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The dash for the Lebanese presidency

The naming of Suleiman Frangieh as a candidate for the presidency might be an indicator for a much-needed consensus in divided Lebanon

For the majority of the Lebanese, the recurrent news of the failure of their parliament to achieve the required quorum to elect a new president has become something of a common occurrence if not a trifling affair. Over the last 18 months, the Lebanese parliament has failed 32 times to convene, mainly due to the refusal of the March 8 pro-Iranian faction to move forward on this matter unless their main candidate, Michael Aoun, is the sole contender.

This reality has recently changed as Aoun, the aging frontrunner for the presidency, found himself outflanked and possibly replaced by one of his allies, Suleiman Frangieh. Frangieh, renowned for his bare fist approach to politics, has on many occasions flaunted his brotherly relationship with current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, going as far as announcing “Assad is my friend and brother and he will remain so”.

The drastic change however is not the fact that Frangieh overtook Aoun, momentarily at least, but rather that this change was made possible after both Walid Jumblatt and Saad al-Hariri - both ardent opponents of Bashar al-Assad and his regime - endorsed this nomination.

This initiative lead by Jumblatt, a veteran strategist, has been received with mixed emotions by the Shia leadership rivals of Amal, led by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, and Hezbollah, led by Hassan Nasrallah. Hezbollah up until this moment has neither endorsed nor rejected this deal, which in itself weakens Aoun's chances, especially given that Berri harbours no real affection for Aoun, who has attacked him on various occasions.

The only real opposition to Frangieh’s nomination has come from Aoun and Samir Geagea and what remains of the Christian factions within the March 14 coalition. While the former believe that it is his sacred right as the legitimate representative of the Maronite community to become president, the latter sees Frangieh’s elections as a blow to the principles of sovereignty and a possible return to the pre-2005 Syrian dominance.

Russian role in breaking Syria stalemate

Regardless of whether any of the aforementioned factions actually change their minds, Frangieh’s somewhat sudden nomination must be viewed within the larger regional context, specifically the recent Russian military intervention in Syria and its aftermath. To many, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to send his troops to salvage both Assad and Iran from their repeated failure to completely defeat the Syrian rebels was perceived as a gift to Assad.

Viewed from a different lens however, the Russian intervention can be perhaps one more step towards a post-Assad Syria with Russia replacing Iran as the regional power-broker.

Naturally this Russian role has to be sanctioned by the United States, Europe and the regional countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. As it stands Russia has been supported by these factions to front the assault on ISIS, however Putin is aware that to really get rid of this faction, once and for all, the reason for its emergence, Assad, must go. Surprisingly, Iran might be open to this scenario as Syria and consequently Assad is proving to be more costly to maintain than expected.

More importantly, the beginning of this regional and international consensus was recently reflected in Lebanon concurrently with Frangieh’s nomination with the release of 16 Lebanese servicemen held captive by al-Nusra Front since August 2014.

This embarrassing ordeal, at least to the Lebanese state, was resolved after an arduous negotiation process led by General Security chief Major General Abbas Ibrahim who shuttled between the different factions and orchestrated an acceptable deal for all sides concerned, which included the release of people detained in Lebanese prisons as well as a hefty ransom.

While many criticised this deal as being a moral blow to the sovereignty of the Lebanese state and a chance for al-Nusra too whitewash their image; the reality of the matter remains that Ibrahim, through the support of Qatar, Hezbollah (Iran) and perhaps Syria, was able to avoid a bloodbath and pave the way towards a settlement that would perhaps empower the comatose government of Prime Minister Tammam Salam.

The timing of this swap in addition to the different regional and local factions aligning behind the nomination of Frangieh is an indication of the seriousness of this scheme to end the political deadlock and to pave the way towards a more stable security setting.

It is not surprising as well that this dash to elect a president came a few weeks after ISIS suicide bombers targeted the Shia-dominated southern suburbs of Beirut.

Despite Hezbollah’s tight security measures to protect their areas, the fact remains that the presidential vacuum coupled with the inability of the cabinet as well as the parliament to regulate the affairs of the state has opened up the country to many challenges, the ISIS threat being on the top of the list.

Electoral law hold-up

The main obstacle however remaining for the Frangieh nomination to receive a much needed support from the Christian factions is the adoption of a new electoral law. As of this moment, if parliamentary elections where to take place, the law to be adopted would be based on the 2009 law, which is a rehashed form of the 1960 confessional-based system with minor amendments. Coincidently this is the same law which the different political factions signed off on in the Doha agreement in 2008, which ended a period of violence between the pro and anti-government factions at the time.

This law has been vigorously opposed by the majority of the Christian parties - primarily the Free Patriotic Movement, Kataeb and the Lebanese Forces - who were pushing towards a law which ranged from a single district (one man one vote) to proportional representation.

Theoretically, if the issue of the election law is resolved by adopting a compromise hybrid electoral system, what remains pending is an open pledge from Frangieh and his allies, and perhaps the rest of the Lebanese factions, to dissociate themselves from the Syrian civil war.

While Frangieh might perhaps be disregarded by many for being a brutish clan leader who lacks the intellectual and diplomatic skills to assume the reigns of the presidency, his naming and perhaps later election might help forge a much-needed consensus to shake off the side effects of years of political polarisation. Regardless of whether this initiative to elect Frangieh yields the desired effect, it is certain that Lebanon and its political elite can no longer hope to delay nor prolong this presidential vacuum.

The late Raymond Edde, a veteran Maronite politician and the leader of the National Bloc, sarcastically described Suleiman Frangieh senior, Lebanon’s fifth president, as someone who was elected to use his brawns but instead opted to use his mind. Perhaps in the case of his grandson, the Lebanese must hope that the current Frangieh uses his head and tries to move Lebanon away from the ever-growing civil war across the border in Syria where his “brother Bashar” seems doomed.

- Makram Rabah is a PhD candidate at Georgetown University’s history department. He is the author of “A Campus at War: Student Politics at the American University of Beirut, 1967–1975” and a regular columnist for Now Lebanon.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye. 

Photo: A car decorated with the logo and colours of the Christian movement of Al-Marada led by candidate Suleiman Frangieh (picture) drives past supporters in the northern city of Zgharta on 7 June, 2009 (AFP).