Presidential election deadlock in Lebanon: The quest for a consensual option

Press Highlights
2023-03-22 | 04:35
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Presidential election deadlock in Lebanon: The quest for a consensual option
Presidential election deadlock in Lebanon: The quest for a consensual option

It is not true that stalemate is hindering efforts to elect a new president. Instead, it is more accurate to say that these efforts are still facing serious obstacles that prevent either of the conflicting parties from guaranteeing the nomination of their candidate. 

Suppose the veto is a crucial weapon for opponents of the Amal-Hezbollah duo. In that case, failure results from their pursuit of a single candidate against the duo's candidate.

Externally, French efforts with Saudi Arabia continue to encounter "a wall of negativity," especially concerning  trading the presidency and the government. However, the French have realized, from the Saudi side this time, that there is no decisive support for either Najib Mikati or Nawaf Salam and that the opposition to Frangieh is not as decisive.
Observers who know some of the details of the meetings tend to believe that Saudi Arabia, which has yet to open any channels of communication with the head of the Marada Movement, is not currently required to announce a final position on him. Meanwhile, its friends in Lebanon have yet to have a unified stance. Some Sunni MPs have heard Saudi advice not to sever ties with the man. In contrast, another group has been advised not to consider nominating him.

An official who met with stakeholders in the Lebanese file in the French capital three weeks ago says that he heard from them that marketing Frangieh is very difficult. However, he speaks of a sudden change in the French position, which supports the idea of a trade-off between Frangieh and Salam.

According to the same official, this may be connected to developments on the American side. The Americans have informed several Lebanese sides that Washington is waiting for the presidential elections as soon as possible and that although it prefers specific candidates over others, it is committed to dealing with any elected president. 

Noting that US ambassador to Beirut Dorothy Shea answered the same question from three Lebanese officials weeks ago, about Sleiman Frangieh, in the same sentence: "If he is elected, we will deal with him as the legitimate president of the Lebanese Republic."
According to the same official, the Iranian-Saudi agreement has provoked Americans and Europeans. Perhaps the change in a position towards Frangieh carries a message to Saudi Arabia, considering that the West believes that if Iran helped Saudi Arabia to close the file of the war in Yemen, it is ready to pay the price in Lebanon, Syria and other places if necessary.
However, these discussions do not necessarily mean anything conclusive but reflect ongoing meetings and consultations between foreign capitals. According to some sources, internal communications consider the positions of the major foreign powers. 

In Lebanon, many factions believe that standing by Saudi Arabia in the presidential file is necessary and that any agreement with the Americans and the French without the approval of Saudi Arabia may keep the situation in Lebanon hostage to existing rivalries.

This position is strongly echoed by the side supporting Frangieh from the viewpoint that providing enough votes to bring him to the Baabda Presidential Palace is not impossible, no matter how difficult it may seem. However, what matters is his reaching the presidency with a consensus that allows for easing economic pressures on Lebanon. Otherwise, any president elected without external support, especially from Saudi Arabia, will be an extension of President Michel Aoun's last years.
Bkerke's list of candidates

Amidst these circumstances, internal discussions have started with the idea that an understanding can be reached between the Muslim parliamentary factions. The positions of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, which support Frangieh, may find resonance among Sunni circles that are influenced by the mood of the Future Movement. 

Also, the leader of the Progressive Socialist Party, Walid Jumblatt, may not stand far away if the elements of a settlement are available. 

Therefore, this description implies that the problem now exists among the parliamentary factions representing Christians.

It is a divided force that is split in an unprecedented way, even in climates that accompanied the great chaos in 1988, which alarmed the Maronite Patriarchate to undertake a task that may be difficult. 

With Patriarch Bechara Rai's knowledge of the difficulty of the matter and the frustration he felt due to the prominent forces' refusal to accept his invitation to a bilateral, trilateral, or collective dialogue in Bkerke, in addition to his fear of presenting candidates who are not accepted internally or externally, Rai finds himself obliged to play a unique role. 

He found it most appropriate to assign the Bishop of the Archdiocese of Jbeil, Antoine Bou Najem, to move between the offices of Christian leaders to sense opinions about every detail of the presidential file.

Bou Najem realized that general discussions would not lead to a quick understanding. The conversation quickly shifted from discussing the specifications that each party had previously to discussing the names that reflect these specifications, which made the patriarchal envoy carry a paper with notes before it turned into a paper containing the names of candidates preferred by Bkerke or suggested by others. It ended up with a not-so-short list that includes all the candidates who orbit within the concerned forces.
According to followers, the open list has closed with 11 names. Some of these names have been circulated frequently in the past period. They include Army Commander General Joseph Aoun, Leader of the Marada Movement Sleiman Frangieh, Leader of the Independence Movement Michel Mouawad, former Intelligence Director Brigadier General George Khoury, former Ambassador to the Vatican MP Farid Elias el-Khazen, Head of the Parliamentary Finance Committee Ibrahim Kanaan, former Minister of Interior Ziad Baroud, former Minister of Finance Jihad Azour, MP Neemat Frem, former MP Salah Honein, and former State Minister in the first Taif government and former Forces party official Roger Dib.

