Hezbollah and Lebanon’s Presidential Non-Election

by Aurelie Daher

For two years exactly on May 25 next the presidency of Lebanon has remained vacant. On two previous occasions, the “country of cedars” has already remained without a head of state: for slightly more than a year after Amine Gemayel’s term in office (1982-1988) and then for six months after Emile Lahoud stepped down (1998-2007). But never has the vacancy lasted this long. Nor have the negotiations among the actors involved been quite so difficult or the regional context quite so dangerous.

As mandated by a constitutional amendment approved at the end of the civil war (1975-1990), the Lebanese president must be a Maronite Christian. Any candidacy for the post is negotiated in the first instance by that community’s leading political lights. The interests of other Lebanese come second. Only last December was a name finally put forward: Sleiman Frangieh, the leader of a small Christian party in the March 8 Alliance, a coalition of pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian groups.

The news caused a great stir, since the candidacy grew out of a highly personal agreement Frangieh made with Saad Hariri, the Sunni leader of the March 14 Coalition, an alliance of pro-Western and pro-Saudi parties. According to the deal, Hariri would support Frangieh’s candidacy in return for March 8’s backing for Hariri’s big comeback as prime minister, a post reserved for the Sunni community and that Hariri had been ousted from in January 2011.

In mid-January, however, Samir Geagea, leader of the Maronite faction within March 14, sprang his own surprise. After refusing for more than a decade to see his rival Michel Aoun, the leading March 8 Maronite, ascend to the presidency, Geagea solemnly announced that he was now backing this erstwhile foe as his official candidate. Lebanon’s political scene was enthralled. With Geagea supporting Aoun, it finally looked like the impasse 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 (with Hariri’s followers, the March 14 Sunni deputies, abstaining), Aoun’s election would be a foregone conclusion. At the same time, it would bring an auspicious end to several decades of bitter hatred between the two great branches of Lebanese Maronitism.

But the election’s true arbiter and the country’s leading party, namely Shia-led Hezbollah, proved to be less than enthusiastic. Although its leadership had publicly backed Aoun as its favorite for months, the internal reaction to Geagea’s coup was tepid at best. This poses the pressing question: why does Hezbollah refuse to endorse the happy accord?

Aoun is Hezbollah’s First Choice or…?

In fact, it would be a mistake to lend too much credence to Hezbollah’s ostensible backing of Aoun. True, some newspapers suggested that this support was indeed sincere, based on “gratitude” to the Christian leader for, among other services, his support of Hezbollah during the 2006 war with Israel. If that were really the case, Hezbollah would have supported Aoun’s candidacy before now, notably in the 2007 presidential election. But it did nothing of the kind.

Hezbollah has a long memory, and only relatively recently did Michel Aoun emerge as a champion of the Lebanese anti-Israeli resistance. In fact, in June 1982 Aoun was among those who personally greeted Israeli Defense Minister Gen. Ariel Sharon, architect of the second Israeli invasion of Lebanon, on his arrival in Beirut. And Aoun also backed Bashir Gemayel, leader of the Lebanese Forces, as president in the sham elections under Israel’s effective occupation that followed the invasion a few weeks later. And since the Cedar Revolution in 2005, when Aoun returned to Lebanon from self-exile, his rhetoric was at first extremely hostile toward Hezbollah and even today can still be contemptuous toward the Shiite community as a whole (which helps explain the animosity AMAL, the second main Shiite party of the country, has for the man).

Finally, Aoun tends to exhibit a certain unpredictability in his positions and utterances that in certain respects have proved tricky for Hezbollah to manage, especially Aoun’s penchant for provoking dangerous sectarian tensions, mainly with the Sunnis. It turns out that Hezbollah likes reliable allies with predictable strategies and a commitment to preserving civil peace and stability, particularly now. In other words, Hezbollah has no more reason to support Aoun as president today than it did in 2007.

