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Mar 30, 2016 | 09:16 GMT

9 mins read

Why Lebanon Cannot Pick a President

The Head of Lebanon's Shiite movement Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, is seen on a giant screen as he addresses the crowd in a televised speech from an undisclosed location during a rally held in the southern suburbs of Beirut on February 16, 2016, to mark the anniversary of the Israeli killings of Lebanese Hezbollah commanders Ragheb Harb, Abbas al-Mussawi and Imad Mughnieh. Mussawi was killed on February 16, 1992 in an Israeli air raid on Nabatiyeh, Harb was assassinated in south Lebanon during Israel's occu
(ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Although Hezbollah could accept a consensus presidential candidate such as Jean Kahwaji, the commander of the Lebanese armed forces, it will do so only if it is certain that he will not get in the group's way.
  • In the meantime, Hezbollah will continue to support presidential candidate Michel Aoun, whom it trusts to support the group's pursuit of its political and security goals.
  • Without a consensus candidate capable of fulfilling Hezbollah's needs, Iranian-Saudi competition in the Middle East will continue to keep Lebanon from electing a president.

Since President Michel Suleiman left office in May 2014, Lebanon's political blocs have failed 37 times to agree on his replacement. Hezbollah has been active in keeping the parties at loggerheads, refusing to support any presidential candidate who will not fully embrace the group's agenda. On top of Hezbollah's domestic agenda, the aims of its chief patron, Iran, are contributing to the organization's intransigence. Regional dynamics have traditionally influenced Lebanese politics, but the heightened competition lately between Saudi Arabia and Iran has made the political crisis in Lebanon all the more difficult to resolve.

The origins of Lebanon's predicament trace back more than a decade. In the wake of the 2005 assassination of Saudi-backed Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, Lebanon's Sunni population joined with certain Christian allies in mass protests against Syria's occupation of Lebanon. The demonstrations became known as the Cedar Revolution, and from them, two major political coalitions emerged. On one side, Hezbollah and the rest of the Iran-supported pro-Syria camp formed the March 8 Alliance, named for the date of their protests. On the other side, the Saudi-supported anti-Syria camp formed the March 14 Alliance (in turn named for its protest date). According to Lebanon's National Pact of 1943, which distributed power among the country's Christian, Shiite and Sunni communities, the president of Lebanon must be a Christian. And while Lebanon's Shiites and Sunnis support the March 8 and March 14 alliances, respectively, its Christian community is split between the two coalitions.

A member of the Lebanese security forces stands guard in front of a billboard bearing a portrait of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri during a 2015 ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of his assassination. (ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images)

Hezbollah

Within Lebanese politics, Hezbollah is a formidable presence. More than just a political party in Lebanon, Hezbollah is a para-governmental organization whose longstanding mission has been to promote a Shiite power alliance in the Middle East through an active militia. For its part in Lebanon's presidential crisis, Hezbollah has made it clear that it will only support a presidential candidate who, in turn, will support — or at least not impede — the organization in realizing its strategic objectives.

Among these goals is establishing a transnational Shiite alliance with Hezbollah's chief patron, Iran, and Bashar al Assad's Syria. Syria has been an important strategic ally for Hezbollah, offering support and providing routes for the group to smuggle arms from Iran. In turn, Hezbollah, in conjunction with Tehran, has supported al Assad since 2012. Of Hezbollah's 7,000 active fighters (and 20,000 reservists), around 5,000 are currently in Syria. The group has proved instrumental in key battles in Syria, having enabled government forces to recapture the city of Qusair in June 2013. Thus, to win Hezbollah's support, Lebanese presidential candidates must at least tacitly support al Assad's administration.

Lebanese mourners attend the funeral of a Hezbollah member killed in combat alongside Syrian government forces near Aleppo. (STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)

Furthermore, Hezbollah's choice of president could determine whether Lebanon's military receives its backing from Saudi Arabia or from Iran. Imminent retirements within the country's military and the Sunni-dominated Internal Security Forces will soon open a number of leading positions, to be filled by presidential appointment. Saudi Arabia had hoped that giving $4 billion of military and security aid to the country would win it greater influence over the military and security leaders in these positions. After all, Riyadh promised the money in 2014 on the condition that it be used in part to contain Hezbollah. Hezbollah, on the other hand, wants sympathetic figures in the military and security services and refuses to compromise on a presidential candidate in part to block the influence of Saudi money. In fact, Hezbollah has been lobbying since 2010 for Iranian aid. Immediately after Saudi Arabia rescinded its aid because of Lebanon's refusal to support anti-Iran resolutions, Lebanese Defense Minister Samir Moqbel, from the March 8 Alliance, announced that Beirut would accept arms and military equipment from Tehran, if it extended the offer.

