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Lebanon is not in a political stalemate, the changes are too quick to grasp

The recent regional geopolitical changes fuelled a sudden and rapid political turn in Lebanon that is unravelling in unexpected ways

It is common and justifiable to look at Lebanon today and say: well, the country is in a political deadlock. It is true that Lebanon’s political institutions have been idle, to say the least, with the parliamentary mandate extended unconstitutionally for around two years, and the second anniversary of its presidential vacuum being reached next month.

However, beyond the sluggish institutions, recent regional geopolitical changes fuelled a sudden and rapid political turn in Lebanon that is unravelling in viciously unexpected scenarios. The historically paternal role that Saudi Arabia has played in Lebanon for decades is taking a new form: from a rewarding approach to a disciplinary one.

This shift seems to have started when Lebanon’s foreign minister and head of the Free Patriotic Movement, Gebran Bassil, refused to support the Arab League resolution condemning Iran’s “provocative acts” and linking Lebanon’s Hezbollah to acts of terror in Bahrain and elsewhere. This was enough of an excuse for Riyadh to start "punishing" Lebanon: halting deals worth $4 billion aimed at equipping and supporting Lebanese security forces, issuing travel warnings for Gulf citizens travelling to Lebanon, firing dozens of Lebanese workers in the Gulf, and declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organisation, among other measures that are yet to be officially announced.

This is only the beginning of a disciplinary route that Saudi Arabia is taking against the Lebanese rulers. No longer can Lebanon stand "neutral" or even pretend to do so. Senior Lebanese politicians have some tricks up their sleeves that are likely to shock the Lebanese political scene and impress the kingdom. The extent to which the masters of politics in Lebanon can reverse the rift with Riyadh is indeed marginal. But the way they are seeking this reverse is worth pondering on.

Political manoeuvres in Lebanon

Since the beginning of the presidential crisis, Hezbollah’s chief Hassan Nasrallah reiterated that the party’s candidate is Michel Aoun. He justified this seemingly unshakable decision through two claims. The first claim is a moral one: Aoun has been a trustworthy ally and thus it is a moral duty to support his candidacy. The second claim is that Aoun’s party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), is allegedly the biggest representative of Christian Lebanese. In that sense, Aoun is the most legitimate presidential candidate.

This firm stance was shaken by a political manoeuvre in early February privately set out by Walid Jumblatt and publicly presented by Saad Hariri, ex-prime minister of Lebanon who is close to Riyadh. Unexpectedly, Hariri endorsed Suleiman Frangieh’s candidacy, Bashar al-Assad’s staunch ally in Lebanon. Knowing Frangieh’s pro-Syrian regime stance, he is considered as one of the senior figures in Hezbollah’s political camp. For that matter, Hariri’s move tested the strength of Hezbollah’s alliance with the two Christian leaders, Aoun and Frangieh, and, consequently, threw the ball of presidential elections in Hezbollah’s court.

Since then, the unexpected in Lebanese politics happened. Gutted by Hariri’s initiative, the anti-Hezbollah right-wing Christian leader Samir Geagea dropped from the presidential race in favour of Hezbollah’s own candidate, Michel Aoun, who also happens to be his fierce political rival who he fought a bloody war against not so long ago. 

Since Geagea’s move, the political scene was dominated by a series of rapid and sudden political manoeuvres with each politician trying to make the other blink. With the Saudi shift in policy towards Lebanon, the blinking game intensified. Lebanon’s most senior and long-standing Speaker of Parliament and leader of the Amal Movement, Nabih Berri, made the most daring move.

Nabih Berri throws the dice

Berri is one of the most senior politicians in Lebanon. He has been speaker of parliament for over two decades, mastering the art of Lebanese politics. Mastering this art also came after Berri’s experience as a warlord during the Lebanese civil war. His party, the Amal Movement, allied with Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party to fight the Christian right-wing militias.

Today, Berri positions himself strategically vis-à-vis the regional polarisation between Saudi Arabia and Iran. From his position, it became clear that he is not willing to see Aoun become president. Even after Geagea endorsed Aoun, Berri’s ministers were unwilling to go to the parliament and vote Aoun into office. However, Berri did not endorse Frangieh either. Prior to the Saudi shift, it seemed that the presidential vacuum was a better alternative for Berri than both candidates.

This all changed when the next political move came not from local rivals, but from a regional power: Saudi Arabia. When Saudi Arabia started its dangerously impactful disciplinary strategy against Lebanon, Berri saw that a compromise over the presidency could potentially revive diplomatic channels with Saudi Arabia and contain the rift.

On 19 March, during the hype of the Saudi-Lebanese tensions, Berri finally announced his support for Frangieh’s candidacy and, more importantly, urged his ally, Hezbollah, to succumb to the almost-national consensus over Frangieh and withdraw its support for Aoun.

Indeed, Hezbollah Chief Hassan Nasrallah responded promptly in a televised speech on 21 March by toning down his support for Aoun and clearly suggesting that his party’s endorsement of Aoun “does not mean that we do not approve of another candidate”.

The next morning, Berri sent the Saudi King Salman a message through the Saudi Ambassador in Lebanon Awad Al-Asiri and announced, in the same interview with Annahar newspaper, that the “presidential fruit has ripened”.

A Saudi-disciplined Lebanon is unattainable

Despite Berri’s best efforts, his ally, Hezbollah, won’t go too far in its compromise. Frangieh is a trusted ally of Syria’s Assad. Approving his candidacy is not a huge compromise for Hezbollah, so long as it helps tame down Saudi fury. However, this is unlikely to end the rift.

Hezbollah has become one of Saudi Arabia’s most dangerous adversaries in the region. Its military involvement in Syria in particular, its growing influence on Shia communities in the Gulf, its tightening grip on Lebanese affairs, and its blatant support for Houthis in Yemen have fundamentally turned the tides against Saudi Arabia in its several proxy confrontations with Iran.

The soft power that Riyadh has over Lebanon will continue to be utilised. More Lebanese expats in the Gulf will suffer the consequences of this. Lebanon’s real estate, which is considered to be the only growing sector in Lebanon, will be hit hard by the withdrawal of Gulf investments and bank deposits. The Lebanese political elite will soon have to face the difficult truth that Lebanon cannot be side-lined in a game that involves a Lebanese party, Hezbollah, as a major player.

-Ibrahim Halawi is a London-based researcher and a PhD candidate in Politics at Royal Holloway University of London. His research focuses on the theoretical relationship between revolution and counterrevolution, with an emphasis on the Arab uprisings. Also, he co-founded a secular student movement and student-run newspaper in Lebanon. His twitter handle is: @ibrahimhalawi

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

Photo: Lebanese parliament speaker Nabih Berri (R) with Saudi King Salman (L) on 24 January, 2015 at the Diwan royal palace in Riyadh (AFP/DALATI AND NOHRA).