Lebanese President Michel Aoun (Source: Imadmhj/WikiMedia Commons)
The end of 2016 brought important changes in Lebanon. Michel Aoun’s election in October finally ended the destabilizing presidential vacuum in place since May 2014, ushering in a new government of national unity under the premiership of Saad Hariri. These significant developments reflect ongoing shifts in the balance of power and in the broader political dynamics within Lebanon.
The new government signals both deep change and profound continuity. It reiterates that, much like in the past, Lebanon’s political fate continues to be tied to both the outcome of the Syrian civil war and the broader geopolitical balance of power in the region. But it also reveals that the main lens through which we have looked at Lebanese politics since the fateful assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005—namely the sectarian-cum-political “March 14” (M14) vs. “March 8” (M8) rivalry—may no longer be able to adequately capture the actual situation in the country.
For the past decade, the M14 forces and the M8 resistance camp—two largely antagonistic political blocs—have dominated Lebanese politics, with the former a favorite of the West, backed by Saudi Arabia and led by al-Hariri’s son Saad, head of the Tayyar al-Mustaqbal (Future Movement), a political party that largely represents Lebanon’s Sunni community. On the other hand, Iran and Syria support the resistance camp, which is dominated by Hezbollah (and Amal), both speaking for the majority of the country’s Shiites. With the Lebanese Maronite Christian community more or less evenly divided between the two political camps, M14 and M8 quickly became more than just an expression of sectarian politics: these alliances indeed reflected rooted and divergent political, sectarian, and geo-strategic interests. With the beginning of the Syrian civil war, the deep animosity, mutual distrust, and sheer parochialism of both political camps became even more entrenched, leading to deep and prolonged political paralysis. In past years, this polarization paralyzed the government, preventing it from carrying out its duties, from garbage collection to gas exploration. The impasse has also delayed important political and economic reforms, including the revision of the country’s electoral system, putting the democratic system on virtual hold.
But, after years of stalemate and deadlock between M14 and M8, the election of Michel Aoun as president revealed a partial change in the political equation.
To begin with, Aoun’s ascent confirmed the decline and growing rifts within the “March 14” political alliance. After the end of Michel Suleiman’s presidential term in 2014, the main parties in the March 14 coalition jointly backed the nomination of Dr. Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces party, to succeed Suleiman, against the March 8 candidacy of Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) leader Michel Aoun. Yet, by early 2016, the March 14 vote split following Saad Hariri’s ill-advised nomination of Damascus-friendly Marada Movement leader Sleiman Frangieh as a “consensus candidate” to end the presidential rift. Ironically, Hariri’s move did not fill the presidential vacuum, but it did manage to facilitate a dialogue between enemies, Geagea and Aoun. The two rival Christian leaders agreed that they hated the idea of being politically sidelined by Hariri even more than they disliked each other, so they struck an agreement, with Geagea withdrawing his candidacy and backing Aoun’s presidential aspirations.
In addition, the disagreement between Geagea and Hariri not only (further) undermined the unity of the March 14 coalition, but it also revealed the declining influence of Saad Hariri over his political allies. In the past decade, and especially since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, his leadership has been questioned within both March 14 in general and the Lebanese Sunni community more specifically—a trend observable by looking at the Future Movement’s performance in the 2016 municipal elections. Adding to Hariri’s political troubles and financial woes, 2016 also saw Saudi Arabia—the statesman’s traditional backer—significantly cut down support for Lebanon in general and for Hariri’s political and economic ventures more specifically. After becoming increasingly frustrated by its regional losses to Iran, notably in Syria and Yemen, since early 2016, Saudi Arabia opted for a new strategy with respect to Lebanon, withdrawing aid and support and increasing regional pressure on Hezbollah. While hoping to weaken Hezbollah as well as to force the Lebanese government to reign in the organization and distance itself from Iran, the Saudi “disengagement” has chiefly hurt the Kingdom’s Lebanese allies—namely, Hariri and his party.
Moreover, the presidential election revealed the potential strength of the country’s two main Christian political parties—that is, when their leaders choose to work together beyond the M8-M14 divide. The Geagea-Aoun deal was a game changer: not only did it de facto force Hariri to shelve his plan and somewhat abruptly switch his presidential endorsement from Frangieh to Aoun, leading to his election, but it also represented an important instance of cooperation between the two Lebanese Christian leaders after years of steep animosity and division. Even though it would be premature to foresee long-term unity and harmony between the Lebanese Forces and the Free Patriotic Movement, the election of Aoun could still very well usher in an era of increased collaboration beyond the M8-M14 rift.
It is therefore unsurprising to note that Hariri’s own woes, combined with the internal rift over the presidential vacuum, accelerated the weakening of March 14 as a political project and of his political leadership, which contributed to Aoun’s election. This predicament also pushed Hariri, as the newly confirmed PM, to accept a number of significant compromises in forming the new “national unity” cabinet in December 2016. The cabinet line-up indeed awards Aoun’s party and his March 8 allies—including Hezbollah—a whopping 17 out of the 30 available cabinet seats, while reserving 10 posts for the Future Movement and the Lebanese Forces, and an additional three seats for (likely) “friendly” appointees. Significantly, Aoun’s own party received eight ministries—including Defense, Justice, Energy, Trade and Foreign Affairs—while the Future Movement received seven ministerial posts, most notably that of Interior and Telecommunications.
The election of Michel Aoun and the cabinet line-up, together, stress the change in the relevance of the M14-M8 divide and the decline of the political project spurred by the 2005 Independence Intifada that put an end to fifteen years of Syrian tutelage over Lebanon.
They also confirm the deep influence that the regional balance of power plays on domestic Lebanese politics. And here, the trend is one of substantial continuity, with Lebanon’s domestic politics still deeply shaped by the region. The rise of Michel Aoun and the nomination of the national unity government are indeed reflections of the broader regional dynamics, confirming the turning of the tide in favor of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and his allies, including Iran. In this sense, pro-Syrian voices are well represented in the cabinet, while both Iran and Syria have reacted very positively to the recent shifts in the Lebanese political arena.
Yet, even though the new government and the election of Michel Aoun clearly indicate a shift of the political pendulum towards the FPM leader and his allies, the longer-term impact of these developments remains uncertain. Domestically, the new government faces an uphill path in finding the necessary consensus to truly “restore confidence” (its chosen slogan), make an impact, and move Lebanon out of its political paralysis by jumpstarting the reforms the country needs, beginning with the revisions of the electoral laws in preparation for the Parliamentary elections scheduled for June 2017 (they should have been held in 2014, but have so far been postponed due to internal instability and fierce clashes over the electoral laws). Electoral reforms are indeed an especially contentious topic, and significant debate over which system to adopt (majoritarian or proportional) will likely yet again paralyze the political system.
But even when it comes to international relations, Lebanon’s future is far from clear. For example, it will be especially interesting to observe how the newly elected president will reconcile between the pro-Syrian stance of its closest political allies, including Hezbollah, and the official policy of non-alignment when it comes to the Iranian-Saudi rivalry and how being in power will affect his calculus when it comes to both domestic and foreign allies. Similarly, it will be important to observe how Hariri as a PM deals with the need to keep his party’s foreign supporters happy while recognizing the shifting power dynamics within the Levant.
In sum, even though the domestic reshuffling of the political cards reflects a shift in the domestic and regional balance of power, there is still remarkable continuity in the challenges ahead for Lebanon, with the country once again battling to prevent paralysis, reduce polarization, and contain instability and, in so doing, weathering the regional storm.