Lebanon has been without an executive head of state since President Michel Suleiman’s mandate ended in May 2014. In the past few months, however, key Lebanese political players have switched partners, undermining the two blocs that have polarised Lebanon’s government for the past decade. In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s Senior Lebanon Analyst Sahar Atrache assesses what the suddenly shifting alliances mean for this country of about four and a half million people, perched perilously close to the Syrian war and now host to more than one million Syrian refugees. By the INTERNATIONAL CRISIS GROUP.
First published by the International Crisis Group.
What happened to raise hopes that Lebanon’s two-year-long impasse over electing a new president may soon be broken?
By Lebanon’s sectarian rules, the president has to be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni and the speaker of parliament a Shiite. Until recently, a highly polarised political class was dithering, unable to agree on a presidential candidate who would reconcile its conflicting interests. It is divided into two broad coalitions, dubbed “March 8”, a Hizbollah-led grouping backed by Iran and the Syrian regime, and “March 14”, an anti-Syria alliance led by the (Sunni) Future Current, which have been engaged in a zero-sum game since the 2005 killing of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, allegedly by the Syrian regime. Both coalitions preferred stalemate to the risk of a new president who would tilt the balance in favour of the opposing camp. In Lebanon, virtually no contender can be considered “neutral”.
Late last year, in an apparent breakthrough, Future Current leader Saad Hariri, son of Rafic, struck a counterintuitive deal with Suleiman Frangieh, a Christian politician and close friend of President Bashar Assad of Syria. This would have made Frangieh president and Hariri, reportedly, prime minister. This gambit was soon countered by another: earlier this year, Samir Geagea, the head of the Christian political party Lebanese Forces, who had been a candidate for the post, endorsed the candidacy of his greatest rival, Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement. In both cases, a prominent “March 14” figure was reaching out to a staunch “March 8” representative, crashing through the ice of Lebanon’s long political freeze.
In a country of almost zero governance, how important is it to have a new president?
Prime Minister Tamam Salam once publicly described the government he heads as “useless”. Partly because of the prolonged vacuum at the top, Lebanon was in the grip of almost total institutional gridlock. Remember last summer’s garbage crisis? The parliament, which unconstitutionally extended its own mandate in May 2013 and November 2014, has been largely dysfunctional. The council of ministers, which in principle should assume the president’s powers in the interim, has been paralysed by internal disagreements.
Regional turmoil has further strained Lebanon’s precarious stability. Saudi-Iranian enmity has exacerbated existing sectarian divisions; the full-fledged military intervention of Hizbollah, the powerful Lebanese Shiite movement, in support of the Syrian regime is deeply divisive; the country has seen the influx of over one million Syrian refugees, which has over-stretched an already strained economy and dilapidated infrastructure. And violence in Syria has dangerously spilled over into Lebanon.
Lebanon’s two main political alliances, “March 8” and “March 14”, have done little to govern the country, but have placed the stress on security. In April 2014, they agreed on a so-called “Security Plan” that has helped contain rising violence. A new president is likely to perpetuate the current policy of crisis management. His election will also pave the way for the formation of a new government and parliamentary elections. This could help restore a degree of normalcy and minimum functioning of state institutions.
Electing a president should help put Lebanon back on an even keel institutionally. But don’t expect dramatic change. In previous years, forming a government required months of negotiations among the various parties. Nor will a new president be able to put an end to the political bickering that has bedevilled governance even at the best of times. Besides, the new president’s identity or political affiliation will have little to no influence over Lebanese parties’ regional stances or Hizbollah’s involvement in Syria.
Samir Geagea’s endorsement of Michel Aoun for president was dubbed an “earthquake” by some Lebanese commentators. Why?
This is an exaggeration. If only we could see such an earthquake, a Lebanese politician, say, who would come up with a brand-new, hopeful, forward-looking vision for the country that could pull it out of deep dysfunction! This is still a battle not for ideas but for positions, based on a shifting balance of power.
Nevertheless, think about it: for a leading politician to agree to cede power to his opponent is a startling step forward in Lebanese politics. Two men, long-time bitter rivals over the right to represent the Christian Maronite community, sitting side by side at a press conference that brought together senior officials from both parties, announcing what amounts to a peace deal between them that sees one withdraw his candidacy and back the other – it’s unprecedented. At the end of the civil war (1975-1990), these sworn enemies had clashed in a bloody fratricidal conflict known as the intra-Christian “cancellation war”. Geagea’s announcement therefore not only marks a major breakthrough in the presidential race, it is a significant, and surprising, evolution in relations between the two Christian leaders and their respective political parties and constituencies.
It’s worth remembering that these two figures took diametrically opposed stands after Syrian troops were forced to withdraw following Rafic Hariri’s assassination (the soldiers had occupied parts of Lebanon since 1976, early on in the civil war). Aoun joined the “March 8” alliance, while Geagea was a founding partner in “March 14”, along with Saad Hariri, who accused Syria of having murdered his father. Geagea came to embody the anti-Syrian hard line within “March 14”.
Geagea’s move is likely to empower a Christian community that has long lamented its eroding political weight in favour of Sunnis and Shiites. Absent a population census, these three confessional groups are estimated to make up 30 per cent of the population each. Christian leaders may now see themselves as less dependent on their Muslim allies in electing a president. On the other hand, both Sunni and Shiite parties may be wary of the Aoun-Geagea deal for the reverse reason: it threatens their influence over their Christian allies. Both the Future Current and Hizbollah previously played on and benefitted from intra-Christian divisions, which prevented their opponents – Aoun and Geagea, respectively – from becoming president.
