It has been a week since Lebanon’s parliamentary elections and, now, the newly elected MPs are starting their four-year terms in the country’s political theater.
There are several major things on the agenda, such as implementing reforms so that Lebanon can begin receiving aid from the International Monetary Fund. But still, the most important is electing the government’s new leaders.
Technically speaking, there is no longer any parliamentary speaker or government since their mandates have ended as of Friday.
So the MPs need to choose candidates and vote on whether or not to approve them.
The first role is the Speaker of Parliament – but most are keeping an eye on the premiership, as there is a timeline on government formation this time around.
President Michel Aoun’s six-year term as the head of state comes to an end in October, and any government that is formed needs a sign-off by the president for it to become constitutionally legal.
There are only five months to form this government and, even when the political factions were not as divided as they are now, government formation is an arduous process, taking months, if not longer, to complete.
Before, now caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced the current 24-person cabinet in September 2021, it had taken 13 months to come to an agreement on the size and makeup of the government.
Mikati is widely expected to be tapped to form the next government and has less than half the time as last time to complete his first task as prime minister.
Should Aoun’s term end before a new government is formed, it would put the country in dangerous territory where there is no government and no president.
Moreover, this would shatter the little faith the Lebanese public has left in the political system and undoubtedly further exacerbate the ongoing economic crisis.
There is no clear solution to this situation.
Would Aoun’s term be extended if it looks like they are not going to be able to form a government in time? Would the caretaker government act in the role of the presidency until a new one can be elected?
The latter possibility could prove problematic and potentially something that would last a while.
It is unclear who will be named the next president of Lebanon.
Two likely candidates are the Free Patriotic Movement’s Gebran Bassil, who is also the son-in-law of Aoun, and the Marada Movement’s Suleiman Frangieh.
The problem here is neither candidate is likely to garner enough support to be elected, given the current parliamentary divisions and the lack of any clear majority, unless some backroom deal is struck between the various factions.
The Lebanese Forces, the FPM’s rival and now the country’s biggest Christian party, would have a hard time justifying voting for someone that they campaigned against and beat during the elections.
So there is no obvious candidate who could be elected with relative ease.
Whoever is ultimately named as the prime minister-designate, whether it be Mikati or someone else, they are going to have to work quickly or risk making the already bad situation in Lebanon worse.
In or out: The first order of business for the new parliament is electing a speaker, a seat that has been occupied by the Amal Movement’s Nabih Berri since 1992.
Berri was officially nominated to head the position once again on Saturday by his bloc in Parliament.
“We hope all colleagues will support this nomination and work for it,” the bloc said.
While Berri is most likely going to be re-elected as the speaker, there has been some opposition to his candidacy.
The head of the Lebanese Forces, Samir Geagea, said that his MPs would not vote for Berri to be the parliamentary head and called on the opposition, “individuals, independents, small groups, and parties, to coordinate in order to find the appropriate way to activate this opposition after it has become the majority in Parliament.”
According to Geagea, given the desperate changes that Lebanon is in need of, there is no realistic scenario in which Berri should return as the speaker.
“The Lebanese Forces will follow this difficult, long, and tedious path until the end, because it is the only way towards salvation, especially since the easiest path is not always the best… At times it is, but at other times the difficult and arduous path remains the best, and therefore we will take it no matter how winding,” Geagea stated.
However, Geagea and others that oppose Berri’s appointment have so far failed to name another viable candidate that could replace the long-time speaker.
Given the way in which power is distributed in Lebanon, the president coming from the Maronite sect, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament a Shiite Muslim, there are not many candidates for them to choose from.
Hezbollah and Amal won all 27 Shiite seats in the election, meaning that any candidate that they choose from would have to come from one of these two parties.
There is technically only one “independent” Shiite MP: Jamil al-Sayyed. But even he is allied with the Shiite duo.
Berri’s opponents can release as many statements saying that there needs to be a new speaker as they want, but, in the end, there is only one person that can realistically be chosen for the position: Nabih Berri.
