Lebanon is very much in the situation that had been predicted after parliamentary elections last May: There is no consensus over a replacement for President Michel Aoun; the political forces are struggling to form a government, with no guarantees that they will succeed; and the void is likely to create a new, and worse, situation that might just facilitate the election of a president who can transcend the country’s unremitting divisions.
With Aoun scheduled to leave office at the end of October, a few days ago parliament entered the ten-day period prior to the president’s departure, during which it is constitutionally obligated to convene to elect a successor. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri called for a session on October 24, but as in the preceding sessions parliamentarians failed to vote in a new president.
Where are we today? The two major Christian blocs in parliament, the one headed by the Lebanese Forces and the other by the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), have, predictably, neutralized each other. Both know that any new president will need the approval of at least one of the major Christian blocs to enjoy legitimacy, and are acting accordingly. Samir Geagea, the Lebanese Forces leader, and Gebran Bassil, the FPM leader, appear to have concluded that neither has a chance of being elected, so that both are moving on a backup plan. For Geagea, it is to work toward the election of what he calls a candidate of “confrontation” against Hezbollah; for Bassil, it is to ensure that any new president will accept Bassil’s onerous conditions if he wants to receive FPM backing. Neither scenario is easy to implement, or sustain, amid continued state disintegration and foreign pressures.
Understanding the double language of the main protagonists is essential. When Geagea says that he wants a candidate of confrontation, several things are at the back of his mind. First, he is taking a hard line in order to gain leverage in any negotiations over a compromise figure. Second, he wants to please his Saudi sponsors, by loudly proclaiming his willingness to oppose Hezbollah. But the candidate he currently supports, Michel Mouawad, is unlikely to get even the 64 votes required to be elected in a second round of parliamentary voting for president. So, behind Geagea’s bombast is a more subtle preparation for a deal that, he knows, will have to be made.
As for Bassil, he has come across as such a voracious figure, that few presidential candidates want to negotiate with him to secure FPM votes. No one doubts that Bassil aims to prepare his own election in six years’ time, so only a fool would willingly transform himself into a stepping stone for Bassil’s ambitions, while remaining his political hostage in the interim. There are fools aplenty in Lebanon, but the problem is that the parliament is now structured in such a way that neither major parliamentary alignment—the Lebanese Forces and their allies on the one hand, and Hezbollah and the FPM, with their allies, on the other—can push through a candidate who does not benefit from a broad consensus.
But then what kind of individual might emerge as a consensual figure? Because the weaker Maronite candidates are more likely to fall into Bassil’s or Geagea’s neutralizing web, this leaves few candidates who don’t risk doing so. Leading the pack is the army commander, Joseph Aoun. He heads the single national institution that retains cross-sectarian respect, is perceived as being outside partisan politics, and, personally, enjoys foreign esteem. The comments that have accompanied the possibility of his election have also been quite revealing.
Last July, Geagea mentioned that Aoun would be a credible candidate for the presidency and that the Lebanese Forces would support him “if he has good chances.” Paradoxically, this was widely interpreted as an effort to undermine Aoun’s prospects, since Geagea calculated that anyone he endorsed would have less of a chance of being accepted by Hezbollah and the FPM. From Geagea’s perspective, it made sense to undercut a rival for the presidency. Apparently Aoun was wise to the game, and unconfirmed reports at the time suggested he had made it clear to Geagea that he was unhappy with his embrace.
Bassil’s approach was more direct. Earlier this month, in an interview with Al-Jazeera, he announced that he opposed amending the constitution to elect Joseph Aoun as president. Such an amendment is necessary as Aoun is a grade 1 civil servant, which means he is required to resign two years before standing for public office, unless the constitution is altered to accommodate him. However, in the convoluted logic of Lebanese politics, Bassil’s apparent rejection could just as well have been an opening hand in eventual bargaining with Aoun over FPM support for his candidacy. In the greater scheme of things, while Bassil would prefer a weak candidate who would be more vulnerable to accepting the FPM’s conditions, Aoun does not threaten Bassil in the same way that Geagea does. He has no real base outside the military, so it remains conceivable that Bassil could change his mind about Aoun if momentum builds behind his candidacy.
But to reach such a stage, we will have to go through a typically destructive political interregnum, when the fecklessness of the political class exacerbates an already untenable socioeconomic situation. Geagea, Bassil, Prime Minister Najib Mikati, and Hezbollah all have no reason to make a move now, before they see what direction the country is taking. This will be defined by rising public discontent, further financial and economic deterioration, and more suffering, all of which will raise the heat on everyone to find a solution.
Whether Joseph Aoun comes out of this situation strengthened is unknown, and other outcomes are always possible, even if they are less likely. However, the dynamics indicate that only a figure who is above the fray, who has the means to push back against both Geagea and Bassil, who enjoys international respect, and who may not inconvenience Hezbollah for having spent years coordinating with the party, will emerge as the favorite. At present, Aoun alone appears to combine all these characteristics.