Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1318, (3 - 9 November 2016)
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1318, (3 - 9 November 2016)

Ahram Weekly

New president in Lebanon

Michel Aoun has been elected president of Lebanon in a development that promises momentous changes in the country, writes Hassan Al-Qishawi

Al-Ahram Weekly

After two years and five months without a president, the longest period in the country’s history, Lebanon now has a new president — Michel Aoun.

The appointment came after 45 sessions of voting in the country’s parliament, some of them postponed because of boycotts by Aoun’s bloc and its allies. Aoun was elected president with close to two-thirds of the vote in the second round of the elections, with 83 votes from the 128-member parliament.

His opponent Sethrida Geagea gained just one vote, and there were 36 blank votes and seven spoiled ballots. In the first round, Aoun also won 83 votes, not enough to win because the Lebanese constitution states the president must be elected in the first round with a two-thirds majority, or 86 members of the parliament.

He was elected on a second round when the Parliament’s Speaker Nabih Berri ended the first session, leaving MPs to remain in their seats and immediately start a second round of voting.

All the MPs were present, giving rise to comments from observers since over the past two years few MPs have showed up for parliamentary sessions in Lebanon, meaning that there has not been the quorum required to elect a president.

 Aoun and the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah and its allies have often boycotted the voting.

Although the presidential vote was a secret ballot, it is believed that Aoun won the Hizbullah vote and most of that of his traditional rivals the Future Current and the Lebanese Forces Party (LFP). Parties close to the Syrian regime and Hizbullah such as the Baath Party and the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party also voted for Aoun.

It is thought that Waleed Jumblatt, leader of the Democratic Gathering bloc in the Lebanese parliament, also voted for Aoun after realising the risk of confronting an electoral alliance between the other parties.

Aoun probably did not win the votes of Hizbullah’s key ally Amal and some Sunni leaders close to Syria and Hizbullah, such as former prime minister Najib Miqati. Sami Al-Gemayel, leader of the Lebanese Phalanges Party, said his bloc had voted using ballots with “rice revolution… in the service of Lebanon” written on them.

The speaker of the parliament also had to call a third round of voting after the number of ballots did not match the number of voters in the second round. One unknown MP voted for Myriam Klink, a controversial Lebanese model whose often scandalous pictures are widely available on Arabic Websites.

The election of Aoun under such circumstances could scarcely have been imagined when former president Michel Suleiman ended his term in office in May 2014. The Future Current, which leads Lebanon’s 14 March Coalition, and the LFP headed by Samir Geagea elected Aoun president, along with Hizbullah.

Amal has emerged as the main opponent of the new president, despite his emergence from the rival 8 March Coalition.

The shift began in November 2015, when former Lebanese prime minister Saad Al-Hariri announced the nomination of Suleiman Franjieh as president, calling him a “personal friend of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad” and the “final wonder of Lebanese politics.”

The nomination wreaked havoc on the Lebanese political scene, and agitated LFP leader Geagea who is a long-standing enemy of Franjieh. Geagea is also accused of having assassinated Franjieh’s father.

Franjieh then decided to nominate his old rival Aoun for the presidency, even though blood had been spilt between the two men during the country’s civil war and they had only recently made peace. Geagea’s move gave Aoun further Christian support and dealt a blow to the 14 March Coalition.

It appears that Al-Hariri’s recent decision to support Aoun is not linked to domestic developments as much as alliances overseas and his own political and financial situation. Saudi Arabia, Al-Hariri’s primary ally, has been suffering from a financial crunch, and Lebanon is no longer a priority for Saudi Arabia as its conflict with Iran escalates in Yemen and Syria.

Saudi Arabia has also started to open up to other Lebanese Sunni forces and ended the Al-Hariri family’s monopoly of representing it in Lebanese circles and among leading Sunnis.

Al-Hariri’s companies in Saudi Arabia have also been in crisis, and this has embarrassed Al-Hariri and undermined his ability to fund Future Current activities in Lebanon.

Accordingly, Al-Hariri may have decided it was time to return to Lebanon and head a government that would be his final card, even if the price would be handing over the presidency to Aoun, an adversary and ally of his rival Hizbullah.

But Al-Hariri’s strategic pivoting has not been as acute as Aoun’s, who was once an adversary of Syria which expelled him from the presidential palace in Beirut using warplanes at the end of the country’s civil war. Aoun later returned from exile abroad and became an ally of Syrian ally Hizbullah.

The position of Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri is also notable since he has insisted he is still a member of the opposition. He said he had attended this week’s vote as speaker of the house and the official responsible for ensuring there was a quorum.

“No one can say that I obstructed the election of the new president,” Berri said, adding that “this arrangement may be an Iranian-American one. It is not an entirely Lebanese one.”

But Aoun’s supporters say he is the first of the country’s presidents to be 100 per cent made in Lebanon. Irrespective of the Lebanese obsession with foreign meddling, Aoun may be the first president to have reached power in the country through purely Lebanese dynamics.

The main factor has been Hizbullah, which has blocked anyone else from reaching the presidency, together with the crisis of the Future Current and its need to reverse its decline. In acting as he did this week, Geagea also sought to heal the wounds that have torn through Christian ranks and capitalise on Aoun’s Christian heritage.

Regardless of the reasons for Aoun’s election as the country’s new president, Lebanon is now moving in the other direction from the Sunni-Shia conflict that is taking place in the wider region as its leaders try to steer the country away from the scourge of this conflict even though Lebanon was once in the vanguard of this ideological clash.

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