Walid Jumblatt

The Month that Doesn’t Count

Lebanon municipal elections 2016

A Lebanese woman walks past posters of candidates for the upcoming Beirut municipal elections on a shop window in the Lebanese capital’s Christian dominated neighbourhood of Ashrafiyeh on May 4, 2016. Municipal elections in Lebanon take place every six years, with political parties often forming joint candidate lists. The vote on May 8, 2016, is the first of any kind in Lebanon since the last municipal elections in 2010. Image source: Patrick Baz – Getty images

This is the 20th post in a series of monthly posts covering the presidential elections. This post is about the month of April (and the first few days of May) 2016.

In Lebanese politics, there are months that “count”, and months that “don’t count” when it comes to political maneuvering. There’s a pattern when it comes to policy making: short periods of “active” deadlocks – full of efficient political maneuvering that eventually give you results – are often followed by even shorter periods of political stability. After the shorter periods comes a longvery long period – of deadlock that is extremely similar to what they call in football a “dead rubber match” (a match that has no effect on the winner and loser of the series, other than the number of matches won and lost). The dead rubber period can be full of maneuvers, or it can simply have no political developments at all. It all depends on the laziness of Lebanese politicians.

This month – just like the ones before – was mostly a dead rubber period, but not because Lebanese politicians were lazy. In fact, they were even more focused than before, concentrating all their efforts on the municipal elections. Municipal elections in Lebanon are an extremely complicated process known to bring rivals together (the example of Beirut) but also create tensions between allies (the example of Zahle), so the whole maneuvering mechanism becomes useless and old-fashioned. People are no longer influenced by a politician’s national speech, and start instead thinking about more than 10000 local seats to fill in municipal councils. On the bright side, that means that this post will be a lot shorter than the previous monthly posts, since there were very few politicians who cared to maneuver on a nation-wide scale.

Except Jumblatt. Jumblatt was hyperactive.

The bey of Mukhtara was extremely hyperactive this month: He politically clashed with Abdelmenhem Youssef, a ministry of telecommunications official close to the FM – theoretically an ally – accusing him of corruption, then politically clashed with the mayor of Beirut – theoretically an ally, before finally politically clashing  with the minister of interior – also theoretically an ally. And finally, after accusing all of those FM loyalists with corruption, he eventually allied himself with the FM in Beirut municipal elections. You know, because Walid Jumblatt.

But the most important event of the month was Jumblatt’s decision to resign from parliament – after extending his term twice, because again, Walid Jumblatt. The PSP leader’s maneuver is brilliant: He promised to resign only when the parliament meets in a legislative session. If there’s something Lebanon’s Christian parties agree on, it’s the fact that legislating in the middle of a presidential vacancy is unconstitutional. It made them unite in November, and only two of the three major parties eventually attended the last legislative session, after making an issue out of it and getting something in return. There has been a lot of talk of a legislative session happening soon, and as Berri was trying to push his agenda of convening the parliament to legislate, Jumblatt’s move – in a way – was meant to put pressure on the other parties to make the legislative session possible: No one likes Jumblatt in parliament, and although his presence inside or outside parliament would be the same, it would nevertheless be nice for the Christian parties to imagine themselves electing a president in a Walid-Jumblat-less parliament. Christian parties aren’t exactly fans of Berri, especially since the speaker endorsed Frangieh in March, and have since then tried to thwart all of his moves. But Jumblatt wasn’t only trying to  tempt the Christian parties into participating in legislative sessions: By resigning (he eventually probably won’t), he creates a vacancy for his son Taymour to get elected unopposed (who is going to run against the heir of Mukhtara in by-elections one year before elections?) which means that Taymour would gain more power and experience a year before the decisive general elections in 2017, with Abu Taymour acting as his mentor and the godfather of the party. That was already Walid Jumblatt’s plan since last year (here’s a nice post about that, in case you forgot), when he told us all he was going to resign, then eventually did not – again, because Walid Jumblatt.

And Gemayel. Gemayel was hyperactive too.

