Alex Rowell

The Berri bluff

March 8’s latest maneuver to stall Lebanon’s presidential election


The Russians have a word, pokazukha, to describe the art of hamming up contrived differences among political elites so as to give the impression of disagreement and debate where, in reality, an ironclad consensus prevails.


When Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, for example, said last year that Moscow was willing to give air support to the Free Syrian Army, did this signal at last the Russian divorce from Damascus the world had awaited for four years? Of course not. As Vladimir Putin had said two days previously, “terrorists” could not be divided “into moderate and not moderate.” Russia has been pitilessly carpet-bombing these “terrorists” – chiefly civilians and Free Syrian Army fighters – ever since. This is pokazukha.


It’s a term that well fits the pantomime that’s been Lebanon’s presidential electoral contest over the past year. From the moment the official candidate of the March 14 coalition, Lebanese Forces (LF) leader Samir Geagea, stunned the country in January by withdrawing his candidacy and backing that of his nemesis of three decades, Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) leader Gen. Michel Aoun, the latter could have been elected straight away if his ostensible ally, Hezbollah, were truly committed to their stated endorsement of his bid.


The numbers in parliament (where the president gets elected) added up. Of the 65 votes needed to elect Aoun, 48 would be provided by the FPM, LF, and Hezbollah alone. The remaining 17 could then have been procured by Hezbollah’s allies in the Amal Movement (13 MPs) and the SSNP and Baath Party (2 MPs each), among others. It would have meant electing a president opposed by the Future Movement, the leading Sunni Muslim bloc, which could arguably have had constitutional implications, given the president’s defined role as “symbol of the nation’s unity.” But then, Hezbollah has hardly concerned itself with the opinion of the Sunni community on matters far more consequential than the mostly ceremonial presidency (storming Beirut in 2008, invading Syria in 2012, shielding suspects wanted in The Hague on charges of assassinating the Sunni Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in 2005, for a start).


In the event, Aoun’s presidency was scuppered on a different pretext: Nabih Berri, the speaker of parliament and leader of the Amal Movement, declared he wouldn’t vote for him. For the Aounists, this was more than an outrage: it was implausible. The idea Berri had the freedom to oppose Hezbollah on so “strategic” a matter as the presidency was “out of the question,” FPM co-founder and political science professor Dr. Kamal Yazigi told NOW at the time. “Once Hezbollah asks him, or orders him, to vote for Aoun, he will do it.”


That was one moment of truth. A second has arisen in the past few weeks, during which Future Movement leader Saad al-Hariri has made it known he himself is prepared to add his backing to Aoun’s candidacy. This historic step, officially confirmed for the first time this morning by Future’s Fouad Siniora, not only guarantees Aoun the necessary votes in parliament (79 from Future, FPM, Hezbollah, and LF alone), it provides Aoun – if we must speak in sectarian terms – with the nominal support of the Sunnis, the two leading Christian parties, and the largest Shiite party (as well as the presumed acquiescence of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who doesn’t like Aoun, but said Friday the election of “any” president is better than none). With the endorsement of the leaders of all major religious communities, and more than enough votes to carry parliament, what could possibly block Aoun’s path to Baabda Palace now?


Enter Nabih Berri once again. Ever since it became clear a few days ago that the rumors of Hariri endorsing Aoun were more than rumors, the parliament speaker has gone off on an almost comically apoplectic tirade, accusing Aoun and Hariri of seeking to impose a Sunni-Christian “duopoly” on the country to marginalize the Shiites in an aggression that would ultimately “lead to a civil war.” He reiterated Wednesday that he “will vote against Aoun” if he has to, while his right-hand man, Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil, reportedly told Hariri during a terse meeting yesterday that Amal would also decline to nominate him for prime minister. In the event of an Aoun presidency, Amal would be “out of the government, among the ranks of the opposition,” Berri was further quoted as saying.


Hezbollah, for its part, has reportedly said it won’t join any government boycotted by Berri, and has told the FPM to work things out with Berri by itself (“it’s your problem, and we have no business interfering in it”), which it will be hard pressed to do any time soon, given Berri is about to embark on travels for the rest of the month, all but guaranteeing the failure of the next election session scheduled for October 31.


We’re being asked to believe once again, in other words, that Berri can single-handedly prevent the election of a president supported by every key faction in the country, including Hezbollah. We’re being asked, that is, to believe the impossible. The question thus becomes to what purpose the Berri bluff is being played this time around.


Some will say Hezbollah simply doesn’t want any president, period, and plans to use Berri to prolong the vacuum until the end of the Syrian war, at which point Lebanon’s constitution will be amended to the advantage of the Shiite community (and, by implication, the disadvantage of the Christians). This isn’t necessarily as far-fetched as it first sounds – indeed, Walid Jumblatt gave it credence in a recent interview with NOW contributor Michael Young.


The more pedestrian view is that near-irreconcilable differences remain as to who exactly will be awarded precisely which cabinet ministries and other posts in the hypothetical Aoun-Hariri administration. Berri gave a telling hint in this direction when he was quoted as scoffing, “Are [FPM President] Gebran Bassil and [Hariri adviser] Nader al-Hariri now the ones who decide the president and prime minister and parliament speaker, and distribute the portfolios and allotments, and I’m supposed to just give them carte blanche?” Berri, of course, prefers that he himself be at the center of such machinations (and he must be rather stung by the failure of his recent endeavor to secure a so-called ‘package’ agreement incorporating the presidency, the premiership, and a law for next year’s parliamentary elections). He also has a real need, for his own political survival, to hold on to key ministries (i.e. lucrative ones) such as the finance ministry, which he reportedly singled out as one that Bassil and Hariri had allegedly decided to take from him. Perhaps, given the requisite incentives and assurances, Berri will yet come round to an Aoun presidency in the end.


Either way, the coming weeks will provide the final answer to a question that’s been debated for more than two years now. If it’s merely a matter of pie-slicing and table-setting, then Lebanon will at last have a president again before the end of the year. If, on the other hand, the farcical pretense is maintained that Hezbollah can be indefinitely overruled on this by its junior partner, then it will no longer be possible to argue the Party of God – and, behind it, Iran – wants any kind of president at all. 

For the second time this year, Michel Aoun’s progress toward the presidential palace has been stalled on the pretext of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri’s objections (AFP/Joseph Barrack)

Ever since it became clear a few days ago that the rumors of Hariri endorsing Aoun were more than rumors, the parliament speaker has gone off on an almost comically apoplectic tirade.

  • allang

    This political drama and intrique is all about Hezbollah maintaining its dominance over the Lebanese state. No matter who is elected president, Hezbollah will not surrender its missiles and armament to the legitimately elected government in Lebanon. They have created for themselves a powerful entity... like a state within a state. And intend to reap the full rewards that power politics provides. The political machinations are a smoke screen - a house of mirrors that can only fool the feeble and the blind...

    October 21, 2016

  • amalia

    great analysis!

    October 20, 2016

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Alex, sorry to change the subject, but what about your British bigots (Johnson, Farrage, May, etc.) back home who, just like Donald Trump, refuse to take in any of the poor, destitute Muslim Arab and African refugees stranded all over Europe, including in the Calais Jungle right across the Channel? Why are the British such racist, isolationist, insular bigots who think they are a superior race to everyone else? The Empire that destroyed much of the native cultures of the world is long gone... Time to evolve and come down from the trees. Wouldn't you say?

    October 20, 2016