Will Lebanon finally get a new president?

Sunday 17/04/2016

Former Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri has voiced optimism that the country’s head of state would be elected in April.

Hariri also said he was ready to maintain domestic dialogue with Hezbollah after the oil-rich Gulf Cooperation Council countries marked the group as a “terrorist” organisation. He added that he would continue talks with Hezbol­lah to “avoid sedition” in Lebanon.

And it is Hezbollah that is key to achieving a breakthrough in the deal. So, has the Hariri camp struck a deal with its Shia adversaries, who, until now, have stuck firmly with their ageing Christian former foe Michel Aoun?

There may be a kernel of truth in reports that suggest Hezbollah was ready to drop its candidate-of-convenience for a deal that would favour Hariri as prime minister and his own man as president.

But it is less about Hezbollah rather than who its paymaster is; Iran is making moves to end the deadlock by removing Aoun, much to the chagrin of his once nemesis, now turncoat, Samir Geagea.

Iran’s embassy in Lebanon re­jected claims by Geagea about Teh­ran’s meddling, saying the Islamic Republic is not interfering in Lebanon’s internal affairs, includ­ing the country’s presidential elec­tion. In an interview on Lebanon’s Christian LBCI TV network, Geagea claimed that the Iranian ambassa­dor to Lebanon has told “Western diplomats to ask the Vatican to con­vince” Aoun, a veteran politician and founder of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), to withdraw his nomination “so that the presiden­tial election can be held”.

Of course, Iran’s embassy fired back the expected diplomatic deni­als but no one’s buying them.

Although it is true that Western powers, more than any, appear to be allowing Lebanon to hurl itself into an abyss of chaos and may­hem as it faces a summer of trying to keep the Islamic State (ISIS) from crossing its borders with no military hardware promised, while its political class breaks all records for being the most ineffective but staying in power the longest.

Lebanon has been struggling to form a government for nearly two years. Members of parliament from a number of political parties have prevented the election by boycott­ing parliamentary sessions as the two-candidate polarisation of the race proved ineffective.

The power vacuum, which has paralysed the cabinet and parlia­ment, is considered the longest since 1990, which marked the end of Lebanon’s civil war.

But all that could change if we are to believe the feel-good reporting of media that seem to believe Hariri is about to make a comeback.

Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, seeks to return as prime minister under a deal with Suleiman Frangieh, grandson of a former president with the same name and Christian politician, who would become president. Hariri is the leader of the Future Movement, the largest member of the March 14 alliance.

If Hariri were to pull it off and Hezbollah gave in to the plan, then one has to ask: At what price?

Hezbollah holds most of the aces in this game of poker. With the kind of power that this Shia movement wields, it is inevitable that it can only crave more. For months, insid­ers have been whispering of a mas­sive “coup” — a handover of even more power to the group — to give it “state-within-a-state” powers as it yearns to be legitimised.

Is this the 11th-hour deal we are witnessing, that would explain an Iranian intervention that disposes Aoun?