As Aoun and Geagea were using their new alliance to blame the Muslim ally of their new Christian ally for not supporting their new Christian candidate (sorry for that complicated sentence), Sami Gemayel was micro-maneuvering in the last ten days in April by finally naming five presidential candidates – The Kataeb have long been crticized for standing in the way of all of the mainstream candidacies without providing an alternative. Curiously, and among the five candidates, you’ll find the name of Michel Aoun’s son-in-law. Yeah, not Gebran Bassil, the son-in-law currently in charge of the FPM, but the other one, Chamel Roukoz, whose popularity is a big threat on the FPM’s new number 1. By embracing the candidacy of the son-in-law of one of the two most popular candidates, that happens not to be the son-in-law leading the party, and also happens to be the son-in-law who is a retired general – apparently 18 years of generals in Baabda aren’t enough, the Kataeb are trying to turn the Aounists on one another.

Nice maneuver, but it’s a bit cliché: The FM tried something similar in July and August, and it wasn’t too effective.

The experience of Sleiman Frangieh

Meanwhile, while all the other Christian parties were spending all their efforts on discussing rumors of tawteen, Frangieh, who is by now supported by almost every mainstream Muslim party in the republic, ignored the maneuvering of the LF, the Kataeb, and the FPM, did not fall into the trap – like a boss – of even mentioning the subject, and from Tripoli, “rejected attempts to eliminate Lebanon’s Arab identity”. Those of you who read the blog probably already know by now that changing the subject is the most efficient way of ending a political maneuver – no matter how professional that maneuver is. It’s in times like these that you realize Frangieh has 15 extra years of experience in the domain than the other three of the Maronite four.

Oh, and in case you wondered, the parliament becomes even more unconstitutional this Monday.

Happy voting this May. Choose change.

713 days since the 25th of May (presidential elections). 549 days since the 5th of November (second parliamentary extension) .

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Eleven Months of Vacuum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gebran Bassil

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

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

Walid Jumblatt

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

Tammam Salam

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

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

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

Nabih Berri

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

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

The Three Blows

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

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

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

Yemen and the Baabda Declaration

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

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

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

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

Also, 3 days since Salma Hayek came to Lebanon.

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

Ten Months Of Vacuum

Meet the members of The Consultative Gathering

Meet the members of The Consultative Gathering

Yeah. I know. Ten.

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

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

The Two Presidents’ Men

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

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

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

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

The Maronite Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introducing Taymour

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

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

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

Found on a WikiLeaks cable dating from August 2006.

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

So Why Now?

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

1) The Perfect Parliamentary Timing

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

2) The Perfect Governmental Timing

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

3) The Perfect Presidential Timing

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

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

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

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

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

Reminder: We still don’t have a President.

Eight Months Of Vacuum

Wael Abou Faour

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

Abou Faour’s Health Campaign

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

It’s All About Elections 

Two questions come to mind here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Why Abou Faour, And Not Akram Chehayeb?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lebanese Forces – Free Patriotic Movement

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

Connecting The Dots

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

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

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

Is Walid Jumblatt Making A Move?

Walid Jumblatt Drinking Matte

Everyone is lazy in Summer, especially Lebanese politicians. In 2012, they were  too lazy to draft a consensual electoral law. In 2013, they were too lazy to form a government. In 2014, they’re too lazy to elect a president. But Walid Jumblatt is making an exception this month with his numerous statements and the PSP’s new maneuvers in the parliament and the cabinet. Take a look at them, one by one.

July 3

Cabinet members told Education Minister Elias Bou Saab that his agreement with the head of the parliamentary Future bloc, former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, over appointments at the state-run university was not enough and more discussion was required to finalize the issue, sources told The Daily Star.

Ministers allied with MP Walid Jumblatt and the Kataeb Party as well as Tourism Minister Michel Pharaon opposed Bou Saab’s agreement with the March 14 coalition, prompting the Cabinet to postpone debate on the issue to the next session, the sources said.

“The Cabinet discussed the issue of appointing deans at the Lebanese University and employing some members of the teaching board in it. It decided to continue discussing this issue at the next session next Thursday,” Information Minister Ramzi Joreige told reporters after a nearly five-hour session chaired by Prime Minister Tammam Salam at the Grand Serail.

(Link)

[Note: The debate was postponed again during the Thursday session]

July 5

“Speaker Nabih Berri agreed with Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblat that parliamentary elections shouldn’t be staged ahead of the election of a new president.

