A Choice Between Warlords: Lebanon Can’t Elect a New President

By Martin Armstrong

A portrait of Michel Aoun, a candidate for Lebanon's presidency. Photo by Flickr user Thierry Ehrmann

Lebanon is a country with a long and bloody history of political ineptitude. But this year, the country’s politicians have done a surprisingly good job at keeping the fallout from the neighboring civil war in Syria at bay. Security plans implemented in the northern city of Tripoli and Bekaa Valley have curtailed clashes between pro- and anti-Syrian-regime militias and curbed the escalation of suicide bomb attacks that were an almost weekly occurrence this winter.

But the political wheels in Beirut may be beginning to fall off. Lebanon’s current president, Michel Suleiman, is set to step down when his term expires on May 25, and Lebanon’s two main political blocks are at loggerheads over his successor. Members of parliament elect the country’s president, who is constitutionally mandated to be from the country’s Christian community, which makes up roughly 39 percent of Lebanon’s population. The office of the president is largely ceremonial, but it plays a key role in stabilizing the government. The animosity between the Hezbollah-led March 8 Alliance and their rivals, another coalition of parties called the March 14 Alliance, is so high that MPs from the March 8 faction have boycotted the last three rounds of voting in the past fortnight —the latest round of voting was held today. The election is becoming a political proxy war between the Hezbollah-backed pro-Assad politicians and the anti-Assad politicians. And the two leading candidates were warlords from Lebanon's 15-year civil war. With more than a million Syrian refugees now in Lebanon, a country of only 4.5 million, and the concomitant strain on the country’s economy and ever-fragile security situation, the political crisis in Lebanon could have rippling effects across the region. 

Two weeks ago I took a battered 1960s-era Mercedes taxi through the East Beirut district of Ashrafieh. A triangular cedar tree, the symbol of a right-wing Christian political party, was glued to the dashboard. Camille, my taxi driver, supported the party, whose leader, Samir Geagea, is currently the presidential candidate of the Saudi-backed March 14 block. Geagea holds the distinction of being the only civil-war-era warlord to have faced jail time for his crimes. He spent 11 years in solitary confinement in a cell located below the Ministry of Defense in Beirut. In 2012 he narrowly avoided an assassination attempt when a bullet allegedly whizzed past his head as he bent down to smell a rose in his garden. Inside his house, Geagea is said to have a replica of the cell in which he spent 11 years.

In the early 1980s Camille had fought under Geagea’s command against the occupying Syrian army in Koura, a region north of Beirut, and the Chouf mountains. Camille recalled that period with an air of romanticism mixed with PTSD. But he was not confident Geagea would be elected.

“He is a strong leader, a principled man who objects to foreign interference in Lebanon,” said Camille in reference to Geagea’s presidential bid.

“But I don’t think he will be president,” he continued. “The opposition would never agree to his nomination.”

Relatives and allies of political figures Geagea is said to have had killed in the 1980s hold seats in the parliament, and old grudges are hurting his candidacy. Opposition figures wrote their names on blank ballots submitted in the first round of voting held in the Lebanese parliament on April 23. Geagea fell 23 votes short of the 65 required to secure the presidency.

But this is not the only factor against him. Geagea has also based his campaign on a promise he can hardly keep: to bring Hezbollah’s extensive illicit arsenal under state control and end the Shia organization’s military participation in Syria alongside the Assad regime. Even if he could rein in Hezbollah, Geagea might start another war in the process.

Camille, my taxi driver weighed in again: “There are many political figures who committed war crimes, but because Geagea went to jail, people don’t forget his past.”

Michel Aoun is Geagea’s opponent. He’s a former army general with a comb-over and a very loud voice. He doesn’t’ actually have the official support of the March 8 Alliance but is their de facto candidate.

Aoun and Geagea fought against each other in intra-Christian wars in East Beirut between 1988 and 1990. Aoun fled Lebanon to Paris in the wake of a US-approved, Syrian-executed siege of the Presidential Palace in 1990. Before leaving Lebanon, he criticized the George Bush administration’s support of Syria and accepted arms from Saddam Hussein. But on returning from exile in 2005, Aoun quickly formed an alliance with his former Syrian enemies and their main representatives in Lebanon: Hezbollah.

In the buildup to election season, the Lebanese press reported that Aoun was America’s preferred man for the job. One US diplomatic source is even alleged to have said: “We are facing a clear equation: either Aoun or chaos.”

It might seem strange that the Obama administration would prefer the election of an ally of the Assad regime and Hezbollah, but potential reasons for a US preference of Aoun are quite simple: As an ally, Aoun is seen as capable of holding dialogue with Hezbollah rather than just alienating the Shia party—something that Geagea would likely do. Given the context of ongoing US-Iranian rapprochement, Hezbollah and their Iranian backers are increasingly viewed as forces capable of playing a role in a potential future settlement to Syria’s civil war. Israeli media has claimed that agents from the CIA fronted by US Ambassador to Lebanon David Hale recently met with Hezbollah operatives in Cyprus. At the same time it is hoped that if Aoun became president, he would be able to express his independence, away from the hegemony of Hezbollah, who in all likelihood would favor a president guaranteed to support their interests. Aoun has, in recent months, been busy making overtures toward the March 14 leadership in order to secure the necessary votes to make him a consensus candidate.

“America will favor the candidate who can serve their interests in Lebanon,” Imad Salamey, a political science professor at the American University in Beirut, told me. “By teasing out incentives for Aoun, America could seek to drive a wedge between him in and Hezbollah.”

In reality, neither Geagea or Aoun is likely to be elected. With both the March 14 and March 8 blocs lacking the seats in parliament required to generate a two-thirds majority vote, chances are a moderate, less polarizing, candidate will eventually win the election. But it could take some time. Then again, political vacuums and delays are pretty common in Lebanon.

In February 2014 a legitimate cabinet was formed in the country after a ten-month absence, right after the postponement of general elections for an unprecedented 18 months in May 2013. International oil companies are currently poised to bid for the right to extract an estimated $40 billion worth of oil and gas reserves located off the Lebanese coast—a potential revenue generator that could greatly help Lebanon confront the ever-growing Syrian refugee crisis and revive its economy. But the bidding process has already been delayed due to political infighting and accusations that certain groups, headed by Aoun’s son-in-law, were trying to monopolize the process. No one will be surprised if the bidding process is further delayed. Similarly, no one will be surprised if there is no president in place by the May 26 deadline.

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