The rivalry: Berri is not the only one in Geagea’s sights since his party’s success in the May 15 elections.
The Lebanese Forces and Geagea have long been opponents of the armed Shiite party Hezbollah and, now that the Forces command a sizable parliamentary bloc, he seems to be vying to confront them.
In a recent statement, Geagea said that Lebanon’s sovereignty has been “hijacked” by Hezbollah and that this can no longer stand.
“All strategic decision-making should return to the Lebanese state… and security and military matters should be handled exclusively by the Lebanese army,” Geagea said. “No one… should be able to transport missiles from one place to another without the permission and knowledge of the military.”
This statement is nothing new for Geagea who, for years, has condemned Hezbollah for its grip on power, its amassing of weapons, and its state within a state activities.
But outside of rhetoric, Geagea has not really done anything to confront Hezbollah, even having ministers serving in governments with the Shiite party.
Geagea seems to be capitalizing on the recent election results which saw Hezbollah lose its majority in Parliament.
However, there is no clear majority and, while Geagea says that he is working on forming a coalition with members of the opposition MPs, this could prove challenging as some of these new MPs come from the October 17 uprising and are in staunch opposition to the old establishment parties.
Following the start of the uprising in 2019, the Lebanese Forces have tried to frame themselves as being with the opposition and wanting to “change” the country. But few view it as being genuine, given the party’s lack of effort to implement reforms and really be part of the “change.”
In addition to this, opposition candidates would be working with the establishment parties, a clear violation of the basic promise that they made during their campaigns.
Hezbollah may have lost its majority, but it remains part of the largest bloc.
Even without a majority, Geagea is likely to be unable to do much about his political rival and its activities.
A Rai of sunshine: During his Sunday sermon, Lebanon’s Maronite patriarch, Bechara al-Rai, said that the recent parliamentary elections “gave citizens a dose of hope for positive change.”
During the sermon, the religious leader highlighted the various problems and crises that Lebanon has been facing for nearly three years.
But despite the Patriarch’s optimism that the elections were the start of pulling Lebanon out of the dark pit that it has been in, there have been few indications that much of anything will actually change.
A new government still needs to be formed and reforms need to be passed and enacted before any international aid is sent to Lebanon, both of which could be a long and drawn-out process that may not occur any time soon.
One last ride: Prior to Mikati’s government becoming a caretaker one, the cabinet met one last time on Friday to approve the country’s economic recovery plan, one of the conditions required by the IMF for Lebanon to receive aid.
The plan looks to help restructure the country’s banking system and reform banking secrecy laws, something that Parliament has failed to do for nearly three years.
According to Mikati, the plan would protect small depositors while large depositors, people with more than $100,000, would be negotiated with the IMF at a later date.
“The challenges that our country is facing demand a strong administration and cooperation between all sides,” Mikati said. “Every day that passes will cost more if we don’t implement the economic recovery plan in full.”
During the final cabinet meeting, the government also approved a $35 million per month payment to buy medicine for cancer patients and others with chronic illnesses for the coming four months.
A price hike for Lebanon’s telecommunications sector was also approved. The price increase will begin in July, when people will have to pay for their phone lines at the Sayrafa rate, the Central Bank’s exchange platform.
This would see the price of a basic monthly phone line skyrocket, making it unaffordable for many Lebanese.
The sports and youth minister, George Kallas, even told Al-Jadeed that the price hike would be the “most expensive phone bill in the world for the poorest people in the world.”
— Kareem Chehayeb | كريم شهيب (@chehayebk) May 20, 2022
On strike: The Pharmacy Owners Committee called for pharmacies across Lebanon to close on Tuesday amid the continued devaluation of the Lebanese Lira to the US dollar.
The committee’s statement said that “with every rise in the US dollar exchange rate, drug importers stop delivering pharmacies their daily needs in light of the Ministry of Health’s refusal to issue a new price index that reflects the reality of the market.”
In 2021, Lebanon faced a medicine shortage during which many medicines were no longer available at pharmacies due to the issues with paying for their import..
