On October 31, Lebanese legislators elected a president. The election, and the emerging entente that made it possible, are part of an ongoing realignment in Lebanese politics—particularly within the Lebanese Christian community.
In January 2016, when Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea first endorsed his longtime rival, former Free Patriotic Movement leader and Lebanese Armed Forces commander Michel Aoun, the two men were seemingly making moves to allow the election of a president after two years of vacuum. But Geagea and Aoun have come together for reasons that transcend the constitutional crisis that they have just helped end. When they closed ranks back in January, they were seeking to prevent MP Sleiman Frangieh from becoming president. But in a broader sense, the two leaders entered into an entente to signal to other Lebanese leaders and regional powers that Christian communal cover for Sunni or Shia political priorities will no longer come cheap, restore their relevance in the communal order, and rejuvenate Christian political participation.
After the Cedar Revolution of 2005, Aoun and Geagea returned—from Syrian-orchestrated exile and imprisonment, respectively—to Lebanon’s political stage. They resumed their rivalry, which began in the late 1980s, by joining coalitions that have shaped Beirut’s politics for more than a decade. But these coalitions have collapsed over the past three years. Geagea and Aoun entered into an entente in that context, and they did so for reasons that will endure after this election.
In late 2015, Future Movement leader Saad Hariri and Hezbollah seemed poised to elevate Frangieh. In so doing, however, they alienated Aoun and Geagea and threatened their core interests. Geagea lost face and felt betrayed when Hariri engaged Frangieh, with whom he has had a problematic relationship colored by bad blood, regional rivalries, and political differences. Moreover, Geagea understood that he would have had trouble navigating a political landscape with Frangieh as president. Aoun also felt betrayed and embarrassed. In trying to secure Hariri’s support, Frangieh broke private and public promises that he would not seek the presidency while Aoun was in the running and undermined Aoun’s own efforts to win Sunni support. And by securing Hezbollah’s quiet consent, Frangieh exposed its support for the old general as essentially empty—and Aoun’s decade-long deal with the devil as fruitless.
Aoun and Geagea managed to block Frangieh immediately. Neither Hezbollah nor Hariri could afford—and still cannot afford—to alienate the two leaders. From there, although Geagea and Aoun lacked the parliamentary clout to choose a president directly, they prevented others from emerging as viable alternatives. Hariri endorsed Aoun for president so he could secure the premiership, which he needs to maintain his position while he rebuilds his relationship with the Saudis, tries to reshape Lebanon’s political order in his favor, and waits for events in Syria to unfold. (Hariri has struggled politically and financially as his relationship with Riyadh has waned and the Saudis downgraded Lebanon as a policy priority.)
Meanwhile, as Aoun’s erstwhile enemies endorsed him, Hezbollah found it difficult to abandon Aoun without shattering the illusion that has helped keep half of Lebanon’s Christians on its side for years. While it would have preferred a controlled vacuum or a weaker president, Hezbollah can live with a President Aoun in the Lebanon of 2016. Over the past decade, Aoun has aged and lost support, potential partners like Hariri and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt have waned or drifted to a “centrist” position, and Hezbollah itself has come to exert more direct influence over state institutions than it did before 2005.
Additionally, Geagea and Aoun are trying to increase their own rewards by signaling to other Lebanese leaders that Christian communal cover for Sunni and Shia political priorities will not come cheap. Before entering into their entente, Geagea and Aoun had trapped themselves in their coalitions. Because their respective allies understood that neither Geagea nor Aoun would break ranks, the two Christian leaders had little leverage and even less influence before these coalitions began to collapse. Therefore, Geagea and Aoun had tried to reap other rewards—parity with their political partners, support for legislative agendas, leverage in Lebanese state institutions, control over certain appointments, larger shares in parliament—to solidify their support among Lebanese Christians. Meanwhile, Hariri and Hezbollah have tried to appease Lebanese Christians without empowering their two main leaders more than necessary. When Hariri and Hezbollah tried to arrange a Frangieh presidency, they led Geagea and Aoun to understand that moments of marginalization were and are symptoms of a deeper decline.
Furthermore, these leaders are trying to increase their influence—Aoun as king, Geagea as kingmaker—within the Lebanese Christian community and Lebanon itself. Aoun may believe that his position as president, especially when coupled with his influence in the military, the parliament, and the cabinet, will shape the Lebanese state and the political process. Geagea will gain from this gambit, too. Having compelled Hezbollah and coaxed Hariri into matching his move in support of Aoun, he can cultivate the Lebanese Forces as a stronger political party well positioned to inherit some of Aoun’s supporters as Christian consolidation continues. Together, Geagea and Aoun will try to limit the influence of other Lebanese Christian parties so they will no longer have to share support from student bodies, professional syndicates, municipal councils, parliamentary seats, and cabinet posts. (Even so, Hariri, Hezbollah, and Jumblatt can counter Geagea and Aoun by elevating other Christian parties or politicians in districts they control politically.)
In the broadest sense, the two leaders may be trying to rejuvenate Lebanese Christians as political participants in the Levant. In the past decade alone, two sustained presidential vacuums passed with little effect on state affairs. Lebanese Christians have seen their presence in and influence over state wane, while their leaders watched as other Lebanese actors sought to overlook them as they shaped political dynamics. Perhaps reluctantly, Geagea and Aoun have come to understand that they must adopt a different approach to cope with demographic and political changes (regional and international) beyond their control. Having been unwilling or unable to either coalesce within a Christian community or manipulate divisions within and between other communities—the two strategies available to Lebanese leaders within the communal framework—Aoun and Geagea have at least positioned themselves to consider either or both.
With an eye on their legacies, the future of their political parties, and the fate of their community, these two Lebanese Christian leaders are trying to rejuvenate their roles. They’ve already succeeded, to an extent. Aoun is now president. Geagea is kingmaker on good terms with Lebanon’s new president and future prime minister. And by compelling others to consider whether and how to embrace, counter, circumvent, or end their entente, Geagea and Aoun have restored their relevance—for now.
Anthony Elghossain is counsel to the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice. He also writes about the states and societies of the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter @aelghossain.