The Lebanese presidential puzzle
Written by Malek   

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Over the past two years, Lebanese politics has been crippled by the inability of the country’s political forces to agree on a successor to former president, General Michel Sulaiman, whose six-year term had come to an end in May 2014. Since then, Lebanon’s political class has looked beyond their borders for a solution to their problems, hoping that a regional power-broker would come to their rescue. However, with the key regional actors preoccupied with other pressing issues, most notably the conflict in Syria and Iraq, Lebanon’s leaders finally decided to rely on their own political skills to agree on a presidential candidate. This endeavour led earlier this year to shaking up the alliances within the two main political camps in major ways. Sa’ad Hariri, leader of the March 14 Alliance and former premier, took his allies off guard last year when he backed the bid of Sulaiman Frangieh, a nominal member of the opposing March 8 alliance for presidency. Meanwhile, one of Hariri’s main allies within the March 14 camp, Samir Geagea of the Lebanese Forces, supported the bid of General Michel Aoun, a nominal coalition partner of Frangieh.

At the time, Geagea interpreted Hariri’s uncoordinated move as an affront and evidence that the former premier was taking for granted the support of his Maronite coalition partners when deciding the fate of the presidency, the single remaining bastion of Maronite power in the Lebanese political system. Members of Hariri’s own Future Movement in the north of the country were also unimpressed by the nomination of Frangieh, whose strong ties to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad were particularly problematic as Lebanon’s northern districts had suffered immensely under the Syrian military administration for more than three decades (1975-2005). Additionally, Hariri’s gambit has played into a long-standing regional rivalry between Frangieh’s clan and that of Geagea’s.

Similarly, Hariri’s nomination of Frangieh reverberated throughout the opposing March 8 coalition. Opposition from perennial candidate Aoun was based not only on his long-standing ambitions for presidency, but also on a sectarian reading of Lebanese politics in which Muslim politicians appeared to have been trying to “impose” their choice of president.

By making his sectarian position clear, Aoun embarrassed his Christian rivals in the March 14 camp, as well as his former ally Frangieh, who looked very much like a pawn in the hands of Hariri.

Indeed, Hariri’s nomination of Frangieh may have been intended to split the March 8 camp, but has in fact served to undo the entire political equilibrium in Lebanon, which took shape in the wake of the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. Within this context, one can only understand Geagea’s support for Aoun. For Geagea, Hariri’s support for Frangieh was not only a painful reminder of his long-standing rivalry with a competing Maronite leader, but was also a personal affront for what should have been the Lebanese Forces leader’s due right to choose a Maronite president. Geagea thus wanted to make clear to both Hariri and Frangieh that his role as kingmaker in the Lebanese Christian community could not be overlooked. Not one to be undone, Geagea quickly turned the tables by announcing his support for his own former arch enemy, Aoun, demonstrating to his March 14 allies as well as his opponents in the March 8 movement that he continued to hold the reins of power when it came to deciding the next president.

By sticking to the rules of Lebanon’s political game, where power is divided along sectarian lines, Geagea has won the backing of the Christian grass roots and defied Hariri’s attempt to sideline Lebanon’s Christians, when choosing the president.

Hariri seems to have learnt the lesson for a price, though. He has hence decided to take another surprising move by announcing his support for Aoun. Yet, it is quite unclear if Hariri’s latest move will make it easier to elect a president. What is clear, however, is that Hezbollah appears to have lost the initiative in deciding the country’s next president, with Hariri and Geagea standing behind Aoun.

The Geagea-Aoun-Hariri alliance must be seen as a worrying development for Hezbollah and the March 8 movement. More so, since it shifts the balance of power that had prevailed, following the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005.

Marwan Kabalan is a Syrian academic and writer.