Rivals within Lebanon need to unify to finally pick a president

Michel Aoun's term ended in October. Since then, Hezbollah's opposition has not united around a candidate

Former Lebanese President Michel Aoun's 6-year term ended on October 31, 2022. EPA
Powered by automated translation

It’s an unfortunate aspect of Lebanese political culture that whenever the country is in a deadlock, the political actors tend to wait for a solution that comes partly from the outside. It has been more than six months since Michel Aoun left the presidency, and still Lebanon's political forces are waiting for regional and international powers to reach a consensus on a successor.

One thing that has thrown a spanner in the works is the recent Saudi-Iranian reconciliation. Because of this, the Lebanese have assumed that an improvement of relations between Riyadh and Tehran would facilitate the election of a compromise candidate by Lebanon’s parliament. But in reaching this conclusion, they have had no incentive to push the process forward themselves.

Reportedly, this passive attitude has caused displeasure among countries with a stake in Lebanon, particularly those who support parties opposed to Hezbollah. There is some justification in this, insofar as Hezbollah and its main Shiite ally, the Amal Movement, anticipated the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement by endorsing a candidate for the presidency, namely the former parliamentarian and minister Suleiman Franjieh, who is also close to the regime in Syria.

It’s not clear where Lebanon stands today. The view among some observers is that only once the Saudis speak to Hezbollah will we see a breakthrough.

In doing so, Hezbollah and Amal probably assumed that because the Saudis and Iranians were moving closer, they would try to find middle ground over Mr Aoun’s successor. In that case, it made sense for them to have a negotiating card in hand, namely Mr Franjieh, in order to demand more to give him up. At the same time, by uniting over a candidate, when their opponents have failed to agree on one of their own, they would have an advantage as the deadlock persisted.

The disarray among the parliamentary blocs opposed to Hezbollah has been flagrant. While a number of these blocs initially supported Michel Mouawad as candidate, he never managed to rally all of Hezbollah’s opponents or secure the two-thirds vote he needed to win in a first round of voting. Indeed, as parliament went through consecutive rounds over successive weeks, Mr Mouawad gradually lost votes, even those of the key bloc of Walid Joumblatt.

Lebanese MPs prior to the start of a parliament session to elect a president, in Beirut on November 10, 2022. EPA

In what is effectively a hung parliament today, the support of Mr Joumblatt’s bloc is necessary for anyone who seeks a majority. Mr Franjieh cannot hope to win without his backing, nor could anyone who stands against Mr Franjieh. That is why Mr Joumblatt sought to position himself as a kingmaker in February, making it clear that the next president could be neither Mr Franjieh nor Mr Mouawad.

Yet, all Mr Joumblatt’s move did was to reinforce the vacuum existing today in the ranks of the opposition. With Mr Mouawad having been undermined, the opposition finds itself united around no one, allowing Hezbollah and Amal to portray Mr Franjieh as the only serious candidate in the arena.

Mr Joumblatt is not alone in being responsible for the opposition’s disorder. Two other problems have also stood out: the inability of the so-called "change bloc", made up of independent reformist parliamentarians, many from civil society, to agree to a candidate who reflects their worldview; and the fact that many of those opposed to Hezbollah refuse to follow the lead of the Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, whose Christian bloc is Hezbollah’s major foe in parliament.

Mr Geagea was very much behind Mr Mouawad, but his efforts to position himself as the organiser of those challenging Hezbollah has rubbed many of his potential allies the wrong way. Mr Joumblatt has taken a less antagonistic attitude towards Hezbollah and refuses to follow Mr Geagea’s lead. As for the change bloc, many of its members regard Mr Geagea as another representative of the corrupt political class they reject, while some of their members come from political backgrounds that have traditionally opposed the Lebanese Forces.

The change bloc has had significant problems of its own. In the past year, it has faced internal disagreements and reflected ineffectiveness. Moreover, it is embarrassing that it has been unable to identify a single reformist candidate for the presidency that it could endorse and around which it could unify.

Part of the problem is outside the bloc’s control. Some serious candidates have asked the bloc not to publicly endorse them for fear that it would undercut their chances later on when there is a search for a compromise candidate. However, all this means is that the bloc has been willing to appear irresolute and divided on a vital national issue over which reformists cannot afford to remain silent.

It’s not clear where Lebanon stands today. The view among some observers is that only once the Saudis speak to Hezbollah will we see a breakthrough. There have been reports in the Lebanese media lately that Iraqi mediators, namely former prime minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi and Ammar Al Hakim, have sought to bring the two sides together. Little has filtered out on these mediation efforts, but in the same way that the Saudis have talked to the Houthis in Yemen, it is conceivable that they may agree to do the same in Lebanon.

In light of this, it makes sense for Hezbollah’s adversaries to come together around a candidate to ensure they are not circumvented by a Saudi-Hezbollah negotiation. In early May, there were reports that such an initiative was under way, thanks to independent parliamentarian Ghassan Skaff. Whether this can succeed is questionable, however, as more profound rifts persist among Hezbollah’s opponents.

Published: May 10, 2023, 5:00 AM