The future of Lebanon's political dynasties
With ageing warlords turned politicians, Lebanon faces its first post-civil war generation of leaders
On the surface, Lebanese politics can appear static. The same men who led militias through the 15-year civil war still lead many of the largest parties in parliament and, some waxing and waning of influence aside, a small group of people still hold most influence in the country.
However, Lebanon is facing the start of a new era as many of its ageing political leaders look to their legacies and begin passing on the reins to the first post war generation.
While those in power have on most counts governed poorly – the economy is stagnant, unemployment is high, crumbling infrastructure fails to provide even basic services and anything but the most straightforward decisions can be bogged down for years in bickering and back and forth – they have largely managed to preserve a semblance of stability.
Many put this down to the excellent training in self-preservation and brinkmanship hard-learned in the bloody decade and a half civil war that ended in 1990.
A concern for some and a major relief for others is that senior politicians are giving up their seats in parliament.
But the extent to which the next generation will have the skills to prevent disputes spilling onto the streets is questionable. Some fear that inexperience and having been born close to or just after the end of the war could lead to political or violent escalation.
“Lebanon is set up as a consociation democracy and, in such political systems, elite cooperation [and] deal-making is essential for sustaining stability,” said Firas Maksad, Director of Arabia Foundation. In Lebanon, comprised of diverse ethnic, religious and sectarian groups, consociationalism is a power sharing system that divvies up key positions between factions to ensure a theoretically equal voice. The downside to this is “nepotism and corruption, which has now reached unprecedented levels [in Lebanon].”
However, added Maksad, this wheeler-dealing means that self-interest is built-in and could therefore avoid escalation to a renewed conflict
“Presumably, these new generations of political elites who have inherited power have a built-in motivation in maintaining the system and stability - if only for their own interest,” he said. “This includes trimming back dangerous excess and precluding future armed conflict, irrespective of whether they’ve experienced the war or not.”
Lebanon has also long been buffeted by the interests of outside powers, often pushed and pulled in different directions. Alongside the well-established regional forces, Western states have been particularly active in Lebanon in recent years. Their focus – as seen through military support and the billions of dollars in loans and aid pledged earlier this year for development projects – is aimed at stability and taking the country out of the doldrums.
Western governments will watch the shifting sands of Lebanese politics with interest and they will hope the groups can continue to function. “Whatever [Western countries] may think of these groups, they understand that they function like governments and have some degree of stability and accountability,” said professor at Randolph-Macon College in the United States, Michael Fischbach.
With these major challenges in mind, The National breaks down the fortunes and favours of Lebanon's top players.
Free Patriotic Movement
The FPM is riding high. One of the two biggest Christian parties, it has been a consistent force in cabinet and parliament since 83-year-old founder Michel Aoun’s return from 15-years in exile in 2005. Mr Aoun won the 29-month battle of attrition to be crowned president of the republic in 2016. The party's current leader – Mr Aoun’s son in law Gebran Bassil – managed to win a parliamentary seat in May’s election after previously failing twice.
That said, there are many signs its days at the forefront of decision-making could be numbered.
The fight for leadership of the party in 2015 happened largely behind closed doors – Mr Bassil won unopposed but only after his father in law’s intervention. The decision was a bitter pill to swallow for other senior party members - many of whom are also Mr Aoun’s immediate family.
The rifts simmer below the surface and while Mr Bassil is still young at 48, Mr Aoun is not. When he dies - he is rumoured to have suffered several small strokes - the party could be torn apart from the inside by score-settling and resentment.
Mr Aoun’s nephew, MP Alain Aoun, and other son-in-law, MP Chamel Roukoz, are also widely popular among the FPM.
Alain Aoun was tipped as the next head of the FPM before Mr Aoun senior asked him to withdraw in favour of Mr Bassil. Whether he will seek to redress this after Mr Aoun is gone is a major question mark over the FPM’s future.
The most recent parliamentary elections in May showed a wide split within the party. Many of its candidates were not official party members. “To what extent can Bassil ensure the FPM remains intact, this is not going to be easy, especially with the competition within the Aoun family making a potential breakup also high,” Lebanese American University professor, Imad Salamey says.
Progressive Socialist Party
Initially, a secular social democratic party founded by Druze leader Kamal Joumblatt, the PSP has enjoyed an oversized role in internal politics for two generations.
