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November 9, 2016
As the world begins to come to terms with the election of Donald Trump in the United States, the Middle East has been reacting to the long-awaited election of a new Lebanese president, Mr. Michel Aoun, and the appointment of Saad Hariri as the country’s new prime minister. Despite this landmark agreement, the delicate sectarian dance that is Lebanese politics has only started and many remain skeptical about the future. Meanwhile, the geo-political wrangling has already begun in earnest, with Iranian leaders having already visited Beirut, while the country’s PM has been reaching out to the Gulf states.
The Saudi Gazette editorial greeted the announcement of the election of the new president with guarded enthusiasm, warning that the Lebanese political class will have to deal with an emboldened Hezbollah: “the Lebanese parliament held 45 votes in an attempt to find a successor to Michel Suleiman. However, all of the votes failed because rival factions blocked one another. On one side is Hezbollah and its ally the March 8 Alliance, which is supported by Iran. On the other side is the pro-Western March 14 Alliance. Because Lebanon’s political system is based on denominational proportionality, the presidency is reserved for a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shiite Muslim....Hezbollah has been very squarely backing Aoun for president and this was always the deal between Aoun’s party and Hezbollah. Hezbollah has upheld its end of the deal. With this election, Hezbollah’s position will be consolidated in terms of its political allies as well as its position in Lebanon.”
The Gulf News editorial team makes a similar argument about the tough road ahead, but focuses in particular on the new president’s ability to reconnect with Lebanon’s Arab neighbors and free himself from the “shackles” of Hezbollah: “the real work must begin now....Firstly, there is the formation of government, expected to be led by former prime minister Sa’ad Al Hariri. The new cabinet must be chosen carefully and on the basis of competence — not on the customary nepotism and sectarian calculations. Fighting corruption, as Aoun promised, should be high on the agenda of the new government. Then there is the stagnant economy. The rise of unemployment, the staggering inflation and the increasing number of Syrian refugees have all had a devastating impact on the economy....But many believe that the main challenge ahead for the new president, who is a key ally of Iran-backed Hezbollah, is to bring Lebanon back into the Arab fold....As Aoun vowed in his oath of presidency, he must work hard to regain his country’s independence and end the Iranian political dominance. He could start by ending Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict and then address the issue of the militia’s weapons, which threaten the unity, security and sectarian balance of Lebanon.”
According to the Lebanese daily Yalibnan, Mr. Hariri, the Lebanese Prime Minister elect, has already started to attempt to build bridges with his Gulf neighbors, although it is clear that many Arab leaders are skeptical of any real changes taking place any time soon: “Hariri was quoted by Lebanon’s National News Agency (NNA) as lauding the vital role the GCC played in Lebanon’s economy, be it in export, investment or tourism. He highlighted the funds offered by the GCC for developmental programmes and rebuilding in Lebanon....Al Hariri was certain that the “summer clouds” that tainted relations with the GCC were gone forever....Hariri told the Ambassadors that the election of Michel Aoun for president and the soon formation of a Cabinet create a real opportunity to reconfirm Lebanon’s Arab identity and boost relations with the Arab brethren in the GCC.”
Reports by the Beirut Times also show that Lebanon’s central bank is trying to project optimism: “Lebanon’s election of a new president and the formation of a government will increase confidence in the economy and attract foreign aid, the head of the country’s central bank said today.... ‘The election of President Aoun should lead to a normal activity of the constitutional institutions … thus increasing confidence in the economy’, Riad Salameh said at an international conference organized by the central bank in Beirut. ‘The formation of a new government would help by attracting foreign aid and mitigating the cost of the Syrian presence in Lebanon that we estimate at five per cent of the GDP,’ he added, referring to the large Syrian refugee population.”
Meanwhile, Naharnet’s staff reflects on comments by the Lebanese army commander, who credits the army’s role as a force for stability in the country for the election of Mr. Michel Aoun: “Army Commander General Jean Qahwaji stressed that the army's resilience and its ability to protect stability has paved the way for ending the vacuum at Lebanon's top state post, the National News Agency reported on Monday. ‘The performance of the army has contributed to safeguard the state's institutions of decay and collapse, an in safeguarding national stability which paved [the] way for filling the longtime presidential vacuum by electing General Michel Aoun as President of the Republic,’ said Qahwaji during a dinner banquet held in his honor....He confirmed that the army was in very good condition, despite the many dangers that continue lurking around. ‘A country that has held out during the past five years in the shadow of the Syrian war, can withstand all future dangers,’ he concluded.”
With the president elected, attention now turns to the government of Prime Minister-elect Hariri and the “horse-trading” that accompanies the formation of any government. Of particular interest has been the reaction of “Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblat [who] has announced that ‘there can be no government without the Shiite duo,’ in reference to Hizbullah and Speaker Nabih Berri's AMAL Movement....On Friday, Hizbullah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah announced that his party will not join the new government should Berri refrain from taking part in it, noting that the parliament speaker is authorized to negotiate over ‘portfolios and shares’ on behalf of the two parties....Berri has hinted that he might join the ranks of the opposition if he was not satisfied with the ministerial portfolios that will be offered to his movement. The speaker had also criticized the horsetrading that preceded Hariri's endorsement of Free Patriotic Movement founder Michel Aoun for the presidency.”
Regional newspapers have also paid attention to the visit of Iran’s foreign minister to Lebanon immediately after the new president was sworn in: “Iran’s Mohammad Javad Zarif on Monday became the first foreign minister to meet Lebanon’s new president, a move that underscored Tehran’s tussle for influence in Beirut with its regional arch rival Saudi Arabia. A Christian leader and close ally of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah who was elected president last week, Aoun also met an envoy sent by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad earlier in the day....Speaking on arrival at Beirut airport, Zarif, who was accompanied by a high profile political and economic delegation, said he hoped to expand ties with Lebanon. Syrian envoy Mansour Azzam, who is head of presidential affairs, greeted Aoun on behalf of Syria’s Assad, saying he hoped Aoun’s election would contribute to stability in Lebanon and in the region. Azzam said there would be ‘no new page’ in Syria-Lebanon relations and they would continue in a balanced way.”
But, it is exactly visits like this one that have caused some, including Asharq Alawsat’s Eyad Abu Shakra, to characterize the recent developments in Lebanon as a victory for Iran, criticizing Lebanon for giving up its sovereignty: “Aoun’s securing the Lebanese presidency, whatever excuses are given to justify it, is yet another victory to Iran’s grand plan in the Arab ‘Mashreq’ whose fulfilment began with another Republican US administration, and solidified, sponsored and nurtured by another US administration, but Democrat this time around. However, Iran’s new victory in Lebanon – with due respect to both the country’s absent sovereignty and the post of president – is but a small drop in the sea of Tehran-led Arab-named militias inside Iraq and Syria....Frankly, Lebanon’s president is not going to a real ‘president’ simply because Lebanon has ceased to be a real ‘country’. At present it is nothing more than a coastal part of Iran on the east coast of the Mediterranean, and a large training camp run by a religious militia accorded regional duties which have brought down the political borders internationally drawn & recognized in 1920.”
Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.