On May 31, the Lebanese parliament is scheduled to meet for the first time since the May 15 elections, with the primary item on the agenda being the possible re-election of the long-time Speaker of Parliament, Nabih Berri.
Berri’s party, the Amal Movement, and its main ally, Hezbollah, certainly lost ground in the elections, but they are still a dominant force in parliament, and Hezbollah and Amal still hold all of Lebanon’s Shiite seats.
Nabih Berri has been Speaker of Parliament since 1992 and has led the Amal Movement since 1980. Though his close allies no longer hold a clear majority, his chances of being re-elected are still strong. Even if he does not make the cut, the position will have to be given to a Shiite MP, as Lebanon’s national pact dictates that the Speaker of Parliament must be a Shiite Muslim.
Samir Geagea, the leader of the Lebanese Forces, which made significant gains in the elections, has said that his party will not support Berri’s re-election. The 13 newly-elected opposition MPs are also expected to not support Berri.
This will be the first test of Hezbollah and Amal’s political power since losing a clear majority, and it presents the possibility that the opposition, whose MPs ran on an anti-establishment platform, may have to cooperate with some established political parties to achieve their goals.
MPs from both the Lebanese Forces and opposition told NOW that they could likely find common ground on a variety of political issues moving forward, but that red lines still exist on both sides and disunity could completely derail any shared goals.
A new Lebanese Parliament
Lebanon’s May 15 elections were a decisive shift in the country’s political order. The Lebanese Forces have essentially overtaken Gebran Bassil’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) as the country’s largest Christian party, and opposition candidates hailing from the October 17 uprising now hold about 10 percent of the 128 seats in parliament.
Though Hezbollah and Amal maintained their grip on all of the parliament’s Shiite seats, their allies lost important ground, ensuring that the Shiite duo’s political bloc no longer has a clear majority.
However, this does not mean that the Party of God and its allies have lost their dominance over Lebanese politics.
Hezbollah’s bloc is still the largest united bloc in parliament, and its adversaries must work out how to move forward.
Though independent candidates managed to make gains across the country, they are still a relatively small portion of the parliament, and they have yet to form a united bloc.
Perhaps a reflection of the uprising, the respective backgrounds and ideologies of the newly-elected opposition MPs are highly diverse, and it will take a considerable amount of legwork and jockeying to establish a strong opposition bloc that can voice the uprising’s grievances.
On top of that, foreign influence is still very much in play, as both regional and global powers seek to manipulate Lebanese politics to achieve their geopolitical goals.
Iran’s influence on Lebanon is the strongest and most clear, but the United States, France, and the Gulf countries also have notable ties to groups within Lebanon’s political scene.
While Iran directly supports Hezbollah diplomatically, militarily, and financially, the US and Saudi Arabia have thrown their weight behind the Lebanese Forces. Since the end of the civil war, Saudi Arabia, as well as the rest of the Gulf, generally supported Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, but considering the party’s inability to effectively oppose or contain Hezbollah, the Saudis have sought another option.
The Americans have also looked for effective political movements to contain Iran’s influence in Lebanon, showing a certain partiality to the opposition.
This is not to say that the US or Saudi Arabia’s influence over the Lebanese Forces and opposition is equivalent to Iran’s influence over Hezbollah, as many of its opponents view the group as a proxy army for an Iranian occupation of the country.
If there is… an independent, between brackets, and he has his own opinion about what we call resistance, at this time, a new formula of resistance to cover [for] the weapons of Hezbollah, we cannot work together.
Internally speaking, there is a notable amount of dissonance among Hezbollah’s adversaries. Though Hezbollah and Amal do not always see eye to eye, and fought each other during the civil war, they are still strong allies.
This is not always the case within the ranks of Hezbollah-opposed parties.
Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), for instance, will likely vote in favor of Nabih Berri’s re-election “as long as there is no candidate running against Berri,” even though the PSP has generally allied with the Lebanese Forces since the establishment of the March 14 alliance.
Indeed, the Lebanese Forces, as well as other anti-Hezbollah parties such as the Kataeb Party, seek to form an alliance with the opposition to create a unified front in parliament that can effectively pass legislation and even counter Hezbollah’s agenda.
New friends and alliances
MP’s from the Lebanese Forces and the opposition were optimistic about being able to work together, but both sides made clear that certain issues would be red lines and have to be dealt with.
Melhem Riachi, a Lebanese Forces MP for Mount Lebanon II (Metn), told NOW that his party and the opposition could work together on a variety of issues, but to form an actual alliance or political bloc, Hezbollah and its weapons would be a red line.
“Any candidate that can work… in the condition of sovereignty of Lebanon and a liberal economic system, and the approach of Lebanon to the.. free world. We can work together,” Riachi explained regarding the newly-elected independent MPs.
“If there is… an independent, between brackets, and he has his own opinion about what we call resistance, at this time, a new formula of resistance to cover [for] the weapons of Hezbollah, we cannot work together,” he continued.
Ghassan Hasbani, a Lebanese Forces MP for Beirut I (East Beirut), agreed, but added that this red line does not necessarily need to apply for specific issues.
“For example, someone who agrees on specific draft laws and economic subjects or social welfare subjects, that doesn’t mean we don’t work with them,” Hasbani told NOW.
However, he made clear that any sort of political alliance or bloc with the Lebanese Forces would have to be based on opposition to Hezbollah.
“When we talk about an alliance at a strategic level both on political as well as economic objectives, then yes, this becomes a red line. To work in an alliance in a bloc in parliament or a wider political alliance, then this would be the main line, the red line,” Hasbani stated.
