10-Horse Race to Lebanon’s Presidential Palace

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President Suleiman visited Paris, aiming to get a definitive answer about the possibility of living in France at the end of his term and assuming the general secretariat of the Francophonie.(Photo: Marwan Tahtah).

By: Ghassan Saoud

Published Friday, December 27, 2013

According to most observers concerned with the formation of the new Lebanese government, President Michel Suleiman is relatively convinced that Hezbollah cannot be fooled into extending his term. He understands that the Saudis want him to put the country in the hands of Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam, without extending his own term.

Suleiman received information that some of the colleagues of Future Bloc MP Hadi Hobeich, particularly MPs Boutros Harb and Robert Ghanem, who were having dinner at MP Farid Makari's house, were making fun of Hobeich's "fanciful and illegal" proposal to keep the president after the end of his term. Later, Hobeich would hear harsh words on his rash proposal from former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and MP Ammar Houri.

Hobeich retracted his proposal in a television appearance, after having promised to propose it to the Future Bloc. Based on that, President Suleiman visited Paris, aiming to get a definitive answer about the possibility of living in France at the end of his term and assuming the general secretariat of the Francophonie.

People close to the president said he was optimistic after the visit. A veteran minister said that from experience, when a president escalates his rhetoric at the end of his term, he is setting up to be a Christian chief. This is out of the question for Suleiman.

Accordingly, March 8 seems certain that Suleiman will fulfill the final item of his presidential agenda and sign the decree for the Salam government, which, at the very least, will not include Hezbollah.

March 8 has also dropped from its plans a scenario, which entailed that its ministers would not deliver their ministries to the new governments, since the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) is certain that caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati will give Salam the keys to the Grand Serail. His ministers and those of MP Walid Jumblatt are also expected to do the same.

In this situation, there will be one government and some rogue ministers. Legal experts also concur that such a government would be legitimate, despite breaking the National Pact, since Article 64 of the constitution stipulates that a government formed by the president and prime minister "shall not exercise its powers before getting a vote of confidence [in parliament], except within the narrow definition of caretaking." This should supposedly have been reflected in the latest warnings by Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, who told Suleiman and Salam not to go along with the Saudi proposal to exclude Hezbollah from the government.

This is the gist of the discussion about the government. However, the debate about presidential candidates has already begun, putting the number of presidential hopefuls at 10: Amin Gemayel, Michel Aoun, Suleiman Frangieh, Samir Geagea, Jean Obeid, Riad Salameh, Jean Kahwaji, Boutros Harb, Robert Ghanem, and Ziad Baroud.

The last candidate is working in the shadows, hopeful for a miracle from the Maronite patriarch, allowing Cardinal Beshara al-Rai to send him to the presidential palace. However, the two independent candidates and Future Movement MPs cannot find any priest, banker, or ambassador to give them a hand. We are left with the “Maronite Four,” in addition to the “Neutral Three,” to use a polite term for their position in the current conflict.

In this context, there are three arenas for the competition. In the first, there is MP Frangieh and Lebanese Forces commander Geagea, who rose to fame after the 1978 Ehden massacre, which Frangieh survived by coincidence. Geagea, "based on his vision," expects his side to achieve a total victory by taking the presidency and negotiating on the position of parliamentary speaker, after throwing Nasrallah in jail, facilitating the sale of Hezbollah's weapons, and transferring the money to the Lebanese Forces' private accounts.

Frangieh, on the other hand, is waiting for a new settlement, which would redistribute powers and give the presidency and the parliament to hawks on his side, with the Future Movement heading the government through Saad Hariri. Hariri's supporters would chose Frangieh over Aoun at any time. Frangieh's Marada Movement say they support Aoun's nomination and are very secretive about the outcome of presidential negotiations with their allies in Dahiyeh and Damascus.

In all events, Geagea will become a serious candidate if his side achieves a resounding victory, and the same goes for Frangieh. But in light of the current balance, two candidates represent the existing schism: former President Amin Gemayel from March 14 and former army commander Michel Aoun from March 8. It is enough to see Gemayel smiling at the Iranian ambassador and Aoun's joy in receiving the US ambassador, to note the similar plans they have to return to the presidential palace in Baabda. However, Aoun is confronting Geagea to give him a push, while Geagea is completely ignoring Gemayel's candidacy.