After Mr Joumblatt senior’s assassination in 1977, current PSP leader Walid Joumblatt took over and maintained the party’s influence. But again the party’s future is uncertain. The 68-year-old Mr Joumblatt has begun the party’s third transition of power to his 36-year-old son, Taymour Joumblatt. “He [Walid Joumblatt] wanted to give Taymour a soft-landing into the political scene,” one PSP source said. Until now, Walid is still calling the shots and holding the big meetings with high-ranking officials.
But this comes at a delicate time, as the party faces increased competition - Mr Aoun's fight to ensure the Joumblatts cease to have a monopoly over the Druze and a shift to proportional representation at the last election saw their share of parliament slide.
The younger Joumblatt will be unable to manoeuvre in the same capacity as his father – jocularly referred to as the weather vane of Lebanese politics for his stunning volte-faces - to give the Druze a powerful political presence but they are likely to remain a crucial, if somewhat diminished, component of the political tapestry for some time.
The powerful Christian LF is one of the few parties that has less to worry about when it comes to survival and influence.
During Samir Geagea’s time in prison for war crimes, his wife and long-time MP Strida Geagea led the party. Having no children, if Samir – also a past and future presidential candidate – becomes Lebanon’s leader, it is believed that Strida will once again lead the party.
However, unlike many of Lebanon’s parties, the LF is more institutionalised than most. A robust, internal hierarchy for party positions and an active and eager support base will see smooth transitions for any future ruler of the party.
Continued close ties with Riyadh and Washington will ensure the party remains influential whether as an opposition voice or participant of the government.
“The two parties that will not be affected too much by whoever takes over its leadership are Hezbollah and the Lebanese Forces because of their strong political, religious viewpoints that won’t change,” a former Lebanese diplomat said.
Once perhaps the most powerful militia in the 1975-1990 civil war, the Kataeb transitioned into a Christian political party. Despite producing three Lebanese presidents from the prominent Gemayel family, its influence has been in near terminal decline. Abrupt transitions at the top have happened on several occasions after party heads and family elders have been assassinated, including president-elect Bachir Gemayel in 1982. But today’s party head, MP Sami Gemayel, is struggling for relevance. He has pivoted his position into a self-styled opposition to the government in a bid to attract young, apathetic voters at the risk of alienating his long-term loyalists from the civil war days.
While Mr Gemayel tries to team up with the civil society and give an image of youth and combatting corruption, the Kataeb’s bloody history will make it difficult for such a method to be successful.
Najem Najem, a Kataeb supporter from north Lebanon, says he originally backed Mr Gemayel’s attempt to inject young blood into the party. “But he went too far and tried to go against everyone in power including [our allies] the Lebanese Forces and Future Movement,” Mr Najem said. He thinks Mr Gemayel is now realising this wasn’t a huge success, the party lost two seats in May’s election leaving them just three.
Since then, Mr Gemayel has brought back once powerful party men he had previously pushed away. One of those is a former leader of the Lebanese Forces, Fouad Abu Nader, who re-joined the Kataeb in December 2017. After the parliamentary elections, Mr Gemayel appointed Abu Nader as his top advisor.
Becoming a minor force and monitoring the government’s progress or lack thereof will now become the bread and butter of the Kataeb. The new-but-old leadership will also look to patch up ties with its former pro-western allies.
Another Christian militia-cum-political-movement, the Marada is a semi-feudal party from the mountains of north Lebanon. Much of its future influence hinges on whether or not its current head, Sleiman Frangieh, can become the next president – like his grandfather. Fifty-two-year-old Mr Frangieh has passed on the rains of the parliamentary bloc to his son, 30-year-old Tony Frangieh, to free him up for the looming battle for the top office.
Tony studied in the United Kingdom and will carry on the party’s consistent political stance - devout Christian nationalism and a close alliance with Syria and the Assad regime.
The Frangieh’s close personal connection with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad could give it a boost if the regime can bring its own civil war to a close and reassert some of its former influence in Lebanon. The party will likely survive in its current form thanks to its isolated, geographical Christian support base in a string of villages full of voters that are unlikely to ever turn their backs on the local Frangieh family. Being held lock, stock by the family, the clear succession of father-to-son staves off the question of leadership challenges and if Sleiman Frangieh can become president, the party will place itself squarely at the centre of political decision making.
