Walid Jumblatt

Presidential ‘Surprises’

Emile Rahme on Al-Manar's Hezbollah TV

Emile Rahme on Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV

The March 8 camp is preparing a series of “surprises” for Wednesday’s parliamentary session to elect a president, reported al-Joumhouria newspaper on Saturday without elaborating.

This does not however include the nomination of Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun, said March 8 sources.

They explained that the camp opted against this option because the lawmaker seeks to be a “consensual presidential candidate among all political powers, while keeping in mind that the March 14 alliance will not vote for him.” […]

The March 8 camp has therefore chosen the possible nomination of MP Emile Rahme instead of Aoun, reported the daily An Nahar Saturday.

(Link)

Surprise.

According to reports all over the internet, the March 8 alliance is thinking of nominating Emile Rahme as their presidential candidate instead of Aoun.

Emile Rahme’s Position

For M14, Emile Rahme is probably the most hated Christian MP. In a way, he’s like Future Movement’s Mohammad Raad, Walid Jumblatt’s Aoun/Geagea, or Hezbollah’s Ashraf Rifi. Emile Rahme is also one of the few MPs that are part of the FPM’s change and reform bloc without being a member of the FPM. Of the 27 men loyal to Aoun in the parliament, he’s one of two or three whose election depends entirely on Hezbollah’s votes. The vast majority of the change and reform bloc MPs (4 for Baabda, 7 for the Metn, 5 for Keserwan, 3 for Jbeil and 3 for Jezzine, a total of 22/27) represent North Mount-Lebanon and Jezzine, where the Christian electorate is at least more than the half in each constituency. 3 extra Marada MPs represent  Zgharta, which is also overwhelmingly Christian (even if the MPs aren’t directly loyal to Aoun but to Frangieh).

The last two MPs are a Druze loyal to Arslan representing Hasbaya, and Emile Rahme. The district Rahme represents is Baalbak-Hermel, Lebanon’s biggest Shia constituency, and happens also to be Hezbollah’s main electoral stronghold (the south is is considered to be more pro-Amal than pro-Hezbollah).

Let’s review Emile Rahme’s pros for a last time. He is Hezbollah’s strongest man in the change of reform bloc and one of the most vocal Christian anti-M14 lawmakers – in the middle between Aoun and Hezbollah – making him a prefect candidate in case M8 wants a rather politically violent candidate in face of Geagea. He’s even from a village that is next to Bcharri, Geagea’s hometown.

But Emile Rahme has an extra feature: He is the only Christian in the change and reform bloc that wasn’t elected by determining Christian votes (Baalbak-Hermel is 65% Shia). In other words, he’s considered to be relatively weak among the Christian electorate. As bad as that might sound, it’s actually something good because this quality is most likely to give him Jumblattist support. Michel Aoun would gain a president from his bloc, Hezbollah would gain a president from a district he electorally controls, Amal would gain a president that used to represent a Shia constituency, and Jumblatt would gain a president that has no popular Christian support. Both centrists and M8 win if Emile Rahme becomes Lebanon’s next president.

The Maneuver

Emile Rahme in Baabda is similar to a declaration of war for M14. Since Jumblatt is going to decide his candidate at the last minute, M14 can’t risk the election of Rahme. The only way to counter this move is by agreeing with M8 on a more moderate candidate. That candidate is no other than Michel Aoun, who didn’t yet officially announce his candidacy and said he won’t do it unless there’s a consensus on him. Emile Rahme’s candidacy (or rumors/reports of his nomination) to the presidency is a message to Future Movement from M8: Strike a consensual deal with Michel Aoun – the lesser of two evils for M14 – or risk the election of Emile Rahme.

Walid Jumblatt Is Still The Kingmaker

If M8 simply wanted to bring a ‘violent’ president from their ranks, they could have opted for Sleiman Frangieh. But the fact that Frangieh is considered to be rather strong especially within the northern Christian electorate wouldn’t make him too popular with Jumblatt. The key for winning here is to make Jumblat side by you in the elections. While M8 were proposing the name of Emile Rahme (Jumblatt might still reject him), M14 sources were speaking of two particular Maronites: Fouad Al-Saad and Henri Helou. These two MPs defected from the Jumblat’s bloc in 2011 when he decided to support Mikati in the parliamentary consultations, putting them at an equal distance between M14 and Walid Jumblatt. The leader of the PSP however ruled out this possibility, and is unlikely to support either of them for the elections – They did leave his bloc after all. The last remaining Maronite from his bloc, Elie Aoun, probably has higher chances than them.

