After nearly two years of inactivity and political paralysis since the resignation of Lebanon’s last president, General Michel Suleiman, in May 2014, the question of Lebanon’s presidency became the focus of an intense flurry of activity and interest over the last two weeks. Two major developments stand out, leaving a previously cohesive political coalition divided over which of the two members of the opposing coalition they want to see in the Baabda Palace. The first is the nomination for presidency by Saad Hariri, leader of the Future Movement and a kingpin of the March 14 Alliance, of Suleiman Frangieh, a nominal member of the opposing March 8 alliance. Meanwhile, one of Hariri’s main allies within the March 14 camp, Samir Geagea of the Lebanese Forces political movement, nominated for the presidency Gen. Michel Aoun, a nominal coalition partner of Frangieh who was once at the opposite end of a cannon muzzle from Geagea.
Crossed Wires and Confused Coalitions
The competing nominations by Hariri and Geagea shocked the Lebanese voting public, confusing an earlier demarcation between political coalitions along sectarian, regional and ideological lines, which had crystalized in the aftermath of the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Saad’s father and the founder of the Future Movement. In that long-lasting order, the March 14 camp — named after the day of a massive protest demanding retribution for the elder Hariri’s assassination and the evacuation of Syrian forces — brought together the Kataeb, led by former President Amine Gemayel and their civil war allies in the Lebanese Forces, under the same umbrella as their former enemies in the Progressive Socialist Party, led by Walid Jumblatt. The March 14 coalition also included a number of smaller groups, including the Democratic Left movement, the Qornet Shehwan Gathering and the National Liberal Movement. In contrast, the March 8 coalition, which took its name from a counter protest in support of the Syrian forces stationed in Lebanon, brought together Hezbollah with the Amal Movement—led by Speaker of the Parliament, Nabih Berri—together with the Marada movement, led by Frangieh. They were later joined by Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, which had previously opposed Syria’s involvement in Lebanese affairs, as well as a number of smaller factions, such as the Democratic Party led by Talal Arsalan.
Saad Hariri’s nomination of Frangieh was surprising not only because the latter was and remains a committed ally of Syria’s involvement in Lebanon, but also because Frangieh—a feudal lord with a power base in northern Lebanon—was the Minister of Interior when the elder Hariri was assassinated in early 2005. Likewise, Geagea’s support for Aoun—who some claim is an agent of Iran—is similarly noteworthy, since the two men were mortal enemies during the period known as the “War of Annihilation” (1988-1990), when they competed for dominance of the country’s Christian community.
Hariri’s Gambit and the Desire for a Homegrown Solution
For two years, Lebanese politics have been crippled by the inability of the country’s legislators to nominate a presidential candidate—drawn exclusively from the Maronite Christian sect—and the lack of a quorum in the Chamber of Deputies has resulted in a complete paralysis of Lebanese politics, with repercussions for the economy and the government’s basic administrative services. True to form, Lebanon’s political class looked abroad for a solution to their problems, hoping that a regional power broker would come to their rescue. However, with their normal regional backers preoccupied with other pressing issues, Lebanon’s leaders had to rely on their own analytical skills to decipher the global and regional landscapes, before pressing on to choose a presidential nominee. This paved the way for a meeting between Saad Hariri and Frangieh in Paris, mediated by Nabih Berri and Walid Jumblatt, and which eventually saw Hariri declare his support for putting Frangieh in Baabda.
Hariri’s ally Geagea saw this as an affront, and evidence that the former premier was taking for granted the support from his Maronite coalition partners when deciding the fate of the presidency, the single remaining bastion of Maronite power in a Lebanese state the community used to dominate. This ultimately shook the Lebanese Forces’ faith in their multi-faceted alliance with the Future Movement, one previously based on extensive consultations. Equally, members of Hariri’s own Future Movement were unimpressed by his nomination of Frangieh; some shared Geagea’s reservations on a point of principle, while others were parliamentarians within the March 14 fold who represented constituencies in and around Tripoli and Akkar, close to Frangieh’s ancestral stronghold.
In this regard, Frangieh’s friendship with Bashar Al Assad and his family’s deeply rooted ties to the Assad regime have also not gone unnoticed, dating back to the days when former President of Lebanon, Suleiman Frangieh, Sr.—the grandfather of the present nominee—enjoyed close relations with the regime of Hafez Al Assad in Damascus. This is of particular relevance given that Lebanon’s northern districts were especially burdened by Syria’s policies over the previous 40 years. Additionally, Hariri’s gambit has played into a long-standing regional rivalry between the Frangieh clan’s hometown of Zghorta and Geagea’s hometown of Bsharri.
Indeed, Hariri’s nomination of Frangieh reverberated throughout the opposing March 8 coalition. Opposition from perennial candidate Michel Aoun was based not only on his sense of entitlement to the post of president, but also on a sectarian reading of Lebanese politics in which Muslim politicians had no right to “impose” their choice of president. By insisting on this awkward and uncouth sectarian position, Aoun embarrassed his Christian rivals in the March 14 camp, as well as his former ally Frangieh, who has now become a pawn of sectarian power plays cutting across political boundaries. Saad Hariri’s nomination of Suleiman 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 Rafik Hariri.
