Lebanon’s Upcoming Presidential Race Is Riddled with Uncertainty

Amid political chaos, economic collapse, a dearth of public services, and shortages of basic foods and medications, Lebanon is nonetheless slated to hold another presidential election by the end of October 2022. Lebanon remains, despite all its problems, one of the few countries in the Middle East where elections count, and all of the country’s political parties and factional leaders are insisting that this upcoming election must indeed be held on time. Diplomats from the US and Europe have also urged that a timely and smooth transition of power is essential for maintaining a democratic process, despite the fact that in recent years Lebanon’s political situation has become increasingly devoid of value in terms of the goods and services a democratic government is supposed to secure for its population. In fact, the matter of who the next president will be is perhaps less consequential than proving the ability of a fractious political system to coalesce around the institution of the presidency and to use any consensus it can muster as motivation to develop real solutions to Lebanon’s numerous daunting problems.

A Litany of Issues

With parliamentary elections having concluded in May, the next step before a new president can be chosen is the formation of a new government. Current caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati has been tasked with presenting a list of new cabinet appointments and has affirmed the need for cabinet formation to be completed before presidential elections are held. However, the list he offered up, which mostly consists of holdovers from the previous cabinet and only three new ministers, has been turned down by President Michel Aoun, who is meant to be an equal partner in appointing the next cabinet. Since then, talks between the president and prime minister have stalled. One key disagreement is over current Minister of Energy and Water Walid Fayad, who is nominally independent but reportedly close to Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) Chair Gebran Bassil. Mikati insists on naming his own minister of energy given the critical importance of the ministry’s portfolio, which could have an impact on Lebanon’s future as a potential gas and oil producer. And negotiations between the president and prime minister likely also include the allocation of other ministries and ambassadorships with an eye toward achieving a mutually acceptable sectarian and political balance in government.

Negotiations between the president and prime minister likely also include the allocation of other ministries and ambassadorships with an eye toward achieving a mutually acceptable sectarian and political balance in government.

One crucial issue for any new government is demarcating the country’s maritime border with Israel. This matter has been on the agenda since at least 2010 when former US State Department official Frederic Hof took on the task of mediator and came up with the Hof line as a compromise between what the Lebanese then considered their border and a border line presented by Israel. The United States’ current Special Envoy and Coordinator for International Energy Affairs Amos Hochstein, meanwhile, aims to achieve an agreement between the two sides as quickly as possible, and has therefore recently been attempting indirect negotiations between the two parties. President Aoun shares this goal, hoping to conclude negotiations before his presidential term expires. And Israel is also anxious to begin extracting gas from the disputed Karish field off the coast of the two countries, despite having been warned by Hezbollah not to begin extraction before an agreement is finalized. Importantly for upcoming elections and for the formation of a new government, any such agreement will have to be acceptable to the president, prime minister, and speaker of parliament in order to pass parliamentary scrutiny.

Meanwhile, a proposed gas pipeline stretching from Egypt to Lebanon via Jordan and Syria, which would help alleviate fuel shortages in Lebanon until it can extract its own natural gas, is also currently on hold. Lebanon and Egypt signed a deal on June 21 to provide the former with 650 cubic meters of natural gas per year via Syria, but the US has yet to officially approve an exemption to Caesar Act sanctions that would allow the pipeline to pass through Syrian territory. The World Bank also has yet to approve funding for the project.

Another thorny issue still on the table is an investigation into the role of Lebanon’s Central Bank in the country’s recent economic collapse, as well as the subjection of its governor, Riad Salameh, to a judicial inquiry. Any probe will certainly cross traditional political lines since politicians from all of the country’s powerful blocs may have been implicated in corrupt deals that led to the spiriting away of billions of dollars in 2019, allegedly facilitated by the Central Bank. Prime Minister Mikati has thus far refused to enforce a warrant to bring Salameh before a court.

The country also faces an additional spanner in the works: according to Article 52 of the Lebanese Constitution, a caretaker cabinet is not empowered to sign international agreements unless the president certifies that they were actually reached before the previous cabinet was dissolved. Mikati’s lame-duck cabinet could therefore choose to derail the finalization of maritime borders and gas pipeline agreements, postponing a decision on such critical matters until after Aoun’s presidency is over. And indeed, some analysts argue that the opposition would not mind denying Aoun any major accomplishments during his remaining time in office.

The Significance of Bloc Politics

Two principles of Lebanese politics complicate presidential elections, and indeed all of the political issues and hard decisions that are often put off indefinitely in Lebanon. Consensus politics, which was ordained by the National Pact of 1943, was originally designed as an insurance policy against roughly one half of the population—largely Muslim—which was pulling for the dissolution of Lebanon into an Arab union while the other half—largely Maronite Christian—aimed to pull the country into a closer alliance with France and Western Europe. The consensus principle may have served a purpose in preserving Lebanon as an independent country, but it became an obstacle when it devolved from addressing major national issues into affecting such mundane matters as the appointment of ministry administrators and the provision of basic services such as garbage collection.

Where presidential elections are concerned, the consensus principle has manifested itself in various attempts over the years to select compromise candidates who are meant to leave no clear winner and loser in Lebanese politics.

Where presidential elections are concerned, the consensus principle has manifested itself in various attempts over the years to select compromise candidates who are meant to leave no clear winner and loser in Lebanese politics. Consensus is a great asset in all polities when it exists, but it quickly turns into an albatross if one makes it a precondition for all decisions. When it comes to choosing a president, Lebanon has always had to tread carefully between local party preferences and regional and international pressures. While a majority of Lebanese presidents have been independents, there have been some partisan ones, and they have often had a turbulent tenure. Bloc politics has made things even more difficult by polarizing political parties in the March 8 Alliance and the March 14 Alliance, both of which coalesced following the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. Since then, internal divisions have been characterized as essentially proxy rivalries between Iran, which supports the Hezbollah-led March 8 Alliance, and Saudi Arabia, which backs the March 14 Alliance, presumably with US support.

