One Less Danger but No New Hope as Lebanon Finally Elects a President

Posted November 1st, 2016 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

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Aoun sits at Baabda on election day. Source: OTV screen grab

[Commentary for The Century Foundation.]

Michel Aoun’s ascendance to the presidency of Lebanon on Monday three decades after he first sought the office represents not a sea-change in regional power dynamics but an incremental step in the hard slog of making politics. Nearly two and a half years after the previous president left Baabda Palace and after forty-five failed parliamentary sessions to select a new leader, a thorny dispute with many players was peacefully negotiated. Remarkably, the maneuvers unfolded peacefully despite the pressure caused by a state collapse next door in Syria and with considerable threat of violence hanging over Lebanon itself.

The outcome of the Lebanese presidential selection has been oversold in some quarters as a big victory for Iran in its regional struggle against Saudi Arabia. The truth is more prosaic, complicated, and local.

None of the major political factions can justly be considered to have won outright, and the mind-numbing turns of the deal make clear that there aren’t any simplistic sides in Lebanon (or for that matter, in political life throughout the Arab region).

Political alliances in Lebanon—like in the rest of the region and the world—are in fact fluid and partial, by turn ideological and transactional.The anticlimactic election and the ongoing limping politics that are sure to follow make clear that no simple equation can reduce Arab politics to glib but ultimately misleading formulations, like those who lump together Shia, the Iraqi government, Hezbollah, Iran, and one Lebanese Christian faction into a single monolithic construct. Nor were Aoun’s opponents a unified bloc connecting Sunnis, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Syria’s opposition.

In short, the messy deal for Lebanon’s presidency, while hardly a triumph for any single idea or movement, provides a sharp reminder that politics and negotiation continue to play a key role in forging paths forward in a region where violent contestation of power usually grabs most of the attention.

All Politics Is Local—and International

The decision of Lebanon’s parliament to bless the Aoun deal says as much about the evolution of Lebanon’s model of power-sharing-cum-paralysis as it does about the region’s increasingly interwoven struggle for influence. On Monday, the Lebanese parliament—itself an arguably illegal body because it extended its own mandate—ratified a backroom deal to make Aoun president and down the road, to give the prime minister’s job to his rival, Saad Hariri.

This same deal was floated in 2014 after the previous president’s term expired. Back then, supporters of Hariri believed that Sunni rebels might win the Syrian civil war and that political tide in the region would shift, empowering them to sweep to power rather than accept the middling share of it they already possessed. Hezbollah and its allies, meanwhile, were content to muddle forward without a president at all, since they held the position of primus inter pares among Lebanon’s factions and stood to gain nothing important from a functioning executive branch.

After twenty-five months, only the expectations of the major players have changed. Hezbollah is willing to accept a president who, after all, was its candidate, if only to escape domestic blame for leaving the state in limbo. And the weakened party of Saad Hariri, facing fragmentation among its Sunni base and fading confidence from its Saudi sponsors and financial backers, has grown desperate. Hence it was willing to accept any terms to put its man back in the premiership, without any accompanying concessions that would boost its electoral chances later on or award it a bigger share of public sector spoils to loot.

Much went into the Aoun deal, most of it concerning Lebanese internal dynamics. Longtime rival Christian warlords Aoun and Samir Geagea made peace with each other earlier this year, realizing that the country’s Christian minority was losing even more relevance if it remained split between pro-Sunni and pro-Shia factions. Hariri struggled to maintain his position as his family company went bankrupt and Saudi Arabia, briefly but flamboyantly, hung him out to dry—canceling a grant to Lebanon’s military and standing by as its man in Lebanon, Hariri, was humiliated in municipal elections this spring.

In the view of his Saudi sponsors, Hariri had not done enough to stop Hezbollah and Iran from dominating Lebanon, so he deserved a comeuppance; that, according to Saudi watchers in Lebanon, was the message the Saudi royal family wanted to send this past year. But they realized that theatrical shows of pique do not wise policy make, and that by cutting off Hariri they made it easier for Hezbollah and Iran to conduct their political business in Lebanon. In the end, Lebanon mattered to the Saudis more than they initially thought.

It also ultimately turned out that Lebanon had some say over its own choice of leader. Aoun is not a president built and chosen by foreign powers, or at least not 100 percent so (his followers like to say that “the General” is 100 percent “made in Lebanon,” which exaggerates the point in the other direction).

Aoun formed a tight political partnership with Hezbollah in 2006, a surprising move at the time for a leading Christian warlord who had made his reputation by going to war against Hezbollah’s patron Syria in 1989.

But Aoun is not purely Hezbollah’s man, which is one reason why Hezbollah was willing to wait so long to help him get elected by parliament.