It should be noted that Gemayel had transferred the presidency to Aoun on 23 September 1988. Aoun later became a national hero a month after that date, not because of his actions, but because of what Gemayel and Geagea were doing. In the 2008 by-elections, many residents of Metn said they were unfamiliar with Aoun's candidate Nazem al-Khoury, but they knew Gemayel, so they will vote for Khoury.

In this context, information from the Lebanese Forces and Walid Jumblatt confirms that they and the Future Movement would prefer Aoun over Gemayel. Geagea does not want to waste all his efforts, dating from 1982, to limit Gemayel's influence, and Jumblatt cannot imagine him in Baabda, due to bad personal experiences (the war of the mountains and other things). The Future Movement does not want to pay the price of having a president that is only an ally in words.

The third arena will be set in the event of a political agreement – most probably regional – to safeguard Lebanon from the disruption, which would be caused by the two sides fighting it out, a void in the presidency, or the repercussions of a one-sided government. The competition here will be between three candidates who have not yet declared their nomination. The chaos, which would be caused by Suleiman's departure, will pave the way for the "grip," according to a former minister, represented by army commander Jean Kahwaji. Several sources in the FPM maintain that Kahwaji is Hezbollah's number-one choice, despite several official denials by the party.

Although Kahwaji knows that Future Movement MPs will not have an influence on his nomination, he succeeded in winning some of them over. The movement's General Secretary Ahmad Hariri, and MPs Hobeich, Riad Rahhal, Khaled Zahraman, and Mohammed Hajjar speak positively of him. Kahwaji is actually relying on their ability to change the popular mood in their regions, which are incubating anti-army groups. "Friends of the Leader," who are putting up signs in several official establishments, such as officer clubs, are promoting European interests in supporting the army, as a sign of adopting Kahwaji's move from Yarze to Baabda.

However, observers maintain that there is no information about the true position of the Saudis and the United States from Kahwaji, despite the efforts exerted by former Defense Minister Elias al-Murr in promoting his friends to the Americans. Until now, Kahwaji is supported by Michel al-Murr, but there is a strong veto by Aoun regarding his candidacy.

Lebanese Central Bank (BDL) governor Riad Salameh, on the other hand, represents a point of convergence between several opposing sides. The first is between Frangieh and the Lebanese Forces, who had one of its ministers call on Aoun to consent to his candidacy. The second convergence is between the Future Movement and Mikati.

But Nabih Berri, like Aoun and Jumblatt, prefers former minister Jean Obeid to Kahwaji or Salameh, if the choice is limited to these three. Obeid might be able to capitalize on his strong relations with Saudi officials concerned with this issue and his agreement with former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on most issues, including the extension of Emile Lahoud's presidential term. Obeid believes this saves him from a veto by the Future Movement.

Obeid could get the support of Berri, Aoun, the Future Movement, and Jumblatt in the second phase, if none of the strong Maronite candidates are chosen. The only veto would come from the Lebanese Forces, which is employing all its capacity to convince Qatari diplomacy (which listens carefully to what Obeid has to say) and the public (which knows about Obeid's visit to Syrian intelligence officer Ghazi Kanaan to pay condolences after Kanaan committed suicide) that Obeid is linked to the Syrians.

Kahwaji is using the military establishment as a crutch to reach the presidential palace. Obeid is dependent on a strangely connected regional network and several local friends.

There is serious fear of a void in the Future Movement, mainly among its MPs. A Beirut MP describes the presidential void, regardless of the government, as a means for Hezbollah to lead all sides to a settlement that does not stop at merely choosing a president. It could be something similar to the 2008 Doha agreement, which included a reconciliation between March 14 and the Syrian regime, in addition to the identity of the new president.

Future Bloc head Siniora has enough experience and pragmatism to convince regional powers that it would be impossible for any Maronite from his side to become president. However, he prefers a president who would repay the Future Movement for its role in his nomination and take the country's balances into account, especially one whose personal relations with regional and international decision-makers brought him to power. In the offices of FPM MPs, the same anxieties about a presidential void are expressed, which, in their calculations, will only serve to bring Kahwaji into office.

Amin Gemayel likes to say that the candidate is the message. In his case, this would be a bona fide disaster. Obeid, on the other hand, does not believe that a personal resume has anything to do with reaching the presidency. "It has to do with one's direction" – and his luck.

Luck or God's will? Hamid Frangieh went and Suleiman Frangieh arrived. Bashir Gemayel was killed and Amin Gemayel took the seat. Rene Mouawad was assassinated and Elias Hrawi elected.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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Incoherent and aimless rambling!

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