammam Salam. He will have to form a unity cabinet (Because Jumblatt wants a unity government), make sure we have a new electoral law (now that the Christian parties will boycott any elections under the 1960 law) and organize elections. He’s also short on time because the parliament’s expiry date is soon unless it extends its term. Forming a government, agreeing on an electoral law and organizing elections all in 3 months is a mission impossible. Only to form a government, it took Hariri five months and Mikati  seven . And that’s another dilemma for Tammam Salam. Will he agree on the parliament’s term extension? What will his stance be on the STL, the issue that brought Hariri’s government down? What will his stance be  on the name of the ISF commander, the issue that brought Mikati’s government down? It’s going to be a tough road for Salam. It’s going to be even more difficult when different parties will start asking their share of the cake, and we might have a new interesting slice of the pie this time: The ministry of Petroleum.

 The real winners? Prime Minister Tammam Salam, Kingmaker Walid Jumblatt, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Jumblatt is already enjoying his success: Naming the PM, choosing the type of the government, and even Vetoing.