Talks on the ending of the power vacuum in Lebanon seemed to gain momentum last week when both Iran and Saudi Arabia expressed support to settle an agreement for the presidency crisis. Lebanon has been without a president for 18 months and has a dysfunctional cabinet of national unity led by Prime Minister Tammam Salam. Lebanese politicians have so far been unable to come to an agreement, while parliament will convene on the 16th of December for their 30th attempt to elect the president. The biggest challenge in finding an agreement concerns Maronite politicians who are seeking the presidency, mainly Michel Aoun, an Hezbollah ally, and Samir Geagea, still officially March 14 Alliance’s presidential candidate.
Blessed by both Iran and Saudi Arabia
One of the recent plans comes from Future Movement (Mustaqbal) leader Saad al-Hariri, whose party is part of the March 14 Alliance. He proposed to return as Prime Minister under a deal that would see Suleiman Franjieh Jr. take the presidency. Franjieh is a close ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and leader of the Marada movement, which is part of the March 8 Alliance. A presidency of Franjieh would be accepted by Iran and Saudi Arabia, who both wield power over Lebanon’s politics trough the rival blocks. Saudi ambassador to Lebanon Ali Awad Asiri said his country “blesses this initiative”, as they are “keen to see the presidential vacuum filled”. While some accused Saudi Arabia of interference, Asiri said that “Saudi Arabia has not and will not nominate any candidate for the presidency … Franjieh's nomination was an inter-Lebanese initiative and we only supported the step and inter-Christian dialogue is needed in this regard”.
Tensions in the March 14 Alliance
The main problem with finding a solution to end the deadlock lies within the Maronite Christian parties. Christian parties are divided over both the March 14 and the March 8 Alliance. The Lebanese Forces bloc and Kataeb party are part of the March 14 Alliance, while the Marada movement and Free Patriotic Movement are part of the March 8 Alliance. Officially Samir Geagea of the Lebanese Forces bloc (LF) is the March 14 candidate for the presidency, creating tensions with their alliance partner Future Movement. Sources within LF said that Geagea “expressed satisfaction over the dead-end reached in the attempt to elect Suleiman Franjieh as president” and warned that Future Movement “must not make any step unless it serves the principles and objectives of March 14.” Future Movement reinstated its “commitment to the coalition of the March 14 forces and the principles on which the Independence Uprising was built, and its ultimate faith in the goals that the March 14 forces are struggling for”. Former Kataeb party leader Amin Gemayel urged the leaders of the 4 Maronite parties to meet and prepare a “joint statement that would pave the way for a joint project” that would resolve the deadlock.
Rivalry in the March 8 Alliance
The Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) is the biggest party in the March 8 alliance and its 80-yeard old leader Michel Aoun is often mentioned as the future president. He has always enjoys the backing of Hezbollah, but ministerial sources say they might try to convince Aoun to step back in order to restore order in the country. Aoun has not stepped back and is expected to hold talks with his competitor Franjieh this week. An official in the FPM said that Aoun “was still a candidate when Mr. Suleiman Franjieh's nomination occurred without the knowledge of General Michel Aoun or any talks with him”, urging that “any of the strong four candidates should not bypass the others to reach his goal”. The official reinstated that the FPM is still close to Franjieh and said that “we cherish him and he is still one of us. He remains an ally and a friend but a certain mistake might have been committed and it can be corrected”. Meanwhile, Parliament speaker Nahib Berri said that “the best scenario to resolve the crisis lies in an agreement between Change and Reform bloc chief MP Michel Aoun and Marada Movement leader MP Suleiman Franjieh”. Head of the Maronite Christian community, Patriarch Beshara al-Rai called on all parties to “move responsibly, objectively and mindfully toward this new, serious initiative in order to elect a president” and to “rise above personal and factional interests”.
Politics in in Lebanon are based on a post-civil war imposed sectarian system, as the presidency is reserved for a Christian, the Prime Minister post for a Sunni and the post of parliament speaker for a Shi’ite. Frictions within the sectarian groups, as well as those between the Saudi backed March 14 Alliance and Iran backed March 8 Alliance have left the country in a political deadlock for months.