In reality, Hezbollah would prefer to see Sleiman Frangieh seated in the presidential chair. Like Aoun, Frangieh belongs to a March 8 effectively led by Hezbollah. Moreover, he is a personal friend of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s. And Frangieh is backed by the Sunni March 14, a partner that Hezbollah would have difficulty bypassing in the management of the country’s affairs and which it therefore might find useful to accommodate. Hence, the question: why does Hezbollah, having had Frangieh handed to it by Hariri on a silver platter, not have him elected as the candidate who simultaneously pleases Sunnis and Shiites, a considerable luxury in these times of intra-Muslim hostility?

Hezbollah’s Options

Hezbollah is actually less concerned about who will be chief of state than who will head the next government. The Lebanese constitution gives the president few prerogatives, while the prime minister is the true head of the executive branch. The prime minister, in the end, can make more trouble than the president. As things stand, electing Frangieh according to the Frangieh-Hariri accord is not palatable because he is part of a package: boosting Frangieh to the presidency means making Hariri prime minister—an option that does not appeal in the least to Hezbollah. In the eyes of its leadership, Saad Hariri’s term as head of the executive branch from 2009 to 2011 was anything but encouraging. For Hezbollah, therefore, the Frangieh-Hariri deal looks out of balance: the party would certainly get a president congenial to its interests, but the trade-off would only bolster its adversaries.

In a context of pronounced tensions today between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Hariri’s political family keeps assuring its sincere and active loyalty toward the Kingdom. At Riyadh’s behest, it has on several occasions tried to insert changes that run counter to Hezbollah’s interests in the declarations and decisions of the current Tammam Salam government. Hezbollah is not going to be well-disposed toward a prime minister even more pro-Saudi than the current one.

Certainly, one could believe that Hezbollah has effectively painted itself into a corner, at least rhetorically. Its leadership, long confident that March 14 would never accept Aoun’s candidacy, has tried to prove loyalty to its ally (on the cheap) by proclaiming it loudly in recent months. But all is not lost.

Hezbollah has everything to gain by being patient. A policy of attrition—at all times the party’s preferred strategy—is highly likely to pay off. In fact, with a little luck, Hezbollah may succeed the same way it did in 2007. At that time, its candidate was Michel Sleiman, then the Lebanese Army’s chief of staff. In a reflexive reaction, March 14 declared that it would support “any candidate except Hezbollah’s.” The party then pulled off a master stroke: it began to attack Sleiman. Persuaded that Hezbollah had actually dropped Sleiman, March 14 embraced the general as its candidate. Hezbollah then pretended to admit its “defeat” and “reluctantly” accept March 14’s candidate, Sleiman. In other words, the party got what it wanted, without having to give its adversaries anything in exchange.

By continuing to officially support Aoun, Hezbollah preserves its image as a loyal ally and avoids alienating his popular base, which is far larger than Frangieh’s following in the Maronite community. By all appearances, the goal is to see a battle-weary Aoun drop out of the presidential race and appeal to his backers to rally behind Frangieh. But one thing is certain: no agreement will be possible so long as Hariri continues to insist on being named prime minister. Whatever the ultimate outcome, March 14 will be the party forced to pay the price of electing the head of state. Hezbollah will not give the green light unless and until it is sure of gaining both the presidency of the republic and its preference for head of government.

Photo: Sleiman Frangieh

Aurélie Daher

Aurélie Daher is co-head of the Master’s Program in Peace Studies at Paris-Dauphine University, Paris, France. She held a postdoctoral fellow position at the University of Oxford from 2016-2017 and from 2010-2011, and a postdoctoral research associate position at Princeton University from 2012-2013. Her work focuses on Hezbollah, Shiism, Lebanese and Middle Eastern politics. Her doctoral dissertation was published in French in 2014 (Hezbollah. Mobilisation et pouvoir, PUF editions, Paris) and in English in 2019 (Hezbollah. Mobilisation and Power, Hurst/Oxford University Press, London/New York).