Could Sleiman Franjieh end Lebanon’s wait for a president?
BEIRUT // For more than 18 months, political gridlock and ceaseless bickering has left Lebanon without a president.
In a country where politicians cannot come to an agreement on the most basic things, such as how to get rid of the rubbish that has piled up in the capital’s streets for months, choosing a president from the small pool of Christian former warlords, military officers, businessmen and feudal leaders who are eligible for the post and command political clout is a tall order.
Parliament has met 32 times so far to try and fill the power vacuum and convenes again on Wednesday to consider the latest candidate – the divisive Sleiman Franjieh, an ally of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad.
Mr Franjieh, a 50-year-old Maronite Christian, was proposed for the post last month as part of a deal that would see former prime minister Saad Hariri, a Sunni who adamantly opposes the Syrian government, return to power. The deal quickly won the backing of several powerful leaders and the Maronite Church, as well as the blessings of Saudi Arabia and France.
Under a sectarian power-sharing agreement established at independence in 1943, Lebanon’s president will always be a Christian, its prime minister a Sunni and its speaker of parliament a Shiite.
Despite the initial momentum behind Mr Franjieh’s candidacy, the bid has stalled in recent days. His election remains a possibility, though obstacles surrounding his run underscore the difficulties a sharply divided Lebanon faces in ending the presidential vacuum.
Mr Franjieh’s life, career and political leanings were largely shaped by one bloody night in Lebanon’s 15-year-long civil war.
In 1978, when Mr Franjieh was just 13, his immediate family was massacred at their mansion in the northern town of Ehden after a rival Christian militia launched what was meant to be a decapitation strike against his father’s Marada Movement. In a war where atrocities were abundant, the Ehden massacre still stood out for its brutality, with fighters not even sparing Mr Franjieh’s three-year-old sister Jihane and, by some accounts, forcing his parents to watch her execution.
By a stroke of luck, Mr Franjieh was not at home when the attackers came.
Samir Geagea, now head of the powerful Lebanese Forces party and a man who has been seen as long eyeing the presidency, is believed to have commanded the attack in Ehden.
Suddenly orphaned, Mr Franjieh was brought to Syria by relatives and became close friends with Bashar Al Assad’s older brother Basel, who was being groomed for the presidency until his 1994 death in a car accident. That relationship paved the way for his close ties with Syria’s rulers that remain strong today.
At 17, Mr Franjieh became the commander of the Marada Movement and its militia.
With Lebanon already split politically over Syria’s civil war, Mr Franjieh’s candidacy adds to the controversy.
If he took the presidency “it would have the potential of radicalising the Sunni community and polarising the Christian one”, said Sami Nader, director of the Beirut-based Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs. “Because at the end of the day, Franjieh has always been perceived as somebody who is close to the Assad regime.”
Since Syria’s civil war began, Lebanon’s leaders have maintained a policy of disassociation from the conflict and been careful not to take sides.
The election of an openly pro-Assad president could rile Lebanon’s Sunni community, large segments of which have been sympathetic to Syria’s mostly Sunni rebels. At times during the conflict, Sunni militants in Lebanon have fought against pro-Syria groups here and have also streamed across the border to join Free Syrian Army units and extremist groups. On the other side, Lebanon’s Shiite Hizbollah movement has sent its fighters into Syria to support Mr Al Assad.
“It is a fact that when he [Mr Franjieh] is president, he has to open up to the 14 of March camp,” said Mr Nader, referring to Lebanon’s anti-Syria alliance, which is led by Mr Hariri’s Future Movement, the main Sunni political party in Lebanon.
With support from Mr Hariri and Saudi Arabia, the plan to put Mr Franjieh into the presidency seems to be an attempt at a compromise with Lebanon’s pro-Syria parties, but that in itself is not enough to quell opposition to his election.
Mr Franjieh also faces significant opposition from the country’s main Christian political parties: the Phalange, the Lebanese Forces and the Free Patriotic Movement.
While the Phalange and Lebanese Forces are in the anti-Syria camp, the Free Patriotic Movement is an ally of Hizbollah – just as Mr Franjieh’s Marada Movement is. However its leader, Michel Aoun, has thus far been unable to secure the necessary support to become president.
Mr Aoun’s movement and other pro-Syria groups have boycotted parliament sessions aimed at finding a new president, forcing meetings to be adjourned over a lack of quorum.
Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has reportedly told Mr Franjieh that Mr Aoun – his group’s more powerful Christian ally – remained its first choice for the presidency.
Both of Hizbollah’s Christian partners vying for the presidency puts it in a difficult position.
“While it might seem that Hizbollah has a simple task of choosing between its two main Christian allies, it is also probably the easiest and fastest way to lose one of them,” said Ramez Dagher, a Lebanese political blogger.
Under Lebanon’s constitution, a president is elected by a two-thirds majority in the country’s 128-member parliament. If no candidate can secure two-thirds of the vote, a second round of voting is held in which a candidate needs only a simple majority.
Mr Geagea of the Lebanese Forces led after an initial round of voting in April last year, securing 48 votes. Fifty-two MPs submitted blank ballots. He needed only 65 votes in a second round to become president, but parliament has not been able to muster a quorum since.
Finding a president in Lebanon depends more on careful deal-making and negotiations than popularity. All of the top contenders for the post are former warlords, strong-headed men with significant baggage and lingering vendettas from the civil war decades ago. All face major hurdles in their quests to be elected.
Without a deal cut – or a new candidate thrown into the ring – paralysis will continue.
Updated: December 15, 2015 04:00 AM