The General is considered unpredictable, headstrong, vain, ambitious, and a bit mad. Those are the characteristics which lead his most ardent admirers to see him as a charismatic leader and his enemies to fear him as unpredictable and prone to authoritarianism.In office, he will polarize and hector. Already in his inaugural speech on Monday he made chauvinistic, unfulfillable promises to try to send some of the 1.5 million-plus Syrian refugees in the country back home. He vowed to defend his nation against terrorists and Israel, to strengthen the military, and a cleaner government. But he will be hemmed in by Lebanon’s dysfunctional political power-sharing system, which his election does nothing to change.

Low Expectations

Given the tradition of painstaking and painful political negotiation in Lebanon, it might take a year, even two, for Saad Hariri to form a government and take office as prime minister. By then, new parliamentary elections will be underway. No one in Lebanon expects the state to function like a state any more than it has during the last five years of permanent crisis during which electricity, education, and health care have been in scarce supply, but graft and uncollected garbage have risen to historically high levels.

Events in Lebanon are not solely a byproduct of regional competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Nor can they be read simply as a fight between Shia Hezbollah and the Sunni Future Movement.

It is instructive to remember that initially, two sectarian Muslim factions, the Sunni Future Movement and Shia Hezbollah, were negotiating over the outcome of the most senior post in Lebanon still reserved for Christians; in Lebanon’s sectarian political game, the Christians had largely sidelined themselves from their own remaining political fiefs. Eventually, intra-Christian competition made a greater number of Lebanese warlords relevant: not exactly a step toward democracy, but new alliances between Christians kept an oligarchy from sliding into a duopoly. Those who describe Aoun’s victory as a win for Iran should reckon honestly with the fact that the alternative candidate backed by Saudi Arabia was Suleiman Frangieh, a Christian warlord whose fealty to Damascus, Hezbollah and Iran is far more ironclad than Aoun’s.

In a region where the local, regional, and international all interact, Lebanon’s presidential crisis embodied all three levels, and its resolution offers one image of how plodding, incremental, and frustrating it is to seek progress on any level at all.

On Monday, Lebanon moved one step away from the abyss of total paralysis. It is, however, hardly any closer to restoring a state that can manage anything remotely resembling governance.

It might not seem like much, but the Lebanese system has managed one feat that can allow its citizens, however modestly, to maintain their claim to provide a model for regional politics: against considerable odds and obstacles, many of their own making, Lebanon’s politicians have pursued political compromise by nonviolent means. That’s no small feat.

Michel Aoun Rises to Lebanese Presidency, Ending Power Vacuum

Posted November 1st, 2016 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

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[Published in The New York Times.]

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Michel Aoun, a charismatic retired general, polarizing Christian politician and ally to Hezbollah, was chosen president of Lebanon on Monday morning, ending a two-and-a-half-year vacuum that had tested the country’s ability to function without political leadership.

Mr. Aoun, 81, has developed a fervent political base of supporters who consider him a last hope for the country’s dwindling Maronite Christian community. But his detractors are just as passionate, blaming him for allying with his onetime enemies, the Syrian government, and with the militant group Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran and Syria and listed as a terrorist group by the United States.

The Lebanese Parliament met in a ceremonial session in Beirut on Monday to formally anoint Mr. Aoun, who secured the requisite number of ballots after four rounds of voting. Gunfire and honking broke out in East Beirut after Mr. Aoun passed the voting threshold in Parliament, and the proceedings were broadcast on every major TV network.

The voting itself made clear the condition of a legislature that failed on 45 previous occasions to even muster a quorum for a presidential ballot. On Monday, the speaker of Parliament had to cancel two rounds of voting simply because someone had slipped an extra ballot into the transparent box. The whole process took two hours and included votes cast for the pop star Myriam Klink and Zorba the Greek.

For all that, Mr. Aoun’s ascendancy was assured last week, when the main Lebanese political parties finally brokered a deal that would put Mr. Aoun, Hezbollah’s favored candidate, in the presidential palace. That agreement gave the prime minister’s post to Saad Hariri, a Sunni Muslim and former prime minister who is preferred by Saudi Arabia. Top positions in Lebanon are allocated by religious sect in a delicate balancing act.

The resolution of Lebanon’s painfully drawn-out leadership battle marks a small victory for Iran on the score card of its regional struggle against Saudi Arabia, which had indirectly pushed for a different presidential candidate, Suleiman Frangieh.

The choice kicks down the road any decisive action to revamp the dysfunctional consensus model for Lebanon’s political system, which enables any of the country’s sectarian warlords to veto government decisions. As a result, Lebanon has been unable to effectively address any of its recurring crises, including questions as diverse as how to manage millions of refugees or how to pick up the garbage.

