Lebanon’s politics continue to be in turmoil. The country lacks a president because its numerous feuding sectarian parties cannot agree. The system has this problem built into it because by agreement Lebanon must have a Christian as president. That means that the Christian politicians and parties, primarily made up of Maronite Christians, compete for support from the other Sunni, Shi’a and Druze parties.
As if this was not complex enough, the pro-Iranian Hezbollah, which only has a handful of seats in parliament, is able to essentially blackmail Lebanon into forcing a president of Hezbollah’s choosing upon Beirut.
This matters because Lebanon is at the crossroads of other issues in the Middle East. The US backed a maritime deal with Israel that could see some exploration for energy resources off the coast. However, there are concerns about what Hezbollah will do and whether companies from Qatar, France and elsewhere will be able to bring out the resources and shore up Beirut’s finances.
Hezbollah rooting for presidential candidate Suleiman Frangieh
Is something going to change? According to a recent opinion piece in Gulf News, the political situation is still deadlocked. “It’s been over months now, and the presidential seat in Lebanon remains vacant. A series of back-to-back elections in parliament have failed to break the gridlock, although the two main contenders, Gibran Bassil and Suleiman Frangieh, are still to make a floor nomination,” the piece noted, adding that Bassil is the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and son-in-law of former president Michel Aoun. “Frangieh is the grandson of a former president and namesake who is backed by Hezbollah. Although Bassil’s parliamentary bloc is much larger than that of Frangieh (he commands 17 MPs while Frangieh controls only 2), his chances of success are minimal if his former allies in Hezbollah don’t approve his nomination. And there is no indication from Hezbollah that it is going to back Bassil anytime soon, insisting [sic] that its only candidate for president is Frangieh.” Frangieh is head of the Marada movement which has in the past been pro-Syrian and close to Hezbollah and Amal.
Hezbollah still believes that it can gather a 65-vote majority for Frangieh. That’s easier said than done since it currently commands no more than 34 guaranteed votes (17 for Hezbollah and Amal each.
Hezbollah wants to find the 65 votes necessary for Frangieh. According to the article, Bassil and Frangieh could not resolve their differences. Sunni parties are not playing a major role, with Saad Hariri ostensibly in retirement. Hariri’s father was killed by Hezbollah in 2005. The article claimed that the end result will be up to Hezbollah and the Shia Amal movement. The same article noted that army commander Joseph Aoun was a choice that would be supported by France, Saudi Arabia and the Maronite Patriarch. Another candidate for president was Michel Moawwad, who was backed by Samir Geagea.
A recent article by LBC Group in Lebanon noted that “the Saudi position on Frangieh has been heard by visitors to the Saudi ambassador in Lebanon and visitors to the Kingdom before and after the France Quintet meeting based on the fact that the Kingdom, while it will not interfere in the naming process, is still clear about its position on not accepting a candidate affiliated with Hezbollah.” Another article in Arabic in The Independent noted that Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri has also come out in support of Frangieh.
This shift in Berri’s posture could seal the deal for Frangieh. An article by Al-Ain media in the Gulf suggests that this is a possibility. This means that the decisions and agreements on a new president could come in the next weeks. However, a commentator told Al-Ain that "most political forces are now afraid that the crisis will continue until May because if it continues, it will lead to the explosion of the country in general." It would appear that if Frangieh advances toward the presidency that this will continue the Hezbollah hold and influence on power. This would block reforms in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s efforts to control the country have continued since 2005 when the Syrian regime was forced to leave Lebanon. This has led the country to bankruptcy and has contributed to its near collapse.
Hezbollah’s shifting alliances and its current problems with its old allies in the Free Patriotic Movement, also show that even Hezbollah cannot hold onto its previous friendships. There are other issues that are afoot; a recent reconciliation between the Gulf and Syria has led to the potential for change in the region. The UAE is open to working with Syria, but it remains to be seen what Saudi Arabia will do. Saudi Arabia has played a key role in Lebanon historically, helping end the civil war in the country that took place from 1976 to 1989. It’s unclear if Saudi Arabia and the Gulf will be keen on working with the Syrian regime and a president of Lebanon who is backed by Hezbollah.
The viewpoint of the US, France and others is that Lebanon needs stability. Stability requires having a president. It also requires Hezbollah to not always have a veto on everything. However, the last decade has shown that Hezbollah’s power continues to grow in Lebanon.
That means current potential shifts in Lebanon could lead to an agreement on a new president, but it could also lead to a crisis. Lebanon is also at a juncture in transition between its intelligence chiefs; Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim is leaving office and it is unclear who will be appointed in his place. Arab News said that “Lebanon is due to appoint a new acting head of its intelligence agency after the highest-ranking candidate was declared fit to take over from its retiring current chief. The medical committee of General Security on Tuesday approved the extension of Brig. Gen. Elias Baissari’s commission for nine months, amid questions over his fitness relating to injuries he suffered in a car bomb attack almost 20 years ago... However, Baissari would assume the position only until the appointment of a new permanent director general when and if a new president can be elected and a national government formed. [Interior Minister Bassam] Mawlawi is currently in Tunis at a meeting of Arab interior ministers.”