Lebanon’s presidential election impacted by Hezbollah, regional crises and territorial disputes
The pro-Iranian Hezbollah raises the spectre of war with Israel over gas fields. At the same time, it has the power to prevent parliament from electing a new president. Meanwhile, President Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Mikati are on opposite sides. The list of possible candidates becomes clear. Maronite patriarch is afraid that the timing of the election might be manipulated.
Beirut (AsiaNews) – On the eve of US President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel, with US-Russian rivalry becoming more entrenched in the Middle East in the wake of the Ukraine war, Hezbollah is becoming more aggressive.
“If Lebanon is prevented from exploiting its gas resources, we will not allow anyone else to extract and sell gas, regardless of the consequences,” said on Wednesday the group’s secretary general Hassan Nasrallah to mark the 16th anniversary of the July 2006 war.
After sending three drones over the Karish gas field (northern Israel) about ten days ago, Nasrallah is now openly threatening war to assert Lebanon's rights over all of the Qana gas field (southern Lebanon), 20 per cent of which Israel claims, something that Lebanon fiercely rejects. The latter is estimated to hold reserves worth US$ 600 billion.
At present, the United States and Europe are seeking regional stability that would provide Europe with stable access to Middle Easter gas in lieu of Russia’s, which is soaked in Ukrainian blood.
Is Iran using the maritime border dispute with Israel as a new card up its sleeve? It seems so, and it against this background that we can read Lebanon’s current political situation. In only a few months (31 October), Hezbollah's main Christian ally, President Michel Aoun, will see his mandate come to an end. Meanwhile, Prime Minister-designate Nagib Mikati is undertaking the task of forming a new government.
Under the Constitution, Parliament must elect a new president in September. The main candidates are Gebran Bassil, head of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM); Suleiman Frangieh, head of the pro-Syrian Marada Movement (MM);[*] and a compromise candidate, General Joseph Aoun (unrelated to the current president), commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces.
The leader of the Lebanese Forces, Samir Geagea, is not running even though he will play a major role in who is elected. His past as head of an armed militia prevents him from seeking this office.
The president and the prime minister-designate are approaching this election from diametrically different positions. President Aoun, who wants his son-in-law Gebran Bassil to replace him, is expecting a tough if not hazardous election; for this reason, he was a cabinet with all the communities represented, conscious that if no one is elected, the cabinet will assume the powers of the presidency.
For his part, Mikati, who is both the outgoing and the prime minister-designate, is suspicious of President Aoun and wary of another six years with a president dominated by Hezbollah.
As a result, he is proposing a limited cabinet reshuffle that would see the replacement of the Energy Minister, Walid Fayad (who is close to President Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement), with Sunni businessman Walid Sinno. Mr Mikati is fully aware that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is calling for structural reforms – including in electrical power sector – to help Lebanon cope with its economic collapse.
Mikati’s advisers fear a repeat of President Michel Aoun’s election in 2016, which came after two and a half years in which parliament failed to elect a new head of state because of joint opposition from the Free Patriotic Movement and Hezbollah.
In the current parliament, no camp has a majority and what happened in 2016 could repeat itself. In fact, the pro-Hezbollah camp has enough votes to prevent the house from reaching the necessary quorum to meet (65), let alone elect a president on a first ballot (two thirds).
The Maronite Patriarchate fears a political vacuum in the presidency. “Like the people of Lebanon, we refuse to see the presidential election manipulated,” said Patriarch Bechara al-Rahi last Sunday. “We are committed to respecting the constitutional timetable for this election, which must be held on time," he added.
Going further, he warns against any temptation President Aoun might have of trying to stay in office if no agreement is reached over his successor, something that the president’s inner circle rejects.
[*] Also known as Zgarta after its leader’s hometown.