The Frangieh presidency and the revival of Taif
Selecting a president for Lebanon has proven to be a complex process that goes beyond merely voting for a candidate in parliament. Consensus sectarian politics requires extra-institutional political deliberation and negotiation that mandate foreign consultation and sponsorship. The convergence of domestic and foreign choices has historically proven a prerequisite for electing a Lebanese president.
In 1989, an agreement was signed in the Saudi city of Taif to redistribute power among Lebanese sectarian groups, end the civil war and pave the way for the election of Rene Moawad as president. The agreement set the stage for joint Saudi-Syrian guardianship over the country, tilting the power balance in favour of a Sunni-Shia sectarian dominance, to the disadvantage of Christians.
In 2008, Michel Suleiman was elected president with negligible opposition after a power-sharing agreement was brokered in Doha. That agreement was supported by Tehran, Damascus, Riyadh, Qatar, Paris and Washington and stipulated a reform package to the satisfaction of Shia and Christian groups.
The agreement entailed a new electoral law that sought to reverse Christian parliamentary under-representation. It also required a distribution of ministerial portfolios that secured Shia parties, along with their allies, a significant share of governmental portfolios.
At the same time, the Doha agreement arguably paved the way for a Saudi-Syrian rapprochement that saw Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud accompany Syrian President Bashar Assad to Lebanon in a bid to consolidate a forced partnership over the country’s political fate.
The expiry of Suleiman’s presidential term in 2014 threw the country back into a predicament over succession. The conflict in Syria and Hezbollah’s military involvement there deepened domestic and regional rifts over the vacated presidency.
The latest proposed nominee is the northern Maronite leader Suleiman Frangieh. His nomination appears the most promising to date despite serious obstacles.
To the surprise of many, Frangieh, who is a close ally of Assad, has been nominated by the Saudi-backed Future Movement. Hezbollah has expressed a tacit enthusiasm for Frangieh’s presidency. This unlikely intersection of Syrian, Iranian and Saudi support makes him among the most promising hopefuls for the post.
There are good reasons for Syria, Iran and Hezbollah to place their long-term ally in power. His election is sure to secure support for Hezbollah’s military establishment in Lebanon and preserve Tehran’s influence in the country. Frangieh would also help contain Sunni radical militancy inside Lebanon and across the Syrian border.
The Saudis and the Future Movement hope that Frangieh’s election would preserve their interests while removing the country from the Syrian settlement bargain. And if Frangieh’s election comes with Saad Hariri, the head of the Future Movement, being re-appointed prime minister this will reassure them even more.
Though Frangieh’s election would favour the Iranian-Syrian axis of power, Hariri’s appointment as prime minister could mitigate that for the Saudis. Such a solution could serve as a testing ground for the restoration of shared Iranian-Saudi regional spheres of influence.
Lebanon is ultimately too important for both sides. The major hurdle to Frangieh’s ambitions lies among his own Maronite sect, to whom the office has been dedicated. His opponents in the Lebanese Forces and allies in the Free Patriotic Movement have long sought the presidency for themselves. Originally each had been promised the backing and support of their respective Muslim allies but both appear to have been betrayed in favour of Frangieh.
After all, Christians have opposed the Taif power deal for stripping the presidency — reserved for a Maronite Christian — of key powers, handing them to a Muslim-dominated parliament and cabinet.
In 1989, it took a Syrian military invasion to suppress renegade Christian voices, expel and jail their leaders and impose the Taif republic.
In 2015, such an option has been ruled out and selecting a president by consensus remains the only viable route. Any agreement must entail a package of reform initiatives to ensure an acceptable Muslim-Christian share of power. Will a Frangieh presidency and Hariri premiership be enough to secure this?