Slight progress made in presidential deadlock as French envoy leaves Lebanon

Jean-Yves Le Drian visits Lebanon for a third time to address the political crisis

Jean-Yves Le Drian, France's special envoy for Lebanon, during a meeting in Beirut. AFP
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French envoy Jean-Yves Le Drian on Friday wrapped up his five-day visit to Lebanon, now entering its tenth month without a president, with small steps made towards resolving the issue amid persisting uncertainty.

Mr Le Drian's latest initiative followed several unsuccessful attempts to get the political parties in Lebanon's deeply polarised parliament to agree on a presidential candidate.

The divide is mainly between the so-called opposition bloc comprising the Christian-led Lebanese Forces – the biggest party in parliament – its allies and independent MPs, and the camp aligned with Hezbollah, a powerful Shiite militia and political entity backed by Iran.

France has been actively involved in Lebanon's affairs in the years following the devastating Beirut port blast in 2020. President Emmanuel Macron's visit was the first made by a foreign official to the devastated capital, beginning a “French initiative” for a technocratic government that has made little headway so far.

It has abandoned its previous approach, which favoured Hezbollah's candidate Suleiman Frangieh for president in exchange for a prime minister from the opposition camp – a solution the opposition has uniformly declined.

“We have come to realise that the package deal approach is no longer viable; it's about facilitating the process,” a French diplomatic source told The National before Mr Le Drian's latest visit.

Open-ended session

The first noteworthy development is that Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said he is willing to convene an open-ended parliamentary session to select a president.

Mr Berri, who is also the leader of the Amal movement, Hezbollah's main ally, called last month for seven days of parliamentary discussions before proceeding to an open-ended electoral session.

In Lebanon, the election of a president typically results from behind-the-scenes negotiations to secure the two-thirds majority needed to elect a winner in the first round of voting, or, failing that, by a simple majority of the 128 Lebanese MPs in the second round.

In each of the 12 instances when the parliament has convened, Hezbollah and its allies have left before the second round, effectively preventing the quorum needed for a vote and obstructing the presidential session.

This means that the next session could result in a president being elected.

After meeting Mr Berri on Tuesday, Mr Le Drian said that the open-ended session proposal could “mark the beginning of a solution”.

Mr Le Drian also held discussions with Hezbollah MP Mohammad Raad, who said that “Nabih Berry's proposal aligns with the French efforts”, according to a Hezbollah statement released on Wednesday.

However, uncertainty prevails as Mr Berri has not yet set a date for a session.

To dialogue or not to dialogue

The second development revolves around the negotiation method adopted by stakeholders following the opposition's rejection of cross-party dialogue on the presidency – an approach that was first suggested by France.

Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea said previously that he saw no merit in “wasting additional time on a dialogue that will not lead anywhere”.

Tension between the long-standing foes has been fuelled by the recent kidnapping and murder of Elias Hasrouni, a member of the Lebanese Forces.

The party blamed Hezbollah for the killing, with Mr Geagea saying the incident “resembles the kind of dialogue” Hezbollah has been advocating for months.

“Any form of dialogue outside the parliamentary framework is a derailment of democracy and the constitution,” a Lebanese Forces spokesman told The National.

Mr Le Drian's trip has been the occasion to address negotiation methods acceptable to all stakeholders, with some MPs showing a greater flexibility than before.

Some from the opposition camp told The National that they are open to discussions that do not require face-to-face negotiations.

“We are willing to compromise as long as the candidate is not corrupt or an integral part of Hezbollah hegemony project over the country,” the Lebanese Forces spokesman added.

Michel Moawad, an independent MP and the opposition's camp's initial presidential candidate, said: “We are open for a dialogue process, which may assume various forms, and could involve France in a mediating role.”

Still, many unanswered questions linger, with the specific format for discussions yet to be determined.

Neither Azour nor Frangieh?

A third significant development lies in the recognition that the current candidates, Hezbollah-backed Mr Frangieh and opposition-supported Jihad Azour are not viable options, suggesting the need to consider alternatives.

Both current candidates are seen as controversial by the opposing camps: Mr Frangieh for his close ties to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and Mr Azour for his perceived US backing.

“Mr Le Drian said that as neither candidate could garner a two-thirds majority, it might be time that we start discussing a third candidate,” said independent MP Waddah Sadek, who attended a meeting with Mr Le Drian on Thursday.

There is a third name circulating: army chief Joseph Aoun, who enjoys the backing of Qatar, which is soon sending its own delegation to Lebanon.

“We are open for a compromise and willing to engage in discussions about a third name: this could potentially represent a breakthrough,” said independent MP Fouad Makhzoumi.

The development been widely interpreted in the local media as the new French approach, rather than a simple recognition of the situation.

It has resulted in back-and-forth between the two rival camps, with one side claiming that France never requested them to withdraw Mr Frangieh as a candidate, while the other asserting the opposite.

Mr Le Drian refrained from making any comment to the press during his visit.

Under Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing system, the president's post is reserved for a Christian, while the prime minister is a Sunni and the parliament speaker a Shiite.

The international community has repeatedly stressed the urgency of electing a president, given that Lebanon is dealing with one of the worst economic crises in modern history under a caretaker government with limited powers, a central bank headed by an acting governor and a parliament unable to take up other business until the presidency is decided.

All this has severely hindered Lebanon's ability to enact much-needed reforms – although the country had failed to take essential action to address its financial crisis since 2019, even when it had a president.

Updated: September 16, 2023, 4:41 AM