For most people in the Middle East, the prospect that Lebanon might finally install a president after more than a year and a half of political deadlock probably passed with little notice.
After all, there are much bigger problems to worry about: The region is on fire, with multiple expanding insurgencies, an accelerating socio-economic breakdown and a sectarian conflict at its worst in recent memory.
For perhaps a majority of the Lebanese, however, the January 18 announcement that two longtime Christian rivals – Michel Aoun and Samir Geagea – would finally set aside their differences and try their best to elect Aoun as the next head of state, was indeed a major event.
“Very regrettably, we did not have a truth and reconciliation process after [the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil] War,” Aoun told Newsweek Middle East.
“This is one important step in the process – an effort to begin to heal the Christian community as well as the larger Lebanese community. But it is also particularly important at this moment,” the 81-year-old former army commander said. “When we see Lebanon under threat and the Christian presence retreating all around us, we finally come together and have a strong voice as president,” he added.
For a conflict that set new standards of brutality, the intra-confessional clashes among the Lebanese were often the most vicious and unrelenting.
Indeed, in the last two years of the Civil War, (1988-1990), the remnants of the Lebanese Army under Aoun’s command engaged in a wide-ranging “War of Elimination” with Geagea’s Lebanese Forces (LF) militia.
The fighting killed and wounded tens of thousands and brought destruction to a number of Christian regions that had formerly escaped the previous 13 years of mayhem.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the scars would persist long after both men were effectively removed from the Lebanese stage, with Aoun exiled in France ostensibly for opposing the 1989 “Taif Agreement” that ended the Civil War and Geagea languishing in jail, in part for a church bombing conviction, which some argued was orchestrated by Syrian officials who essentially controlled post-war Lebanon.
When the two returned triumphantly to the political scene in 2005 following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Valentine’s Day and the withdrawal of Syrian troops two months later, they quickly assumed control of the opposing political parties that had been built up by their Lebanese supporters on the ground.
Over the next decade, Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and Geageas’s LF would face-off time and again in the media, in protests on the streets and always at the voting booth.
Just below the surface, however, especially when it came to the older generation of cadres, one couldn’t help but notice that the conflict ran much deeper and seemed to have more to do with the long history of violence between the two sides and their leaders than with the politics of the day or even any philosophical differences.
Seeds of Change
All of which made Geagea’s U-Turn last week – announcing that he would support Aoun for president – genuinely surprising and, perhaps more importantly, unnerving for Lebanon’s political elite which had grown accustomed to (and has often benefited from) an iron division within the Christian community.
Most of the other main religious sects – the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Druze – have leaderships that can command overwhelming loyalty and uniformity within their respective communities, at the polls and on the streets.
Since their return in 2005, however, Geagea and Aoun have consistently rejected a partnership that could bring as many as two-thirds of Christian voters under one umbrella.
As a consequence, both were forced to look for “outside” allies in order to assert themselves in Lebanon’s complicated, sectarian power-sharing system where, as but one example, the post of president is reserved for a Maronite but can only be secured with votes from the other communities.
Any candidate who hopes to be elected head of state needs a simple majority of the 128 members of parliament (evenly split between Christians and Muslims). Before such a vote can take place though, the Lebanese Constitution mandates that a quorum of two-thirds of the deputies must be present.
Aoun chose to align himself, and perhaps half of the Christian electorate, with the Shiite Hezbollah party in February 2006.
Geagea, for his part, set himself early on against Hezbollah, anchoring his quarter of the Christian vote squarely with the Sunni Future Movement led by Member of Parliament Saad Hariri, the son of Rafik Hariri.
For ten years the divisions between the Sunni-led camp and the Shiite-led camp waxed and waned, hardening significantly at the outset of the Syrian revolt in 2011 but then diminishing in 2014 when both sides realized they could ill afford to import the kind of open conflict splitting apart so many states in the Middle East.
In early 2015, the first signs of a rapprochement between the Christian sides began to emerge, with concrete talks in the ensuing period that tackled a range of issues, not least the presidential post that both Aoun and Geagea coveted and which had been vacant since May 2014.
By the summer of 2015, Aoun and Geagea finally reached an agreement on a series of points (though, crucially, not the presidency).
At about the same time, however, another political bombshell was brewing. According to several top Lebanese officials, the United States had begun to circulate that it could live with a president closely aligned with Hezbollah and Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.
Although a vociferous critic of both while out of power, Hariri, who had lost the premiership in January 2011 after a Hezbollah-led effort to oust him, took up the initiative and, in early December, after securing the backing of the party’s main patron in Saudi Arabia, announced his support for just such a man: Suleiman Franjieh.
“Aoun isn’t a classical player of Lebanese politics like Franjieh is,” said Mustapha Allouch, a key advisor for Hariri as well as the Future Movement’s head in the northern city of Tripoli.
“There is a widespread concern – and it is felt by some of Aoun’s allies as well – that he is a kind of wildcard, in addition to all of the attacks against us and against Sunnis over the years…” he said.
“Also, don’t forget, we had repeatedly failed to reach a set of agreements with Aoun, and electing a president had become urgent in light of the mounting problems Lebanon is facing. Saad Hariri decided to break the impasse and that Franjieh represents the best way forward,” Allouch added.
