The Continuation of Lebanon’s Presidential Debacle

It should come as no surprise to Lebanese citizens or the international community that the country remains without a president after more than 7 months and 12 failed parliamentary sessions to elect a new head of state. Lebanon has been headed by a caretaker government with restricted powers since the beginning of November 2022, following the end of former President Michel Aoun’s term. This has allowed the country’s leaders to put off key political and economic reforms, on which is conditioned a much-needed bailout that would decelerate an economic meltdown that was largely orchestrated by the political class. Meanwhile, Lebanon is undergoing irreversible economic and demographic degradation, general impoverishment (the economic collapse has left eight in ten people living in poverty), and quickly deteriorating health and education systems.

That a predominantly Christian parliamentary opposition—together with an amalgam of independents and “change” MPs—mobilized in the last few weeks around a consensus presidential candidate was certainly unexpected. This rare moment of coalescence around nominee Jihad Azour sought to break the impasse that was exacerbated by Hezbollah’s endorsement of controversial candidate, Marada Movement leader Suleiman Frangieh, who is very close to Syria’s Assad regime. Azour, who is currently on leave from his post as director of the Middle East and Central Asia Department at the International Monetary Fund, is a Harvard economist who is neither affiliated nor identified with any Lebanese political party—though he did serve as minister of finance in the government of Fouad Siniora from 2005 to 2008. It remains to be seen whether his background as an economist and an unaffiliated technocrat will enable him to generate among the ruling class the necessary compromises for reform.

That a predominantly Christian parliamentary opposition mobilized in the last few weeks around a consensus presidential candidate was certainly unexpected.

The new opposition strategy was indeed made possible by an unexpected alignment of traditional rival parties, including the Lebanese Forces (LF) Party, the Kataeb Party, and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), which itself broke ranks with its ally Hezbollah, even as its leader Gebran Bassil qualified his support to Azour. This raised questions about Bassil’s motives; after coming in from the cold and restoring his influence, he appears willing to do whatever it takes to secure his own candidacy to the presidency in the future, including breaking with Hezbollah. Hezbollah has since adamantly opposed Azour as “the new candidate for confrontation and challenge,” thus reducing the likelihood that he will pass the bar.

Can Azour Still Be Elected President?

Before the latest June 14 parliamentary session, Azour had garnered support from a good number of legislators who, after weeks of negotiations, openly endorsed him as their presidential candidate. Those in support of Azour included 32 deputies, mostly from Christian opposition parties, change deputies elected to parliament last May, and a handful of independents, including Michel Moawad, who had retracted his own candidacy to “protect Lebanon from further collapse and domination.” The Progressive Socialist Party, with its eight votes, later joined the fray, adding to the FPM and its 17 votes. Azour seemed, on the face of it, well on his way to securing a majority in parliament.

According to the Lebanese Constitution, a candidate must first obtain a two thirds majority—or 86 out of 128 votes—to be elected, and if unsuccessful in doing so, must receive a simple-majority of 65 votes in a second round. But two thirds of deputies must be present to ensure a legal quorum for the vote to occur. So, if one side anticipates that it might lose, its deputies will simply not show up or will withdraw from the chamber, preventing the legislative body from attaining a quorum. Though this tactic has been routinely used over the past decades, if conditions for compromise are met in advance, then this is less likely to happen.

Neither candidate obtained the necessary votes in the most recent session. Frangieh’s tally of 51 votes surpassed expectations, while Azour’s 59 votes fell short of the goal, shrinking the gap between the two. And while Azour is, in theory, more likely to obtain the necessary votes in a new round, he will, in reality, not be able to win without the agreement of Hezbollah, which has a grip on its allies in the electoral game. The pro-Frangieh, Hezbollah-affiliated camp predictably broke quorum by walking out after the first session, foiling the opposition’s attempt to elect Azour as Lebanon’s new president.

US reticence has created a vacuum as the Lebanese look externally for support.

