by Aurélie Daher
At last! The Lebanese parties finally decided on October 31 to give the country a new president, after the position had been vacant since the last president, Michel Sleiman, left office in May 2014. The country thus had remained headless for no less than 29 months — to the point where some started to wonder whether the job itself had any significance or use.
Michel Aoun, the successful candidate, had probably suffered through a few panic attacks during the voting session. Everything was supposed to go smoothly: the parties that supported his candidacy included a sufficient number of MPs to secure the vote. While checking the quorum, however, some smart aleck in the Chamber chose to play with Aoun’s nerves by casting a ballot for… “Zorba the Greek,” forcing Nabih Berry, the speaker of the Parliament, to move to a second round. At the end of the second round, the attendees counted more ballots than there were MPs. But, halleluja, the third try came through, and the soon-to-be president got the job with 83 out of 127 votes cast. The newly elected president gave his first speech as head of state by talking about himself, in the third person no less.
Why, for the last two-and-a-half years, was it so difficult to agree on and then elect a single candidate? Some incorrectly blamed a sectarian divide among Sunnis, Shia, and Christians and/or the intense competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia (each in support of a different candidate). Others pointed to the war in neighboring Syria, assuming that a victory by Bashar al-Assad would permit the pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian March 8 Alliance, led by Hezbollah, to impose its candidate. Conversely, a rebel victory would permit the pro-Saudi, pro-U.S. March 14 Coalition, led by Saad Hariri, to prevail in Beirut.
Facts, as well as a number of rules governing Lebanese politics and required under the constitution, contradict both explanations. The problem is political, not confessional, and far more intra-Lebanese than many may think.
Under the Lebanese constitution, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the head of Parliament a Shiite Muslim. After Sleiman’s term expired in May 2014, the heads of the two main Christian parties—Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces, the most important Christian party in March 14, and Michel Aoun, leader of the main Chistian group in March 8—were once again at daggers drawn. Again, under the constitution, the parliament rather than popular vote elects the president. That means that a successful candidate needs to gain the support of the main Muslim parties of the country, starting with those within their coalition. Geagea thus had to be supported by the Sunni faction of Saad Hariri, while Michel Aoun needed Shiite Hezbollah’s backing to prevail.
To virtually everyone’s surprise last December, however, Hariri effectively turned his back on Geagea when he indicated a preference for Suleiman Frangieh, the leader of a pro-Syrian Christian party aligned with the March 8 coalition. In reply, Samir Geagea, after refusing for more than a decade to see his rival Michel Aoun get to the presidency, solemnly announced that he was now backing this erstwhile foe as his official candidate. It finally looked like the stalemate would end quickly. Between the votes of the March 8 and the Christian March 14 lawmakers, as well as those of the Druze Walid Jumblatt, Aoun’s election was supposed to be a foregone conclusion. It would bring at the same time a welcome end to several decades of serious hatred between the two great branches of Lebanese Maronitism. Hariri apparently calculated that, by supporting Frangieh, he could strike a deal with Hezbollah. By giving Hezbollah a March 8 president, he hoped to get Hezbollah to support his own candidacy for prime minister.
But Hezbollah was too clever not to raise the stakes or the price of its backing. Indeed, in either case, getting a March 8 president at the price of a March 14 prime minister was not an acceptable option for Hezbollah. In Lebanon, the presidency is more symbolic than effective; real executive power lies in the premiership. In other words, Hezbollah wasn’t going to permit a presidential election to go forward before it was assured of getting a “suitable” prime minister in return.
And if it was to be Saad Hariri himself, that meant that Rafic Hariri’s son would have to commit not to challenge Hezbollah on either internal politics (such as demanding that it disarm, or accusing it of being a mere Iranian appendage in Lebanon’s political game) or, more importantly, its intervention in Syria.
While serving as prime minister from 2009-2011, Saad Hariri followed a strict anti-Hezbollah policy. For instance, he refused in January 11 to declare null and void an eventual indictment by the International Tribunal of Hezbollah for the 2005 assassination of Saad’s father. That refusal cost him his premiership. Then in 2014-2016, during Tammam Salam’s tenure as prime minister, Hariri led a tenacious pro-Saudi and anti-Iranian policy, which further alienated and antagonized Hezbollah. On October 20, however, Hariri took a step back from supporting Frangieh and officially announced his support for Aoun’s candidacy—three days before a conciliatory Saudi emissary and senior envoy from the Foreign Affairs Department, Samer el-Sabhan visited Beirut, presumably to confirm a Saudi approval and enhance the chances of the kingdom’s protege becoming the next prime minister
But Hezbollah did not promise anything yet. In a game of good cop, bad cop with Amal, the other main Shiite party, Hezbollah’s leadership announced that accepting Hariri as PM would be “a grand sacrifice” while Amal chose to oppose it.
Two things remain sure—or almost. Michel Aoun is now 81 years old, and his presidential mandate is for six years. Over the weekend that preceded the election, a photo of a wheelchair and a hospital bed with the caption, “The Baabda presidential palace is getting ready to welcome the new president,” spread quickly on Facebook and other social media. It was a picture that no doubt crossed Hariri’s mind as he tried to console Frangieh with these words: “Suleiman Bey is a friend, and we shall always be on his side. The future is waiting for us, and we still are young.” Don’t say that you weren’t warned.
Hariri, meanwhile, was regarded as a radical anti-Hezbollah leader until just a few days ago. But to get Hezbollah’s support for his nomination as prime minister, he’ll have to make a serious commitment not to challenge Hezbollah anymore, at least in practice. Hezbollah will never give him the green light he needs to govern unless he commits not to go against Hezbollah’s national and regional options. This will be a Saad Hariri as you have never seen him before. “March 14 is dead,” some say in Lebanon. Indeed.
Photo: Michel Aoun