In January 1990, inter-Christian fighting broke out during the last phase of the Lebanese Civil War between then-Prime Minister Michel Aoun and Samir Gagegea of the Lebanese Forces (FF), a powerful militia now turned political party. Entire neighborhoods of East Beirut, the Christian enclave of the city, were bombed, and that confrontation ended with the Syrian Army overrunning the seat of power at Baabda, exiling Aoun to France and in 1994, sending Gagegea to prison. Thirty-two years later, the two men are back. Still active despite old age, bitter, and at daggers-end in Christian politics, on May 15, they competed for Lebanon’s 128-seat Parliament. Both are now claiming a majority.
Michel Aoun, now president of the republic, claims that his party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), won 18 seats alone and 21 if considered with other Christian allies, trumping Gagegea’s 19 MPs. If measured by where they stood in the outgoing parliament, however, one can automatically see that the 2022 elections were a victory for Gagegea. He managed to raise his representation by four seats, unlike Aoun, who lost anywhere between and 8-11 MPs. Much of that defeat is shouldered by his son-in-law Gebran Bassil, who is blamed for the economic collapse of the Aoun era, along with the steady financial meltdown and the 2020 explosion at the port of Beirut, which killed over 200 people and tore down half the city. They are now preparing themselves for a new confrontation on two fronts, struggling to see who will get the upper hand in naming Lebanon’s new prime minister and president.
Selecting a Prime Minister
Under Lebanon’s constitution, the government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati must resign automatically after a new chamber is inaugurated. A former premier and tycoon, Mikati was chosen for the job in September 2021, and was supposed to be Aoun’s last prime minister. He was under the impression that he would supervise both the parliamentary elections in May as well as the upcoming presidential elections in October, but that violated Article 69 of the Lebanese Constitution, which provides that he must step down. If he were to stay in power for another five months, then he would need to be formally mandated to form a new government, first by parliament and then by Aoun.
Aoun will only invite Mikati to form a new cabinet, however, if he is absolutely certain that the prime minister will not obstruct the nomination of his son-in-law to the presidency. If that happens, Gagegea will refuse to join, either obstructing the government’s formation or giving it a vote of no-confidence. Any commitment to a Bassil presidency will also put Hezbollah on the offensive, regardless of the fact that it is currently allied to the FPM party. Hezbollah is currently represented by three ministers in the Mikati government, and along with its allies in the Amal Movement, controls a total of 27 seats in the new Chamber of Deputies. No cabinet can pass muster without its approval. Hezbollah considers Bassil a manipulator who is not to be trusted, saying, behind closed doors, that its 2006 alliance with the FPM applied to Michel Aoun only, and not to his son-in-law. That deal, known as the Mar Mikhail Agreement, promised to make Aoun president in exchange for him supporting Hezbollah’s right to arms. Both sides have fully lived up to their commitment, with Aoun defending the organization’s right to arms and Hezbollah having HYPERLINK “https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2016/02/hezbollah-support-michel-aoun-presidential-candidate.html”made him president in 2016.
As far as Hezbollah is concerned, that deal is now history, with Aoun’s tenure ending in October. Bassil remains a very unpopular figure, even among Lebanese Christians, and is encumbered by US sanctions and blamed for the country’s economic woes. Additionally, he has angered Hezbollah on a number of issues, such as equating Syria with the French colonialism of the 1920s and saying that he doesn’t oppose peace with Israel. Hezbollah is under no obligation to make him president and would prefer its other Christian ally, Suleiman Frangieh, leader of the Marada Movement, who had been earmarked for the job in 2016, before it went to Aoun.
If Najib Mikati accommodates Bassil, then he would lose the support of Hezbollah, Amal and, the Lebanese Forces. If he abandons him for their sake, he would lose support of the FPM. Cabinet formation in Lebanon can usually take weeks, even months. During that period, Mikati would technically hold on to his job as caretaker premier, with limited powers. Among other things, he would be unable to pursue further talks with the International Monetary Fund. Likewise, he would be prohibited from engaging in negotiations with Israel to demarcate Lebanon’s territorial waters. In addition, he would not be able to supervise presidential elections in October.
Electing a President
Pursuant to the constitution, presidential elections have to take place in the presence of a full-fledged government, mandated to lead by the Chamber of Deputies. That cannot happen under a caretaker cabinet. If Mikati cannot form a government between now and October, then presidential elections cannot happen, which would leave the octogenarian Aoun at his position. Aoun would not mind that, of course, and nor would Gibran Bassil. Although their parliamentary influence has been slashed, they still have enough seats to obstruct any cabinet formation. That is what they did in 2020-2021, when they rejected one line-up after another, presented by then Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri, simply to prevent Hariri from succeeding at forming a government. They can do that again in 2022, making sure that a cabinet vacuum lasts until October.
In their view, having no election is better than one in which Bassil is defeated, or unable to gather the 65 seats to secure the presidency for himself. Numerically, it would be very difficult for Bassil to garner such a majority, especially not with a mere 19-21 seats under his command. In the past, he and his parliamentary allies (Hezbollah included) enjoyed a powerful bloc of 71 MPs. Today, he lacks support of the 27-seat Shiite bloc, and none of the 10 independent MPs just voted into Parliament will support him. Those newcomers are anti-establishment, and they consider unseating Bassil to be one of their prime objectives. Other Maronite parties are also opposed to Bassil, like the Lebanese Phalange (5 MPs), Michel Mouwwad (2 MPs), and the Marada Movement (2 MPs). Along with the LF, that adds up to roughly 56 votes—killing Bassil’s presidential ambitions.
Nothing then is solved in Lebanon before everything is solved. As politicians bicker, ordinary Lebanese continue to suffer. While they wait for their leaders to decide on the distribution of the country’s top jobs, the country will continue falling apart moving from one economic slump to another. Mere mention of these differences has plummeted the local currency, which as of late May, was trading at 35,000 LP against the American dollar—the lowest it has ever reached in the country’s history, sending millions into financial ruin. There is no stopping that freefall devaluation unless the country’s political actors get their act together and solve their outstanding problems—quickly.