Samir Geagea’s endorsement of Michel Aoun for the presidency may have been expected, but it upended the Lebanese political system nonetheless. What comes next? Will Aoun be elected?
Many Christians, probably most, appeared to welcome the move by the Lebanese Forces leader. After decades of feeling marginalized, thanks in part to Christian discord, they saw the Geagea-Aoun deal as a step by Christian representatives to impose who chooses the new president. More importantly, by taking an initiative that may end the presidential void, they may have rescued the institution of the presidency from permanent debilitation, in that way saving the Maronite role in the state.
That is why both the Kataeb Party and Sleiman Frangieh sooner or later will likely join the train, as neither wants to be viewed as opposing the Christian, particularly the Maronite, consensus. Neither is happy with a move that will consolidate the Aounist-Lebanese Forces duopoly, at their expense, but being seen as outliers in a political initiative that reinforces Christian interests may only accelerate their permanent sidelining.
The Muslim leadership, perhaps with the exception of Hezbollah, either misunderstood the mood in the Christian community or actively sought to gain from Christian rifts. Christian solidarity has been strengthened by frustration, and Geagea showed that he had read communal impulses well. Time will tell whether Aoun will be elected, but if the election is blocked for some reason the Christian counter-reaction will be strong and bitter, no less so than the Aounist surge in 2005 that neutralized the gains of the Independence Intifada.
What comes next? All eyes are on Hezbollah. The party, having declared that Aoun is their candidate, will now have to put its money where its mouth is. To some, Hezbollah’s priority is to prolong the vacuum, but what the Geagea-Aoun accord has done is to ensure that such a thing becomes exceptionally costly. Aoun no longer has a motive to boycott Parliament now that he may become president, while neither Saad Hariri nor Walid Jumblatt, whatever their distaste for Aoun, gains from a situation rapidly leading Lebanon down the road to perdition.
The signs from Hezbollah are reportedly positive. Their parliamentarians, whatever their true intentions, are welcoming the possibility that Aoun may become president. But a welcome is not enough. Unless the party obliges Nabih Berri and his bloc to vote for Aoun, the Free Patriotic Movement leader cannot win and Hezbollah’s backing will be seen as hypocritical. If Berri does not support Aoun, the general will reconsider his ties with Hezbollah. The party knows this, which is why, even if it favors a void, it probably wants to maintain its relationship with the leading Christian organization even more.
Once Berri declares an intention to vote for Aoun, it would signal that the general essentially has a majority to win in a second round of voting in Parliament. Therefore, Jumblatt will have no choice but to follow. The Druze leader is too much the realist not to go along with what appears to be a sure thing, and he knows that refusing to do so would place him on a collision course with a majority of Christian voters in the mountains.
That would leave Hariri and his allies on their own. The Future Movement is still committed to Sleiman Frangieh, but if Aoun secures a majority thanks to Berri, Frangieh will withdraw from the race, as he has promised, leaving Future with the option of joining the emerging consensus. In the interests of national unity, Hariri would do so, all the more if the tacit agreement between Aoun and Geagea is to bring him in as prime minister.
That is why everything centers on Hezbollah and what it tells Nabih Berri to do. Aoun realizes this and he will judge the party, and his relationship with it, on whether it sets in motion dynamics that make his election inevitable. Anything short of absolute commitment would be regarded by Aoun as a pretext for a divorce. This was Geagea’s calculation: either Aoun is elected, and Geagea would gain by being kingmaker; or Aoun’s election is effectively hindered by Hezbollah, in which case Geagea would benefit by realigning with a Aoun who no longer regards his Hezbollah alliance as the key to the presidency.
Equally true is that, because Frangieh remains in the race, Hezbollah will have to ensure that Aoun goes to Parliament guaranteed of a win. If it does not compel Berri to vote for Aoun, Hariri, Jumblatt and Berri, with the Kataeb and March 14 independents, could together bring in Frangieh. Hezbollah would be on the losing side, having not only failed to ensure Aoun’s victory but also having lost its ability to prolong the vacuum. A victory by Aoun is far better than such a prospect.
But beyond the maneuvering on all sides, the more relevant matter involves Lebanon’s future. Aoun may not be the most savory of characters, but Lebanon has reached the limits of what it can endure without a president and an effective government and parliament. The country is moving toward political and economic ruin; its political class, denied the regional funding to which it had grown addicted, has been plundering the limited resources of the state with abandon; and the Maronites in particular have sensed that unless the presidency is filled soon, their status in the country will soon become unsalvageable.
Some insist that Aoun’s chances are not great, but the reality suggests otherwise. All the parties are locked into attitudes that make changing their positions difficult. If Hezbollah embarks on a campaign to ensure that Aoun triumphs then everything else will fall into place and a consensus will build. Otherwise, we can expect a traumatic breakdown of the alliances that began in 2005-06. Aoun is much closer to the presidency than he appears. Those of us critical of him must accept this fact.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 21, 2016, on page 7.