Lebanon's kingmaker: How Hezbollah’s grip on power will determine the next president

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9 min read
24 November, 2022
Analysis: Lebanon will likely be without a president until a compromise candidate can reassure Hezbollah that they will not interfere in the group's affairs.

For nearly two months, Lebanon's legislative body has failed to elect a new president, even after Michel Aoun departed office almost a month ago after spending six years as the head of state.

During these special electoral sessions, divided opposition parties have voted for a variety of candidates or protest votes. The majority of ballots cast are always blank.

Even outside parliament, most parties have vocally expressed support for a specific candidate or at least said who they will not vote for.

However, one group has been notably silent on who they are or are not supporting.

Apart from a few comments by Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah has been very careful not to publicly disclose who they are looking to back in the election.

The group is reportedly eyeing Sleiman Frangieh, but Hanin Ghaddar, the Friedman Fellow at the Washington Institute's Programme on Arab Politics, argues that this is part of a show that they are putting on for the public.

"No one knows how long this political vacuum will continue but nearly everyone agrees that it will not end until Hezbollah decides that it wants it to"

"Frangieh is too controversial but they are suggesting Frangieh in order to reach a compromise," Ghaddar told The New Arab.

"I don’t think that they would mind [head of the military] Joseph Aoun. Even if they are criticising him and putting him in a spot where he has to give them guarantees; they would rather have someone like him who is backed by everyone internally and in the region and in the international community."

The need for compromise

Lebanon is no stranger to political deadlock. Aoun was elected president in 2016 after a two-year vacancy in the Presidential Palace in Baabda which only ended after Hezbollah agreed to back him.

In 2016, it was easier for Aoun to be elected since there was a clear majority in parliament, but now, after the May elections, no side has even a basic majority.

"Basically, it’s a situation of deadlock which means it’s going to need negotiation. That initially nobody’s preferred candidate will make it automatically," Paul Salem, president of the Middle East Institute in Washington DC, told The New Arab.

"So they are going to have to go into talks looking for a compromise. That is the reality. How much time will that take? Who will they end up potentially agreeing on? It’s an open question."

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Since neither side has a majority, MPs must work together and come to a consensus on a candidate prior to the vote. However, this cooperation is increasingly looking like it is dependent on everyone else meeting the group's needs.

During an 11 November speech marking the Party of God's "Martyrs' Day," Nasrallah said that he wants the next president to be someone who will not "betray" Hezbollah.

This was confirmed by Kassem Kassir, a political analyst close to Hezbollah, who told The New Arab that Hezbollah had "set its terms".

They want a "president who reassures the resistance and has a reformist and sovereign rescue project but is not affiliated with America," he stated.

According to Salem, Hezbollah wants to elect a new president quickly so that the government can begin working to end the economic crisis, something that he says can be seen in the group's implicit approval of the maritime border agreement with Israel.

Lebanon flag
For nearly two months, Lebanon's legislative body has failed to elect a new president. [Getty]

This tacit endorsement came despite it being contradictory to their need to preserve their weapons and with tensions rising once more amid the uprising in Iran and Iran's support of Russia in its invasion of neighbouring Ukraine.

"On the other hand, they are part of the Iranian deployment in the region and around the world […] there is no JCPOA and Iran is arming Russia in the war against Europe, as the US and Europe see it," Salem explained.

"Hezbollah is aware that Iran is entering a period of escalated tension and, possibly, conflict with the West and, hence, Hezbollah would want a president that they really, really trust."

While Hezbollah would like Frangieh as president, someone like the head of the army, Joseph Aoun, could serve as a middle-ground candidate that everyone could get behind.

The military commander is well-respected across the political spectrum in Lebanon and has regional and international support, but, most importantly, he is not openly anti-Hezbollah and would be unlikely to make any moves against them.

"Joseph Aoun is not really an anti-Hezbollah figure. He is part of the system; he understands how things work even as a commander of the army," Ghaddar said.

"He didn’t really confront Hezbollah so they don’t mind him that much and they know that once he becomes president he’s going to be more like someone like [former President] Michel Sleiman. That’s something that they can work with."

"Weaker institutions are good for Hezbollah. All of the scenarios at this point are win-win scenarios for them. Void or no president for a while is okay with them"

Reassurance or nothing

Hezbollah is incredibly sensitive when it comes to the group's control over Lebanon's borders, its weapons, and its smuggling operations. Should anyone or anything threaten its interests, they are quick to respond, sometimes violently.

This makes the election of a president all the more sensitive as they cannot be someone who would be confrontational with Hezbollah.