Parliament convenes to elect the president on the 23rd of April.

35 days till the 25th of May.

The War For Centrism

Jumblatt And Hariri

Last week was a week of surprises.  The Daily Star (close to March 14) told us that Jumblatt has sent a Letter to Bashar Al-Assad. Jumblatt denied it violently on Tuesday, and attacked The Daily Star by comparing it to Al-Akhbar (close to March 8). Al-Akhbar struck back at Jumblatt by confirming the Daily Star story and indirectly siding with the other newspaper. Regardless if Jumblatt sent a letter to Al-Assad  (asking him to re-enroll two Druze defected officers in the Syrian Army) or not, Jumblatt’s reaction to the news carries several messages. Jumblatt was criticized by newspapers close to the two coalitions and chose not to stay silent.

1-The Action

As I have noted earlier in summer, the FPM and the FM are getting closer and closer. Ahead of the May 2014 elections, Michel Aoun had started since June a (very) slow but steady change in his stances.  New rivalries, such as the one with Sleiman Frangieh are seeing light. His weekly criticisms of the Future Movement, Fouad Siniora and Saad Hariri are now exceptions. Instead, his new targets seem to be Berri, Jumblatt, and to some extent Hezbollah.

Hezbollah?!?!

Yes. Hezbollah. A couple of months ago, the FPM criticized Hezbollah for setting up/repairing a telecom network near the city of Zahle. In 2006, when Basmet Watan impersonated Nasrallah in the satirical show, Charbel Khalil, the director of the show – known for his close ties with the Free Patriotic Movement – apologized for his sketch. Last week, Charbel Khalil impersonated Hassan Nasrallah for the first time since 2006. While the timing of the criticism is to be noted, the most important thing about the sketch is that Charbel Khalil will not apologize this time.

FM And FPM

Last week, while everyone was talking about Jumblatt’s letter, something very important went unnoticed: The FPM and the FM were having their first meeting since 2005. That’s not even a major progress. That’s a huge one.  And why is it huge? Because apparently the Saudis are pressuring the M14 parties to halt their negotiations with M8 parties in the light of better American-Iranian relations. So for the Aounists and Harirists to meet in such a hostile context is a strong indicator that perhaps after all, there can be an agreement between the two political foes.

2-The Reaction

Any agreement between Future Movement and the Free Patriotic Movement is bad for all the other parties. Nabih Berri might never become speaker again. The Lebanese Forces and the Phalanges would be even more marginalized in the M14 coalition. Mikati would lose it all. M14 would control the majority of the MPs, leaving M8 with less than 30% of the seats in the parliament. M8 wouldn’t be able to constitutionally block the presidential elections by lack of quorum, while the major Christians parties, united under the banner of March 14, would choose their president without questions of his legitimacy. After all, he has the backing of practically all the Christians and half of the Muslims. Hariri might become Prime Minister again – and who knows, under the presidency of a Aounist president?

An FPM-FM alliance is probably the most logical alliance one can think of in Lebanon. Together, they hold the absolute majority in the parliament. They both started as secular parties, they both have a certain sectarian identity, and they are the parties that least participated in the 1975-90 civil war. Also, they do not have the same electoral clientele, with the FM gathering its strength in the main three cities and the rural Sunni regions, and Aoun mainly controlling the seats of Northern Mount-Lebanon, which means that they will not compete with each other and there will be no rivalry: Aoun is appealing to the Christian electorate and Hariri to the Muslim one.  Aoun can use the extra Sunni votes in Batroun, Beirut, Koura and Zgharta and Zahle to tip the balance in his favor, while Hariri can use the FPM power in several regions especially southern Mount-Lebanon to hold the precious 8 seats of the Chouf. Electorally speaking, if both enter an alliance, they will probably control all the districts except Bcharri, Baalbak-Hermel, Hasbaya-Marjeyoun, Nabatieh, Zahrani, Aley, Bint Jbeil, and Tyre. That’s roughly 90 Members of the parliament under FPM/FM control. 70% of the Parliament. No LF, no PSP, no Kataeb, no Amal, no Hezbollah needed. 70% via the votes of the FPM and the FM, only.