If putting the names in one list is not difficult, attempting to calculate the votes received requires a great effort. 

However, for unknown reasons, those responsible for the survey asked all parties for their opinions on all candidates.

According to a source familiar with the list of names, the final tally showed that the leaders of the Lebanese Forces and the Free Patriotic Movement, Samir Geagea and Gebran Bassil, only agreed to reject Sleiman Frangieh and George Khoury. 
But there was a clear difference between them regarding the remaining nine names. Geagea announced his support for four names: Joseph Aoun, Michel Mouawad, Neemat Frem, and Salah Honein. 
Meanwhile, Bassil supported five names: Ibrahim Kanaan, Farid el- Khazen, Jihad Azour, Ziad Baroud, and Roger Dib.

Amidst the gloomy atmosphere in Bkerke, as the spiritual retreat called for by the Maronite Patriarch for Christian MPs is eagerly awaited, there is a sense that the situation cannot be left unaddressed amid fears of escalating Christian-Christian tensions over the presidential file, and concerns that it may spill over into other issues, have been mounting.

Failed maneuvers

Despite this negativity, efforts have continued behind the scenes, away from the media, by parties outside the Christian club. 

While the Amal-Hezbollah duo declares its insistence on nominating Frangieh and expresses readiness to negotiate with others on this issue, the current state of Sunni political representation means that influential Sunni voices are heavily influenced by Saudi Arabia, which cannot manage a settlement with all Christian parties. This means that practically, only Jumblatt remains who can attempt to navigate through the minefields.
It is worth noting that this initiative did not last long and was discussed by Jumblatt's aides with prominent forces among Christians based on the conclusions drawn from the positions of the Lebanese Forces and the Free Patriotic Movement regarding the list attributed to Bishop Bou Najem.
According to those familiar with the matter, the idea originated from Jumblatt dealing with Frangieh as a confrontational candidate. 
However, he would not support him if internal and external positions opposed any agreement around him. Therefore, he took the initiative to propose a dialogue that leads to a consensual option, considering that it is possible to propose names that may not receive full approval from the duo of Amal and Hezbollah. Still, they do not constitute a provocation for them or external parties. The discussion took only a short time until Jumblatt shortened Bou Najem's list to just two names: Jihad Azour and Salah Honein.

However, Jumblatt started from the veto that was placed by the FPM on Honein, put his name aside, and tried to convince the LF to go with Azour, considering that the latter is one of Jumblatt's candidates, and enjoys the support of the FPM, and has strong ties with Speaker Nabih Berri, and has no objection from Saudi Arabia, and does not appear to have a serious problem with Western parties such as the United States or France.
According to insiders, the idea of Jumblatt aimed at establishing an unofficial understanding between prominent forces, including those who voted for Michel Moawad, as well as the voices of the FPM and Armenian and Sunni MPs supported by Saudi Arabia, and a significant portion of the votes of Change MPs, which would be enough to secure Azour's election in the second round, provided that everyone ensures quorum and does not obstruct the session.
At this point, Jumblatt and his supporters believed that the success of the plan depended on obtaining the approval of the Lebanese Forces, i.e., changing their position and supporting Azour, for various reasons, including the dispute related to the positions of Azour's late uncle, MP Jean Obeid, who had clashed with the Lebanese Forces, and the fact that the Lebanese Forces considered the Azour family to be aligned with the Free Patriotic Movement, did not seek to build a relationship with the LF, and that Azour had "ambiguous" positions regarding the March 14 movement. 

However, sources indicate that Geagea agreed to the principle of discussion. Still, after meetings and consultations within the Lebanese Forces and with influential figures, he informed Jumblatt of his complete rejection of nominating Azour, proposing the return to nominating Salah Honein as a compromise solution. 
It seems that the Lebanese Forces blocked any attempt to persuade it to change its position by informing those concerned that its refusal to support Azour was decisive and would not be affected by any development or change in the positions of any internal, Arab, or international party.
In practice, the result was the obstruction of this attempt - maneuver, which some believe that Jumblatt would only have considered with communicating or consulting with influential parties internally and externally. 
This led him to express his frustration and fear of a void, warning against any bets on changes in the world heading towards confrontations that may not leave anything behind.

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