Lebanon evidently just can’t stand peace and quiet, certainly not in political circles. On Monday a bombshell, as the Arab media tends to describe unexpected, jarring developments, blew up in the Lebanese political sphere, and the shrapnel is still ricocheting.
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This time the party responsible for the “detonation” was Samir Geagea, leader of the Christian Lebanese Forces party, by publicly endorsing his rival, the former general Michel Aoun, for the presidency of the nation.
To grasp the magnitude of the shock, imagine that right-winger Naftali Bennett would endorse left-winger Zahava Galon for Israel’s premiership.
With that move, Geagea shook up Lebanon’s paralyzed political scene by replacing his loyalty to Saad al-Hariri, head of the anti-Syrian al-Mustaqbal movement with an alliance with the enemy camp headed by Hezbollah, which wants Aoun for president.
One possible upshot of this dramatic change is that the process of appointing a president for Lebanon, which has had none for over a year and a half, will get delayed again. Another possibility is that the next Lebanese president will be a staunch ally of Hezbollah, which would benefit Iran. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, would suffer another defeat.
The last legal Lebanese president, Michel Suleiman, ended his term in May 2014. It is true that the country soldiers on and functions – if that’s the way to describe what it’s doing – with an acting president.
Actually, there’s nothing much new in the “permanent temporary” status of government in Lebanon. The country hasn’t had an approved national budget for 11 years. The government relies on a “extraordinary budget” that gets approved again and again. The Lebanese parliament devoted 34 sessions to the topic of appointing a president and could not reach a decision in any of them. The various movements held back their representatives from most of the meetings precisely to prevent the presence of the required majority.
The Lebanese president isn’t a mere symbolic figure. He is the one who imposes the task of building a cabinet on the prime minister. He can propose bills, participate in cabinet meetings – and nominate ministers.
That last point is key to the battle raging right now. Under the constitution, it takes a two-thirds majority of the ministers to make cardinal decisions, such as approving a budget, changing the election law or declaring war. Hence the vast importance of each minister’s political affiliation, and of staying loyal to the person who appointed him when the coalition was being built. A minister belonging to the “president’s quota” can make or break any legislative proposal made by a minister from another bloc.
The Taif agreement, which ended the civil war in Lebanon after 15 years in 1989, rules that no religious sect shall have a political majority. Under those circumstances, the political system has to build coalitions, or blocs, in which Muslims and Christians are partners. This is not mere religious or sectorial politics: In a system like that, personal relationships between leaders play a central role, just as loyalties to other countries – such as Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia – can bear tremendous influence.
About two months ago, an opportunity seemed to have arisen to unravel the political knot. Saad al-Hariri (son of Rafik al-Hariri, the prime minister murdered by the Syrian intelligence in 2005), apparently backed by Hezbollah, nominated Suleiman Frangieh for the presidency.
That was some surprise, given that Frangieh is a personal friend of Bashar al-Assad, further to the true friendship between his grandfather, Suleiman Frangieh, who was president of Lebanon from 1970 to 1976, and Hafez al-Assad, father of Bashar.
Hariri, who keenly objects to the Syrian and Iranian influence in Lebanon, thought that Frangieh could be acceptable to all, especially since they had apparently agreed that Frangieh would then nominate Hariri for the premiership. Then the elections law could be changed.
Even Saudi Arabia, Hariri’s main supporter, agreed to the idea. Riyadh would have gained influence over the government in Beirut, but mainly, it would oust Aoun, who is Hezbollah’ political ally.
But Hariri’s proposal infuriated Geagea, whose rift with the Frangieh family goes back to the civil war. Geagea’s forces had been responsible for murdering Tony Frangieh, Suleiman’s father, in 1978, and even though Geagea himself did not participate in the murder the wound never healed. Geagea strenuously objected to Frangieh’s appointment, and as a result he abandoned his old ally going back years, Hariri, and moved his support to Aoun.
Both Frangieh and Aoun are Christians who support Syria’s presence in Lebanon. Therefore, if not for the bad blood, Geagea shouldn’t have distinguished between them. His choice, Geagea explained, was based on Aoun being merely a “political partner” of Hezbollah, while Frangieh is a “Syrian creation,” and therefore Aoun is the lesser evil.
That explanation bears skepticism. Geagea’s decision is probably driven by his own desire to be president of Lebanon and his surprise that Hariri tapped Frangieh without even consulting him. The result right now is that again, a large Christian coalition has been formed, consisting of Geagea’s party together with the Free Patriotic Movement, the party run by Aoun, who had been a bitter opponent of Syria and even fought against it until leaving for France in 1990.
Hezbollah can be satisfied with the developments. If Aoun is elected president, with Geagea’s support, Hariri would be diminished and with him, the status of Iran’s great enemy, Saudi Arabia. The problem now is that in order to be appointed, Aoun needs the support of two-thirds of the parliament, meaning 86 out of the 128 elected representatives. But there are two powerful rivals alongside Hariri: the Shi’ite parliament speaker Nabih Berri and the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. Neither are crazy about Aoun. From now, the arm-twisting passes onto Saudi Arabia and Iran, before any congrats can be sent to Aoun.