Above all, Hezbollah aims to ensure that the next president will not interfere in the group's ability to operate as a militia within Lebanon. After Lebanon's 15-year civil war ended in 1990, Hezbollah was the only militia allowed to keep active personnel and weaponry, in view of Israel's continued presence in the country at the time. Hezbollah still considers itself Lebanon's best defense against Israel, with an arsenal of up to 100,000 missiles and rockets, including midrange missiles. For Hezbollah, maintaining the militia component of its organization is essential, and the group will only support a presidential candidate who will not undermine it. Though legislation mandating Hezbollah's disarmament would be difficult to enforce, the group is nonetheless concerned about the potential introduction of measures that could weaken its militia over time.

Finding a Candidate

With a view to its multifarious objectives, Hezbollah has steadfastly backed presidential candidate Gen. Michel Aoun. The founder of the Free Patriotic Movement, a majority-Christian party, Aoun supported Hezbollah's 2006 war against Israel and its 2008 Beirut takeover, all the while refusing to join the March 14 Alliance. More important, Aoun's support has earned Hezbollah's intervention in Syria legitimacy with mainstream Christians in Lebanon. Aoun is a prominent leader in the Christian community nationwide, and Hezbollah therefore believes he is the candidate best poised to help the group achieve its broader objectives. In fact, Hezbollah has already garnered significant support from Christians in Lebanon since signing a memorandum of understanding with Aoun in 2006. As a result of the agreement, large parts of the country's Christian community began to support Hezbollah, and Aoun became a hero in the eyes of many Shiites. Even so, Hezbollah remains unsure of its ability to influence Aoun as president, and the Hezbollah-Aoun alliance is by no means permanent.

The March 14 Alliance initially proposed Samir Geagea, executive chairman of the Lebanese Forces party, as a presidential contender. But Geagea led one of the armed Christian militias during the civil war and opposes both Syria and Hezbollah. To reach a consensus in the presidential impasse, the March 14 Alliance then put forward an alternative candidate, Suleiman Frangieh. Because Frangieh was actually a part of the March 8 Alliance, as well as a close friend of both Syria's president and Hezbollah's secretary-general, the leader of the March 14 Alliance, Saad al-Hariri, believed that he could be a consensus candidate. Al-Hariri's decision to back Frangieh at the expense of Geagea's nomination was contentious, and members of the March 14 Alliance viewed it as a surrender to Hezbollah pressure. And despite the effort to find a mutually acceptable president, Hezbollah has stayed strong in its support for Aoun, insisting that it will not endorse a weak consensus candidate.

Posters of Gen. Jean Kahwaji, commander of the Lebanese armed forces, decorate a vehicle. Kahwaji, well-liked throughout Lebanon, could be a consensus candidate for president. (JOSEPH EID/AFP/GettyImages)

Lebanon's last political crisis lasted for 18 months before the March 8 and March 14 alliances finally settled on Michel Suleiman, the commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces, as president. Suleiman emerged as a viable candidate after 2008 negotiations in Qatar under the Doha Agreement lent him credibility as an independent and capable security leader. Likewise, in an effort to end Lebanon's latest political stalemate, the March 14 alliance has suggested the current commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces, Jean Kahwaji, as the country's next president. Kahwaji is widely liked in Lebanon and has gained some traction as a consensus candidate, even earning the approval of Defense Minister Samir Moqbel, who is affiliated with Hezbollah's March 8 Alliance.

Finding Consensus

But Hezbollah's insistence on a presidential candidate who will meet all the group's criteria will prevent a presidential consensus solution in the foreseeable future. And Hezbollah's intransigence will further undermine the cohesion of the March 8 and March 14 coalitions, leading to greater political discord in Lebanon. Indeed, after the March 14 Alliance came out in support of Frangieh, its original candidate retaliated by announcing his support for Aoun. Additionally, whatever the possibility for a consensus candidate, the political and security situation in Lebanon — and in the region as a whole — ensures that Hezbollah will continue to support only presidential candidates who serve its interests. And since no president suits Hezbollah's interests as well as any consensus candidate would, Hezbollah would sooner stay in a political vacuum than compromise.

Similarly, if Hezbollah decided that resolving Lebanon's political crisis was in its best interests, it would support a consensus candidate — as long as that figure did not interfere with Hezbollah's agenda. But until Hezbollah views the Lebanese political stalemate as a threat to its own goals, the group will continue to block consensus candidates in order to increase its leverage within the negotiating process. At the same time, Iran, Hezbollah's chief patron, expects the group to oppose any pro-Saudi candidate, another factor for parties to consider in grooming a successful consensus candidate. After all, Hezbollah's objectives are deeply connected to the group's relationship with Iran. Indeed, expressing concerns to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon over the waning prospects of an internal solution to the Lebanese presidential crisis, the speaker of the Lebanese parliament, a Hezbollah ally, asked Ban to engage Saudi Arabia and Iran in dialogue. Ultimately, an understanding between Iran and Saudi Arabia could be the key to ending Lebanon's political crisis. 

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