Creating new perspectives since 2009

The failing Frangieh presidential experiment

January 5, 2016 at 3:36 pm

Lebanon was shocked last November when reports surfaced claiming that Sleiman Frangieh could be its consensus presidential candidate, potentially breaking the political deadlock that has existed since former president Michel Suleiman’s term ended in May 2014. Frangieh, who leads the Marada Movement, is among the least influential leaders in Lebanon, let alone the March 8 Alliance, which his party belongs to. What’s even more shocking is that former Prime Minister Saad Hariri was the man behind the idea.

Nothing seemed to make sense: why would March 8’s most powerful Christian leader, Michel Aoun, who is more adamant than ever to be president, settle for this? How could March 14’s main candidate, Samir Geagea, consider Frangieh a suitable consensus candidate? By the looks of things, it seemed likely that Lebanon would settle for current army commander, General Jean Kahwaji, as they did with former president Michel Suleiman.

All eyes were on Frangieh; his Facebook page became active, revealing pictures of Lebanese politicians and international diplomats visiting him at his residence, including EU Ambassador Christina Lassen, UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Sigrid Kaag, and United States Ambassador Richard Jones. Of course, there were also pictures of Frangieh meeting with Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi, Lebanese Cardinal of the Catholic Church.

Frangieh’s Twitter feed was updated by the minute during his interview on Lebanon’s prime time show, Kalam Al-Nass, where he discussed what he would do if he was elected president, and how his close friendship with Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad will supposedly not impact how he would run the country, despite their friendship going back to when Hafez Al-Assad ruled Syria and Frangieh’s grandfather, also named Sleiman Frangieh, ruled Lebanon decades ago.

He also showed his commitment to March 8’s values: committing himself to supporting Michel Aoun if he obstructs his path to presidency, and rejecting calls to Hezbollah’s disarmament. Everything looked set in stone. Even western media became involved, reporting that Lebanon’s next president would likely be a “family friend” or “childhood friend” of Al-Assad.

Suddenly, the hype subsided, and it looked like it was back to square one.

It’s always been about Saad Hariri

Saad Hariri’s political career started on a high note, carrying the mantle of his assassinated father, former prime minister Rafic Hariri, back in 2005. But things started to dwindle for the inexperienced Hariri, receiving criticism from even his own colleagues and supporters. No longer a prime minister but still a MP, Hariri has been living in Paris since 2011, and has only returned to Lebanon for a brief period in late 2014. While Hariri’s Future Movement has 26 seats in parliament and three seats in the cabinet, the de facto leader of the March 14 Alliance needed to reignite his political career and what better way to do it than to come out of the shadows and solve Lebanon’s presidential crisis?

It came as a surprise that he would endorse a March 8 politician like Sleiman Frangieh, but perhaps choosing someone who was less powerful than Michel Aoun would be less of a compromise for March 14. But what’s in it for Hariri? Chances are, he could be in it to be prime minister: a March 8 president, a March 14 prime minister, and then March 8’s Nabih Berri as speaker of parliament, though the latter has been the case since 1992.

Frangieh also spoke highly of Hariri during his Kalam Al-Nass interview, claiming that even though they are political rivals, the cooperation was done in the interest of ending the deadlock in Lebanon and in the interest of the Lebanese people. Frangieh’s Marada Movement only holds three seats in parliament and one in the cabinet. If Saad Hariri can help Frangieh become president, then we can expect him to cooperate.

Christian parties won’t back Frangieh

Lebanon’s three major Christian parties, March 14’s Lebanese Forces (LF) and Kataeb parties, as well as March 8’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), have refused to endorse Sleiman Frangieh’s candidacy. Two of three parties’ leaders, the LF’s Samir Geagea, and FPM’s Michel Aoun, have both hoped to become president for quite some time. Kataeb’s Amine Gemayel, a former president, was considered a candidate at one point but has since stepped back, making Geagea the sole March 14 candidate. On a side note, Saudi Arabia backs Hariri’s plan. However, with the recent tensions with Iran over the execution of Nimr Al-Nimr, it’s likely that they will reevaluate things.

All three parties oppose Frangieh’s candidacy so much that they broke most boundaries dividing them and expressed support for their respective oppositions. In fact, Gemayel, Aoun and Geagea even went as far as uniting on the FPM’s television channel, OTV, to wish Lebanon’s Christians a merry Christmas, while leaving Frangieh out of the picture.

Speaking about the FPM, an official from the LF said: “There are many common values between the two parties, which mounts to the level of friendship and surpasses the rivalry.” So it appears that March 14 and March 8’s major Christian leaders have more faith in continuing the existing deadlock than ending it with Frangieh as president.

Hezbollah are committed to Aoun

Despite Frangieh being a long-time supporter of Hezbollah and never questioning the legitimacy of their possession of arms, Hezbollah have never showed any signs of interest in supporting Frangieh. Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah stated that Hezbollah would not back down from supporting Aoun as their first choice, going as far as to say that they are “ethically” committed to the FPM leader.

There also appeared to be signs of tension between Frangieh and Nasrallah, with the former urging Hezbollah to suggest a backup plan, suggesting that he may be their second best option to Michel Aoun. If Frangieh has to constantly reiterate that he supports Aoun’s candidacy and does not intend to obstruct it, but still can’t appeal to his own allies, then it sounds like a failed political experiment.

Kareem Chehayeb is a Lebanese writer and journalist based in Beirut. He is the co-founder of Beirut Syndrome.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.