“I believe that for the time being and for the foreseeable future, nothing is going to change,” said Ramez Dagher, an analyst who runs a blog about Lebanese politics called Moulahazat. Unless there are other secret agreements, Mr. Dagher said, Mr. Aoun comes into office unusually free from constraints, other than choosing Mr. Hariri as prime minister.

“He is in a better position to maneuver,” Mr. Dagher said. “But that might also mean that the deadlock might be transferred from the presidential elections to the government formation and everything else that comes afterward.”

In a combative inaugural address to Parliament, Mr. Aoun vowed to defend Lebanon from terrorism, strengthen the military and take measures to push Syrian refugees to return home.

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Lebanese took to the streets of the coastal city of Batroun, north of Beirut, to celebrate the election of the former general Michel Aoun as president. CreditIbrahim Chalhoub/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“Lebanon is walking through a minefield but is still at a safe distance from the flames in the region,” he said. “One of our priorities is to prevent igniting a spark and to adopt an independent foreign policy.”

Known to his followers as “the General,” Mr. Aoun has pursued the presidency for decades. In the 1980s, during Lebanon’s civil war, he served as chief of staff of the army and led one of two rival Lebanese governments. During the last two years of that war, from 1989 to 1991, Mr. Aoun’s forces clashed with rival Christian militia groups and with the Syrian military — a round of fighting that did nothing to alter the final outcome of the conflict but was one of its most destructive and violent chapters. Mr. Aoun boycotted the peace talks that ended the war.

Mr. Aoun won much of his popular support because of his reputation for independence. He has railed against Lebanese corruption and the tradition of warlords’ handing political parties from father to son. The political party that Mr. Aoun founded in 2005 upon return from a 15-year exile in France, the Free Patriotic Movement, immediately emerged as the dominant Christian party.

Soon after, Mr. Aoun rocked Lebanon’s political landscape by making peace with Syria, his longtime enemy, during a visit to Damascus. In 2006, he formed an alliance with Hezbollah.

As his party garnered greater power, however, Mr. Aoun’s maverick reputation took a beating. His son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, has been accused of graft and corruption. But that did not stop Mr. Aoun from handing over the party’s leadership to Mr. Bassil in 2015, in an opaque transition that many party activists decried as antithetical to the party’s stated democratic principles.

Lebanon has reeled under the strain of the civil war next door in Syria, which at times has spilled over the border. At least 1.5 million displaced Syrians have fled to Lebanon, meaning that one in three residents of Lebanon is a refugee. And the country’s main political factions support opposing sides in Syria.

The previous president, Michel Suleiman — also a former army chief of staff — finished his term in May 2014. Since then, Lebanon has navigated a series of political crises with a caretaker cabinet but with no president.

The major political parties in the country had been deadlocked in the search for a consensus president. They failed to negotiate a new election law, which had been another major sticking point, but finally reached a deal on Mr. Aoun and Mr. Hariri, while leaving the rest of Lebanon’s affairs in limbo. The parties reached the agreement after years of discussions, in close consultation with representatives from foreign powers including Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Traditionally, Lebanese politics has reflected regional and international power struggles, most notably the competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia for influence across the Arab world. But, some analysts say, those two regional powers largely lost interest in Lebanon as their power struggle intensified in Syria. The Saudis grew disenchanted with Mr. Hariri and his political vehicle, the Future Movement, which steadily lost influence over its Sunni constituents after the assassination of Mr. Hariri’s father, Rafik, in 2005.

“As the theater of conflict between the stakeholders in the Middle East has shifted to places like Syria and Yemen, Lebanon has become less significant,” said Elias Muhanna, a historian at Brown University and an expert on Lebanese politics. “The reins have slackened between Lebanon’s political parties and their regional backers, and the country has drifted aimlessly for the past five years.”

Iran and its local ally, Hezbollah, have had the upper hand in Lebanon since Saad Hariri was forced to resign as prime minister in January 2011.

Egypt’s Sisi Is Getting Pretty Good … at Being a Dictator

Posted May 24th, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

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Photo credit: MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images

[Published in Foreign Policy.]

The outrageous death sentences in Egypt over the weekend, and the muted reaction from Western governments, suggest that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has cemented a ruling coalition that will propel him out of a transitional phase into a long-term project of power consolidation.

Lost amid the court ruling against more than 100 defendants — which include academics and senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood, even Egypt’s sole elected civilian president, Mohamed Morsi — is the mounting evidence that Sisi has cobbled together a workable formula for ruling Egypt. This formula might be doomed in the long run, but the long run can be very far off indeed.

Today’s governing agenda in Egypt centers around three things: a crackdown on “terror” and dissent, maintaining a steady flow of cash from the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf, and modest economic reforms that at a minimum give the impression of vision and positive momentum.

