Closer to Inferno: The Danger of Lebanon’s Political Impasse

Many question when—not whether—the country’s resilience will shatter from within.

With no progress in Yemen, many have come to see Lebanon as the low-hanging fruit with which Tehran and Riyadh could begin rapprochement, based on their prior willingness to cooperate on that part of the region. In December, David Ignatius was hopeful that a deal to fill the vacant Lebanese presidency drew near and that a potential agreement on this issue between Iran and Saudi Arabia could push the Middle East “away from the inferno.” Fast-forward two months: unfortunate developments have seemingly tilted the region even closer to the inferno.

It is unclear how and when the presidential deadlock will be resolved. What seems more obvious is that traditional external guarantors of Lebanon’s local stakeholders are either unable or unwilling to meaningfully shape Lebanese domestic politics. On that basis, and at a time when Riyadh and Tehran are consumed by the crises in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, it seems unlikely that they would now look to Lebanon as an area to take confidence-building measures. This places greater burden on, and to some degree increased flexibility for, rival Lebanese power centers to reduce local tensions and respond to an array of problems plaguing Lebanon.

Lebanon’s unique power-sharing political structure has failed to agree on a new president, constitutionally mandated to be a Maronite Christian. Since the departure of Michel Suleiman in May 2014, Lebanon’s parliament has met over thirty times but has been unable to fill the role of the presidency. This has largely been due to divisions between all mainstream parties, in addition to Hezbollah’s tactics aimed to block the quorum necessary to elect a president.

December saw a surprising proposal for the presidency: Suleiman Franjieh, the Maronite Christian leader of the Marada Movement (part of the March 8 Alliance), who retains close ties with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile Saad Hariri, the Sunni leader of the Future Movement party (member of the Saudi-backed March 14 Alliance) would take up the role of prime minister. Hariri is widely believed to have had an extensive role in brokering the Franjieh deal with the blessing of Saudi Arabia and, reportedly, the United States. Hariri’s rare return to Lebanon from France on February 14, on the anniversary of his father’s assassination, reasserted his backing for Franjieh and his somewhat forgotten relevance to the political game.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah has long supported Michel Aoun’s bid for the presidency. As head of the Maronite Free Patriotic Movement (aligned with March 8), Aoun has maintained a strategic alliance with Hezbollah for over a decade. In January, Samir Geagea, chairman of the Christian Lebanese Forces party (aligned with March 14) came out in support of Aoun rather than backing Franjieh and Hariri. While this move was surprising, given the wartime animosity between Aoun and Geagea, their common enmity towards Franjieh likely triggered a realignment of convenience. These shifts have driven a wedge between members of March 8 and March 14, and weakened their position vis-à-vis Hezbollah.

In late January, in a much-awaited speech, Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah reaffirmed the party’s continued support to Aoun. At the same time, Nasrallah was attentive to Hezbollah’s close relationship with Franjieh and stated that the decision to back Aoun did not mean Franjieh was undeserving of the presidential spot. While stressing “ethical and political commitment” to Aoun, Nasrallah also noted that it would consider backing another candidate if Aoun voluntarily withdrew.

It is unclear exactly why Hezbollah has not been lured into backing Franjieh. Some circles believe that it backtracked on a tacit agreement with Sunni leaders because of Iranian pressure to maintain the alliance with Aoun, or simply to fly in the face of Riyadh’s choice and weaken March 14. Another narrative is that given the shifts of momentum in Syria and its implications for Hezbollah’s positioning in Lebanon, Iran and Hezbollah collectively decided to drag their feet on the presidency issue until they achieve a more concrete outcome in Syria.

Others look to personal loyalties driving Lebanese politics. Given Aoun’s stance during the 2006 war with Israel and driving Christian support to Hezbollah at the height of the Syrian conflict in 2013, some perceive Nasrallah as fulfilling a debt owed to Aoun. At the same time, Hezbollah has shown pragmatism and willingness to engage in dialogue with the Sunni leadership and has not outright spurned Franjieh for his candidacy. Going forward, two overarching alternatives seem open to Hezbollah.