How do you explain Samir Geagea’s dramatic shift?
Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and Geagea’s Lebanese Forces, concerned by the weakening of Christian politicians as a result of the regional mayhem and ongoing presidential vacuum, entered into a dialogue more than a year ago. In June 2015, the two leaders agreed to a set of shared general principles to guide their relationship. This process partly paved the way for Geagea’s latest shift.
However, the more important development came in November, when Saad Hariri nominated a “March 8” coalition member, Marada party leader Suleiman Frangieh, to the presidency. Hariri’s move astonished both friend and foe, given Frangieh’s close association with a regime Hariri had accused of masterminding his father Rafic’s killing. It strained the Future Current’s ties with Geagea, as the Lebanese Forces saw it simultaneously as a surrender to “March 8” and a betrayal of “March 14”. Reportedly, Hariri had not consulted Geagea, whose relationship with Frangieh has long been strained, because Frangieh considers Geagea the main culprit in the 1978 attack that killed his family. Clearly, Lebanon’s leaders cannot escape the legacies of the civil war.
On the other side of the political spectrum, Frangieh’s nomination also faced resistance within his own “March 8” camp, which has long supported Aoun’s nomination. Hizbollah doesn’t object to Frangieh, long a reliable ally, but it declared that it would continue to support its paramount Christian partner Michel Aoun as long as he maintained his candidacy.
When Hariri made his move, Geagea may have felt he risked being bypassed in the nomination of a new president, a position he has long aspired to occupy. It’s possible he doubted that a Frangieh-Hariri deal, were it to materialise, would give his party an acceptable share in a future government.
Instead of letting such developments jeopardise his standing within the Christian community, Geagea went on the offensive, framing his endorsement of Aoun as “an unusual rescue operation”. He thus presented himself as a heroic Christian leader, that rare politician willing to sacrifice his personal ambitions to bridge the deep divide within his own community, which has been weakened by decades of rifts. According to some polls, 90 per cent of Christians are supporting the proposed deal.
Can we say that, after this deal, Aoun is certain to be elected president?
Parliament must still vote on any such proposal; its next session is scheduled for 8 February. Frangieh has not withdrawn his candidacy. Another major player on the Christian scene, the Phalangist party (a “March 14” member) announced that it would back neither candidate. Other players have yet to state their positions. Druze leader Walid Jumblat and Shiite leader (and speaker of parliament) Nabih Berri both have disagreements with Aoun and have previously endorsed Frangieh. These blocs’ votes are going to be instrumental.
Still, the most likely scenario would be an informal accord reached behind closed doors before MPs assemble to vote. Hizbollah may seek to convince Frangieh to withdraw his candidacy, for instance. Incidentally, Frangieh has previously declared that he would withdraw if Aoun secured sufficient support.
How far can Geagea and Aoun go in this new-born entente?
Domestically, the two parties share many interests and aspirations, notably the desire to empower Christians. However, their competition over state resources and key positions is likely to continue, as will their rivalry over popular support. Much will still have to be done to achieve a genuine reconciliation between former fighters in the civil war and current partisans from both camps.
More importantly, the two leaders continue to have deeply divergent political postures, both internally and concerning the region. Aoun’s alliance with Hizbollah has grown stronger over the years; he has supported Assad in the Syrian conflict and built close ties with Iran; he is also a harsh critic of the Future Current and Saudi Arabia. On the other side, Geagea remains a visceral opponent of Hizbollah, Damascus and Iran, and has forged important ties with Riyadh.
What impact will these developments have on the two main coalitions?
Both “March 14” and “March 8” are weakened by these events. The deep polarisation that has structured Lebanon’s political landscape over the past decade is being shaken and possibly disrupted, making way for new alliances. “March 14”, which has incurred many setbacks over the past few years, appears most vulnerable to the fallout of the Aoun-Geagea deal. Without the strong Geagea-Hariri partnership at its core, “March 14” will lose much of its potency and appeal. On the other side, Hizbollah will presumably do whatever it takes to preserve the unity of its bloc. It is unlikely that Suleiman Frangieh or Nabih Berri would jeopardise their alliance with the Shiite party, which has proven to be a strong and reliable ally, regardless of who becomes president. Nor would they try to deepen divisions within their own camp.
What will this do for Saad Hariri and his Future Current?
The Sunni leader left both the premiership and the country five years ago. In January 2011, his government collapsed following the resignation of cabinet members affiliated with Hizbollah and its allies; shortly afterwards he went into self-imposed exile. His absence has taken its toll on his standing in Lebanon as well as abroad, and undercut the Future Current’s popular support. Discussions between Aoun and Hariri in 2015 failed to produce a consensus over the question of who should become president. This partly explains Hariri’s Frangieh initiative. Today more than ever, he needs to become prime minister again to resuscitate his national leadership. A broader deal that would allow for Aoun to be elected and Hariri to regain the premiership cannot be ruled out, for instance as part of an effort to get Saudi Arabia on board.
What is the public response to this potential break in the deadlock over the presidency?
Despite hope among some, Lebanon’s distrust of its ruling class remains deep. Many are sceptical that a deal over a president will bring an end to the country’s appalling failures of governance and usher in desperately needed improvements. A new president may be successfully elected, but none are likely to have a quick magic solution to frequent power cuts, lack of public services, chaotic traffic, poor road maintenance and uncollected garbage in the streets. DM