After six years in office, Lebanese President Michel Aoun has departed from the Presidential Palace in Baabda for his villa in Rabieh.
With the large crowd that gathered at Baabda, consisting of members and supporters of Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and its allies, you would think that Aoun had been one of the most successful and beloved presidents in the history of Lebanon.
However, like much else in Lebanese politics, it was theater.
Sure Aoun’s term is, sort of, ending on a high note with a successful maritime border agreement between Lebanon and its decades-long enemy Israel, but, cumulatively, his presidency was much more controversial. Despite his being initially viewed as the country’s savior by many across the political spectrum, the Lebanese were quickly disappointed.
Aoun ascended to power after striking a deal with the armed Shiite party Hezbollah. While ending an over two-year political vacuum, this move also served as a way of propelling Hezbollah as the king-maker of the country and solidifying its ironclad grip on Lebanese politics.
His tenure as president was further mired in controversy following the August 4 Beirut Port Explosion, where it was revealed that Aoun, as well as many other government officials, were informed about the ammonium nitrate stored in Hanger 12 as early as July 20, two weeks before the deadly explosion. This led to further mistrust, with many on social media accounts tweeting that “He knew.”
On top of this, Aoun is leaving office while Lebanon is in the midst of the worst economic crisis that the world has seen in the last 150 years.
Despite reaching a staff-level agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), no reforms have been passed, as Aoun did little more than talk about the need for reforms.
Aoun also did little to unite the country. When it came to the many government formations that occurred during his tenure, he played the game of politics just like all of the other political factions looking to get their piece of the pie. Supposedly, this is what led to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri retreating from trying to form a government in July 2021.
And as Aoun leaves office, another crisis is beginning.
There is still no clear successor to the presidency, with Parliament unable to agree on a candidate, opening up a political vacuum like the one he filled when he was elected in 2016. However, this time it is much worse. For the first time in Lebanon’s history, there is no president and no government, meaning that the caretaker government will be drastically limited to what it is able to do until the presidential seat is finally filled.
On top of this, Parliament does not seem too concerned about the consequences of existing in this vacuum, as Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri canceled last Thursday’s parliamentary session to vote on a president.
There is still no new voting session scheduled, with the leaders of the various political groups talking more about holding dialogues rather than taking action. Even if there was a vote today, it would be unlikely that anyone would actually be elected.
Many in Lebanon celebrated Aoun’s departure on Sunday. For his supporters, they were honoring their leader and what they consider as nothing short of a successful presidency, while the rest of the country was simply celebrating the fact that he is no longer in power.
Sign on the dotted line: After months of negotiations, Lebanon and Israel signed an agreement on Thursday, October 27, that would officially demarcate their maritime borders and open up the opportunity for both countries to exploit potentially lucrative natural gas reserves off of their coasts.
The US-mediated deal saw Lebanon drawing its border at Line 23, giving it access to the Qana Prospect, while Israel got the Karish Field in Line 29.
While touted as a huge success by politicians in both countries, some in Lebanon were quick to point out that Lebanon may get the Qana Prospect, but there were no guarantees that any fuel would be found there, despite the country’s politicians claiming that the fuel would be the saving grace to Lebanon’s economic crisis.
The French company Total is expected to begin exploring the prospect soon, with the state-owned QatarEnergy also looking to exploit the field if any fuel is found.
Nasrallah responds to deal with Israel: In a Saturday night speech, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah praised the maritime border deal as “liberating” Lebanese waters and forcing Israel to recognize borders.
According to the Hezbollah leader, Israel had no choice but to make a deal with Lebanon because they were too afraid to go to war with Hezbollah if an agreement was not reached. However, most analysts have pointed out that Lebanon had initially demanded that its borders start at Line 29, but both Israel and the United States refused to even negotiate under that premise, forcing Lebanon to revert to Line 23.
Analysts also mentioned that neither Israel nor Hezbollah wanted to go to war, with an outbreak in violence likely to see mass condemnation from the Lebanese population due to the fact that war would only serve to worsen the situation in the country.
According to Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s armed faction is no longer on high alert.
New border negotiations: Following the conclusion of negotiations with Israel, Lebanon is now looking to demarcate its maritime borders with neighboring Cyprus to the west and Syria to its north.
According to a visiting Cypriot delegation on Friday, October 28, the talks are likely to be quick, with their special envoy Tasos Tzionis saying “There is no problem between Lebanon and Cyprus that cannot be resolved easily.”
Syria, on the other hand, is proving to be much more problematic, with a planned visit to Damascus by a Lebanese delegation being indefinitely postponed after the Syrian government said that it was “not the right time.”
Syria has long viewed Lebanon as being part of Syria, with Syrian officials often bending over backward to avoid recognizing its neighbor’s sovereignty, something that it would have to do if they demarcated their maritime borders.
Going home: On October 26, Lebanese security forces began the process of repatriating Syrian refugees back to their home country, with an estimated 750 people, according to the Lebanese government, volunteering to return.
For years the Lebanese government has talked about sending Syrian refugees back to Syria, whether it is voluntary or not, with some politicians giving racist remarks arguing that they pose too severe of a burden on the country and that they are the reason that Lebanon is facing an economic crisis.
