Beirut, Lebanon – Although the end of Lebanese President Michel Suleiman’s term on May 25 is looming ever nearer, the country’s fractious political parties have been unable to agree on a successor. As on many other issues, Lebanon’s two main political movements, the rival March 8 and March 14 alliances, have been unable to agree on a single candidate, with each backing a different figure to be Lebanon’s next head of state.
As the deadlock continues, Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to March 14 secretary-general Fares Soueid about the Alliance’s position on the election and its candidate, Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces Party, and his opinion of the chances of March 8’s Michel Aoun.
Asharq Al-Awsat: What is your opinion of the results of the meeting between Sa’ad Al-Hariri and Geagea in Paris last week, which was aimed at agreeing a consensus candidate for the presidency?
Fares Soueid: What resulted is essentially a declaration of intent to complete all the stages of the presidential elections in Lebanon, from a shared Islamic–Christian position within March 14. The alliance succeeded . . . in putting forth a joint candidate and uniting around him and his platform. It participates in all the [parliamentary] sessions and does not obstruct [efforts to obtain a] quorum. This success has made March 14 a real political force, able to negotiate with all parties and finish the battle for democracy. The meeting in Paris was held to crown these endeavors and confirm once again that a March 14 administration—if, God forbid, a presidential vacuum occurs—would be unified administration.
Q: Is Hariri willing to drop his support for Geagea’s candidacy?
If Hariri leaves March 14, he will become [merely] a Sunni leader. If Geagea leaves, he will become the leader of one part of the Christian community. With the two of them in March 14, they are two leaders representing two sects. Why give up on that? No one will abandon March 14.
Q: What about reports that Hariri is willing to support Aoun as a consensus candidate?
If he wins, General Aoun wants to blame March 14 for the [presidential] vacuum by focusing on two points: first by saying that the March 14 forces clung to an impossible candidate, namely Geagea, and second that Hariri did not give him a clear answer one way or the other. In other words, Aoun is saying: ‘Abandon Geagea and endorse my nomination—then we will participate in the election session on Thursday.’ This approach is undemocratic, and is just one of Aoun’s many tactics that have no grounding in political reality.
Q: If Hariri has no desire to support Aoun, then why does he keep the lines of communication open with him?
Hariri is not courting Aoun, but, as the leader of the largest Islamic sect in the country [the Sunnis], he wants to cover his bases so that it can’t be said that the Sunnis or the Future Movement, or its leader Saad Hariri, shut out any Maronite candidate. If a presidential vacuum occurs, Hariri will be able to say to Christians, Arabs and Westerners that he did everything he could to move the process forward, even meeting with Aoun and opening up a dialogue with him—despite the fact that the latter built his popularity on cursing the Future Movement and challenging [former prime minister] Rafik Hariri and Saad Hariri after him.
Q: Does Hezbollah’s veto of Geagea give it the power to select the next president?
Hezbollah is not strong enough to impose what it wants on Lebanon, and it’s not so weak that it will give up. It therefore tries to enforce its will, but is unable to do so. We are also unable to win or impose what we want on Hezbollah. This is the game that controls the selection of a new president at this stage. In all likelihood, Thursday [May 22] will be an extraordinary day in parliament, with each side voting for its candidate. If Aoun wants to bring March 14 down, then let him bring it down at the ballot box.
Q: What do you make of MP Walid Jumblatt’s slip of the tongue when he said “President Aoun” instead of “President Suleiman,” and then later justified it by saying that Aoun will not win the presidency?
I think that Walid Jumblatt, in his own way, announced that he would not elect Michel Aoun as President of the Republic.
Q: Some, however, considered this slip of the tongue a sign of Aoun’s likely electoral success . . .
Whoever wants Aoun to be president can bring a psychologist into the news studios and ask him to interpret and analyze what Jumblatt said. But those who know Jumblatt or are close to him know that he will not vote for Aoun for president.
Q: He also won’t vote for a March 14 candidate?
Yes, this is why he endorsed MP Henry Helou for president.
Q: Does Helou have a chance to win in the eleventh hour, if nobody else can be agreed on?
Deputy Henry Helou has two problems. The first is superficial: Christians reject him because they say he ran in Jumblatt’s district . . . But this problem is treatable. The second problem is that Jumblatt would not be able to continue to endorse Helou if Hezbollah objected.
Q: What are Hezbollah’s goals, in light of the battlefield victories it has been able to win in Syria?
