Shifting alliances in race for Lebanese president

Friday 12/02/2016
No quorum

BEIRUT - The Lebanese Parliament met for the 35th time on February 8th, but again lacked the necessary quo­rum to elect a president. This time political quarrels resulted from the emergence of new allianc­es in support of Christian Maronite candidates Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, and Suleiman Frangieh, head of the Marada Movement. Both are close allies of Hezbollah and part of the March 8 alliance.
For the first time since their 2005 formation the bonds that hold the March 8 and March 14 political blocs together seem to be unravelling.
Both coalitions emerged exhaust­ed and drained of financial resourc­es and recently have been unable to pay employees’ salaries on time. Si­multaneously, the political impasse has infected national government institutions with deterioration and paralysis. The Council of Ministers has failed to meet or decide on ba­sic public service issues while the country’s 7-month-old trash crisis has led to rubbish piling up in the streets.
Saad Hariri, the main leader of March 14, was the first to drop the ball. Leaks of his Paris meetings with Frangieh, a close ally of the Syrian regime, split March 14 be­tween enthusiasts and staunch crit­ics.
The latter, led by the Lebanese Forces, represent a large section of Christian Maronites. They were quick to reject Frangieh’s nomina­tion and alternatively throw their support behind his rival in the March 8 bloc, Aoun. Samir Geagea, who was initially nominated for the presidency by March 14, seems to have been preparing his concession in favour of Aoun even before Hari­ri’s rapprochement with Frangieh.
The Aoun-Geagea coalition, which has brought together the two largest Christian political par­ties for the first time since 1989, has alarmed Muslim groups from the March 8 coalition, including the Shia Amal Movement, as well as Druze parties such as the Demo­cratic Arab Party and the centrist Progressive Socialist Party. They, along with the Sunni Future Move­ment, have forged an undeclared anti-Aoun alliance, fearing the re­surgence of political Maronism.
But smaller Christian groups and independent figures, such as the Kataeb and Marada parties, have been reluctant to join the Aoun al­liance fearing political marginalisa­tion and gradual inhalation by larg­er parties.
Shia Hezbollah, on the other hand, has perceived developments with caution. Though both presi­dential nominees are long-standing allies and despite Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s declaration of March 8’s victory while mocking the seeming collapse of March 14, the party remains hesitant.
By backing Aoun for president, Hezbollah appears eager for a radi­cal transformation that prepares the ground for Shia-Christian rule at the expense of the Sunnis. Such an ar­rangement, however, may come at a high cost. Among considerations is the prospect of Christians gaining significant power at the expense of both Sunnis and Shias. Yet more im­portant to Hezbollah is the potential breakdown of its own March 8 alli­ance and the resurgence of political rivalry within the Shia community in Lebanon.
The elephant in March 8’s room is the Shia Amal Movement, which has been alarmed by Hezbollah’s backing of the Aoun presidency. It views that a Hezbollah-Aoun alli­ance will only be achieved at its own expense.
Amal will not only lose electoral seats in favour of Aoun-Geagea al­liance but may lose important lev­erage attained throughout the Taif era. A period that witnessed the insulation of its own leader, Nabih Berry, the speaker of parliament, unchallenged for the past 24 years, the favourable redistribution of public offices, the allocation of key government posts for Shia followers and the gerrymandering of electoral districts to the advantage of candi­dates within large Christian con­stituencies.
Worse, the movement’s strategic relevance to Hezbollah, serving as moderate gateway between the Shi­as and other sects, may be dimin­ished. A situation that is prone to re­ignite old feuds and unleash a new feud over Shia leadership, political alignments and shares of power.
In his latest televised speech, Nasrallah tried to calm Amal’s fears by asserting his commitment to unity but the consequences of a Hezbollah-backed Aoun presidency are too difficult to swallow.
Amal has been quick to test Hez­bollah’s resolve by igniting Shia- Christian battles over public offices deemed crucial to both sides. The Amal-controlled Ministry of Fi­nance and Ministry of Public Works recently revoked an agreement to promote to higher posts Christian public officers, promoting instead fellow Shia employees.
Christian leaders, including the Maronite patriarch, were enraged and demanded the immediate re­versal of such decisions by Minis­ters Ali Khalil and Ghazi Zeaiter, Amal loyalists and Berry’s close as­sociates.
Whoever becomes president, Lebanon appears destined towards a major political realignment. A re­positioning of political forces gath­ered around two major poles, a predominantly Christian versus an­other Sunni, while splitting the Shia and minor political groups between both.