According to al-Akhbar newspaper published on Saturday, the two officials reject parliamentary elections amid the ongoing situation in the country.

Berri and Jumblat are reportedly preparing the extension of the parliament’s term for two years and a half or even three years.

(Link)

July 15

I don’t mind … withdrawing the nomination of [Democratic Gathering bloc] MP Henry Helou if the others withdraw their candidates to facilitate a settlement that would end the presidential vacuum,” Jumblatt said in remarks published Tuesday.

He urged the various political leaders to put national interests above their own.

“We should seek to fortify the country politically through putting national interests above all else and this translates into speedy concessions by everyone, all the way to the election of a consensus president who can manage the crisis,” Jumblatt told the local daily As-Safir.”

(Link)

I don’t like to speculate, and there’s still nothing (yet) to analyze, but Jumblatt is planning something here (Perhaps giving up the Helou candidacy and the cabinet deadlock in exchange for the extension of the parliament term). As demonstrated by his three stances, he currently holds the keys to the presidential elections, the extension of the parliament term, and the administrative appointments. And he’s going to use these three negotiation cards very carefully in order to take full advantage of his kingmaker position.

Reminder: We still don’t have a president – 52 days since the 25th of May.

Lack Of Quorum, And What It Means

Yep, that's Walid Jumblatt

Yep, that’s Walid Jumblatt

Lebanon had two busy weeks. Actually, not so busy, since the parliament failed to convene twice to elect the next Lebanese president. With approximately 57 MPs from M8, 52 from M14, and 19 centrists, things aren’t looking good so far for the primary Lebanese candidates (the Maronite Four, Geagea, Gemayel, Aoun and Frangieh).

Samir Geagea and Michel  Aoun are still hoping to relocate to the Baabda palace. Samir Geagea’s candidacy is currently being overshadowed by Amine Gemayel, who is trying to champion himself as Lebanon’s next consensual candidate by visiting every politician that has ever lived on Lebanese territory (see here, here, here). As predicted on the blog two months earlier, both Michel Aoun and Amine Gemayel are trying to gather parliamentary support by showing themselves as consensual strong candidates close to all parties.

However, with none of the Maronite Four expected to win the presidential elections, M8’s decision to boycott the session and deny quorum confirms one undeniable fact: Walid Jumblatt isn’t trusted by M8.  In fact, there is no way that any candidate might win the elections without the support of 65 MPs. The regular scenario implies that all rounds – if the status-quo stays the same – would bring in the same results of the first one. In other words, no candidate can secure the required 65 votes unless centrists side with M8 or M14. But since the M8 alliance is boycotting the sessions, the only explanation available is that it doesn’t believe that the Jumblatt bloc is going to vote for Helou in the second round of the elections – But instead for a moderate M14 candidate. M14 and Jumblatt together have more than 65 MPs,  and such a move from Jumblatt would  halt any Aoun-Hariri deal (by electing Hariri’s main candidate). After all, Walid Jumblatt isn’t very predictable, and he hasn’t stopped changing sides for the past ten years. And the very fact that he precisely waited for this week to reiterate his support for the Syrian opposition isn’t encouraging M8 to trust him more. Needless to say that Kamal Jumblatt voted against his ally’s candidate, Elias Sarkis in 1970. That’s why it’s not very wise from M8 to let the elections proceed normally – even if it means getting criticized by Bkirki for denying quorum.

Lebanon elects its president once every 6 years, which means that if by any mistake – such as providing quorum and Jumblatt supporting M14’s candidate – an anti-M8 president reaches power, it would be total chaos for the March 8 alliance. They would have lost a key position, and more importantly their main negotiation card for the next phase would turn to ashes. If you think that it’s only about the president, think again. There’s the prime minister that comes with him, the cabinet that rules till November, the electoral law, the parliamentary elections, and a whole new era after that. That’s why, for most politicians, a temporary vacuum –  while waiting for a huge deal covering the rest of the issues – doesn’t look so bad.

While Michel Sleiman is expected to leave office in two weeks, there are two things to keep in mind: Vacuum in the presidency is more probable than ever, and politicians don’t trust one another – What a precious discovery.

14 days till the 25th of May.