Inside the rare 'convergence' by Lebanon's rival Christian parties over Jihad Azour

Exclusive: Parties traditionally at odds tell The National why they have gathered behind the candidacy of the IMF official

Director of the Middle East and Central Asia and International Monetary Fund Jihad Azour gives an interview at Dubai's International Financial Center on May 1, 2018, in Dubai.
The International Monetary Fund on May 2, warned Arab states against complacency over a looming debt crisis, urging continued economic reforms despite a rise in oil prices. "Required reforms include further steps toward full elimination of energy subsidies, and changes to pension and social security systems -- including revisions to retirement age and benefits," the IMF said in its Regional Economic Outlook for May. Jihad Azour, director of the IMF's Middle East and Central Asia department, told AFP higher oil prices should spur change. / AFP PHOTO / KARIM SAHIB / TO GO WITH AFP STORY by OMAR HASAN
Powered by automated translation

All concerned insist it is a “convergence”, not an agreement.

Lebanon's largest Christian parties, traditionally rivals, have come together in a rare, informal understanding to vote for International Monetary Fund official Jihad Azour to end a seven-month presidential vacuum.

This coming together of some of the country's largest and oldest Christian parties, as well as Christian and Muslim independents, resulted in key players announcing their backing for Mr Azour before parliament convenes for the 12th time to elect a president on Wednesday.

And while they normally might be at each other's throats in and outside parliament, they hold common ground on one thing – they do not want Suleiman Frangieh, who is supported by Iran-backed armed group and political party Hezbollah and its Shiite ally the Amal Movement, to succeed Michel Aoun as Lebanon's head of state.

“Nobody can succeed alone. So, they had to talk with us. Our political adversaries, who refused to talk, [then] accepted to talk. And on the contrary, they were proactive from their side, addressing us and talking to us,” said Gebran Bassil, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement Christian party.

“They realised that nothing can be done without us, and we cannot do anything without the others,” he told The National.

The FPM, one Lebanon's largest political parties, is presenting itself as a third bloc, in between a grouping that includes two other Christian parties – the Lebanese Forces and Kataeb Party – and the Shiite duo of Hezbollah and Amal.

Mr Bassil says his support for Mr Azour did not mean the FPM was entrenched in its position, and that the priority should be on attaining parliamentary consensus.

“It's not an agreement. There was a convergence over the name of Mr Azour,” said a source from the LF, parliament's largest party and historically an opponent of the FPM.

“We don't have an agreement, because an agreement would be based on a working plan,” the source said, adding that the only agreement the sides had was on the phrase “convergence”.

Gebran Bassil's party announces their presidential candidate

Gebran Bassil's party announces their presidential candidate

Samy Gemayel, the leader of the Kataeb Party, which typically aligns with the LF, and a strident critic of Hezbollah, said: “It doesn't mean that this is an alliance. We are not on the same page politically with [the FPM] and I don't think in the near future we will be.

“But on the presidential issue, they found a common interest in joining the opposition to block Frangieh and we are happy to see this. And this is weakening Hezbollah,” he said.

However, this rare understanding between the FPM and LF, the two largest parties in parliament, is unlikely to get Mr Azour enough votes to be elected in the first round of voting on Wednesday.

But it redraws the battle lines in the presidential race in Lebanon's bitterly divided legislature, where no side holds a majority.

Michel Moawad won about a third of votes in previous electoral sessions, through support from opponents of Hezbollah and a handful of independents. He withdrew in favour of Mr Azour last Sunday.

The support for Mr Azour followed months of negotiations behind the scenes over a possible new name.

“It was not easy. Getting parties, groups and MPs that are in total opposition to each for years to agree on one candidate is not an easy task,” said Mr Gemayel.

“So, you have to do all the mediation to make sure that everyone understands that there's a common interest here.”

Although extended presidential vacuums are not uncommon in Lebanon, the latest one comes with the country in a precarious state, entrenched in an economic crisis that has been described as one of the worst in modern history.

It was two and a half years before Mr Aoun, the FPM's founder and a former army general, was elected to the post in 2016 with the backing of Hezbollah, his party's traditional ally, and after reaching an agreement with traditional foes including LF leader Samir Geagea – an opponent in the 1975-1990 civil war.

The LF increased its share of seats in elections last year while the FPM lost seats, but no bloc holds a majority in parliament.

Lebanon's rival Christian parties unite to block Hezbollah candidate

Lebanon's rival Christian parties unite to block Hezbollah candidate

The presidency is reserved for a Maronite Christian in Lebanon's confessional political system, which also reserves half of the seats of the 128-seat legislature for Christians.

Some see the Christian “convergence” as an indicator that the FPM-Hezbollah relationship is not as strong as it once was.

But Mr Bassil believes the FPM's support for Mr Azour, rather than Hezbollah's choice of Mr Frangieh, will not damage the relationship.

“I don't think it should, because they did this first. They had their choice for the president, regardless of our known position of refusing it. And still with that, they kept supporting him, knowing that we are a big bloc of the Christian community and their choice was for the small one,” said Mr Bassil, referring to the fact that hardly any Christian MPs are expected to vote for Mr Frangieh next Wednesday.

“They did not respect our sensitivity and they went with that choice. And despite this, we didn't say 'we break with [Hezbollah], we don't talk to them'.”

Mr Gemayel claimed that while the FPM and opposition blocs agreed on Mr Azour, their motivations were different.

“It's not us who went to Hezbollah, [Mr Bassil] defected from Hezbollah. I think that the main reason was that there is a jealousy between the two persons, between him and the candidate of Hezbollah. He didn't agree with Hezbollah on the nomination of Suleiman Frangieh.

“We are blocking Frangieh because of his political position. He is blocking Frangieh from a personal or partisan perspective. But it doesn't change anything for us as long as he is taking a stand, as long as he is accepting a candidate that is accepted by us. Why not?”

Mr Frangieh, the scion of a north Lebanon political dynasty, has long had good ties with Hezbollah and is childhood friends with Syria's Bashar Al Assad.

The LF source said that many uncertainties remained and repeated that Mr Azour had not been the party's first choice, but insisted that the IMF official was “a million times” better than Mr Frangieh.

“Now, of course, we still favour Michel Moawad, Dr Samir Geagea, Samy Gemayel, anyone within this camp. But we are pragmatic enough to know that right now, the only thing that will help us break this deadlock that was imposed on the Lebanese people [is] going to be a candidate who can represent a common space for several groups.”

The pro-Azour bloc insist his nomination was not “confrontational”, even if representatives of Hezbollah have described him as such and insisted he will not become president.

“We refused all the names that are considered confrontational or provocative by [Parliament Speaker and Amal Movement leader] Nabih Berri's side, Hezbollah's side, Frangieh's side, etc,” said Mr Bassil.

Mr Gemayel concurred that Mr Azour should not be seen as a confrontation candidate.

“Whoever we would have nominated, the reaction would have been the same.”

Updated: June 12, 2023, 7:24 AM