Riachi suggested that the Lebanese Forces are now the primary party opposed to Hezbollah, saying that Lebanon’s political scene will be defined by a dichotomy with Hezbollah leading one side and the Lebanese Forces leading the other.
Though he acknowledged that there will always be shades of gray, overall, the opposition would ultimately have to choose between Hezbollah and the Lebanese Forces.
Both Riachi and Hasbani agreed that, outside of Hezbollah, they saw no issue with opposition MPs charting their own political path and did not expect them to make serious concessions to work with the Lebanese Forces.
Riachi pointed out that the Lebanese Forces already cooperate with politicians and parties who do not necessarily share their ideology entirely, such as the PSP and Kataeb, so it would not be contradictory to also work with the opposition to achieve shared goals.
I will work with whoever and whenever, if it is for the good of the country, and I don’t worry, because I will explain to my constituents why this was my decision.
However, Hasbani did make it clear that the opposition would have to at least acknowledge the root of Lebanon’s current woes.
“The idea of accepting the root causes of the problem, before dismissing their ability to tackle them. Lebanon is in isolation now because of the uncertainties created by paramilitary activities outside of the control of the Lebanese army,” he explained.
The main point that they both sought to convey was that it will be impossible for Lebanon to move forward with the existence of Hezbollah in its current form.
“They are against us in a way of thinking, but we respect this because we have also a way of thinking against them,” Riachi told NOW.
They indicated that for the situation in Lebanon to improve, Lebanon must become a neutral country in the Middle East and focus on stability in order to attract foreign investment.
Najat Aoun Saliba, an MP for Mount Lebanon IV (Shouf) and member of Taqqadoum, which was established shortly after the October 17 uprising, told NOW that her main goal was to improve the situation in Lebanon and she was willing to do whatever it takes to achieve this goal.
“I believe that the benefit and the well-being of the country is the most important thing. I think we will do whatever it takes to put this country back on track,” Saliba said.
Now that political campaigns have finished and opposition candidates are in parliament, realpolitik must be employed to achieve the opposition’s goals, she indicated.
Regarding what common goals toward which the opposition, Lebanese Forces, and Kataeb could work, Saliba said there were a number of issues that she would be steadfast on.
“Anything that will alleviate the burden of this economic collapse, like universal coverage, education, enhancing public education, anything that has to do with environmental policies, anything that has to do with fighting corruption, and… an independent judicial system,” she said.
She added that she would not accept any policy or agenda from the Lebanese Forces or Kataeb that compromised “the well-being and human rights of people.”
When asked if she agreed with Riachi’s statement that there is now a political dichotomy between Hezbollah and the Lebanese Forces and the opposition will have to “pick a side,” she laughed and voiced her disagreement.
“That’s a joke, and that’s a very bipartisan attempt to actually say that they are the savior of this country,” Saliba told NOW.
Campaign promises and infighting
Opposition candidates across the country ran on an anti-establishment platform, saying that they would not work with established parties.
However, now that campaigns are over, this approach may not be politically feasible, even if working with establishment parties would hurt their credibility.
“I don’t think it would hurt their credibility. Some of them have built their campaigns based on being anti-political parties, but then, as time goes by, they are realizing that there are political parties that are opposition parties who share with them the same vision and agenda for the country, and who have not been involved in corruption,” Hasbani told NOW.
“Besides, at the cost of that small percentage of credibility damage on both sides, that small percentage is a partial cost to pay for the massive benefit that can be gained by really fixing the situation in the country as a united front,” he added.
Saliba largely agreed, saying that her main goal is to approach Lebanon’s problems in a pragmatic way and avoid being dogmatic.
“I will work with whoever and whenever, if it is for the good of the country, and I don’t worry, because I will explain to my constituents why this was my decision,” Saliba declared.
Saliba indicated that it would be impossible for the opposition to pursue its goals while also refusing to work with establishment parties.
“This, for me, is something that is probably not feasible, to just be isolated and not work with other people, especially if we are going to propose new legislation in order to help the people,” she told NOW.
When asked if there were any opposition MPs who would outright refuse to work with establishment parties such as the Lebanese Forces and Kataeb, she said that, to her knowledge, she had not heard anyone say they would make such a decision.
“I have not heard it myself, and I have not seen it, especially with my encounters with the people, so I don’t know, and I can’t speak on their behalf,” Saliba said.
Riachi and Hasbani also said that the Lebanese Forces would prefer to work with a united opposition bloc as opposed to individual candidates.
“There may be areas where we need to bring our ideas together and have more of a common ground, but among themselves, they need to have more of a common ground as well, in which case it becomes a discussion with individuals rather than groups,” Hasbani explained.
“A new majority has been elected. The people have expressed a will and a need to change. The question is a majority by numbers is not enough if it does not act like a majority. It will not serve the change agenda if it ends up acting as multiple minorities, or small groups of minorities,” he added.
Riachi indicated that the Lebanese Forces would work with a united bloc or individuals if necessary, but that he would do “what is convenient.”
As of right now, how Lebanon’s new parliament will be organized is still up in the air, but there is certainly an opportunity for establishment parties to compromise with opposition MPs and possibly even implement meaningful policies. Politics in Lebanon, though still encumbered by an outdated sectarian system, seem to be moving forward, but it is of the utmost importance that a clear and progressive direction be established.
David Isaly is a journalist and researcher with @NOW_leb. He tweets @DEyesalli.