Hezbollah Dives in, Geagea Retorts
These new political alignments gave Hezbollah the chance to reaffirm its support for Aoun as its first choice for the presidency, but also to support a nomination of Frangieh, in case a consensus of support for the Marada leader could be found. This is familiar territory for the group, being able to present itself as victorious in a battle in which it had found itself purely by happenstance, and its parliamentary representatives quickly went to work trying to make the most out of the divisions between the field of candidates. It was a win-win situation for the Shia group: although Aoun remains their preferred candidate, Frangieh is himself another ally of the Syrian regime, albeit one who is less capable of being an effective political operator – he commands a much smaller parliamentary bloc and is the weakest political broker in the Lebanese Christian community.
In keeping with its own practices, Hezbollah viewed the country’s presidential race through the prism of international relations in the regional and global arenas. Hezbollah began to see the not-so-adroit machinations of the Berri-Jumblatt duo as the handiwork of Saudi Arabia. According to this thinking, Riyadh nudged Hariri to line up behind a Frangieh candidacy after the Saudis realized they would have to acquiesce to an expanded Iranian role in Middle Eastern affairs, following the U.S.-Iran rapprochement over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Similarly, some within Hariri’s own camp regarded their leader’s support for a “President Frangieh” as a pre-emptive move to prevent Lebanon from dealing with the fallout of Washington’s tacit complicity with Russia’s armed involvement in Syria, signaling what some believe is a death knell for plans to oust Bashar Al Assad.
Left perplexed, many of Hariri’s allies in the March 14 coalition have had to interpret events for themselves to better understand the motivations for the Future Movement leader’s decision to support Frangieh. One school of thought holds that Hariri’s decision was designed to throw the March 8 coalition off balance, and to drive a wedge between its component factions. Another opinion holds that Hariri’s support for a Frangieh nomination is born out of a desire simply to avoid placing General Aoun in Baabda.
Geagea, however, had a completely separate calculus for understanding the move. From his point of view, the move to nominate Frangieh was not only a painful reminder of his long-standing rivalry with a competing Maronite strongman, and of the Bsharri-Zghorta feud, but was also a personal insult and a disregard for what should have been the Lebanese Forces leader’s right to participate in the drafting of Lebanese policy and in representing the country’s Maronite Christians. 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 nomination of his own former arch nemesis, Michel Aoun, demonstrating to his March 14 allies as well as his opponents in the March 8 group that he continued to hold the reins of power when it came to deciding the next president.
Geagea’s move aims to use the element of surprise to force all of Lebanon’s political forces to re-evaluate their positions. The Future Movement, for example, will now have to regain its former prestige and win acknowledgement by others of its preeminent role in Lebanese politics. Geagea—who clearly has the ability to see beyond the horizon into the period following a President Aoun—has now also won the right to compete for power across Lebanon’s entire Christian community. 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 grassroots, and defied Berri and Jumblatt for their maverick behavior in attempting to sideline Lebanon’s Christians when choosing the President of the Republic. This is not a welcome development for Hezbollah.
The country has yet to recover from the shock of both Hariri’s overture and the retort by Geagea. All eyes are now anxiously turned to global and regional powers, but they remain preoccupied with trying to decipher what will come of the conflict next door in Syria. Nonetheless, the March 14 coalition has shown that it has the power to drive a wedge between two Christian groups in the March 8 coalition. By effectively nominating both Frangieh and Aoun, the March 14 bloc has also seemingly prevented the nomination of a party-spoiling candidate who is sprung on them by the March 8 camp in the eleventh hour. The price which the constituent members of the March 14 coalition have paid, however, is the straining of relations between the Future Movement and its Christian allies and some of its own Sunni Muslim parliamentarians in northern Lebanon. Meanwhile, Hezbollah will seek to maximize its gains for better (General Aoun) or worse (Frangieh), but the group now appears to have lost the initiative in deciding the country’s next president, with both of the main contenders nominated by its opponents in the March 14 camp. This would also explain Hezbollah’s reluctance to put the two candidates before a vote of the Chamber of Deputies before Frangieh is out of the way: with the present distribution of seats in parliament, a competition between Aoun and Frangieh could very easily go to a second round of voting if no single candidate obtains the required supermajority. Such a second round, which would require only a simple majority to go through, could very easily go to Frangieh or indeed to a third candidate, given the large support for March 14 in the legislature. Either way, the Geagea-Aoun alliance is a worrying trend for Hezbollah and March 8 more broadly: it overturns the balance of power which had prevailed following the assassination of Rafik Hariri. Yet it also paints a candid portrait of the retired General: he speaks on behalf of Lebanon’s Christian community, but now wants to grow out of that to represent all of Lebanon, as President of the Republic. It discredits the charade of General Aoun as part of the March 8 coalition, of which he was never genuinely a member.
On the surface, the above arrangement seems to indicate turbulence in Lebanon’s political landscape. Instead, however, what it demonstrates is how the country’s sectarian power-sharing scheme has been bolstered. This is the only constant in the country’s otherwise fluctuating political system, where even the approach to the Syrian revolution is a negotiable quantity.
To read this Assessment Report as a PDF, please click here or on the icon above. This Report is an edited translation by the ACRPS Translation and English editing team. The original Arabic version appeared online on February 03, 2016 and can be found here.