Supporters of the Free Patriotic Movement carry flags and a picture of Christian politician and FPM founder Michel Aoun.
Mohamed Azakir / Reuters

The longest presidential void in Lebanon’s history—two and a half years—was finally filled today when 83 out of the 127 parliamentarians who were present cast their votes for candidate Michel Aoun, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and former army commander. This outcome, long in the making, will help arrest the decaying of Lebanon’s state institutions, defuse social and sectarian tensions, and put an end to a deadly political paralysis.

Yet, although Lebanon’s long journey to chart a more hopeful future has received a much needed boost with the election of a new head of state, the far more challenging work—including the nomination of a new prime minister, the formation of future cabinets, the promulgation of a new electoral law, and political reconciliation among the country’s key factions—starts immediately. If history is any indication, the road ahead will be rocky.

But first, some optimism. The return of Aoun to the presidential palace in Baabda, 26 years after he was ousted by the Syrian army, is a direct result of political pragmatism by the leaders of the Lebanese Sunni and Shiite communities, the Future Movement’s Saad Hariri and Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, respectively.

Hezbollah, which was indicted two years ago by an international tribunal for the 2005 murder of Hariri’s father, Rafik, the most influential prime minister to ever serve in Lebanon—supported Aoun’s presidential bid the moment it signed a memorandum of understanding with the FPM in 2006. Yet Hariri and, particularly, his Christian ally Samir Geagea, were never comfortable with Aoun because of his turbulent past, difficult character, political rigidity, and newfound alliance with their nemesis, Hezbollah.

However, when earlier this year, Geagea chose to put aside all his reservations about Aoun, with whom he fought bitterly in the past, and did the unthinkable by backing his candidacy, Hariri was in a bind. All of a sudden, the wheels of the Lebanese presidency were turning. Hariri was unhappy with Geagea’s fait accompli because it torpedoed his initial plan to endorse Suleiman Frangieh, an old rival of Geagea, and a candidate perceived by Hariri at the time as a lesser evil than Aoun, despite Frangieh’s close personal relationship with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and strategic alliance with Hezbollah. Hariri was also hoping to create frictions and possibly a rift within Hezbollah’s camp. But Hezbollah kept quiet, showing little interest in Hariri’s tactical move, playing the long game as it always does, and continuing to reassure Aoun that he remained its guy.

Months passed, and still Hezbollah did not budge. With the tide of war in Syria seemingly turning in Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia’s favor, and Saudi Arabia gradually distancing itself from Lebanon due to its preoccupation with more vital matters in Yemen and Syria, Hariri felt compelled to adjust his political choices and reconsider Aoun. That his personal finances were reportedly in terrible shape must have also influenced his decision-making. For Hariri to engineer his own political revival and rejuvenate his own crumbling coalition, he had to return to the premiership, which he had held from 2009-2011. Yet the only way to achieve that was by agreeing to the 81-year-old Aoun becoming president.

And so he did just that a couple of weeks ago, to the chagrin of many of his own allies including former prime minister Foad Siniora. Speaking with a solemn voice in a televised press conference from his home, Hariri lamented the lack of good options, suggesting that the bitter pill of Aoun was worth swallowing for the wellbeing of Lebanon. An optimist might praise Hariri for engaging in an act of political maturity, bravery, and selflessness that could save the country from reaching the abyss. Skeptics, or hard-nosed realists, however, would argue that the man had no choice but to cut his losses, and given his dwindling financial and political fortunes, and rumors of Riyadh’s displeasure with Hariri after decades of support for the Hariri’s, that was the only thing he could do to ensure his and his party’s survival.

Yet regardless of Hariri’s motivations for endorsing Aoun, the outcome – the termination of the presidential logjam and the beginning of national political rehabilitation – is positive, which is what matters most. Furthermore, it’s not as if Hezbollah was a total winner, either. It too had to make concessions, though they should ultimately work in its favor.