The US Administration has been predictably silent on a candidate of choice, merely underlining the need to “move expeditiously” and select “appropriate leadership” to “unite the country” and “save [it] from further disaster.” Along with Saudi Arabia’s growing disinterest and disengagement from Lebanon, this reticence has created a vacuum as the Lebanese look externally for support. And in the context of the Saudi-Iran détente and recent meetings between the Saudis and the French, Frangieh’s stock rose and he quickly became the lynchpin of a French plan to try to halt Lebanon’s downward spiral in return for the potential selection of former UN ambassador and jurist Nawaf Salam as prime minister. As a result, despite being unable to secure a majority in parliament, Frangieh remains a strong contender.

France’s pragmatic approach to promoting Frangieh, which recognizes that concessions need to be made to Hezbollah, came under fire from the party’s opponents. It was perceived as a French reversal from a previous, staunchly pro-reform stance that had demanded that Lebanon rid itself of leaders blocking reform to its current embrace of a candidate who is very much a member of the corrupt elite that has destroyed the country. The lack of an alternative, however, continues to fuel these efforts—albeit more cautiously—prompting Frangieh to now make overtures to the Saudis in an effort to convince them to support his candidacy.

Consequences of the Iran-Saudi Peace Deal

Lebanon’s political landscape remains deeply polarized, pitting a pro-western alliance of opposition groups against an emerging Iranian-Syrian axis. This has made it especially difficult to find a compromise between the two factions and form an effective government. Iran, which has wielded power in Lebanon through its proxy Hezbollah, has long been the most powerful faction on the ground, and has made Lebanon the scene of its regional power struggles—including its enduring sectarian enmity with Saudi Arabia.

At a time of acute financial meltdown, Hezbollah has come to operate as a state within a state, exerting a large amount of control through a sizeable security system and a huge arsenal, plus a parallel social welfare network that includes health clinics, schools, and other infrastructure. Iran provides Hezbollah with most of its weapons and funds it to the tune of $700 million annually, according to a 2020 State Department report. This comes in addition to Hezbollah’s own legal and criminal sources of funding, which have remained constant during the financial collapse, allowing it to remain relatively better off than others in Lebanon. A thriving drug production and trafficking industry worth several billion dollars has become a central source of income for both Hezbollah and the Assad regime, with factories proliferating in Hezbollah strongholds along the Lebanon-Syria border. Undoubtedly, the phase going forward indicates a state of affairs whereby Iran will be the dominant force shaping the future of Lebanon.

Although Lebanon has fallen down on Saudi Arabia’s list of priorities in recent years, the Saudi-Iran rivalry has continued to fuel tensions internally, preventing Lebanese politicians from agreeing on a way out of its many crises. While containing Iran, Saudi Arabia seems intent on pursuing a less belligerent foreign policy that avoids it being caught in the middle of simmering tensions between the West and the emerging China-Russia-Iran nexus. This is also part of the kingdom’s prioritization, under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, of the implementation of its Vision 2030 project, which requires a stable business climate. Both Iran’s isolation and pressure from US sanctions have, in turn, heightened its need for external support—and not just from China and Russia. This is why the restoration of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran at the end of the recent Chinese-mediated Saudi-Iran normalization talks promises to ease tensions and reshape the regional order—and potentially Lebanese politics in the process. Already, Saudi Arabia has pushed for normalization with the Syrian regime and its reintegration into the Arab League. And in Yemen, the Saudi-Iran entente has led to an agreement between the Houthis and the Yemeni government on a prisoner swap and the release of 181 detainees, including 15 Saudis.

Riyadh is not in a hurry to be dragged back into Lebanese politics.

The Saudis have only kept one eye on Lebanese affairs, repeating that the country needs “a Lebanese rapprochement, not a Lebanese-Iranian-Saudi rapprochement.” Riyadh is certainly not in a hurry to be dragged back into Lebanese politics, even during this period of détente. Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Walid bin Abdullah Bukhari, during a recent flurry of meetings in Lebanon, reiterated that Riyadh would not interfere in the country’s affairs and would support a candidate chosen by local actors. This continued Saudi aloofness may inevitably push its local allies toward a compromise, and, without affecting Hezbollah’s position, unwittingly bring about an agreement on a presidential candidate (any candidate) to end the political paralysis. The Saudis could even acquiesce to Frangieh, whom they initially vetoed as a candidate, in return for assurances on other key positions, like the premiership, or the Central Bank governorship following the end of current Governor Riad Salame’s term. Hezbollah, however, is unlikely to make any concessions, viewing the balance of power in the region as having tilted in its favor.