Now back to reality. 

As stated above, the FPM and the FM are together invincible. Maybe after a decade of rivalry, the FPM and the FM are starting to understand that the two parties were meant to rule together. But the scenario above is highly unlikely today and in the near future. Hezbollah, Nabih Berri and the Lebanese Forces would be panicking if they would even feel that such an alliance is even in its embryo form.

We do not see panic. Instead we see a bit of denial from Walid Jumblatt who is strengthening his ties with M8 by supporting the 9-9-6 governmental formation, attacking one of M14’s newspapers (after being its traget), and sending a letter to Bashar Al-Assad (?). Let’s face it, if The Daily Star is criticizing him (regardless if the letter is a rumor or not), things are not well between the FM and the PSP.

The truth is, Walid Jumblatt is a minor political player. He has a relatively small bloc. His glory resides in the fact that he’s in the middle while M8 and M14 have roughly equal parliamentary sizes (no one can seize power alone). If any of the above conditions change, Jumblatt has to adapt  so he can still be kingmaker.

While there is still hostility between the FPM and the FM – Abdel Mounem Youssef and Nicolas Sehnaoui attacked each other in the same week the meeting happened – things are very (again, very) slowly starting to change. Jumblatt is sending a clear message to Hariri: He is willing to sacrifice his position in the middle in favor of M8 if he will one day be abandoned by a FPM/FM memorandum of understanding destroying what’s left of his influence.

The closer the FPM and FM ties will be, the more Jumblatt will have to ally himself to the other M8 parties, so that he can still be – to some extent – the man controlling everything in the middle. With Aoun in the middle (to maximize his chances for the presidential elections), the Jumblatist centrist influence will be useless and Jumblatt can only try to counter this Aounist maneuver by nullifying Aoun’s new role and siding with one of the two blocs. When Aoun will side with M8, expect Jumblatt to support M14. When the FPM will start negotiations with the FM , expect Jumblatt to side with M8 (What happened last week). You might not notice it, but there’s a struggle from Jumblatt to keep the status quo. He is fighting some kind of political war so he can stay the only one in the middle and keep the size of both sides intact at the same time.

Jumblatt only remains Kingmaker by making sure that there is at no time a decisive majority in the parliament without his 7 votes. If he feels there’s a bloc (M8 or M14) getting bigger because someone from the other side is “defecting”, he’ll quickly create another majority by joining one of the two blocs before the party from the other side finishes the “defection”. The coalition will thus be in no need of the other party now that Jumblatt is on its side and the parliamentary majority is secured. After successfully aborting the political migration of a party to the other coalition, Jumblatt slowly distances himself from the new majority making it weaker and highly depending on him. That’s how he makes sure that his role of kingmaker is still intact and he is as powerful as the largest bloc in the parliament. Variants of this scenario happened in 2009 when Jumblatt became a centrist, in 2011 when he picked a side, in 2013 when he picked the other side, and in a less apparent way, last week. And the Jumblattist strategy is actually working: If I’m not mistaken, the PSP is the only party that participated (without resigning) in all the governments, with the same share, since 2005.

So What Really Happened?

Aoun decides to distance himself a bit from M8 and strengthen his ties with the FM so he can maximize his chances for the presidential elections in May. The FM falls into the trap (Perhaps Aoun didn’t do it on purpose, but it worked): Jumblatt has no choice but to side with M8 so that he can counter anything that might happen. But theoretically Aoun is still with M8 (the transition is slow). M8 hence gets Jumblatt’s support (and the definite support for the 9-9-6 governmental formula?).

M8 wins the round (unintentionally). For now.

Reminder: We still don’t have a government.

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.

Why Wouldn’t Jumblatt Leave The Coalition?

Saad Hariri on Walid Jumblatt- Twitter

After the Ashrafieh explosion, one of the loudest accusations to the Syrian Regime came from Walid Jumblatt. Everyone expected the Jumblatti ministers to resign from the government , but until this very moment, the PSP didn’t leave the governmental coalition yet, and Hariri made an issue out of it on twitter. The moment Jumblatt leaves, Mikati will have to resign. The seven PSP MPs are enough to make a no-confidence vote successful. Walid Jumblatt is afraid of two things: a governmental vacuum, or an alternate efficient government. (more…)