In some cases, pharmacies were found to have been hoarding medicines in order to sell them at a higher price as the value of the lira decreased.
Prior to the May 15 election, the lira was valued at between 25,000 to 27,000 to the dollar. But in the days since the election, the lira began rapidly losing its value, currently sitting at just over 32,000 to the dollar, sparking fears of another fuel and medicine crisis this summer.
No more campaign posters: The Beirut Municipality said that it would be removing anything that had to do with the 2022 parliamentary election candidates.
According to the municipality, flags, slogans, pictures, and advertisements would start being removed starting at the end of the week.
However, this is unlikely to change much in areas controlled by certain political factions who have flags and posters dedicated to their respective parties hung up all year.
Keeping campaign promises: Newly elected MP in the South III district Firas Hamdan is off to a good start for his entrance into Lebanese political life.
During his campaign, Hamdan said that he would fight to help the depositors in Lebanese banks who could no longer access their money after the banks imposed informal capital control policies, which Parliament has continued to fail to do even after nearly three years since the economic crisis began.
Just days after beating Hezbollah-backed candidate Marwan Kheireddine, a banker who was an unpopular and controversial candidate for voters, Hamdan met with the Association of Depositors as a way of showing that he is “committed to the cause of depositors, defending their interests, and bearing losses, and responsibilities to the banks that accumulated interest profits.”
Nothing has so far stemmed from the meeting, but for those who voted for Hamdan, it could serve as a reassurance that they elected someone who works to help them.
Tear down this wall: Hamdan was not the only newly elected MP who has looked to show that he is different from the ruling political establishment.
Elias Jrade, also from the South III district, called for the walls and barriers
erected around Parliament to be removed.
“No walls should be built between the nation’s representatives and the citizens,” Jrade stated.
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The walls were put up by security forces during the 2019 uprising after protesters and security forces clashed in the capital and were widely condemned by the protesters.
Nabih Berri’s office confirmed that the walls would be taken down.
The process of removing the barriers began today.
— Salman Andary (@salmanonline) May 23, 2022
In the region
Calls for reforms: French President Emmanuel Macron and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman have called on Lebanon to enact “structural reforms” so that the country can begin recovering from its crippling economic crisis.
“They reaffirmed the need to implement the structural reforms necessary for the country’s recovery, as expected by the Lebanese population and the international community,” the French presidency said of the call between Macron and bin Salman.
Following the August 4 Beirut Port explosion, Macron offered billions in international aid for Lebanon as long as it passed reforms.
The required reforms have yet to make it to discussion in Parliament.
Saudi Arabia cut off diplomatic ties with Lebanon at the end of October 2021 following comments made by the former information minister, George Kordahi, about Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Yemen’s civil war.
The Gulf country recently reestablished ties with Lebanon.
Assassination in Tehran: A member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard was killed outside of his home in Tehran on Sunday when gunmen riding a motorbike shot him.
Although little has been released about him, Colonel Hassan Sayyad Khodayi, referenced as a “defender of the shrine” in local reports, was a member of the Quds Force, the international extension of the IRGC, and was believed to have worked for the secretive group in either Syria or Iraq.
The day following Khodayi’s killing, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi vowed revenge for the assassination.
“I stress the serious prosecution of the perpetrators of this crime by security officials, and I have no doubt that revenge for the blood of this great martyr is inevitable,” Raisi told Iran’s Mehr News Agency.
Khodayi’s death is the most high-profile killing in Iran since Israel assassinated the country’s top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November 2020.
Podcasts: It looks like Sarde after dinner, just like us, is still not over its election fever as Medea Azouri and Mouin Jaber hosting journalist and political and media consultant Moufac Harb to discuss the results from May 15.
Medea and Mouin are not the only ones still mulling over the election results. Nizar Hassan and Ben Redd sat down for the final episode of the Lebanese Politics Podcast’s 2022 election special to analyze the results, what they mean and what happens going forward. They also left the door open for a possible return of the podcast after they take a short break.