Hezbollah wants a [political] vacuum; it does not want a president.
It did not achieve victories in Syria. Hezbollah’s problems inside Syria are larger than we imagine, just like their problems in Lebanon. Otherwise, it would never have accepted Nihad Al-Mashnouq as Interior Minister or Ashraf Rifi as Minister of Justice, nor would it have participated in the government. [Syria] is not a simple matter for Hezbollah, and it will pay dearly for it.
But I think that Hezbollah wants to cool the situation with the Sunni sect in Lebanon, so long as it faces [problems with] Sunni public opinion in Syria and the Arab world. Today, its main concern is to achieve a political détente with the Sunnis of Lebanon. Hezbollah cannot afford a war in Syria and an Islamic siege in Lebanon. Thus, it joined the government and may help facilitate the election of a president. But perhaps after a vacuum occurs, its negotiating position will be better than it is today. I do not rule out the possibility that it may resort to its known tactic—political assassinations—in order to improve its negotiating position.
Q: How can this option, given its dangers, serve Hezbollah?
This possibility exists, and could, unfortunately, motivate the various parties to sit at the same table. I think that a vacuum would cause tension in the country and among the people, creating domestic political instability. The government would become vulnerable to pressure. Then we would enter a period of true insecurity in which assassinations [are used to] improve negotiating positions and push the Lebanese to scramble to find a solution to the blockage in the election of a president. Considering we were talking about Samir Geagea before May 25, if tensions push the country into a presidential vacuum, perhaps we will find someone who aligns with the interests of Hezbollah [becoming president].
Q: Is Aoun among those candidates favored by Hezbollah, despite the fact that he has not been officially nominated?
I think that Aoun was important [to Hezbollah] from 2005 to 2012, when he was a domestic Christian partner, because Hezbollah’s battles at that time were domestic ones—in another words, they were struggles between Lebanese, from the international tribunal [on the assassination of Rafik Hariri] to the confrontation with March 14, to municipal, parliamentary and ministerial spats. But today, after its involvement in Syria, Hezbollah’s battles—such as re-electing [Syrian president] Bashar Al-Assad in order to restore Iran’s influence in Syria, and electing a similar president in Lebanon with the same objective—have become larger. At this stage, Aoun is a burden that Hezbollah endures and manages. But he is not the center of its interests. Its primary interest today is establishing how it can improve its relations with other Muslims after becoming embroiled in an Iranian request to fight the Sunnis in Syria.
Q: Do diplomatic and international efforts reflect a real desire to prevent the presidential palace sitting vacant?
There is serious international and Arab resolve to insulate Lebanon from the regional conflict by preserving the banking sector, the unity of the military, the constitution and the election of a new president.
Q: Do the Christian leaders who were brought together by the Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai bear some of the responsibility for the deadlock in electing new president?
I am clearly and explicitly in support of Geagea’s bid for the presidency, for both ethical and political reasons. However, I am clearly and explicitly against the Christian approach led by Rai to the electoral law and the election of the president. This method relies on gathering Christian figures in one place and telling the Christians, ‘We will agree on something and then send you what we agreed upon in the mail.’
This is the shortest route to provoking the emotions of others. Nothing will prevent the Shi’a team, for example, from saying, ‘We have priorities and we will impose them on you.’ I think it was up to [the Maronite Patriarchate] to maintain the national bodies in order to produce an electoral law and a president, because the two issues are not sectarian. Christians should be aware that they are the fathers of the Lebanese identity. They are entrusted with [preserving] domestic unity and co-existence. They cannot become just another clan among many in Lebanon. They are the mainstay of Lebanon.
Q: Did the fear of a presidential vacancy accelerate the formation of the government? What about the decision to hold an extraordinary session of the legislature on May 27?
The formation of the government came together as a kind of safety net in case a vacuum occurred. But when Prime Minister Najib Mikati resigned, the Sunni team in March 14 Alliance refused to legislate, and the Christians within the March 14 Alliance backed this position.
But I suggest that today we go to the Chamber of Deputies to address matters of national, not political, interest—for instance, how to maintain the unity of the country and co-existence without resorting to legislative action. I think that Speaker Nabih Berri crushed March 14 by calling for a legislative session. If March 14 MPs boycotted, it would put them in opposition to the demands of the unions. If they participated in the session, they would de facto recognize the legitimacy of the parliament, even in the absence of a president.