Hezbollah is not obligated to green light Hariri’s premiership, but the more likely scenario is that it will, because of this unwritten quid pro quo of Aoun for president and Hariri for prime minister, which has upset its closest ally Nabih Berri, the leader of the Shiite Amal party. Why Berri opposes Aoun is the stuff of political mysteries, but a common explanation is that the aging Parliament speaker felt slighted by Hariri who did not consult him prior to endorsing Aoun. To Berri, this signaled a betrayal—that Hariri had deliberately kept him in the dark, regarding Aoun and Hariri’s political maneuvers, with Hezbollah’s blessing. But Berri also has concerns about Aoun: Berri is the guardian of the status quo in Beirut. Aoun, on the other hand, could be anything but, given how he has always revolted against the very makeup of the Lebanese post-war system.

To speak of a serious feud between Berri and Hezbollah would be an exaggeration, but it is certainly worth monitoring how Hezbollah manages Berri’s likely opposition to Aoun’s reign down the road. That shouldn’t be too difficult a task for Hezbollah, however, because Berri does not have a ton of leverage: if Berri plays the role of spoiler, he would have to do it virtually alone and suffer the consequences of political isolation. (Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has jumped on the Aoun bandwagon despite his hesitancy earlier while the rest of Lebanon’s political class is more or less irrelevant.)

The reason why Hezbollah ultimately benefits from Hariri’s potential return to the premiership is because it would be promoting moderate Sunni politics and advancing Sunni-Shiite rapprochement at a time when sectarian tensions in the region are at an all-time high. The alternative is Lebanese Sunni politicians who are hot-headed or who have even flirted with extremist ideology.

Assuming Hariri comes back to power, the next step would be to form a new cabinet. This is an area where Lebanese politicians have typically fought, causing considerable delays in the process due to a desire to maximize political gains and ensure ministerial representation. Aoun might have high demands this time around because his party is the largest Christian bloc in Parliament. Geagea will want his piece of the pie too for agreeing to postpone his own presidential ambitions early on in the process. But, since a new cabinet might be formed before the country’s parliamentary elections in mid-2017, any appointments now would be short-lived. Therefore, a more likely outcome for the cabinet, in the interest of averting futile political fights, is one whose majority is made of technocrats.

Aoun’s presidency will reshuffle the political deck in Lebanon. Indeed, the organization, or perhaps the division of domestic Lebanese politics, which has traditionally fallen along the lines of a “pro-Syrian March 8” and an “anti-Syrian March 14” camp, is no more. There is a new political structure and an uneasy system of alignments in Beirut that should be more accommodating. Should Hariri become prime minister, ensuring the political representation of the most influential and popular leaders of the Sunni, Shiite, and Christian communities is the best recipe for political stability and national security.

The prevailing wisdom is that Lebanon’s success in electing a president after such a long wait is a result of some kind of regional entente between the Saudis and the Iranians, the most powerful regional players in Lebanon. That’s understandable. National political appointments in Lebanon have always been at the mercy of regional and international powers’ whims. Some might even argue that the fate of the Lebanese presidency was intrinsically tied to the outcome of the battle of Aleppo. As soon as it became clear who had the upper hand in Syria, as the argument goes, Hariri and Saudi Arabia sensed defeat and rushed to make a deal before it was too late.

Don’t buy into these analyses. The Lebanese are fond of telling the world that their troubles are caused by foreigners and that what happens or doesn’t happen in Lebanon is always a reflection of regional developments. Although this is true more often than not, this time around, however, it is false. The decision to elect Aoun and the way a settlement was reached was all made in Lebanon. This doesn’t mean that the Iran-Saudi Arabia power struggle did not influence Lebanon at all. But it does suggest that there was sufficient room for independent political maneuvering among the Lebanese to make their own choices. Did it help that Tehran and Riyadh are busy fighting by proxy in other more strategic theaters? Of course it did. But what probably helped the most was the likely realization by the Saudis and the Iranians that Lebanon, because of its inbuilt system of checks and balances, could not be “won” by anybody. And therefore, it is in the interest of all to preserve it, along with the model of sectarian coexistence it represents, which might come in handy when the bullets stop flying in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere.

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  • Bilal Y. Saab is Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Peace and Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council's Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.
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