In a country renowned for the commercial prowess of its businessmen and brokers whose activities span the globe, Lebanese leaders Saad al-Hariri and Michel Aoun just struck a political deal to fill the vacant presidency that may well set a record for audacity and about-faces – though its actual gains and losses remain to be calculated for all sides.
As Lebanon now enters into a wild spree of speculation and anticipation about what happens next, the deal reconfirms that in politics there are no principles, only interests; and Lebanese officials have reconfirmed that the self-interest of individual politicians to preserve their power is the greatest interest of them all.
In return for supporting Aoun as president, Hariri will be appointed prime minister. This would halt for now Hariri’s slow decline as a credible political leader in the country.
It would also reinforce the supremacy of Shia political and military movement Hezbollah as the kingmaker in the country, while also maintaining indirect Syrian and Iranian influence in Lebanese politics.
Marriage of opposing political camps
Hariri’s endorsement of Aoun for the presidency on Thursday is a dramatic and expedient marriage of opposing political camps that have been at each other’s throats for years.
The sheer political geometry, reversals, and contradictions of these enemies-turned-allies is staggering, even by Lebanese standards.
Prominent Christian leader and former armed forces commander Aoun has been backed for the past decade by Hezbollah, the strongest single force in the country.
The Hezbollah-Aoun alliance in parliament has lobbied for a Aoun presidency, but its blockage by Hariri and his allies has caused them effectively to prevent the election of a new Lebanese president in parliament since May 2014.
Hariri even nominated Hezbollah-friendly Sleiman Frangieh for the presidency, which by tradition is held by a Maronite Christian; but Hezbollah and Aoun held out, insisting that Aoun would be president or there would be no president at all. They have now prevailed.
Hezbollah is also locked in a vocal and ugly battle of accusations with Saudi Arabia, once Hariri’s solid backers. Yet Saudi Arabia recently withdrew a $3bn grant to upgrade the Lebanese armed forces, which was also a slap in the face for Hariri.
The erratic behaviour of Hariri now is largely explained by the fact that his best days may be behind him, given his long absences from the country for security reasons...
The erratic behaviour of Hariri now is largely explained by the fact that his best days may be behind him, given his long absences from the country for security reasons, his declining Saudi business interests, some local challenges to his tepid leadership in recent municipal elections, and his decline in stature in the eyes of his Saudi backers.
Marginalisation of the Sunnis
He also may have wanted to stop two other trends: the gradual marginalisation of the Sunnis in Lebanon, who shared power with the Christians at Lebanon’s birth 75 years ago, and the general deterioration in the public political climate and efficiency of the state, due to the presidential vacuum and the consequent sense of marginalisation of the Christian community.
Aoun’s alliance with Hezbollah appears finally to have paid dividends in moving him into the presidential palace, which the 128-member parliament must formally vote on, probably next week.
Yet the process may lead to new fault lines and resentments across the notoriously unstable Lebanese political system whose 18 different confessional groups share all levels of power.
Opponents of Hezbollah resent that its Syrian and Iranian allies may increase their influence in the country, and it ultimately aims to use its power to revise the constitutional system and strengthen its hand in the long run.
The Hariri-Aoun agreement has shown that Hezbollah can bring the national political system to a halt. This happened in the past several years, and it worsened conditions in sectors such as foreign debt, electricity output, rubbish collection, water delivery, and other essential services, to the discomfort of the majority of Lebanese who have spoken out intermittently against the oligarchy of sectarian leaders who rule the country.
Given the broad discomfort across most sectors of Lebanese society, especially poor and low-income people, Hariri not surprisingly said he endorsed Aoun “to protect Lebanon, protect the [political] system, protect the state, protect the Lebanese people … relaunch the economy, and distance us from the Syrian crisis”.
He also seems to have protected his own political fortunes for now, though many sympathisers say he really had no other option. Some important political figures, including within Hariri’s party, refuse to support him on Aoun’s presidency, but it is unlikely they can prevent parliament from bringing this about.
Lebanon has shown once again that it is a land of dazzling deals and mercurial personalities, including in the realm of the national presidency itself.
Yet the average Lebanese citizen has no say in the power-politics and back-room deals of his or her sectarian leader; so most people will go along with this new arrangement if they see their government functioning more efficiently and their daily basic services improving slowly.
Rami G Khouri is a senior public policy fellow at the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut and a non-resident senior fellow at Harvard University Kennedy School.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.