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Lebanese Presidency Stalemate

French special envoy Jean-Yves Le Drian gestures as he leaves after meeting with Lebanon's prime minister, in Beirut, on May 28, 2024. (Photo by ANWAR AMRO / AFP)

Lebanon has been mired in a prolonged political deadlock since October 2022, when President Michel Aoun’s term ended without a successor. The failure to elect a new president has exacerbated the country’s political and economic crises, leaving it without a head of state during a period of severe economic collapse and widespread social unrest. With the country in dire need of leadership, the international community and local political actors are pressing for an urgent resolution to this leadership vacuum.

In an effort to break the stalemate, the international quintet committee, comprising representatives from Egypt, France, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, met in Doha to address Lebanon’s ongoing presidential crisis and the critical need for economic reforms. The committee issued a stern warning to Lebanese lawmakers, urging them to meet their constitutional obligations by electing a president. They highlighted that nearly nine months have elapsed since the end of President Michel Aoun’s term without any progress towards electing a successor.

French Presidential Envoy to Lebanon, Jean-Yves Le Drian, joined the meeting and stressed the importance of restoring Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence through effective leadership. The quintet expressed deep concern over the continuing political paralysis and indicated that they are considering “concrete options” and possible “measures” against those impeding the election process.

The committee also emphasized the urgent need for judicial reforms and adherence to the rule of law, particularly concerning the stalled investigation into the 2020 Beirut Port explosion. They called on the Lebanese government to comply with UN Security Council resolutions and other international agreements, including those from the Arab League, to safeguard national unity and ensure justice for all citizens.

However, the delay will continue for a longer time.

Calculated Position and Political Maneuvering

Amidst this complex political landscape, the position of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has emerged as a pivotal factor. In a significant shift, Jumblatt recently indicated in an interview with Al-Akhbar that he might support Suleiman Frangieh for the presidency, a candidate historically backed by Hezbollah. This surprising statement, given the publication’s close ties to Hezbollah, suggests Jumblatt is signaling his potential openness to a deal.

Jumblatt, appears to be carefully positioning himself. Although he personally does not oppose Frangieh’s candidacy, he maintains that his parliamentary bloc, led by his son Taymour, operates with a degree of autonomy. This allows Jumblatt to leverage his influence while keeping his options open, possibly seeking concessions from Frangieh or other factions in return for his bloc’s support.

Frangieh’s candidacy is fraught with challenges, particularly because leading Christian parties oppose him, despite the Lebanese presidency being traditionally held by a Maronite Christian. Therefore, Jumblatt’s support could be decisive. If his bloc, along with some Christian parliamentarians aligned with Muslim-led factions, backs Frangieh, it could pave the way for Frangieh’s election by a non-Christian majority.

Given the current geopolitical climate and internal dynamics, Walid Jumblatt’s recent positioning regarding Suleiman Frangieh’s candidacy for the Lebanese presidency is a calculated move. Jumblatt, known for his pragmatic approach to politics, has shown little inclination to directly challenge Hezbollah. Instead, he appears to be navigating the political landscape to potentially benefit from any emerging consensus around Frangieh.

Several factors influenced Jumblatt’s timing, despite the seeming distance from a presidential election due to the ongoing conflict in Gaza and Hezbollah’s involvement in supporting Hamas by opening a front in Lebanon.

Jumblatt’s strategy is closely linked to the unfolding situation in Gaza. Many Lebanese, including Jumblatt, foresee that once hostilities along the Lebanese-Israeli border subside, Hezbollah will push assertively to ensure the election of a president who aligns with their interests and safeguards the “resistance” ethos they champion. From the outset, Hezbollah has favored Frangieh for the presidency precisely because he is seen as a reliable ally who would not betray the movement’s goals and values.

This anticipation has led Jumblatt to position himself and his bloc in a way that could capitalize on the potential alignment of interests surrounding Frangieh’s candidacy. By signaling a possible endorsement of Frangieh, Jumblatt is likely aiming to secure a favorable political arrangement for his bloc while avoiding direct confrontation with Hezbollah.

Highlighting the intricacies of Lebanon’s parliamentary politics, Wael Abou Faour, noted the lack of a clear mechanism for moving forward following French envoy Le Drian’s recent discussions with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. While they agreed on the need for consultations, many issues remain unresolved, underscoring the urgent need for transparent communication with the Lebanese public.

The Battle for the Presidency: Azour vs. Frangieh

On Sunday, opposition parties in Lebanon officially endorsed Jihad Azour for the presidential post. Azour, currently the director of the Middle East and Central Asia Department at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has gained significant support, including from the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). This endorsement marks a unified front against the Hezbollah-backed candidate, Suleiman Frangieh.

The nomination was solidified during a meeting where the opposition parties expressed confidence in Azour’s ability to serve as a centrist and non-provocative leader acceptable to various factions. Michel Moawad, who had previously garnered the most votes in the presidential election rounds but failed to secure the presidency, withdrew his candidacy in favor of Azour. Moawad highlighted the importance of presenting a unifying figure, stating, “We agreed on Jihad Azour as a centrist and non-provocative figure to any party in the country.”

The Coordination Committee of Opposition MPs reiterated their commitment to constitutional procedures, calling for an open session in Parliament to elect a president. They urged all political blocs to attend and participate in accordance with Article 74 of the constitution, stressing that these consultations should adhere to constitutional norms and not serve as a pretext for bypassing legal standards.

In their statement, the opposition MPs underscored their engagement in constitutional processes from the start, consistently supporting candidates and attending election sessions. They also expressed openness to discussions with the Democratic Gathering and the Free Patriotic Movement, which had previously led to consensus on a centrist candidate. The MPs emphasized their ongoing support for initiatives from international stakeholders, including the Quintet Committee.

Azour’s nomination places him in direct competition with Suleiman Frangieh, the leader of the Marada movement, who is firmly backed by the Shiite duo of Hezbollah and Amal. Frangieh, known for his strong ties to the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad, represents the political establishment closely aligned with Damascus. 

According to opposition MP hezbollah is directly to blame for delaying the process stating that, “this party is using all their cards and weapons to ensure they score a reginal deal that fits them” in reference to hezbollah’s insistence on Frangieh.

However Daou does not believe Frangieh will reach presidency, otherwise “we’ll have another 6 years of Aoun.”

What now?

MP Najat Aoun emphasized the critical need to accelerate and streamline the presidential election process to uphold the democratic principles enshrined in Lebanon’s constitution.

“Even though we might not get the candidate we want, we still strive to adhere to the constitutional process, even if it means accepting the election of someone we do not favor,” Aoun told NOW.

Given Lebanon’s current state of conflict on its southern border with Israel, Aoun underscored the heightened importance of promptly electing a president.

“In these times, it is more crucial than ever to have a president who represents the state. How can we engage in meaningful discussions and negotiations without a head of state?” she questioned.

Lebanon’s urgent need for a president is at a critical juncture. The nomination of Jihad Azour and the opposition’s push for a swift, constitutionally adherent election highlight the country’s desperate need for stable leadership. As political factions clash and the threat of conflict looms on the southern border, the election of a president is more crucial than ever. The decision made in the coming weeks will be pivotal in determining Lebanon’s path towards stability and recovery.