Having the young Saad Hariri as its leader, the party will remain a stable force in politics for the time being – barring a similar fate to his father, former prime minister Rafik Hariri who was assassinated in 2005.
Although he has lost a significant share of his once vast wealth after shakeups in his regional backer Saudi Arabia and a more distant relationship with Riyadh, he is still one of the wealthiest men in the country. The hits to his fortunes – political and financial – have dented his support but his base still back him. Mr Hariri’s growing image as the plucky underdog fending off a tide of attacks on him and his Sunni supporters hasn’t hurt his favour either. He will continue to break out of the shell as being the “son of Rafik Hariri” and stamp his own mark to become “Hariri 2.0,” as one source close to the prime minister put it.
Led by the powerful Speaker Nabih Berri who controls Parliament like a circus master and has the country’s Finance Ministry firmly in the hands of his top political aide, the Amal movement has long been the political representative of the Shiite sect.
Mr Berri is the man responsible for the party’s rise to the very top of Lebanon’s government today.
It stands in lock-step with the Iran-backed Hezbollah but it is Mr Berri that largely fights the two party’s political battles. Known as a master of finding impossible breakthroughs to political conundrums, the 80-year-old speaker will be hard to replace and therein lies the main problem for Amal.
Mohammad Kanso, a long time Amal supporter, says he’s concerned: “we’re a bit worried as to who is going to take over after him [Mr Berri].”
“He said he doesn’t want his sons taking over, so let’s see … God help us.”
LAU’s Mr Salamey also says the situation isn’t ideal for the party.
“With the situation of the Amal Movement, … [it] is more shaky as there hasn’t been much thought as to who will inherit - unless Abdullah [Berri’s son] is in line for succession,” he said, adding that there hasn’t been much talk of this.
Caretaker Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil is Mr Berri’s closest aide and could take over when it’s time.
The current head of Lebanon’s General Security Abbas Ibrahim is also close to Mr Berri, but he could be poised to be the next parliament speaker rather than party leader.
Amal has long been seen as a principal participant in state corruption and if Hezbollah’s recent anti-corruption calls are serious, it could impact the pair’s relations – although it would likely take more than this for the two to part ways.
If succession plans are not formed, or at least tacitly communicated to supporters, the huge question mark over the party’s future post-Mr Berri will linger.
Lastly, Hezbollah has the ability to act largely as it chooses internally and has a large influence regionally. As the only militia that did not disarm post-civil war, it has the ability to dictate its will. Short of a regional and international agreement to disarm Hezbollah, the party will continue to enjoy dominance. The only short-term impediment to the party could come from pressure on Iran through US sanctions. The party needs significant amounts of cash to maintain its wide social network, well-trained and numerous militias, keep up preparations for a future war with Israel, to say nothing of its heavy involvement in the Syrian war or other regional conflicts from Yemen to Iraq.
The party is well-run at the top and is known for discipline across its ranks of supporters. The party’s internal Shura Council and other leadership bodies have sway on the decisions of the secretary general and Iran maintains a say in key issues. This stops the party’s power and therefore fate being wrapped up into one individual.
Leader Hassan Nasrallah has a dangerous job and he is rarely seen in public due to the threat of Israeli or US assassination. As such, it’s unlikely the party hasn’t got robust leadership contingencies to handle the abrupt – or otherwise – exit of Mr Nasrallah.
But Mr Berri’s succession problems could pose a problem for the Shiite sect as a whole.
If it assumes the political mantle of Amal after Mr Berri leaves politics, Hezbollah is likely to lose a key conduit to the West. Although European states largely differentiate between political and military arms of Hezbollah, Mr Berri enjoys much more regular contact with the West as well as the ability to travel freely, unlike many of his Hezbollah colleagues.
Western states too will lose Berri and his party as a messenger to Nasrallah. In this instance, only Hezbollah disarmament will abolish the need for Amal but it is unlikely that this alone would be enough to spur such a dramatic change.
Correction: An early version of this story incorrectly stated that Speaker Nabih Berri was 88-years-old. He is in fact 80 years old, The National regrets this error.
Updated: August 18, 2018 05:44 PM