The Lebanese presidential elections – stalemate but never checkmate

Tine Blogginnlegg.jpg

By Tine Gade, Senior Lecturer, Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages (University of Oslo).

This week, the 36th attempt to elect a new Lebanese president failed, due to a lack of quorum. The president is elected by a majority vote in a parliamentary quorum of two thirds.[1] The country has been without a president for twenty months, since Michel Sleiman’s mandate expired in May 2014.

The Lebanese columnist Ali Hashim recently wrote in an article that “For Hezbollah to choose between Lebanese presidential candidates Michel Aoun and Suleiman Frangie is like choosing between sweet and sweeter, but the choice itself is bitter”.

There are currently two primary presidential candidates. Both are favourable to Iran and Syria – but the constellation of alliances supporting the two rival candidates now cut across the usual political blocks. The political landscape in Lebanon has since 2005 been polarized between the Sunni-Christian March 14 alliance, supported by Saudi Arabia, France and the United States, and the March 8 alliance, which consists of Hizbullah and its Shi’i and Christian allies, backed by Iran and Syria. In the country’s consociational system, the presidency is assigned to a Maronite Christian. Many Christians therefore believe that the choice of president is not only a national (or international) decision – but also a Christian one.

The first candidate is Michel Aoun, the former general and army-chief who launched a “war of independence” against Syria in 1988-1990, and then lived in exile in France for fifteen years. He made a political U-turn when coming back to Lebanon to sign a memorandum of understanding with Hizbullah in February 2006. Aoun is Hizbullah’s official presidential candidate, but was long considered unacceptable for March 14 supporters.

The other main candidate is now Sleiman Frangie Jr.. He is the grandson of the former President Sleiman Frangie Sr., in office 1970-1976. Frangie Jr. lost his parents and siblings in a massacre commanded by rival Christian forces in 1978 (the Ehden massacre), and was practically “brought up by Syria”. He was always Hafiz al-Assad’s Lebanese “president-in-making”. Moreover, his father was a close friend of Basel al-Assad’s, who was intended to inherit the presidency from Hafiz before dying in a car crash in 1994.

Paradoxically, Sleiman Frangie is now the candidate of the Sunni-dominated Future Current. Its leader, Saad Hariri, endorsed Frangie after a Saudi-brokered deal. Hariri’s rationale was that a Syrian-friendly President was better than no president at all. Moreover, almost anyone would be better than Aoun, from Hariri’s standpoint. Although Frangie was a friend of the Assad’s, he was considered to be controllable if coming to power thanks to Saudi Arabia and Hariri’s Sunnis.

There was one main flaw to this strategy – the assumption that Hizbullah eventually would be brought over to let Aoun go. That proved wrong. In the view of many Lebanese, Hizbullah’s blockage of Frangie’s election proved that the ”God’s Party” did not want Lebanon to have a president. In the view of many, Hizbullah may consider itself better off in the institutional vacuum, in which it could “nibble” on the state and security institutions. Hizbullah has since 2008 built strong networks of influence with the army intelligence, the General Security and even the army command.[2] Hizbullah benefited from the status quo, which could eventually let the party take over much of the state and overturn the consociational democracy for a majoritarian system, which could benefit the Shi‘i majority.

Lebanon’s Christian leaders also reacted to the prospects of having Sleiman Frangie turned into president. The game-changer came from Samir Geagea, the March 14 candidate until the Frangie deal appeared. He is the leader of the Lebanese Forces (al-quwat al-lubnaniyya), once the largest Christian militia in the civil war (1975-1990), which established a de facto Christian mini-state. As an ally to the Israeli occupation forces in Lebanon (1978-2000), [3] the Lebanese Forces furthered its own agenda. With the end of the civil war, an amnesty law for crimes committed prior to March 1991 was enacted. This made it possible for militia leaders to recycle themselves into the political arena. First amnestied, Geagea was later convicted for a February 1994 explosion in a church north of Beirut. He spent 11 years in solitary confinement before being released after the Syrian withdrawal in 2005. Elected to parliament the same year, he turned into Hariri’s primary Christian ally. Geagea opposed both Aoun and Frangie, and he fought bitterly against both during the civil war.

Geagea and Aoun were the two main Christian symbols of the civil war and had opposed each other in a devastating Elimination War (1988-1990). After 2006, they were again on opposing political sides, supporting March 14 and March 8 respectively. Yet, facing a choice between Scylla and Charybdis, Geagea found supporting Michel Aoun to be the lesser evil (at least for now).

Why was Frangie’s candidacy so bad news for Geagea that he decided to settle scores with Aoun, whom he had fought in battle and opposed for most of his political career? First, Geagea felt snubbed and let down by Hariri. If he could not maintain his position as Hariri’s candidate, at least he could do everything in his power to oppose Frangie. Geagea, as many Christians, do consider that the choice of president should lie primarily with the Christian community – and not emanate from a deal made by the country’s Sunnis and/or Saudi Arabia.

