Lebanon’s political impasse continues despite Iran-Saudi deal

The Saudi-Iran rapprochement has yet to reflect on Lebanon’s political deadlock, as fierce opposition to Hezbollah’s ‘Iran candidate’ continues.

Anti-government protesters chant slogans against the Lebanese government
Anti-government protesters chant slogans against the Lebanese government as they block a road leading to the Presidential Palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon in 2019 [File: Bilal Hussein/AP]

Beirut, Lebanon – As the recent China-brokered Saudi-Iran deal brought a glimmer of hope to the Middle East, it cast a shadow of doubt on Lebanon, where a months-long presidential vacuum has deepened the country’s institutional paralysis and worsened an economic crisis that has festered for years.

The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia has had a detrimental effect on the stability of Lebanon, a small Mediterranean country whose ruling elite has long been aligned with foreign powers to maintain influence and economic stability.

An economic crisis that hit in 2019 saw the Lebanese pound lose more than 90 percent of its value, and the ruling class – which has been widely blamed for the financial collapse – failed to check the currency’s free fall.

Meanwhile, the country has had no president and only a caretaker government since last year.

The Saudi-Iran agreement, which is set to lead to a full restoration of diplomatic ties between the two countries following a seven-year rupture, has the potential to remake the regional order.

Saudi Arabia has already pushed for Iran-ally Syria’s reintegration into the Arab League, more than a decade after its suspension over President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests.

In Yemen, the deal appeared to have helped broker the release of hundreds of Iran-backed Houthi prisoners in Saudi Arabia, paving a potential path towards peace in the conflict-ridden country.

But the Saudi-Iran deal looks to be more stagnant in the face of presidential deadlock among Lebanon’s rival parliamentary blocs.

“Unlike in Yemen, the Saudi-Iran deal will not reflect on Lebanon’s political reality in the foreseeable future, except in terms of preventing further escalations among local allies,” Lebanese Environment Minister Nasser Yassin told Al Jazeera.

“Resolving the dispute between the opposition on the one hand and Hezbollah and its allies on the other, requires a longstanding domestic dialogue that doesn’t yet seem plausible,” said Yassin, who was previously director at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Relations.

Lebanon protests
A protest against the deteriorating economic situation at Riad al-Solh Square in Beirut in March [File: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters]

Presidential vacuum

Lebanon has had no head of state – a position that by convention has to be held by a Maronite Christian – since former President Michel Aoun’s term ended at the end of October.

The powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah group and House Speaker Nabih Berri’s Amal Movement party – which together constitute Lebanon’s Shia base – announced last month their support for Christian politician Sleiman Frangieh.

Hezbollah and its allies have since pushed to impose Frangieh, but vehement opposition from the majority of the country’s Christian, Sunni and Druze political blocs has left him short of the 65 votes required to be elected in the 128-member legislature.

Foreign powers have also attempted to bring the deadlock to an end. In early February, mediators from the United States, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, France, and Egypt met in Paris to discuss ways to resolve the presidential deadlock. The five-way summit laid out a plan to help guide the choice of Lebanon’s next head of state.

Yassin said the assistant foreign minister for regional affairs at the Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mohammed Abdel Aziz Al-Khulaifi, discussed the issue of the presidency with various Lebanese officials during his visit to Beirut in early April and has continued to make headway in talking to various parties since.

In comments made earlier this month, Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Majed al-Ansari said Doha “participated in the discussion over the possibility of finding a political solution”, and “Qatar had no specific agenda regarding Lebanon, except achieving [its] stability and prosperity”.

Michel Aoun
Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun meets US Special Envoy for Energy Affairs Amos Hochstein at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon in 2021 [File: Dalati Nohra/Reuters]

Unwavering Shia position

According to a Hezbollah spokesman, Ibrahim Mousavi, the group’s support for Frangieh came from its view of him as a “patriotic and centrist figure” who will “not stab the resistance in the back”.

“Frangieh can gain quorum at a parliamentary session, is not sectarian in his discourse, and can engage with Arab and other foreign allies,” Mousavi said.

Frangieh, whose grandfather served as president from 1970 into Lebanon’s civil war, is heir to an old Lebanese Christian political dynasty and a friend of Syria’s al-Assad.

As a Hezbollah ally, he was close to becoming president in 2016 before the group ultimately backed Aoun – another of its Christian allies. Aoun’s party, the Free Patriotic Movement, which is headed by his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, has a 19-member bloc in parliament that has rejected Frangieh.

Mousavi rejected the possibility that the Saudi-Iran deal could change Hezbollah’s choice of a candidate, adding the group “would not give in to foreign pressures that aim to influence that choice”.

“Hezbollah’s support for Frangieh will continue until the end. The only way that’ll change is if he withdraws from the race,” Mousavi told Al Jazeera.

He added the delay so far has been to Frangieh’s benefit, as the Saudi-Iran deal and dialogue between Syria and other Arab states will ultimately “pour in his favour”.

