Lebanon has been without a President for almost a year, as Hezbollah remains unable to rally the political class around its candidate Sleiman Frangieh, the head of the Marada Movement who is close to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This stalemate continues against the background of an ongoing severe financial crisis and lack of willingness to implement any significant governance reforms. Moreover, the latest round of conflict in Gaza and its possible implications for the Lebanese-Israeli border took center stage and froze domestic and international discussions that might have led to a potential breakthrough.
Political parties band together to block Hezbollah’s candidate
As Hezbollah and its core allies endorsed the candidacy of Frangieh, the major political parties represented in the parliament obstructed this nomination. The Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), the Lebanese Forces, the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), the Kataeb Party, and some of the “change” parliamentary bloc deputies, who were elected after the October 2019 Lebanese Uprising, have coalesced around the candidacy of former finance minister Jihad Azour, who suspended his duties as the International Monetary Fund’s Director of the Middle East and Central Asia department to focus on his candidacy for the Lebanese presidency. This intersection of interests represents a fragile front among those who merely share their rejection of Frangieh’s candidacy. The FPM has diverged with its ally Hezbollah on this issue, which leaves Frangieh with a solid 51 votes, unable to win without defection from the opposing camp that is currently endorsing Azour. Candidates need 86 votes to win in the first round and 65 votes in the second round in a parliament of 128 deputies.
US sees France’s political approach as too lenient toward Hezbollah
Facing this domestic deadlock, France has endorsed a compromise deal that would bring Frangieh to the vacant Maronite presidency and Lebanese diplomat and jurist Nawaf Salam to the Sunni held premiership. After initially making room for the French initiative, the US has been increasingly pushing back against the French approach to Lebanon that it perceives as lenient with Hezbollah. Qatar, Egypt and others are seeking to boost the chances of General Joseph Aoun whose mandate as commander of the Armed Forces expires end of January 2024. As chief of the army, officializing his candidacy requires a two-thirds majority vote in the parliament to amend the constitution and so far Hezbollah and allies as well as the FPM leadership are not endorsing him nor such an amendment.
Before the conflict in Gaza that began October 7, the disagreement between these international and regional actors was reflected in the P5 committee formed by major countries concerned with the Lebanese crisis, and it includes the US, France, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Qatar. During these recent meetings, the US increasingly challenged the French policy toward the Lebanese presidential race, which led to tasking Doha to converge the views between Washington and Paris. The French approach is based on a subtle understanding that a compromise on the presidency is needed with the group in de facto control of Lebanon, which is Hezbollah, an approach that was questioned by the fragile coalition rallying against Frangieh’s candidacy. Moreover, before the conflict in Gaza, Hezbollah and FPM have been in discussions to potentially strike a deal that would secure enough votes to elect Frangieh as President.
Hezbollah could emerge stronger after end of Gaza War
All these dynamics are currently stalled given the conflict in Gaza and its implications on the Israeli Lebanese border. The US and French interests are now aligned in pressuring Hezbollah not to open a new front with Israel on the Lebanese border, but this might not translate to synchronizing their efforts on the Lebanese presidency portfolio. Hezbollah is under pressure by Hamas to open a new front in south Lebanon to ease the strain on Gaza, but also understands the implications for Lebanon and its economy, hence both Hezbollah and Israel have largely maintained the rules of engagement set on the border since the 2006 Israel Lebanon conflict. Moreover, Hezbollah might emerge even stronger after the eventual end of the conflict in Gaza, most notably given that the US has inadvertently empowered Hezbollah by affirming that US aircraft carriers were sent to the eastern Mediterranean to deter Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies.
Moving forward, there does not seem to be a clear path yet toward a breakthrough. There are no conflict mechanism measures in the current Lebanese constitution nor deadlines to deal with such an impasse. Electing the President by direct popular vote is one of the suggested proposals but requires a constitutional amendment that is unlikely in the current dynamics. The Lebanese constitution stipulates that the parliament’s 128 seats are allotted 50 percent to Christians and Muslims regardless of the country’s demographics, and a direct vote is seen by Christian groups as a challenge to their ability to influence the election of a President. The current protracted stalemate has occurred in every presidential election but also in every prime minister selection and every government formation.
Reforms needed for Lebanon to move ahead politically
Lebanon needs significant governance reforms at the local and national level, however, tying up these essential reforms to the current presidential stalemate might not be the most ideal situation in which to pass them. This typically requires an internationally sponsored national conference, as it was the case in the Taed Agreement in 1989, to pass such significant reforms, however, Lebanon is not high a high priority for the international community. Moreover, these reforms typically materialize after internal conflicts and the major Lebanese political groups are not in agreement on what kind of reforms are needed. For now, there are attempts to manage the Lebanese presidential stalemate at a great cost for the country given that there has been no decision taken by the Lebanese authorities since the liquidity crisis in August 2019 and its fiscal and socioeconomic implications.
The French mediation lost its ability to reach a breakthrough due to the France’s vested economic interests in Lebanon and the withdrawal of US support for this initiative. The P5 should reach a consensus roadmap on how to facilitate overcoming the political gridlock in Lebanon. This lack of clear P5 vision is making the already complicated Lebanese political dynamics more difficult. Lebanese leaders are unable so far to reach a conclusion to this stalemate on their own and are expecting foreign powers to lead the way; after all Lebanese presidents are often elected with the greenlight of the most influential powers in the country during the time of the election. However, the Saudi-Iran limited rapprochement is concerned with their bilateral relationship and the security of the Gulf rather than Lebanon. Riyadh maintains that Saudi financial aid to Lebanon will only be restored to a government that is not controlled by Hezbollah. So far, there has been no serious Saudi-Iranian discussions on Lebanon, most notably because Iran typically refers all concerned to talk to Hezbollah on this issue. Ultimately, an indirect US-Iranian agreement is the most probable path to reach a breakthrough, and France and/or Qatar can play an intermediary role given the lack of direct contact between Washington and Tehran.
The way the conflict in Gaza ends will have an impact on Lebanon. A compromise to end this conflict might potentially facilitate the Lebanese presidential election while a potential confrontation could exacerbate the Lebanese crisis.
Joe Macaron is a Global Fellow with the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program with over two decades of experience with high-profile international organizations. He has previously held roles at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, the Colin Powell Center for Policy Studies, and Arab Center Washington DC. A former journalist, he has managed the International Monetary Fund (IMF) public engagement in the Middle East and North Africa and served in different capacities in the United Nations system.