"At the end of the day, no president that would be anti-Hezbollah like Michel Moawad or Samir Geagea would be elected," Ghaddar stated. "They wouldn’t accept it. They would definitely say no. Even if he was elected, we have seen people who are elected and killed. They don’t mind doing that."

Even if someone were to be elected without Hezbollah's support, the other Shia party in parliament, the Amal Movement, headed by Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, would not support the candidate, a scenario which would call into question the new president’s legitimacy in a fragile sectarian system.

Whether supporters or not, for many members of the Shia community the idea of a president being elected without the support of Hezbollah is unimaginable.

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Because of this, potential candidates like Joseph Aoun stand the best chance of being elected as neither Hezbollah's bloc nor the anti-Hezbollah bloc will allow a candidate that leans too favourably on either side.

While Hezbollah might prefer Frangieh to be the president, "Hezbollah is looking at other names as well," according to Kassir.

"There are plenty of other names but the important thing is arriving at an agreement," the analyst said.

As of now, Aoun seems to be the most likely consensus candidate that could unite Hezbollah and anti-Hezbollah politicians, but for Hezbollah to back him, that would require some sort of assurance that he would not interfere in Hezbollah's affairs.

Ghaddar said that Hezbollah has been subtly sending messages to Aoun through their statements and other media to let him know that they are open to supporting him if he gives them the reassurances that they are asking for.

Hezbollah's grip on choosing Lebanon's next president

Even if Aoun refuses to do this, it is not likely to bother Hezbollah much as the political vacuum left by the lack of a president and government only helps empower the group.

"They don’t mind keeping the void. The void works for them, it has always worked for them," Ghaddar explained. "Weaker institutions are good for Hezbollah. All of the scenarios at this point are win-win scenarios for them. Void or no president for a while is okay with them."

No one knows how long this political vacuum will continue but nearly everyone agrees that it will not end until Hezbollah decides that it wants it to.

Kassir, though, is a bit more optimistic, saying that he believes the political crisis will be over by Spring 2023 "unless there is a strong external intervention".

No matter when it ends the result will be the same, with Hezbollah getting its political shield.

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Political cover

When Aoun was first elected in 2016, the president served as a political raincoat for Hezbollah.

He was well respected internationally and at home, with some Lebanese lauding him as the saviour of the country even though he was only elected because Hezbollah backed him and he would not do anything to inhibit Hezbollah and their domestic and international actions.

That all changed when the popular uprising and economic crisis began in October 2019. Suddenly, Aoun became more of a liability for the group.

"A lot of people blamed Hezbollah for what Aoun did and it’s not a secret that Aoun doesn’t do anything without referring to Hezbollah," Ghaddar stated.

This is a mistake that the Party of God is trying to avoid making again with these elections by trying to ensure that whoever is elected will not look like they are only in power because they courted Hezbollah.

"They don’t want to be blamed for the mistakes of the president or for whatever disaster is going to happen to Lebanon in the coming months and years," Ghaddar said. "They want someone who they can approve but without taking the blame for anything that is going to happen."

This is why Gebran Bassil, once a favourite of the party, has since lost the backing of his close ally in his presidential aspirations.

"Whether Lebanon's next president is Hezbollah's initial pick of Frangieh or a more centrist candidate like [Joseph] Aoun, one thing will remain certain: without Hezbollah's support, they would not be in office"

Abroad, he is not well-liked with the United States sanctioning him in November 2020 under the Magninsky Act for corruption.

At home, Bassil and the Free Patriotic Movement have increasingly fallen out of favour with the Christian community, and "if a president doesn’t have very strong Christian support, then he’s not going to make it," according to Salem.

"Not only would Bassil have been a liability, but Bassil has lost a lot of support on the Christian street," Ghaddar stated. "So he’s not the perfect cover for them anymore. They want someone who either has strong political support or someone that they could control without taking the blame."

While Hezbollah may be unofficially backing Frangieh, Ghaddar believes that the group is essentially trying to force the others in parliament to get on board and elect a more middle-of-the-ground candidate, forcing MPs to choose between "bad and worse" and the armed Shia party would be happy with either outcome.

"Joseph Aoun, for a lot of people, is not bad. He actually is a good candidate although he is not anti-Hezbollah the way that the opposition is," she stated.

"But he will have the international community’s support and Hezbollah doesn’t want people to think that they made a compromise. At the end of the day, someone like Michel Sleiman and a compromise president is always a good figure to hide behind and criticise while they cooperate with him."

Whether Lebanon's next president is Hezbollah's initial pick of Frangieh or a more centrist candidate like Aoun, one thing will remain certain: without Hezbollah's support, they would not be in office.

Nicholas Frakes is a freelance journalist that reports from London, the Middle East and North Africa.

Follow him on Twitter: @nicfrakesjourno