Mohanad Hage Ali, an expert on Lebanon and senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Centre, agreed that the deal was unlikely to change Hezbollah’s position on Frangieh, as conceding to an opposition candidate would compromise the group’s regional interests.

“Any other candidate would be too risky and could replicate the Michel Sleiman experience, in which the president became vocal in his rejection of Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria [and] pushed for a defence strategy to transition control over the use of the organisation’s arsenal into the army’s command,” said Ali.

Sleiman, who was Lebanon’s president from 2008 and 2014, became increasingly opposed to Hezbollah’s involvement in support of al-Assad during the Syrian war, saying it polarised the public and put Lebanon on the verge of civil war.

“I fail to see a scenario where Hezbollah would agree to a middle-ground candidate, relinquishing its control over one-third of the government,” said Ali.

Hezbollah fighters put Lebanese and Hezbollah flags at Juroud Arsal, Syria-Lebanon border
Hezbollah fighters put Lebanese and Hezbollah flags at Juroud Arsal, Syria-Lebanon border [file: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters]

Vehement rejection

While Hezbollah’s position appeared to be unwavering, opposition to their candidate has been intense among parliamentary members who participated in a popular anti-establishment movement and protests that have rocked the country since 2019.

Ibrahim Mneimneh, from the Forces of Change parliamentary bloc, insisted it is time for Lebanon to choose a new president based on dialogue among all political forces, rather than through a traditional process monopolised by “sectarian political groups”.

Before Aoun’s term ended, the bloc launched an initiative that aimed to bring together various political groups in defining a profile for the future head of state.

“We wanted the opposition to agree on a unifying figure who would be capable of putting the country onto a road of recovery,” said Mneimneh.

To their disappointment, other parties refused to engage with their initiative.

“We’ve reached a dead end, but there’s no way we’ll agree to Frangieh. He represents the establishment that we protested [against since 2019] for bringing Lebanon to its current state of collapse,” he told Al Jazeera.

“While we appreciate the efforts made during the five-way summit in Paris, and welcome the Saudi-Iran deal, our president should be chosen through domestic dialogue rather than the influence of foreign powers,” he said.

“We’re not interested in attempts to manipulate regional developments to impose a particular candidate,” he added.

Sharing Mneimneh’s sentiments, representatives of major Christian Lebanese blocs from the Free Patriotic Movement, the Lebanese Forces, and the Kataeb Party have all voiced their objection to the so-called “Shia candidate” Frangieh.

Alain Aoun, political officer of the Free Patriotic Movement, told Al Jazeera that while his party welcomed the Saudi-Iran deal and the possibility of calm it could bring to Lebanon, the bloc “rejects settlements at the expense of Lebanon’s internal balances that are doomed to fail”.

Aoun said Hezbollah’s argument that Frangieh was the most suitable candidate, based on his ties with Iran and Syria, only served one party’s interests.

“Diplomatic ties with other countries cannot be reduced or monopolised by one individual,” Aoun told Al Jazeera.

A demonstrator waves a Lebanese national flag
A demonstrator waves a Lebanese national flag defaced with slogans and signatures as tear gas is fired during a demonstration by retired Lebanese army and security forces veterans demanding inflation adjustments to their pensions [File: Joseph Eid/AFP]

Divided opposition

While Aoun said the opposition was betting on army commander Joseph Aoun as the country’s new president, Ghada Ayoub from the Lebanese Forces bloc, another influential Christian party, disagreed.

“The opposition hasn’t been able to agree on a single name, despite ongoing efforts to do so,” Ayoub told Aljazeera. “That’s a real stumbling block in the way of us [the opposition’s] standing up to the other side [Hezbollah and its allies].

“Despite this, we’ve managed to block Frangieh. We’ll continue to stand against any candidates affiliated with the Iran-Hezbollah axis,” she added.

epa08390321 Anti-government protesters attend a protest against the collapsing Lebanese pound currency and the price hikes of goods in Beirut, Lebanon 28 April 2020. According to media reports, the Le
Anti-government protesters attend a protest against the collapsing Lebanese pound currency and the price hikes of goods in Beirut [File: Nabil Mounzer/EPA]

Ongoing talks

Carnegie fellow Ali believed that the Iran-Saudi deal could potentially facilitate an agreement on voting for Frangieh and that, in return, Saudi Arabia and its allies could win the military chief position, central bank governor, and an agreeable prime minister.

And yet, Lebanon’s impasse has continued for now.

According to Minister Yassin, “It is too early to talk about any direct repercussions from the deal that will allow one side to impose its presidential candidate.”

He did, however, say that he had high hopes for Doha’s mediation efforts.

“The Qataris have been reaching out extensively to all parties,” said Yassin. “They might be able to create an atmosphere of dialogue to allow for a new head of state that is not affiliated with a particular political party.”

Source: Al Jazeera