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After lying vacant for two and a half years, Lebanon’s presidential post will finally be filled by a parliamentary vote on Monday. The move reflects a temporary and rare confluence of interests among a majority of the country’s oligarchs and is a necessary step forward in bringing some life back to the country’s atrophying constitutional institutions. But politics in the country will remain tense and divided and noticeable improvement to governance is unlikely.
The expected winner is Michel Aoun, 81, the leader of the majority Christian Reform and Change Party, an ally of Hezbollah, and member of the March 8 coalition, which is aligned with Iran and the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Aoun largely clinched the nomination two weeks ago when Saad Hariri, the leader of the opposition, a coalition between the Future Movement and other March 14 parties, came out in his support. In exchange, Hariri expects to be named prime minister. Despite resistance to Aoun’s candidacy—from parliament speaker Nabih Berri and rival presidential candidate Suleiman Frangieh, both of whom are March 8 coalition members—Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah appeared to seal the deal in a public address endorsing Aoun, as well as accepting Hariri’s possible return as prime minister, a position he had previously held from 2009 to 2011.
The presidential office has lain vacant since May of 2014, when President Michel Suleiman’s six-year term expired. Initially, the rival March 14 and March 8 coalitions each put forward their own candidates, but neither of them garnered enough support. Nor could the two coalitions agree on a third-party candidate. Government business continued during this period, albeit at a low level of efficiency, under the national coalition government headed by Prime Minister Tammam Salam.
Many political leaders and parties exhibited little urgency in filling the presidential vacancy, but Hariri has felt more need to do so. In the recent local elections, his party lost in the northern Sunni city of Tripoli and only narrowly won the critical local elections in the capital, Beirut. Hariri is experiencing financial difficulties as well, with his late father’s construction company, Saudi Oger, facing serious decline in Saudi Arabia. This has created a shortfall in party funding, and the Future Movement has reportedly been unable to pay its employees across some of its institutions, such as its media channel Future TV. Hariri needs the presidential vacancy filled so that he can return to the premiership. Last year, Hariri had nominated Aoun’s rival, Frangieh, but the selection triggered a rapprochement between Aoun and longtime rival Samir Geagea. Together, Aoun and Geagea whipped up strong opposition to Frangieh’s nomination within the Christian community and it was scuttled.
Hariri’s current pick, Aoun, has also divided the March 8 coalition. Frangieh is a natural rival, and Berri has had long-standing differences and political clashes with Aoun and his nephew Gebran Bassil, the current foreign minister. The March 8 coalition is facing a situation not unlike that of the U.S. Republican Party and its nominee Donald Trump: having created the conditions for his rise, it is now worried about whether he has the temperament to be president. Similarly, the March 8 coalition is worried because Aoun is notoriously mercurial. He has been allied with Hezbollah since 2005, but when he was last in power as interim prime minister from 1988 to 1990, he waged a campaign against armed nonstate actors, including Hezbollah, and declared war on Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad. Aoun also might be seen by Berri and others as potentially difficult to deal with as president because he will be the first one since the early 1970s to have a fairly large Christian-community power base. The previous five presidents had small or no significant political following, and hence ended up as fairly weak leaders.
Both Hariri’s past and present picks include leaders allied with Hezbollah, Assad, and Iran, but Frangieh has been a more long-standing and reliable ally of the Assad family, Hezbollah, and Iran and would have been the safer pick for the March 8 coalition. In any case, Hezbollah’s support is decisive within the coalition, while Berri’s current opposition is useful as a bargaining chip. After Aoun’s election there will be much negotiation over the formation of the next government, Berri’s own reelection as speaker, and the development of lucrative sectors such as offshore gas fields.
Unsurprisingly, both pro-Hezbollah candidates have been very poorly received among Hariri’s Sunni base. It has split his majority-Sunni Future Movement party and the anti-Assad March 14 coalition. If he succeeds in heading the next government, the influential position of prime minister will help him to rebuild some of the power base that he has lost since 2011.
Regionally, Aoun’s election would be a victory for Iranian influence in the Levant and a blow for Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has been downgrading its interests in Lebanon. In February, it cancelled a $4 billion aid package to the Lebanese security forces after foreign minister Bassil refused to support an Arab League resolution condemning the sacking of the Saudi embassy in Tehran. And the Saudi leadership has appeared markedly lukewarm toward Hariri. Whether the Saudis have written off Lebanon as under Hezbollah’s thumb, are overwhelmed with domestic concerns and the war in Yemen, or have lost faith in Hariri’s leadership capacities, is hard to determine with accuracy.
Aoun’s election to the presidency will be followed by constitutionally mandated presidential consultations with parliament to designate a prime minister, most likely Hariri. Hariri would then go about forming a new government. There is nothing necessarily quick about this process; the last negotiations to form a government lasted ten months. The various oligarchs all want a piece of the pie, and the negotiations would have to include difficult discussions on a new parliamentary election law, horse trading on offshore gas deals, and many other contentious matters.
On the one hand, Aoun’s election to the presidency is a welcome example of a peaceful and constitutional transfer of power in a region where that is a rarity, and where just next door in Syria, the question of presidential succession has left hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced. On the other hand, Aoun’s elevation to the presidency by the country’s oligarchy will largely perpetuate the dysfunctional political system and is unlikely to bring the kind of change and improvement in governance that much of the country’s youth and non-aligned citizenry yearn for. Lebanon remains a remarkable example of relative stability and communal coexistence and power-sharing in a region set aflame by sectarian civil war, but its government continues to fall far short given the vast potential of its people.