Earlier this year, the government said that it was planning on repatriating 15,000 refugees per month, but little has been heard of that plan since.
Many refugees in Lebanon live far below the poverty line, with some looking to escape the country by boat despite the serious risks that such journeys pose.
Cholera update: Lebanon is continuing to see a worsening cholera outbreak, with 388 confirmed cases and 17 deaths.
— Ministry of Public Health – Lebanon (@mophleb) October 31, 2022
On top of this, there are at least another 1,059 suspected cases throughout the country.
Lebanon’s Ministry of Public Health announced that the first 13,440 doses of the cholera vaccine have arrived in the country with the help of the French government.
In the region
Israeli strikes on Syria: Syria was hit by Israeli airstrikes three times in one week, including a rare daytime strike.
No casualties were reported, but one soldier was injured in the Monday bombing.
Israel did not comment on any of the strikes.
Syria is often subjected to Israeli airstrikes, which Israelis claim are meant to counter Iran and Hezbollah.
Journalists and spies: Iran’s government is prosecuting journalists Niloofar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi, accusing them of being spies for the CIA after the two broke the news on the death of the 22-year-old Kurdish woman Masha Amini, also known by her Kurdish name Zhina.
Both the Ministry of Intelligence and the intelligence branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) claim that journalists’ reporting was sponsored by the CIA in an effort to destabilize Iran.
No proof has been provided to support their claims and many view them as false charges meant to perpetuate the lie that the nationwide uprising is being orchestrated by Iranian enemies, particularly the US and Israel.
Fire: Iranian security forces opened fire on protesters in the Kurdish city of Mahabad as protesters burnt down a government building, killing at least seven and wounding dozens of others.
This shooting came after the death of Ismail Mowludi, a resident of Mahabad, and after the commemoration of Zhina’s death 40 days prior.
Protests in Iran have been ongoing for well over a month, and have spanned across the country, ignoring ethnic differences between the population.
While the crackdown by Iranian forces has been harsh, it has been even more so in Kurdish areas where citizens have risen up against decades of repression, following the death of one of their own.
Deadly fighting in Palestine continues: Israeli forces raided what they claimed was a weapons workshop in the city of Nablus early last week, killing five and injuring over 20 more.
Among those killed was Wadee al-Huh, a leader of the newly formed Lion’s Den militia, which has carried out several deadly attacks against Israeli forces in recent weeks.
2022 is on track to becoming the deadliest year for Palestinians, as over 100 people have been killed by Israeli forces in the last few months. The dead include those involved in armed clashes, protesters, and innocent civilians.
There is little indication that the spike in violence will go down any time soon.
Iraq’s new government: Iraq’s Parliament approved a new government headed by Mohammed al-Sudani, bringing to an end a year of political deadlock.
Despite having a new government, few are hopeful that anything will change, with the new government led by an Iran-backed politician.
This is also the first government that does not contain any members of the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s party, although al-Sudani promised to hold elections next year, likely a concession to al-Sadr so he would not use his vast influence to have his supporters protest.
What we’re reading
A worsening cholera outbreak: There are already over 300 cholera cases reported in Lebanon, but NOW’s Philippe Pernot found that not all cases are being recorded, meaning that there could easily be hundreds more that are not part of the official tally.
Cinema revival: Lebanon has long been a heavyweight when it comes to Arab cinema, but, with the economic crisis, it has taken a bit of a downturn. NOW’s Dana Hournay found that Lebanese Film Week has helped to display the country’s culture and history despite the ongoing crisis.
Rushing for stability: After fighting between rebel factions in northern Syria, Turkey was quick to intervene and impose a ceasefire. Mouneb Taim and NOW’s David Isaly looked at what happened and why stability in the area is so important to Turkey.
To the ballot box…or not: Israel is holding its fifth election in four years tomorrow, and the Arab vote in the country could be the deciding factor on who eventually forms a government. But the New York Times’s Raja Abdulrahim found that there is little hope amongst Arab voters that their votes will change anything.
Another Israeli blockade: For years Israel has imposed a blockade on Gaza. Now, with the rise in violence in the West Bank, they are staging a new one in Huwara. The New York Times’s Patrick Kingsley looked at this blockade and how it is affecting the city’s residents.
Trading one palace for another: After Aoun left the Presidential Palace in Baabda on Sunday, he arrived at his home in Rabieh.
منزل فخامة الرئيس العماد ميشال عون الذي سوف ينتقل اليه الأسبوع القادم
جنوا و نطوا pic.twitter.com/ILm9BVGQm0
— Rachid (@architect197631) October 24, 2022
This home is an extravagant villa which many critics lambasted as being bought with the people’s money and being much nicer than the conditions that the vast majority of Lebanese citizens live in now.
Podcasts: In the latest episode of Sarde after dinner, Mouin and Médéa spoke with psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Dr Chawki Azouri, who is also Médéa’s father, about how Lebanon can heal as a community following the Beirut Blast, the taboos of psychotherapy in the Arab world, and how humor can help a society get through challenging times.
Ronnie Chatah sat down with Gistelle Semaan, Iman Tabbara and Ghiya al-Assad, members and allies of the National Bloc Party in the latest episode of the Beirut Banyan, where the four talk about the Change Bloc in Parliament, the presidential elections currently underway, and pragmatism versus populism.