Since Franjieh is a Christian member of parliament aligned with Aoun, and had the solid backing of political parties opposed to the Future Movement, including Hezbollah, Hariri momentarily looked like a master puppeteer who could finally end the presidential vacuum, shake the longstanding FPM-Hezbollah alliance to its core and, in all likelihood, regain the post of prime minister.
But almost from the outset, at least three main factors intervened to undermine his effort.
First, according to several people involved in the FPM-LF negotiations, Geagea viewed the move as an outright betrayal since he had long been backed as the primary presidential candidate by Hariri as well as the March 14 coalition which opposed Aoun and Hezbollah for more than ten years.
Moreover, Franjieh is an historical rival of Geagea in the latter’s own home base of North Lebanon – a rivalry that has its own exceptionally bloody lineage of murder and betrayal.
Second, Hariri seems to have misread the emerging thinking of the bulk of the Christian community in Lebanon, assuming that the main poles would continue to stand divided even as a tide of violent, Sunni radicalism is increasingly perceived as the primary threat to minority sects in the region.
“The roots of this agreement which have been developed over the last year are deep and are strategic,” explained Dr. Antoine Habchi, head of the Lebanese Forces Political Development Department.
“We are testing ourselves and we are testing everybody, especially Hezbollah. But we fully believe now is the time for this approach and for reconciliation between the two main Christian leaders: Do we keep this state in turmoil or do we avoid the turmoil of the region and keep our country safe together?”
He also pointed to the recent lifting of Western sanctions on Iran, explaining that such a major development is surely to have an impact on the political course in Lebanon, depending on the Islamic Republic’s next move and by consequence that of Hezbollah.
“We also see that Iran may be going in a new direction,” he added, “and is in a process of rapprochement with the West. Is it going to be a state that is seeking to be a part of the international community under its law? It is a very important question. And where does Hezbollah, which is strongly backed here by Iran, stand on this – will it go further to accommodate the situation or go further in its pursuit of a politics of expansion and empire?”
Ultimately, Hariri may also have misread Hezbollah itself in thinking that nominating a more clearly pro-Assad candidate would tempt the party away from its support for Aoun.
Even though the FPM-Hezbollah alliance has survived ten years of political scrutiny, social unrest, economic dislocation and all around fatigue, it has proved remarkably strong, certainly more so than most commentators expected in the alliance’s early days.
“Hezbollah has stood by General Aoun as a consistent ally and they are standing by him now,“ asserted Alain Aoun a leading member of the FPM in parliament.
“We fully expect that they and others will work hard to elect him as president since we clearly see that there are two-thirds of Christians who are behind his nomination.”
A President for Valentine’s Day?
Still, even though a presidential vote is set for February 8, as it currently stands Aoun probably doesn’t have enough support to convene the necessary two-thirds quorum, much less win outright.
For starters, Franjieh remains a candidate as well as the official candidate for the Future Movement that has the largest delegation in parliament with 28 MPs.
If a simple majority vote were to be held today it is quite possible that Franjieh would win, not least because two of Lebanon’s other major party leaders, Walid Jumblatt and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, both deeply oppose Aoun.
When asked whether Hezbollah could “force” its close ally Berri and his AMAL Movement MPs to support Aoun, one top advisor for the parliament speaker said flatly, “they can try, but they will not be successful.”
Recognizing stumbling blocks such as this, both the FPM and the LF are assiduously courting Hariri and the Future Movement, with the LF arguing Aoun is less pro-Assad and pro-Hezbollah than Franjieh and that much is to be gained by testing the Shiite party’s real intentions.
Does Hezbollah really want a president or do they and their external backers in Syria and Iran want a prolonged vacuum?
More to the point, do they want a “strong” Christian president that would create a precedent for representative leadership rather than consensual leadership when it comes to the top post?
One leading Hezbollah official, who asked to remain anonymous, while stressing that the party would remain faithful to its allies, preferred to emphasize what he explained as the larger dynamic at work: “We believe that between the Shiite and the Christians there is a great degree of equivalency now… They realize this is an existential struggle in Lebanon and in the Middle East.”
Be that as it may, even if Hezbollah does end up putting enough pressure on its own allies – Franjieh to withdraw his candidacy and AMAL to support Aoun in some capacity – Hariri will still have to be convinced not to oppose Aoun, at the very least, since he could muster enough votes to prevent a quorum.
The problem is that even if there is a comprehensive deal that sees him return to the premiership – and even if Saudi Arabia has given him wide latitude to negotiate, as one leading Future movement official attested – Aoun as a “wildcard” Christian president is only one aspect threatening Hariri.
More immediately, a consolidated FPM-LF alliance, bolstered by the presidency, would probably harm the Future Movement the most in any future elections, with as many as ten seats that could be put in jeopardy.
“It will not be easy, of course,” admitted one senior advisor to General Aoun. “And everyone is playing hard to get right now.
“But in the end, we will either solve this the Lebanese way and almost everyone will go to parliament, there will be understandings and shares, and there will be a vote for Aoun. If that doesn’t happen, then we are going to see more breakdown in our politics… And none of us can really bear that.”