The Saudis and the Iranians are not the only actors with sway in Lebanon. The aforementioned French initiative to promote Frangieh came on the heels of a Paris summit in February that brought together Qatar, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, France, and the United States to discuss an approach to ending the crises afflicting Lebanon. The meeting ended up in negotiations over who will be Michel Aoun’s successor as president and Najib Mikati’s successor as prime minister, as well as prospects for implementing financial reforms. This led to the French sponsorship of a Frangieh-Salam ticket, presumably with Saudi backing. While they are not entirely ready for a pro-Iran candidate, any Saudi reengagement in Lebanon has indeed been conditional on the instigation of a package of financial reforms.

There is also the United States, which, while having been extensively involved in Lebanese affairs throughout Lebanon’s independent history, has largely disengaged during the last decade. Still the country’s largest humanitarian donor and a main financial backer of the Lebanese Armed Forces, the United States no longer considers Lebanon a top priority. It has offered assistance only as needed and without intervening in any decisive manner to help forestall Lebanon’s collapse, ultimately deferring to France. But France, despite its active and outspoken lead following the Beirut blast in August 2020, has failed to persuade Lebanon’s politicians to embark on reforms. Now France’s backing of Frangieh relies on the same elite that France originally disparaged for their role in the economic and social collapse of Lebanon. In a last-ditch intervention, French President Emmanuel Macron has now named former Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian as his personal envoy for Lebanon to try to find a way out of the impasse.

Finally, Syria’s recent reentry into the Arab fold is the harbinger of a new chapter in Lebanese-Syrian relations, ushering in a renewed role for Damascus in Lebanese affairs. Here, Arab states may still look at a return of Syria to Lebanon as creating competition with Iran, even if Assad does not effectively distance himself from the Islamic Republic. The polarizing Syrian refugee crisis, with the rise of anti-Syrian sentiment and narratives that are driving calls for the departure of refugees from Lebanon, is an example of how engagement with the regime is presented as necessary for its resolution. Progress in this direction would be validated by the selection of Frangieh as president, even if instead of containing Iran it is likely to unleash Syria in Lebanon.

Lebanon’s Flawed System

The Saudi-Iran deal effectively marks Saudi Arabia’s surrender of Lebanon to Iran—along with every other dossier on which it has previously challenged Tehran. This is significant in that the Lebanese, predisposed to looking to foreign sponsors for solutions, cannot and will not reach agreement on their own. If a package deal for the election of Lebanon’s new president is indeed in the making, Lebanon’s various sponsors will certainly need placating. But Hezbollah is the key power broker and if it cannot impose Suleiman Frangieh on parliament, it is unlikely to accept a candidate who is too close to the Saudis or the Americans. A third-party candidate may ultimately become more palatable as a way to end Lebanon’s political impasse and slow down its collapse. Either way, the political deadlock is unlikely to end soon.

In the end, the presidential election process is less a function of individual caliber and electoral appeal than of a political system and set-up; the only way to circumvent the routine quorum-busting in parliament is for key players to agree on a candidate in advance, a formula usually referred to as “no victor, no vanquished.” The election would then become less about who is obstructing the vote than about a system with a design flaw that imposes consensus on a fractured political scene. Without domestic consensus, any resolution of the Lebanese impasse will depend on what Lebanon’s patrons—Iran, Saudi Arabia, France, and the United States—can dictate. And today, with Washington and Riyadh’s detachment, and despite well-meaning but inadequate efforts by Paris, Tehran will effectively impose its will, impeding once again the emergence of a civic and inclusive Lebanon.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Lebanese Presidency