Political transitions in Lebanon

Hassan Al-Qishawi , Tuesday 9 Jan 2018

Lebanese politics have been marked by a series of new alignments that have broken with traditional rivalries this year

Saad al-Hariri
A poster depicting Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, who has resigned from his post, is seen in Beirut, Lebanon, November 10, 2017 (Photo: Reuters)

As 2017 came to a close, there was much political upheaval in Lebanon. For many years, Lebanese politics have been based on divisions between two key coalitions, the 14 March Coalition led by the Future Current and 8 March Coalition led by the Shia group Hizbullah.

However, recently there have been major transformations in Lebanese politics, including cooperation between key figures in rival camps, such as the understanding between the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of Lebanese President Michel Aoun and the Lebanese Forces (LF) led by Samir Geagea.

This was followed by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri, the leader of the Future Current, nominating MP Suleiman Frangieh, a close ally of Hizbullah, to become the next president. Even more significant was Al-Hariri’s earlier endorsement of former rival Aoun as president, after two years when Lebanon did not have one.

These pacts brokered outside the box of traditional Lebanese politics between the 14 March and 8 March Coalitions were main features of security policy in Lebanon this year, but they did not mean that traditional alliances had been broken.

The two main elements in the 14 March Coalition maintained relations at a minimum and cautiously overcame the fall-out after the LF reached an understanding with Aoun and then Al-Hariri’s endorsement of Frangieh, an enemy of the LF. Opposite camps in the coalition came together to support Aoun’s nomination as president.

However, after Al-Hariri’s sudden resignation as prime minister while in Riyadh in November, the two sides headed in different directions once again, and Lebanese politics witnessed an unprecedented overhaul in which old alliances such as the one between the Future Current and the LF declined.

Relations were also strained between former allies such as former Lebanese minister of justice Ashraf Rifi and the Future Current. Ties within the Future Current itself continued to disintegrate when members began to take up positions based on their stand regarding Al-Hariri’s sudden resignation.

They included removing members from the current because of their positions during the crisis triggered the resignation. Relations between the LF and the Future Current unravelled primarily because Geagea declared his support for Al-Hariri’s resignation, which some inside the Future Current said meant that Geagea had abandoned Al-Hariri in tough times.

The quarrel between the Future Current and the LF strongly impacted relations with the FPM, tied to the LF through a memorandum of understanding regulating relations between these two powerful Christian political forces in Lebanon.

The LF accuses the FPM led by Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil of “pulling the strings” of Aoun’s presidency, “greatly harming relations between the LF and Aoun because of the FPM’s ambitions to monopolise Christian representation, even at the expense of Aoun’s supporters and naturally the LF as well.”

The mindset of the LF is such that any unexpected actions by Bassil are seen as violating Geagea’s belief in upholding Lebanon’s sovereignty and its Arab relations. They are seen as undermining national reconciliation under the umbrella of the constitution and the Taif Agreement that ended the country’s civil war, especially pertaining to keeping Lebanon outside Iran’s orbit.

Bassil, meanwhile, has accused the LF of not keeping its side of the bargain by withdrawing support for Aoun. Geagea has responded that the understanding does not mean following the FPM’s lead, and specifically Bassil’s orders. It seems that there was an attempt to hold the LF hostage inside the cabinet, but it says that the decision to resign or withdraw its members from the government was its own.

The most significant change triggered by Al-Hariri’s resignation was how the FPM and its leader Bassil together with Aoun’s presidency all closed ranks with Al-Hariri by solidly supporting the prime minister during the resignation crisis.

The latent change that Al-Hariri does not want to admit to is a form of coexistence with Hizbullah, as implied in the government’s statement about Lebanon’s “distancing itself from regional affairs” in media reports. It is a coexistence that Al-Hariri does not want to admit to, in order to avoid provoking the West, especially the US, and Arab countries like Saudi Arabia.

The resignation crisis was not the turning point in Lebanon’s political transition from traditional alliances to more transient arrangements over the past few years. Rather, it was the end point of a long process of political transformation resulting from the shift in the political balance in favour of Hizbullah and the 8 March Coalition, at the expense of the Future Current and the Sunni Coalition.

The turning point here was the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) group and the defeat of the Syrian opposition to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. IS became the biggest threat to Lebanon, and even for the 14 March Coalition it was a greater threat than Hizbullah and the Syrian regime.

The defeat of the Syrian Revolution has destroyed the aspirations of the 14 March Coalition, especially the Future Current, to remove its traditional rival, the Syrian regime.

Instead, the regime has gained more power, and more importantly for Lebanon, its Lebanese ally Hizbullah has also gained more power. As a result, the Future Current has aimed at hammering out an understanding with Hizbullah, starting with security issues, with European and sometimes Gulf and even US (under former president Barack Obama) encouragement.

The pioneer of this policy was Minister of the Interior Nehad Mashnuq, and it has resulted in improved security conditions, especially in Tripoli, Beqaa and Arsal.

Such understandings have continued to be found among several Lebanese forces. Meanwhile, Aoun’s FPM no longer presents itself solely as the representative of the largest Christian bloc in the country, but also as standing for Lebanese nationalism and as the only Christian current that has strong relations with both the Sunnis and Shias.

It appears that Aoun has been the biggest winner in this formula to date, due to support from his ally Hizbullah, his reaching of an understanding with his former rival the LF, and his continuing to draw closer to the Future Current.

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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