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When will the Lebanese Presidential merry-go-round stop spinning?

When will the Lebanese Presidential merry-go-round stop spinning?
Published 18 Feb 2016 

And so the painfully slow process of agreeing on a new president for Lebanon continues.  A breakthrough — of sorts —  was reported last month when candidate Samir Geagea announced he was pulling out of the race and would endorse his rival, Michel Aoun, potentially arresting Christian indecision over which candidate to support.  However in November last year, Sa’ad Hariri, Geagea’s longstanding ally in the Sunni-Christian political alliance — the March 14th bloc —  announced he was nominating  alternative Christian candidate Suleiman Franjieh. This has triggered another stand-off and there remain two candidates to choose from: Aoun or Franjieh.

Supporters of presidential candidate Michel Aoun at a rally in September (Photo: Ratib Al Safadi/Getty Images)

Under Lebanese constitutional law, the president of the country must be a Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the house a Shi’ite Muslim.  The role of speaker has long been occupied by Amal leader Nabih Berri, and, owing to the strength of the Shi’a dominated ‘March 8th‘ alliance (Amal and Hizbullah). this has never been challenged.  Currently Tamam Salam is acting as interim prime minister as a compromise candidate but he wields little influence.  A parliamentary vote is necessary to elect the new president and that is scheduled for 2 March.  The March 8th alliance has demanded agreement on a candidate from all sides before the vote and, in the absence of this, has boycotted earlier attempts to hold the vote that requires the presence of 86 lawmakers to be valid.

The battle to agree on a president has been hampered by the political weakness of and divisions within the March 14th Sunni-Christian alliance.  The alliance was first fractured in 2006 when Michel Aoun announced he was joining the March 8th bloc.  Since that time, despite the pressure of the Syrian war and Hizbullah’s involvement in it, this Christian/Shia alliance has remained firm.  Thus divisions within the Christian community have continued over whether to support Aoun as part of March 8th, or Geagea as the March 14th candidate.   

The Christian-Sunni alliance has also been under pressure because of weak Sunni leadership. This has been caused by Hariri’s self-imposed exile and the vast differences in socio-economic status within the Sunni community.  The secular, Beiruti, Hariri-led political clan look and behave very differently to Sunni communities in northern Lebanon, particularly in the rural areas close to the border with Syria.  Rafiq Hariri was reportedly adept at financially co-opting the lower socio-economic strata of the Sunni community as he recognised the importance of maintaining political cohesion.  His son Sa’ad, perhaps in part due to his prolonged exile, has been less careful.  It is possible therefore that his decision to back Franjieh is part of a deal whereby he would become prime minister and resuscitate his leadership in Lebanon.
The effect of this weak leadership has been a noted rise in Sunni support in the north of Lebanon for Da’esh (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra.  As neither group comes across as being particularly tolerant of religious pluralism, this must be concerning moderate Sunnis and Christian supporters of March 14th alike.  In fact, the inherent tensions in the alliance have been increasingly exposed by the Syrian war.  Da’esh aside, the closeness of the Hariri family with the Saudi government, which is believed to be funding militants that attack Christian communities in Syria,will no doubt have cast doubts in many people’s minds as to the long-term sustainability of a Sunni-Christian alliance. [fold]

Ironically it is Hizbullah that stands to gain from Hariri’s decision to back Franjieh; as a friend of Syria, it is unlikely he would oppose Hizbullah’s support for Assad.  Hariri’s nomination of Franjieh therefore has been criticised by some in the Sunni community as a tacit acknowledgement of the rising power of March 8th.  There is little doubt that the Shi’ite/Christian alliance currently appears more stable and, despite the Syrian war, still wields more political power in Lebanon.  This is in no small part due to the smart leadership provided by Hasan Nasrallah. Thus far, he has managed to avoid major political fallout despite both the high death toll from Syria within the Shi’a community, and the unpopularity of Hizbullah’s alliance with Assad across Lebanon.  This is possibly due to the fact that, when all is said and done, ordinary Lebanese across the religio-political spectrum understand that it may be the presence of Hizbullah that will ultimately protect them from a Da’esh invasion.

With regards to the presidency, the Lebanese will not view Geagea’s latest decision with a great deal of excitement.  For one thing, none of the Christian candidates have a blameless record from the civil war; they all remain part of the established political elite which to most appear more concerned with political manoeuvring and power plays than the wellbeing of ordinary Lebanese.  Secondly, unless Hariri backs down over Franjieh, which currently he shows no sign of doing, the stalemate will persist.

And meanwhile, the power cuts continue, the potholes in the roads widen and the garbage piles up…

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