Shifting alliances in race for Lebanese president
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.