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Smooth sailing for Lebanon?
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 25 - 10 - 2016

“[Former Lebanese prime minister] Rafiq Al-Hariri truly died today as the election of [former army commander Michel] Aoun would spell the demise of the Al-Hariri family in politics,” commented one observer of the decision by leader of the Lebanese Future Current Saad Al-Hariri to nominate Aoun for the country's presidency despite years of squabbling between the two men.
The nomination was preceded by several months of negotiations to fill a position that has been unfilled for the last two years. But Future Current supporters and allies were nevertheless upset at the decision, with some saying that they would refuse to vote for Aoun.
Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah said the door to electing a new president was now “wide open” and Hizbullah MPs would vote for ally Aoun at a parliamentary session at the end of the month.
But elements of the 8 March Coalition, among them Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri, the leader of the Amal Party and a close ally of Hizbullah, were unhappy at the decision to support Aoun. Berri said he was opposed to Aoun becoming the country's president and being nominated for the office in such a “blatant manner”.
Amal would not vote for Aoun, Berri said, announcing that he would “join the ranks of the opposition” to the current consensual system. Aoun visited Berri at his residence, but the latter insisted on highlighting the dispute.
The Lebanese Al-Joumhouria newspaper reported that in the meeting between Berri and Aoun, Berri had said that he opposed Aoun's nomination. “I could spoil the quorum of the session using the same justification you used in the past — that it has not been complete for 45 sessions,” Berri said, referring to the October vote.
“But I will not play that game. I will go to parliament and participate in the session on 31 October to elect a new president.”
It is expected that Aoun will need another session of parliament to meet the quorum because the Lebanese constitution requires that candidates for the presidency win two-thirds of the vote in the first session.
Berri said he opposed Aoun because of the actions of his son-in-law, Lebanese foreign minister Jibran Basil. Berri is said to be angrier from Al-Hariri than Aoun, especially since Berri had wanted an agreement on a new election law, a constant issue among the Lebanese political forces.
Since the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri in 2005, there has been a conflict between the 14 March Coalition supported by Saudi Arabia, the Gulf countries and the West, and the pro-Syria and pro-Iran 8 March Coalition in Lebanon.
Aoun is not only the most important Christian ally of Hizbullah, and by extension Syria and Iran, but also the strongest critic of the 14 March forces, especially the Future Current.
Aoun has described the situation in Lebanon as “a corrupt elite ruling the country since the Syrian occupation led by the Future Current.” He has stirred up sectarian hatred, especially against Sunni Muslims in the media, sometimes linking them to the Islamic State (IS) terror group.
Aoun's military history is also disconcerting as he headed the Lebanese government forces during the country's civil war, a position that by tradition and the constitution is held by a Sunni. He battled the Christian militias known as the Lebanese Forces, fought against the Syrian army, and towards the end of the war became infamous for bombing the capital Beirut itself.
Eventually, Syrian forces ousted Aoun from the presidential palace in Lebanon under international cover because of their participation in the 1990 Gulf War and after the Israelis agreed to allow the Syrians to use warplanes against Aoun.
General Aoun, as his supporters call him, received assistance from former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's Iraq and fled to the French embassy in Beirut when the Syrian army raided the presidential palace. He then went into exile in France. He returned to Lebanon after Al-Hariri's assassination and is now an ally of the Al-Assad regime in Damascus.
After this complicated history, observers are asking how Saad Al-Hariri can pick Aoun for the country's presidency. The same question was asked when Al-Hariri previously nominated Suleiman Franjieh, leader of the Marada Movement and a personal friend of Al-Assad.
Al-Hariri's moves reflect shifts in the regional, international and Lebanese environment. He has also lost a large part of his inheritance from his father, saying in his letter nominating Aoun that “if I had wanted wealth, I would not have entered politics. I have spent my inheritance defending the dream of the man whose wealth I inherited, Rafiq Al-Hariri. The wealth was spent to protect the revolution in Lebanon against those who want to convince us that a united Lebanon is impossible.”
Al-Hariri has also suffered from the Saudi financial crisis, though there are indications that his financial problems predate this. He has immense social and political commitments in Lebanon, and he has spent enormously on the Future Current.
Some institutions have stopped paying the salaries of employees, and Saudi Arabia is no longer counting on Al-Hariri or considers Lebanon an important ally, since Riyadh is in fierce battles with Iran in more important forums such as Yemen and Syria. On the ground, Al-Hariri knows that the Lebanese Sunnis cannot enter into a confrontation with Hizbullah and its allies as this would likely destroy the country.
Al-Hariri began his statement nominating Aoun by asking what his father would have done if he had been still alive. His conclusion was that his father would choose this initiative to reach a settlement.
He hinted at the danger of a new civil war in Lebanon, recalling presidential vacuums in 1958, 1988 and 2007, which ended with a settlement after the invasion of Beirut by Hizbullah and Amal combatants and attacks on the offices of the Future Current.
Al-Hariri said he agreed with Aoun on the importance of a strong state in Lebanon, though some are concerned this will be limited to Sunni fanatics while giving Hizbullah a free hand to move towards Syria.
The biggest expected gain for Al-Hariri is for him to become prime minister, but this is tethered to Aoun's promises and Hizbullah's approval. Even if Al-Hariri becomes head of the government, he could be removed at the first hint of trouble by the 8 March Coalition, something which happened in 2011 when he was visiting Washington.
Since his previous initiative to nominate Franjieh several months ago, Al-Hariri has begun a new task that not only aims to end the vacuum of the presidency, but also to end the dichotomy between the 8 March Coalition led by Hizbullah and the 14 March Coalition led by the Future Current.
The risk of Al-Hariri's move is that it will speed up the end of his monopoly over leading Sunnis, already apparent in recent local council elections in Lebanon. Al-Hariri could also become one of Lebanon's Sunni leaders, rather than the top leader.
As a result of Al-Hariri's actions Lebanon will likely have a new president. But many believe that choosing Aoun could be the start of more trouble and not the end of it.

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