Supporters of Hassan Nasrallah listen to the Hezbollah leader via a screen during a rally marking the 10th anniversary of the end of the 2006 war with Israel, in Bint Jbeil, southern Lebanon, August 13.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Lebanon is poised to elect a strong Hezbollah ally as the country’s president Monday, in a boost for the pro-Iranian axis in the region.
If there is no last-minute surprise, 81-year-old former general Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian, will easily be elected by parliament to the top office. The pro-Hezbollah Beirut daily As-Safir reported yesterday that he is on track to win in the first round and enjoys the backing of 94 of the 127 MPs.
In 2006, Aoun signed a formal agreement of alliance between his Free Patriotic Movement and Hezbollah, and has consistently backed the Shi’ite group ever since.
Aoun’s impending election is “a political victory for Hezbollah,” said Benedetta Berti, an analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies.
“Hezbollah has been very squarely backing Aoun for president and this was always the deal between Aoun’s party and Hezbollah. Hezbollah has upheld its end of the deal. With this election, if it happens, you can see Hezbollah being consolidated in terms of its political allies as well as its position in Lebanon.”
The expected election will fill a post that has been vacant since the previous president Michel Suleiman finished his term in 2014 without an agreement on who would succeed him. Under Lebanon’s constitution, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament, a Shi’ite Muslim.
The breakthrough for Aoun came when Saudi ally, Saad Hariri, the most powerful Sunni politician in Lebanon and the leader of what is known as the March 14 coalition, endorsed him after failing to gain support for another candidate, Suleiman Franjieh.
Aoun reportedly promised Hariri, a former prime minister, the premiership. Hariri is seen as particularly anxious to get back in office.
“He needs the position to shore up his political and financial fortunes which have been flagging,” wrote Paul Salem, vice president for policy and research at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
“Aoun’s election is a clear victory for the pro-Iranian axis in the Levant and another climb down for Saudi Arabia,” he wrote.
Tehran and Riyadh are engaged in a struggle for regional primacy that is a sectarian battle between Shi’ite and Sunni Islam as much as a political rivalry. This has pitted them on opposite sides of the Syrian civil war, with Riyadh supporting Sunni rebels, and Iran and Hezbollah backing the minority Alawite regime of Bashar Assad.
Hariri’s failure in promoting his own candidate for the presidency and his agreement to Aoun reflects the absence of Saudi influence in Lebanon, which resulted from Riyadh’s disengagement from Beirut beginning in February. At that time, in response to Lebanon’s failure to condemn attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran following the kingdom’s execution of a Shi’ite cleric, Saudi Arabia canceled a three billion dollar aid package for the Lebanese army.
It is thought that Lebanon did not join other Arab countries in condemning Iran because of the influence of Hezbollah and its allies.
“Aoun is not the ideal candidate from Riyadh’s point of view,” Berti said. “Riyadh has been withdrawing for the past year so it doesn’t come as a surprise that they have less influence today compared to a year ago.”
Aoun’s likely election caps a stunning, if protracted, comeback.
It comes 26 years after he was forced by the Syrian military to depart his post as prime minister of one of two rival governments in Beirut, and later go into exile in France. Syria acted after Aoun declared war against the Syrian presence in Lebanon.
In 2005, following the Syrian withdrawal from the country in the wake of protests against the assassination of prime minister Rafik Hariri, Saad’s father, Aoun returned home to a hero’s welcome. But within a year he was allied with Hezbollah and Damascus.
His metamorphosis from a warrior against Syria to an ally of the Syrian regime and Hezbollah is seen by many as sheer opportunism.
However, As-Safir is casting him as someone who can build ties with diverse forces and demonstrate strong leadership to “rebuild the state.”
“He stores experience of having an ability to weave understandings and build national bridges and address the other in the homeland,” it wrote.
Berti was more circumspect.
“Lebanon is very polarized because of the Syrian civil war,” he said. “And with the situation in Syria being dramatic and in the midst of a war, you won’t see dramatic changes in Lebanon. Even with Aoun’s election the polarization remains, and the country is still going to move very slowly in terms of implementing changes and reforms.”