The conclusion of Michel Aoun’s presidency on October 31 has left the country in a power vacuum that has little prospect of being resolved anytime soon, with only a disempowered caretaker Cabinet serving as place holder.
A growing rift between the Iran-backed Hezbollah group and its Christian ally the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) threatens to further paralyse the arduous process of electing a new president.
A once-harmonious marriage of convenience between Hezbollah and the FPM has become tenuous, hindering agreement on a presidential candidate for the camp.
The two have shared a mutually beneficial relationship since 2006, when a memorandum called the ‘Mar Mikhael agreement’ was signed between the two groups. The alliance helped Michel Aoun ascend to the long-coveted presidency in 2016, in exchange for the FPM’s support for Hezbollah in the aftermath of the 2006 war with Israel.
It heralded an enduring era of deeply polarised politics that has evolved to the present day, with an Iran-backed bloc led by Hezbollah and a Saudi-backed Sunni-aligned bloc led by the Lebanese forces.
The ideological divide between blocs makes reaching a two thirds majority agreement on a presidential candidate difficult without internal agreements between political parties.
Why is there a widening rift forming between Hezbollah and FPM?
Sami Atallah, director of Lebanon-based think tank The Policy Initiative, referred to the Hezbollah-FPM arrangement as a “symbiotic relationship.”
“The two parties need each other. In a way they’re stuck to each other but they’re unable to forge the way forward.”
The dysfunctional codependency has become apparent as Gebran Bassil — the current leader of the FPM and Mr Aoun’s son-in-law — has refused to support Hezbollah’s preferred presidential candidate, instead levelling a number of criticisms at his allies.
It is an open secret that Mr Bassil has set his sights on the presidency. For six years, he was considered a top adviser and shadow to the then president and his father-in-law, Michel Aoun.
Resentment on both sides has escalated as Hezbollah continues to dismiss Mr Bassil's ambitions for the presidency, instead inclining towards ex-MP Suleiman Frangieh — another ally and the leader of the smaller Marada movement — or army general Joseph Aoun. Both are believed to be potential consensus candidates for which rival political parties might compromise. Mr Bassil has categorically rejected both.
In Lebanon, agreement on candidates is often a negotiation where political compromise is necessary between allies. In the absence of an officially announced candidate, Hezbollah and its allies have employed a strategy of submitting blank ballots, which until last week had consistently outnumbered the official candidate backed by the Lebanese Forces, Michel Moawad.
But in the ninth presidential session last Thursday, some FPM members deviated from the blank ballot strategy, sending a clear threat of non-compliance to Hezbollah.
Why is Gebran Bassil unhappy with Hezbollah?
Since the end of his father-in-law’s term, Mr Bassil has attempted to rally support from both domestic and international backers in recent weeks — largely failing to get around Hezbollah’s decision.
“When it came to Aoun, [Hezbollah] felt they owed him support” in exchange for FPM backing Hezbollah during the 2006 war with Israel, said Karim Bitar, the director of the Institute of Political Science at the Saint Joseph University of Beirut.
“This is not the case for Gebran Bassil who was never loved by Hezbollah’s leadership or its rank and file,” he told The National.
Sami Atallah of The Policy Institute elaborated that the FPM had alienated itself from the majority of Lebanon’s political leaders.
“The FPM doesn’t have many allies that are willing to lift Bassil to the presidency,” Dr Atallah said. “And they have numerous enemies. Bassil is pretty much not electable and I think Hezbollah realises this.”
“All he can do is try to nominate a candidate of his liking.”
Bargain and compromise
Although he appears to have acknowledged — but not given up on — his slim prospects for the presidency, political experts say getting Mr Bassil to forsake the influence he held during his father-in-law’s term will be difficult. This would explain why Hezbollah’s unofficial primary choice of Suleiman Frangieh is unfavourable for Mr Bassil.
“Frangieh would never agree to a behind the scenes co-presidency and would never allow his presidential mandate to be torpedoed,” said Mr Bitar.
The FPM leader has been vocal in his dissatisfaction at being shouldered out, accusing Hezbollah of being disloyal and insincere in its alliance.
“Nobody can impose a candidate or an ultimatum on the Free Patriotic Movement,” he reiterated in a speech on Sunday. He demanded his party’s say in choosing an alternative candidate for the post of head of state.
Tension between the two allies culminated in early December when Hezbollah attended a caretaker Cabinet session boycotted by the FPM, appearing to side with caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati.
“Our free existence is more precious than any understanding,” Mr Bassil said following the incident, clearly referring to the Mar Mikhael agreement.
Thaw in relations unlikely to amount to a total break
Isolated, the FPM needs Hezbollah’s support to maintain control of its share of state institutions, Mr Bitar told The National.
And to preserve its position as a considerable parliamentary bloc, Hezbollah needs to nurture its alliance with its primary Christian backer.
“It is a very tense moment. But I don't think it will significantly change the political balance of power,” Mr Bitar said.
There is hope. Mr Bassil has signalled he would be willing to back a third candidate, and Hezbollah has suggested it is willing to compromise.
But a deepening of the internal rift — in a landscape with a deeply divided parliament and opposing ideologies — would further prolong a political vacuum that has already left the state paralysed.
According to Dr Atallah, “this whole presidential process is disconnected from the reality of what’s happening in Lebanon’s society and economy.”
“Unfortunately, we’re hostage to a situation where electing a president is subject to the process of bargaining.”