Lebanon’s political problems and solutions have a strong tendency of repeating. This reality has become increasingly apparent in the ongoing failure to elect a new president—an arena where the international community is once again making some significant moves to effectively save the country. Indeed, as Beirut continues to bicker over candidates and other long-running feuds, the country’s political elites likely expect and hope to rely on their international backers to resolve strictly Lebanese problems. While undesirable, international action likely constitutes the only path toward a new government in Lebanon today given current political obstacles.
Recent French efforts are at the forefront of international action in Lebanon today. French president Emmanual Macron recently dispatched his new envoy for Lebanon—former Foreign and Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian—to meet with Lebanese elites and encourage constructive dialogue on the presidential file. Le Drian is a major political actor in France, carrying substantial international influence and skill, which reflects Paris’s seriousness in resolving Beirut’s gridlock. The envoy described his trip to Lebanon as “a consultative mission ... to ensure the country moves on from the political impasse.”
Yet interestingly, Le Drian expressed that he would not push for any candidate in his visit—including a third-party option that could lead to consensus between Lebanon’s major political blocs. This comes as a surprise given Paris has privately supported Hezbollah-backed Suleiman Frangieh for months following its public-facing support for reformist elements in recent years. Whether Le Drian’s comments reflect another shift in France’s position remains to be seen, although Frangieh’s viability is certainly questionable at best following former finance minister and senior International Monetary Fund (IMF) official Jihad Azour’s strong showing in the last presidential vote on June 14.
Le Drian took this message to each of the major Lebanese political actors, meeting with the leaders of each of the leading political parties and independent reformist camp, Maronite patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rahi, Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri, and Prime Minister Najib Mikati. He also met with General Joseph Aoun—the head of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and a rumored presidential favorite amongst many stakeholders working on the Lebanon file.
Some of Lebanon’s political elites have made clear that international pressure is unnecessary. Samir Geagea, head of the conservative Lebanese Forces (LF) party, did not mince words following his meeting with Le Drian: “The solution doesn't need French, American or Iranian intervention … What is needed is a sovereign domestic decision.” Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) head Gebran Bassil expressed similar sentiments in his meeting with Le Drian as well. Both are major Christian parties in Lebanon that are usually opposed to each other, until recently.
The French push follows a meeting on June 16 between Macron and Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) in Paris. The two leaders reportedly discussed Lebanon’s woes at length, calling for progress on the presidential file. Just days later, rumors of a potential conference in Riyadh in August or September began to appear in Lebanese media. Qatar and Egypt are supposedly playing a role in setting up what is being described as a “new Doha”—referencing the 2008 Doha Agreement that ended an eighteen-month political crisis that erupted into violence.
Thus, as Lebanese political elites and international actors claim to support a Lebanon-led initiative, global and regional powers are pulling strings in the background. While MbS has openly called Lebanon’s presidential issues an “internal affair” and has gradually backed Riyadh out of the Mediterranean country’s affairs, the crown prince has a vested interest in resolving disputes to avoid the political violence that evolved in 2008. Indeed, a Saudi-led (or supported) initiative to resolve Lebanon’s political dispute makes sense alongside the kingdom’s turn toward pragmatism and diplomacy in support of its Vision 2030 economic development agenda.
The other major stakeholders likely understand this as well—including Iran. The question at play ultimately becomes one of getting Lebanon’s elites in the same room to make the necessary political deals that only international guarantees can backstop. Recent diplomatic exchanges across the region reflect a concerted effort to achieve this outcome—not limited to the Saudi foreign minister’s visit to Tehran and the Iranian foreign minister’s current Gulf trip.
Whether or not the Iran-Saudi deal helps facilitate such a meeting remains to be seen, although the warming of ties between the regional rivals certainly suggests the deal can be a net positive on any political efforts to subsequently lower the temperature in Lebanon. Indeed, while some have argued that Riyadh chose to cede Lebanon to Iran and Hezbollah in its re-normalization with Tehran, this is hardly a foregone conclusion. Rather, those with a stake in Lebanon likely prefer—at a minimum—a status quo arrangement that leads to some reforms without destabilizing the country further. This is particularly true of West Asia’s regional powers given no one side can sustain a full takeover of the country with their proxy of choice—including Iran and Hezbollah given the former’s economic woes.
Thus, all eyes should be on France’s current diplomatic push in relation to a regional effort to institute cross-party dialogue between the major Lebanese political actors. This probably will not result in a Frangieh or Azour presidency, particularly given both candidates appear to be positioned for the sake of such a dialogue on a consensus candidate at this stage. If this is truly the case, Aoun could become the next president of Lebanon, barring some procedural and constitutional hurdles, and understanding varying international support for his candidacy. Expect dealmaking on other issues as well—namely that of the prime minister’s office and central bank governor position that will open in July following Riad Salameh’s end-of-term.
Such a process highlights the repetitive nature of Lebanese politics—one that has continuously failed to address systemic shortcomings that regularly reproduce the same problems. International stakeholders would be wise to use any opportunity for dialogue to address the root causes of the issues at play. Unfortunately, the cyclical nature of the situation at hand will likely prevail, applying bandages to wounds that require much more attention and care.
Alexander Langlois is a foreign policy analyst focused on the Middle East and North Africa. He holds an M.A. in International Affairs from American University’s School of International Service. Follow him at @langloisajl.