US Ambassador to Lebanon David Hale is sold on the idea of lawmaker Michel Aoun becoming the country’s next president. Under Lebanon's constitution, parliament must elect a Maronite Christian president, who serves a single six-year term. In this round of presidential elections, former prime minister and Sunni leader Saad Al-Hariri heads the largest parliamentary bloc, and Aoun’s bloc and those of his allies do not hold a majority in Lebanon’s 128-seat parliament. Thus Hariri could decisively tip the balance in Aoun’s favor.
Hale argues that by luring Aoun away from his alliance with Hezbollah and closer to the March 14 alliance, Hezbollah would find itself isolated and eventually be forced to compromise on some issues, including the fate of its armed militia, which has been engaged in fighting in neighboring Syria since 2011.
But because of America’s retrenchments, resets and pivots, Hale’s influence on Lebanese politics is minimal. If Aoun wants Hariri’s support he will have to ask for it—which he did on a recent visit to France, where he met Hariri. Reports have it that the presidential candidate promised the former prime minister that if elected, Hariri—who was forced to leave Lebanon under threats to his security from Hezbollah—would be able to return home to head the first Cabinet under Aoun’s presidency. Those close to Hariri say that he has indeed flirted with the idea.
Hezbollah, for its part, would not mind the combination of an Aoun presidency and a Hariri premiership, as long as both men stay out of what Hezbollah believes is its business. But Hezbollah is willing to barter with Aoun and Hariri: it would maintain its grip over security and foreign policy issues, while the two men would get free reign on economic and other policies.
What Aoun is offering Hariri is the restoration of the status quo prior to April 2005—before the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. Between 1991 and 2005, Damascus let the Lebanese run most of their domestic affairs, including economic ones, but reserved the right to control foreign policy and internal security. Aoun is technically suggesting a return to the pre-2005 arrangement, with the single difference that instead of Damascus having the upper hand, it would be Hezbollah.
Perhaps Hariri finds Aoun and Hezbollah’s offer attractive. After all, his father took up a similar opportunity in 1992 and presided over one of Lebanon’s most stable periods, coinciding with post-civil war reconstruction and economic expansion.
But for Hariri to take the Aoun–Hezbollah offer, he would have to let down many of his friends. First and foremost among them is Aoun’s rival and presidential candidate Samir Geagea, who in the first voting session last week received 48 votes to Henry Helou’s 16. (Fifty-two blank votes were cast by the bloc comprising Aoun, Hezbollah and their allies.)
The March 14 alliance—formed in 2005 by Hariri, Geagea, Aoun, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, and other minor Christian politicians—was credited with forcing Syria out of Lebanon in 2005, against the will of Hezbollah and its junior Shi'ite partner, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.
But shortly thereafter, Aoun abandoned March 14 and entered into an alliance with Hezbollah that gave him a bigger piece of parliament, the cabinet and the bureaucracy. In 2008, and more clearly in 2010, Jumblatt and his bloc also abandoned March 14, following threats from Hezbollah. Since then, Jumblatt has proclaimed himself neutral, calling his bloc “the centrist.”
In the March 14 alliance, only Geagea stuck with Hariri through both the good days and the bad. But the two men have recently diverged a bit, when Hariri gave his bloc the nod to join the Tammam Salam cabinet, much to Geagea’s consternation. The disagreement was not significant, though, and Hariri voted for Geagea in the first voting session in parliament, which suggests the former prime minister appreciates Geagea staying the course and is willing to return the favor.
The only problem for Hariri is that, by sticking with Geagea for president, he would be turning down the Aoun–Hezbollah offer and choosing to carry on with confronting the Shi’a group over its armed militia and its state within the state. If Hariri sticks with Geagea, Lebanon should expect to live without a president for a while—at least until something substantial changes, like the sudden turn of events that resulted in the formation of the Salam cabinet.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.