Without president since May 24, 2014, Lebanon has survived with minimum politics and maximum political tension in times of socio-economic crisis and regional instability. After two years and five months of negotiations, the Lebanese Parliament agreed on October 31 to nominate the former Chief of Staff Gen. Michel Aoun, leader of the Christian Free Patriotic Movement, as the 13th president for a six-year mandate. Allied with Hezbollah and regionally supported by Iran, Aoun’s election was only made possible after 45 different parliamentary sessions, when the former prime minister Sa’ad Hariri secured his support in turn of a six-year mandate as prime minister.
This political move is unprecedented in Lebanon. Historically, the Lebanese political arena has rarely come to such conclusion independently, but generally it has been forced to compromise by the intervention of foreign powers, as the 2008 Doha Agreement exemplifies. Unlike preceding deadlines, Aoun’s election and Hariri’s appointment are the result of intense negotiations locally held by opposing factions. This has ushered an era of new and incoherent alliances in a country divided between two large coalitions: a pro-Western March 14 led by Hariri’s Future Movement and supported by the Gulf monarchies; and March 8 headed by Hezbollah and including Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, backed by Syria and Iran. The newly-framed agreement between the two poles ultimately leads to the question on why and how this fresh majority will reach consensus in overcoming the systemic impasse that Beirut’s institutions are facing.
Hariri, l’uomo dell’accordo
Hariri’s move stirred controversy among the Future Movement and its Sunni popular base, with several defections among his parliamentary bloc. In fact, this political decision has raised questions on the rationale behind it, namely why a Sunni ally of Saudi Arabia would endorse the victory of a Tehran-backed faction, in the frame of the regional proxy war also known as New-Arab Cold War. Abdullah al-Shammari, a former Saudi diplomat, has defined Hariri’s choice as “a sort of political adventurism”, which implies a change of relations between the Future Movement and Riyadh, with the Sunni Lebanese party towards more decisional independence.
It is undoubted that Hariri’s pivot was motivated by several calculations, among them a shift in the balance of military power in favour of Assad in the Syrian conflict and the financial crisis that his own company, the Saudi Oger, is facing. The latter has contributed to the deterioration of the relations between the Hariri family and Saudi Arabia, as the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef denied a bankroll to Hariri’s businesses, cutting economic aids due to severe financial setbacks caused sharp drop in oil prices.
Indeed, Hariri’s decision was a political adventure given the circumstances surrounding it. By deliberately endorsing the candidate supported by the Shia archenemy, Hariri handed his rivals a clear public victory, boosting the popularity of Hezbollah within the Christian lines. Yet, at this point, it is worth questioning if he had any other options. The leader of the Future Movement found himself at a crossroads, either he was going for an all-in political gamble, or he would have preserved the status quo until the regional stabilisation, too far to be achieved.
Undoubtedly, the municipal elections held in last May contributed to his choice. According to the polls, Hariri has lost popularity in favour to new competitors within the rank of his own political movement, among the others Ashraf Rifi, the resigned justice minister. From Hariri’s perspective, his political future needed a shock, be it positive or negative. As today, it is too early to evaluate the outcome of his choice: he might benefit from his role as prime minister in order to re-establish the ties with the grassroots community, or the “marriage of convenience” with Nasrallah might undermine definitively his credibility at the eyes of his Sunni popular support.
Stability, yet impasse
Yet, it is doubtful that this recent local development would represent a way-out to the democratic impasse that Lebanon faces, mainly caused by its institutional power-sharing mechanism. Lebanon’s elites have preserved their hegemony throughout the years, surviving civil war, foreign interventions, Arab Spring and the electoral ballot box: the Hariri, Jumblatt, Franjieh, Gemayel, continue to control the country. Since its institutionalisation, Lebanon has been victim of an elite’s pact that, reflexed in the formal and informal rules of a sectarian government, determines interests at a group level in a complementary way to the individual ones. The perceived regional threats that are spilling over the Syrian conflict have led to an operative convergence between the different political factions in short-term pragmatic compromises that, aimed at maintaining internal stability, leave unsolved questions for potential developments in the near future.
There is reason to believe that these alliances between the different coalitions would probably not last long. As today, elites share a common interest that legitimises unitary action but, in the long run, the very same action could have unproductive outcomes for their own hegemony. In fact, Future Movement’s support to Hezbollah could result in a detrimental strategy that discredit Hariri’s party to its Sunni supporters who, disapproving the tacit alliance with the Shia rival, might prefer more radical Sunni factions as the Tripoli-based Hayat al-Ulama al-Muslimin, the League of Muslim Scholars. Additionally, Hezbollah intervention in Syria has not only risen domestic concerns regarding growing tension between Sunni and Shi’a, but it has also proven the different pace that both actors have in the implementation of their political agenda. More generally, once one of the sectarian elite would see the balance of the pact is not going on its favour or another part would try to prevail on the other, negotiations would become more complicated.
The sectarian institutionalization of its power structure has created a system of communal-based hegemony that bestows privileges in a bi-polar political sphere leading to democratic deadlocks, while a supposedly modern economy has proven to be built around patronage, corruption and nepotism. The Lebanese elites have maintained a blind eye on deep-rooted causes of systemic enduring instability, which the current Syrian refugee crisis has made more obvious. All these factors, coupled with economic stagnation and the lack of socio-political representation, need to be addressed in order to ward off fertile ground for internal conflict.