Moreover, there was a history of blood feud between Geagea and the Frangie family. Back in 1978, Geagea had led the operation killing Frangie’s household. A third, existential, reason for discord is that Frangie is considered an outsider in the Christian political game in Lebanon. He is from Zgharta, an area near the ”Lebanese marches” (as Michael Gilsenan would have put it) where rules are tougher and politics can be very violent. The Christian bourgeoisie from Beirut and the central areas in Mount Lebanon regard Zghartawites with contempt. Geagea is from the north, too, but he studied medicine at the American University in Beirut. Lastly, Geagea has long wanted to regain the political initiative after he reached an impasse when refusing to participate in the current government. All these reasons pushed Geagea to turn the table. In January, he received Aoun at the headquarters of the Lebanese Forces, and nominated him for president in a joint press conference.

This is an example of how alliances may shift rapidly in Lebanon. Yet, as usual, the new constellations occurred without a real reconciliation between the former war enemies Geagea and Aoun. None of the two have turned to the population to ask for pardon for the devastating consequences of their Elimination War. Unimpressed, Lebanese citizens mocked the “cosmetic” reconciliation on social media.

So far, the Aoun-Geagea duo has not solved the presidential stalemate. Lebanon sorely needs a president, after 20 months. In the absence of a head of state, the prime minister is acting president. Yet, the cabinet cannot make any policy decisions without consensus among all ministers. When every minister has the right to veto, the government can, at best, deal with current affairs. Yet, the garbage crisis, which has swept Lebanon ever since last summer, is an illustration of the state’s growing failure to fulfil even primary administrative tasks. Moreover, the parliament has unconstitutionally extended its own mandate twice, in 2013 and then in 2014 – now until 2017. This leaves the army as the only operational state institution in the country. Lebanon, which prides itself as one of the only republics to have escaped military dictatorship in the region, does not have good prospects in sight.

Lebanon is also facing the growing pressures of the Syrian catastrophe. It shelters more than 1,5 million Syrian refugees. The number is probably as high as two million, but the Lebanese government declared in December 2014 that the borders of Lebanon are closed for new refugees. It has told the UNHCR to stop registering newcomers, and has put a series of restrictions on residency, which marginalize the refugee population further. The conditions are so difficult that the refugees can be argued to constitute a time bomb for the Lebanese political stability. Moreover, the Lebanese army is engaged in a war against IS and al-Nusra Front, which have a presence along the border to Syria in the Beqa‘a. Nine Lebanese servicemen are still kept in IS’ custody. The army long lacked both adequate material and a political mandate to defeat the Salafi Jihadis groups. Since 2013, it has received a three billion dollar Saudi donation of French military equipment, in addition to US support and Saudi emergency aid. Yet, the military also faces the primary difficulty of being a multi-religious army acting within a context of sectarian unrest. Sunni Islamists, in particular those from peripheral areas in the north and east, have expressed their disapproval of the army’s actions against Sunni Jihadis and the lack of reciprocity in the treatment of Sunni and Shi‘i radicals, respectively.

On the one hand, it is quite amazing that Lebanon has maintained (with exceptions) quasi-stability, despite the enormous pressures from the war in neighboring Syria. This is because of the lessons learned from the 1975-1990 civil war, and because few political actors want a war at present. Hizbullah is preoccupied with its Syrian quagmire; the Sunni Future Current has expressed strong support to the army with the aim to maintain its unity. Lebanese Jihadis, and even those approximately 900 who have travelled to fight alongside IS in Syria, do not want IS to come to Lebanon.[4] They go to Syria to fight against Hizbullah, because they cannot do so within their own country without risking a civil war. Moreover, the international community through the UN is alleviating some of the daily needs of the refugees – though much is left to be desired in a situation in which less than a third of Syrian refugee children are enrolled in schools at present.

Despite the factors of stability, the prospects of further destabilization and a Sunni-Shi’i war is lurking in the horizon. It is conceivable that Lebanon’s current pockets of instability could be extended to new areas, eventually succumbing most of the country. The presidential vacuum must be filled within due time in order to avoid a gradual deterioration of the Lebanese situation. If the situation endures, the country could find itself slowly drifting into civil war without its population noticing before it’s too late.

Many thanks to Kari Karamé (NUPI) and Rania Maktabi (UiO) for useful input and discussions.


Illustration: al-Arabiya (2016).


[1] Two-thirds majority in the first round or simple majority in the second round.

[2] Tine Gade and Nayla Moussa, ”The Lebanese Army after the Syrian crisis: alienating the Sunni community?”, in Are J. Knudsen and Tine Gade (eds.), Situating (In-)Security: A United Army for a Divided Country?, forthcoming.

[3] Israel’s primary ally in Lebanon was Sa’d Haddad’s Free Lebanon Army, which controlled the south Lebanon enclave.

[4] Tine Gade, ”Sunni Islamist violence in Lebanon in the shadow of the Syrian uprising (2011-2015): the triumph of the sectarian rationale”, Muslim World, forthcoming, 2017.