What Happened?

President Michel Aoun has left office after a highly contentious six-year term. During that time, the president was often in conflict with leading members of the political class, most prominently Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. This allowed Aoun to portray himself as a lone figure fighting the corruption of the politicians. Such an image would have been more convincing had the former president not devoted so much of his energies to advancing the political fortunes of his son in law Gebran Bassil, whom he had hoped would succeed him.

Aoun’s promotion of Bassil was not limited to nepotism. If the Lebanese agreed that the former president was justified in regularly denouncing the corruption of his political rivals, his behavior hardly contrasted with theirs. His favoring Bassil, particularly the insistence that he name ministers to the lucrative Ministry of Energy, was widely regarded as an effort to elbow in on the division of the spoils system hitherto dominated by Aoun’s adversaries. Indeed, the United States sanctioned Bassil for corruption in November 2020, under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.

Aoun’s hope that Bassil would be president after him was also one of the major sources of tension with Najib Mikati, the prime minister-designate. Mikati was tasked with forming a government after parliamentary elections last May, but moved with little conviction on that front. He felt it was better to run out the clock on Aoun’s term at the head of a caretaker government, thereby avoiding the conditions Bassil was trying to impose on the new government. Bassil’s hope was that he could use his sway over such a government as leverage to get himself elected president, or bring in someone of his choice, thereby setting up his own election in six years’ time. Bassil’s advantage was that his father in law had to sign any decree establishing a new government. With Aoun now gone, the situation has changed.


 

Why Is It Important?

Aoun’s departure may bring a momentary end to an antagonistic interregnum when Lebanon’s system descended into unprecedented dysfunctionality. For Aoun, the priority was never to implement the constitutional role of the president to “act as the symbol of the nation’s unity.” On the contrary, his overriding ambition was to settle scores with the Taif Accord of 1989, which severely curtailed the powers of the Maronite Christian president and distributed them to a council of ministers headed by a Sunni prime minister. While that battle may not be over, given that Bassil will continue to play on the anti-Taif tropes that Aoun used to boost his popularity among Christians, it certainly has entered a new phase. For the foreseeable future, it is more likely to be someone else, perhaps Hezbollah, that seeks to alter Taif.

The irony is that at times Aoun used the ambiguities of the post-Taif constitution to assert presidential powers. For instance, he reinterpreted the president’s signatory authority over decrees forming new governments to make himself an active participant in naming ministers. Prior to Aoun, presidents had been more reluctant to do so. Aoun also forcefully imposed himself as the main negotiator with Israel over the delineation of maritime borders, when it was Berri who sought to take the lead early on. Ultimately, Hezbollah set the conditions for an agreement, but Aoun maneuvered well in the spaces he had created for himself, and it was the Taif constitution that gave him this possibility.

With Aoun no longer president and now in his late 80s, the big question is what will become of his Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). Aound handed the FPM to Bassil on a silver platter, and Bassil has taken steps over the years to eliminate from its ranks anyone not personally loyal to him. The question many people are asking today is whether the organization can survive under the divisive Bassil if Aoun is no longer as active in bolstering his son in law. That remains to be seen, but the post-Aoun period will represent a challenge for Bassil. He will no longer have the president as ally, which means that the politics of obstruction that he has perfected will no longer be as effective as previously.


 

What Are the Implications for the Future?

While optimists will see Aoun’s exit as the end of a mandate that presided over Lebanon’s collapse in 2019, a more immediate problem is that Lebanon is in a dangerous situation with regard to its executive branch of government. The Mikati government functions in a caretaker capacity, and there are profound disagreements over what it can do. While Mikati argues that the government constitutionally takes over the powers of the president when there is a vacuum in the presidency, Aoun and Bassil have argued that this does not apply to a caretaker government. Furthermore, they have threatened to withdraw Aounist ministers from the government, while Hezbollah has also announced it would do the same. This would further weaken Mikati’s position, even if it would not really change the government’s status, given that constitutionally it had already resigned after the parliamentary elections last May. So today, for the first time ever, the country finds itself without a president and without a fully empowered government. The implications of this, especially at a time of financial and economic disarray, are very serious.

This situation shifts the center of gravity to parliament, and particularly to Nabih Berri. If Aoun and Bassil had hoped to get their way on the government by engaging in brinkmanship with Mikati, what they have effectively done by failing to agree with him is to strengthen their primary foe, Berri. Today, the only path out of the impasse is for parliament to elect a new president, and Berri, sensing an opening, tried to exploit this by calling for a dialogue under his aegis to reach a consensus. Whatever happens, for the moment Lebanon’s political forces are not close to agreeing to a candidate, and what we can expect is many more weeks, even months, of vacuum before they begin shifting their positions.

In terms of the popular vote, the FPM lost ground in the last elections. Berri and Mikati now have their knives out for Bassil, who has alienated just about everyone. That is why Aoun’s exit will make Bassil more reliant than ever on Hezbollah. The party does not want to see its major Christian ally weakened, but nor does it intend to bend the system around Bassil’s interests as it did for Aoun. In this context, Bassil finds himself in a dilemma. His closeness to Hezbollah is likely to further erode his standing among Christians. Nor will it help him with the Americans. He remains very keen to break free from U.S. sanctions, but nothing in his personal ethics or political behavior makes this remotely likely for now. In the foreseeable future, he will continue to pay the price for choosing the Hezbollah camp, and the costs will remain significant for his ambitions.