The 12th session of the Lebanese parliament held to elect a new president in Beirut. No candidate received enough votes
In Lebanon, hopes are pinned on September for filling the 11-month vacancy in the Lebanese presidency. Amid international and regional talks and initiatives such as the “five-member committee” for a solution in Lebanon and the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, the Lebanese Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri has launched a call for dialogue to elect a president.
Berri’s call, announced on 31 August, is not new. In recent months, he has issued similar appeals to the parliamentary blocs to come to meet with a view to reaching a consensus on a candidate they could elect after 12 parliamentary sessions had failed to achieve this end. But Lebanon’s complex political and economic crisis is worsening as the presidential seat remains empty while the powers of the caretaker government are limited. An outgoing governor of the Banque du Liban, Lebanon’s central bank, has to be replaced; and electing a new president is apparently the only way to go about this difficult task.
Several opposition parties had rejected Berri’s previous calls for dialogue, claiming that they were an attempt to waste time and circumvent the constitution which stipulates certain deadlines for electing the president, even if it requires a second round in which the president can be elected by a simple majority (65 out of 128 members) instead of the two-thirds majority required in the first round. A two-thirds quorum is also required for the first round, but not for the second. Generally, during a presidential vote, the camp aligned with Hizbullah and Berri would withdraw after the first round to prevent the 50 per cent plus one quorum for the second round. In response, other parties such as the independents and the Forces for Change, demanded that the presidential election session should remain open, meeting over consecutive days for however long it takes to elect a president.
Berri’s latest initiative calls for national dialogue among all Lebanese stakeholders based on two conditions. First, it would be attended by all the parliamentary blocs and, secondly, it would last seven days, after which parliament would convene in an open session to elect a president in successive rounds. The wording of the second condition appears aimed at attracting the opposition forces that had rejected previous calls for dialogue and demanded open sessions instead. The call is also something of a compromise between those who demanded a national dialogue to address the country’s many other pressing problems before the presidential election and those who insisted that the president should be elected before the dialogue.
Some have questioned whether Berri could act as an impartial dialogue sponsor. Not only is he a cornerstone of the Hizbullah camp, but his refusal to entertain the idea of an open session was also instrumental to the failure of 12 previous parliamentary sessions to elect a president. It is no secret that Berri supports Hizbullah’s preferred candidate, Suleiman Franjieh, what is more. The fact that he called for a dialogue without stating the conditions for a candidate has therefore aroused suspicions. The reactions to Berri’s national dialogue initiative are inconclusive. Several Forces of Change MPs have expressed enthusiasm because of his mention of open sessions, though they want more details about the dialogue’s mechanisms and agenda before making up their mind. The Forces of Change were the first bloc to demand open presidential election sessions to avert the type of deadlock that has kept the president’s seat vacant for so long.
Gebran Bassil, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), also welcomed the dialogue this time, stating that open sessions were a good thing regardless of whether the participants reached a consensus on a candidate. He had rejected Berri’s previous calls for dialogue. This may be a sign that Bassil has shifted positions on some issues. Recently he joined other Christian forces such as the Lebanese Forces (LF) and the Kataeb (Phalanges) Party in nominating former minister of finance Jihad Azour to run against Hizbullah’s candidate, Frangieh. Bassil is currently in talks with Hizbullah to repair their alliance which had frayed because of differences over the presidential candidate.
Kataeb leader Sami Gemayel said that in stipulating an open session in his dialogue call, Berri effectively admitted that he had been obstructing the implementation of the constitution for months. LF leader Samir Geagea took the occasion to lash out against Hizbullah and its allies for attempting to monopolise the political process by either imposing its candidate or prolonging the presidential vacuum.
The Maronite Patriarch welcomed Berri’s dialogue initiative, saying that it was the only way to complete the presidential elections after all other avenues had failed.
While it is still uncertain whether the dialogue will go ahead as it awaits the approval of Lebanese political forces who want further details before determining whether to attend, the initiative is clearly a serious attempt to end political polarisation through a Lebanese mechanism. The French envoy, Jean-Yves Le Drian, is expected to arrive in Beirut again next week to steer an effort to identify the qualities a potential candidate should have in order to be acceptable to all sides. A succession of French initiatives has been unable to break through the Lebanese blocs’ intransigence. Paris lacks the means to induce them to compromise. Although it is in continuous dialogue with Iran and its allies in Lebanon, it is averse to using the threat of sanctions or other means to pressure them to cooperate.
The US mediator Amos Hochstein achieved remarkable success last year in the Lebanese-Israeli negotiations over the maritime border demarcation between the two countries. He did not hesitate to use the threat of sanctions or of prolonging sanctions that have already been imposed on some Lebanese politicians. When one contrasts Hochstein’s performance during his recent visit to Beirut to discuss the question of the land border with Israel with French attempts to broker a political solution in Lebanon, one sees a considerable difference between the US and the French ability to budge the stagnant waters of Lebanese politics.
Iran, which aspires to a fruitful rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, needs to do so through various regional issues, one of which is Lebanon. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has urged Tehran’s allies in Beirut to tone down their anti-Saudi discourse in the hope that this will smooth the way to a regional breakthrough. Nevertheless, while the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement had picked up pace in March, it has since abated somewhat, which is reflected in the more entrenched deadlock in Lebanon. The contours of a Saudi-Iranian agreement on regional issues remain unclear, but it is likely to involve a trade-off between the Lebanese and Yemeni questions.
In this broader context, Berri’s call for dialogue seems to be an attempt to introduce a domestic mechanism to pre-empt the results of the bartering between Riyadh and Tehran which could force concessions on Iran’s allies in Lebanon. The success of his initiative is contingent, first, on its being accepted by the largest possible number of MPs and, secondly, on the effective implementation of its process, namely meeting for seven days and then holding an open session to elect a president from the candidate or rival candidates that emerge from the dialogue. If all this goes forward, the open presidential election session will make its mark as the decisive factor in choosing the next president.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly