Finally a President for Lebanon? Behind the Hariri-Aoun bargain
Almost two years and a half into its longest Presidential void, Lebanon might finally opt to a political bargain, Joyce Karam writes
Almost two years and a half into its longest Presidential void, Lebanon might finally opt to a political bargain that brings about Christian leader and former General Michel Aoun as the Republic’s 17th President next Monday.
The deal or so called “basket” as the term is quipped in Beirut, is a result of intense negotiations between former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Aoun, with the blessing of their respective allies the Lebanese forces and Hezbollah.
This support could generate the needed two thirds majority (86 votes) to get a quorum in the Parliament on Monday, and elect Aoun by a simple majority (65) thereafter. If not, a second session would be assigned until the math formula is reached.
The deal, why Hariri blinked
While each party in Lebanon is offering their spin on the Presidential bargain, there is no question that it is Hariri who pivoted 180 degrees and blinked by nominating Michel Aoun. This pivot is the outcome of complete political and economic paralysis in Lebanon, as well as Hariri’s changed calculus and weakened position within his own party.
The Hariri shift from insisting on a President from the anti-Hezbollah coalition March 14, two years ago, to embracing the candidate that Hezbollah favored on day one, sums up the distance that the former prime minister has traveled to nominate Aoun.
This pivot is a result of the stagnation inside Lebanon and the fact that 45 Parliamentary sessions over the last two and a half years have failed to elect a President. It is also the outcome of Hariri’s recent political and financial misfortunes. While Hezbollah plays the long game unaffected by the local paralysis, Hariri’s support within the Sunni community has shrunk as evident in both Beirut’s and Tripoli’s municipal elections.
The Aoun-Hariri deal is a pact for power and survival by both leaders and a statement of the shifting realpolitik alliances in LebanonJoyce Karam
The minister of justice Ashraf Rifi has delivered a significant blow to Hariri in Tripoli and is emerging as a potential rival in garnering both local and regional support. Coming on the heels of a Saudi shift away from Lebanon toward Yemen, Syria, and in some cases Africa, the former prime minister was left with few options. Accepting Aoun was the most immediate vehicle to ease Hariri’s woes and secure even temporarily his political future.
The deal that Hariri struck with Aoun entails his return as prime minister, presiding over a cabinet that would oversee Parliamentary elections next June. Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah signaled approval of the deal and to accepting Hariri as prime minister, coining such move as a “big sacrifice”. Such comeback for Hariri, however, was always on the table in any Presidential negotiation.
Regional, local implications
The deal, if materialized in the Parliament’s session on Monday, would be first and foremost a symbolic victory for Aoun (81), who has eyed a return to the Baabda Presidential Palace since he forcibly left it as interim prime minister in October of 1990.
It will also be viewed as a boost for the Christian political leadership in Lebanon who has long complained of not electing a “strong leader” to the highest office for the community since the end of the civil war.
Beyond that, the Aoun Presidency could bring a reshuffle in alliances within Lebanon, strengthening the grand coalitions in the Parliament (Aoun’s and Hariri’s) at the expense of smaller players (Nabih Berri and Walid Jumblatt).
This could also transpire in the style of governance and the allocation of key ministries, namely the gas and oil ministry and how these contracts would be distributed if exploration were to be approved in Lebanon.
Regionally, the Hariri-Aoun deal will likely spur the Gulf cooperation council (GCC) to continue to keep distance from Lebanese politics. For Iran, the deal is a welcome development that would shield Hezbollah’s gains and prerogatives in Lebanon. While Hezbollah’s ally Syrian President Bashar Assad will not spare the opportunity to portray a Aoun Presidency as a victory, it is hard to see how it will tip the balance in Syria.
Hezbollah is already unshackled in its funding, support and operation in Syria, the Aoun Presidency will unlikely move the needle in either direction. Both Aoun and Hariri have acknowledged the need to insulate Lebanon from the Syrian inferno.
The Aoun-Hariri deal is a pact for power and survival by both leaders and a statement of the shifting realpolitik alliances in Lebanon. Its success and duration will be determined by internal and external conditions, some of which neither man has control over.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Bureau Chief for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam