Barring any major unforeseen event, on October 31 Lebanon’s parliament will elect as president the octogenarian Michel Aoun—a Maronite Christian former army commander and leading ally of Hezbollah.
His election will have been facilitated by the decision of former prime minister Saad Hariri to endorse Aoun on October 21. Hariri is the leader of the largest Sunni Muslim bloc in parliament, and his move should bring to an end the presidential void that has been in place since May 2014, the longest since the end of the war in 1990.
Aoun’s anticipated election will bring much-needed détente to Lebanese politics. It will probably end the current political paralysis and reinvigorate democratic institutions. However, the election will also achieve relatively little in the long run.
HEZBOLLAH COULD BE IN AN IDEAL POSITION
In publicly backing Aoun, Hariri stated that he understood the personal and political risks involved. Aoun has for some time been a major political adversary, is highly unpopular among Hariri’s Sunni base, and his election will be seen as a victory for Hezbollah and Syria. However, driven by financial and political misfortune, most evident in his candidates’ lackluster performances in municipal elections earlier this year, Hariri saw the deal as necessary to guarantee his own political survival.
As for Aoun, he needed the support of Hariri’s bloc (and a green light from the leading Lebanese Sunni representative) to ensure his accession to the presidency. He has eyed the post since 1988–1989, when he led a contested military government and oversaw a failed and destructive effort to expel the Syrian army from Lebanon.
With the deal done, other political actors who were left out in the cold are vying to reinforce their position. Nabih Berri, the speaker of parliament, was notably angry that he was circumvented in the recent presidential maneuvers. He insisted that, first, there needed to be a package deal over the presidency. This was to include agreement on a new electoral law, shares in a new government, as well as implementation of previous agreements on the lucrative oil sector with Gebran Bassil, Aoun’s son in law and Lebanon’s foreign minister. By continuing to oppose Aoun, Berri is raising the stakes to make sure he receives something in return for his consent.
Walid Joumblatt, the Druze leader, is close to Berri and has not yet taken a position on Aoun’s election. However, he will likely support anything that reinforces Christian-Druze amity in the mountain regions over which he has influence. He will also be keen to see how the Aoun-Hariri rapprochement affects the prospects of electoral lists he will back in parliamentary elections scheduled for next year.
Hezbollah has held Aoun up as its only candidate, even though it is the view of many people that the party only did so to perpetuate the presidential vacuum, believing Aoun would never become a consensus candidate. To others, Aoun is an instrument through which the party hopes to continue controlling Lebanon. At any rate, when Hariri backed Aoun, Hezbollah had no alternative but to announce its electoral support for him as well.
Lebanon’s political scene is entering a new phase. Events have driven the final nail in the coffin of the two principal political alliances that had governed the country since 2005—the March 8 coalition affiliated with Hezbollah and the March 14 coalition associated with Hariri.
New broad-based alliances, inconceivable a year ago, are now being forged. The realignments began late last year, when Hariri backed Sleiman Franjieh, another ally of Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, for the presidency. The move alienated Samir Geagea, the head of the Lebanese Forces Party, who until then was the official March 14 candidate. Geagea responded by shifting his support to Aoun, who had previously been his principal Christian rival.
What appears to be emerging is a Hariri-Aoun-Geagea axis, though how Hezbollah will respond to this remains uncertain. While the party is close to Aoun, its relations with Hariri and Geagea are not good. In the event a rival axis emerges made up of Berri, Joumblatt, and Franjieh, Hezbollah could be in a position to play these two alignments off against one another to its own advantage.
A BUMPY ROAD AHEAD FOR HARIRI
There is a general view that Hariri’s support for Aoun means that he will be named prime minister, unless Hariri decides otherwise. Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, has already said that the party would, grudgingly, accept Hariri. However, it is not certain that it will facilitate his task of forming a government, or governing. Indeed, recent press reports suggest that the Syrians were opposed to a Hariri comeback, and Berri, a prominent ally of Syria, may use his clout to challenge the incoming government on multiple fronts.
At the same time, Hariri’s effective concession of defeat has diminished his bargaining power over the makeup of the cabinet, leaving him vulnerable with respect to Hezbollah, Berri, and Aoun in the distribution of portfolios.
Hariri’s troubles may not end there. There will be bumps on the road as the government formulates its policy statement, which will have to reflect a minimal consensus on issues of national concern. These include Hezbollah’s role in Syria, the financing of the international tribunal trying suspects in the assassination of Rafik Hariri (all of them Hezbollah members), and even how to contain Hezbollah’s anti-Saudi rhetoric. Where Aoun stands on these issues may further complicate Hariri’s efforts.
In this context, a delay in the formation of the government might entail a postponement of parliamentary elections scheduled for June 2017, since a caretaker government cannot organize elections.
WHAT WILL AOUN BRING?
Supporters of Aoun depict him as a champion of Christian rights, who will rebuild respect for state institutions. That may be too optimistic by half. Aoun has been part of the Lebanese political scene for decades and was a participant in its civil war. Like other political players, he has been closely involved in deal making, the undermining of elections, and the divvying up of governmental posts. His age and temperament mean that the needed dynamism expected of a new president after a long vacuum will be lacking. Lastly, he cannot and will not do anything about Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, which has cast doubt on the sovereign authority of the state.
Several things will effectively ensue from this. On the economic front, the continued involvement of Hezbollah in Syria, with the tacit acquiescence of Lebanon’s main leaders, makes it more likely that economic performance will remain sluggish, despite surprising private-sector activity. That’s because tourists and significant foreign direct investment, especially from the Gulf states, will remain elusive in such a context.
On the security front, Aoun will likely focus on naming key security figures, particularly the head of the army, and on scoring specific successes through the intelligence services. Some of this may be directed against Syrian refugees. As the main purveyors of anti-Syrian refugee rhetoric, Aounists may escalate the xenophobia that has dominated public debate on the Syrian refugee question, perhaps translating this into even greater abuse of refugees. In the long run, and in view of mounting sectarian tensions in Lebanon, such actions might precipitate the growth of radical elements within refugee and other communities.
In short, while the election of Michel Aoun opens the door to ending the political stalemate and breathing some life into Lebanon’s institutions, expectations of a major transformation should be held in check. If anything, his election will demonstrate that Lebanese leaders tend to arrive at their own arrangements when opportunities arise. With Aoun as president, the likelihood is that the appearance of change will only hide how little things have really changed.