This is the background against which the upcoming presidential race will take place. FPM leader Gebran Bassil, who is also the current president’s son-in-law, is the presumed champion of the March 8 Alliance. Samir Geagea, Chair of the Lebanese Forces Party, meanwhile, is the presumed candidate for the March 14 Alliance. Typical of Lebanese complexity, however, rival blocs are capable of drawing allies from among independent candidates, and even on occasion from a rival bloc itself. For example, in the 2016 presidential race both Suleiman Frangieh and Michel Aoun were supported by Hezbollah, but Aoun won the presidency due to the support of his bloc rival Samir Geagea.

As the 2022 presidential race begins to take shape, Gebran Bassil has gained the blessing of outgoing president Michel Aoun, even though he has thus far refrained from declaring his candidacy. Bassil, however, does not necessarily enjoy the full backing of Hezbollah and is on bad terms with Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri’s Amal Movement, which is the main Shia partner of Hezbollah. He is also currently sanctioned for corruption by the United States Treasury Department. Suleiman Frangieh, a longtime friend of the Syrian regime but currently being held at some distance by Damascus, is another option for the March 8 Alliance. And it is also uncertain whether Samir Geagea will gain the support of the country’s disunited Sunnis, following the Future Movement and its leader Saad Hariri’s withdrawal from the political arena prior to this year’s parliamentary elections.

So far, there is no clear majority for either bloc, and this is unlikely to change unless one of the two can sway all of the country’s independent parliamentarians to its side, securing the necessary votes to win: two thirds of the total number of seats on the first ballot or an absolute majority thereafter. Neither bloc can muster the votes it needs without cultivating allies. The March 8 Alliance hopes to be able to secure an absolute majority for its candidate on a second ballot since it will be guaranteed the 65 votes needed to win if it manages to hold together and to convince enough independents to join it. However, the opposition could block that option by refusing to attend the election session, therefore stopping parliament from reaching the quorum required for a vote.

Compromise Candidates

Given that Lebanon’s two main political blocs no longer enjoy the internal cohesion they once had, it may be wiser for them to decide not to fight each other, but to instead seek out a compromise candidate with whom they could both feel comfortable. Several names have already been bandied about, with Commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces Joseph Aoun (no relation to the current president) leading the list.

Several names have already been bandied about, with Commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces Joseph Aoun leading the list.

Aoun was promoted to the rank of general and appointed to his current position in August 2017, just in time to prove himself as a skilled field commander in the battle against the al-Nusra Front and the so-called Islamic State on Lebanon’s eastern borders with Syria. Aoun also has significant ties with both US military and civilian leaderships, having been on several training and educational visits to the United States and having forged a good relationship with US embassy personnel. Aoun is also well respected across political divides in Lebanon for his professional handling of both domestic and cross-border crises. One hurdle for Aoun, however, is that he is still an army commander and an immediate jump to the presidency would require a constitutional amendment. Another drawback is his closeness to the United States, which may make Hezbollah and the Amal Movement weary of endorsing him for the position of chief executive.

Other names thrown around as suggestions for compromise candidates include Ziyad Baroud and Naji Boustany. Baroud is a lawyer and former minister of the interior, and is popular in civil society and independent political circles. Boustany, also a lawyer and an outsider to traditional political circles, enjoys some rapport with civil society but does not have a strong relationship with Lebanon’s power elite.

Does it Even Matter Who Becomes President?

The short answer is yes.

Given the uncertainty within the March 8 Alliance as to whom they will choose for president, both Hezbollah and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad may have to weigh in on a final choice between Bassil and Frangieh. As for the March 14 Alliance, Samir Geagea will have to wait until the various Sunni politicians in parliament decide behind whom to throw their support, as he would definitely not have enough votes to secure even a simple majority in parliament without them.

The intensity of the competition over the presidency is somewhat paradoxical, however, since the powers of the post were diminished by the Taif Agreement of 1989, which transferred some of the powers of the president to the prime minister and altered the Lebanese Armed Forces leadership from one Maronite general to a committee of joint chiefs that is more representative of Lebanon’s sectarian balance. In addition, Lebanon has a long tradition of working out important decisions outside of the normal institutions of government and in advance of any decision ultimately announced by these institutions.

Lebanon continues to face a myriad of intractable problems, including crumbling basic services, a failed banking sector, and spiraling inflation, all of which are clear signs of a failed state. In the current situation, the government must weigh its priorities carefully. Scrutiny into large-scale corruption that is rapidly driving Lebanon into bankruptcy should take priority over the extraction of oil and gas, especially since the economic viability of extraction has yet to be proven. An energy strategy still has not been agreed upon domestically, and finalizing an agreement on an Egyptian gas pipeline would also require consensus among the country’s main political blocs—a consensus that is nowhere near being achieved since the powers that be are more concerned with competing over who will succeed Michel Aoun as the president of a collapsing republic. Whoever ultimately becomes president in November will have difficulties trying to make a dent in these vital issues without help. The presidency, however, is essentially symbolic of the republic and how a president is chosen reflects the ability, or lack thereof, of the Lebanese polity to come together in a constructive way and to join forces to halt the country’s decline and to begin rebuilding. This, more than anything else, is what will be decided come October 31.