The government’s “war on terror” will resonate with Egyptians for quite some time. Jihadi attacks have proliferated since Morsi was deposed in July 2013; one fact sheet released by the government last year documented more than 700 people killed in the attacks. There have been dozens since, mostly targeting security forces and government facilities.

The public is repulsed by the bomb attacks on the police, army, and other government branches. Even most of the Muslim Brotherhood supporters of the deposed Morsi also condemn the insurgency and its terrorist tactics. As a unifying ideology for the Egyptian state, a war on terror might not suffice — but it will go a long way to mobilize what might be otherwise tepid support for Sisi and the military.

In prosecuting its war on terror, Egypt has lumped the Muslim Brotherhood together with the jihadi Ansar Beit al-Maqdis — equating dissent in the vernacular of political Islam with bombings and assassinations. “The Muslim Brotherhood is the parent organization of extreme ideology,” Sisi told the Washington Post in March. “They are the godfather of all terrorist organizations. They spread it all over the world.”

Perhaps Sisi is motivated by a sincere belief that the entire Islamist current is collectively responsible for the recent attacks, or perhaps he’s made a cynical calculation that the spate of violence offers an opportunity to eliminate the mainstream Islamist opposition under the cover of fighting an insurgency.

The battle against Islamists has given Sisi some legitimacy — but it isn’t what brought him to power. For that he counted on Gulf money, an initial precondition of the coup that toppled Morsi. As we’ve heard in great detail on leaked recordings from the office of Sisi’s chief of staff, the president made clear that he expected the billions to flow unabated from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies: “Man, they have money like rice,” a man who sounds like Sisi famously says in one of the leaks.

This might sound like thuggish extortion, but it’s also shrewd politics. Sisi recognizes that the Gulf can afford to underwrite Egypt, and that it’s willing to indefinitely pay $10 billion or more a year for a dependable ally in Cairo. Egypt struggles to import enough fuel and food staples to keep the country functioning and the poor quiescent; without Gulf money, the summertime power outages would likely turn into long-term blackouts and electricity rationing.

Egypt’s rulers have historically feared a “revolution of the hungry” if the circumstances decline for the nation’s many poor.

Economic reform, the last piece of the formula, is trickier. It’s become clear that Sisi’s autocratic ways and narrow, nepotistic circle of military advisors will preclude creative governance. But while significant reform is off the table, piecemeal improvements to the subsidy system could serve Sisi adequately for the medium-term. Meanwhile, theatrical flourishes like the $45-billion new capital planned for the desert outside of Cairo — a boondoggle for Emirati construction conglomerates which will probably never be built — and massive proposed public housing, irrigation, and road works projects give the impression of a nation on the move.

If even a small fraction of these projects materialize, Sisi will cement deep support in some quarters. Wealthy business owners and the small but politically influential middle class have both reliably remained in Sisi’s corner, and could benefit from infrastructure development. The military will also play a major role in any large-scale construction projects and, if shrewdly distributed, new housing or other perks could neutralize some of the few potential oases of organized political opposition, such as factory workers in the cities of the Suez Canal zone and the Nile Delta.

The medium-term stability of Sisi’s regime, however, may lead to more trouble for Egypt down the road. His repressive policies will not cure the country’s many ills, and are guaranteed to drive Egypt into even worse shape that it was when it rose up against Hosni Mubarak in January 2011. Recent events underscore Sisi’s paranoid style, punctuated over the weekend by banning soccer fan clubs known as Ultras and sentencing exiled political science professor Emad Shahin to death. As Shahin put it in a statement, the show trials are a centerpiece of Sisi’s effort “to reconstitute the security state and intimidate all opponents.”

The pattern of prosecutions fits that argument. If the government casts its net wide enough, it won’t have to worry about student union protests or critical university professors, because the majority of Egyptians will be frightened into silence.

Sisi’s paranoid style appears to be the product of a coherent view among Egypt’s fractious security services, which are showing a unity of purpose in carrying out the campaign against all political dissent. The military, police, intelligence agencies, and courts are pulling together to carry out the government’s political vision — an impressive bureaucratic achievement, but one that bodes poorly for democratic reform.

The downsides of the new dictatorship’s governing approach will be toxic for Egypt over the long haul. Securing the cooperation of a balkanized bureaucracy is not the same as controlling it: Sisi has the courts in lockstep on his side, but at the expense of their reputation. The courts have clearly abetted military rule, disbanding the elected parliament on flimsy pretexts, barring popular presidential candidates, and certifying election laws that served the military’s aims.

As a result of these machinations, no one will be able to take the judiciary seriously as a branch of government — and a future ruler, even an unelected autocrat, who wants to restore some semblance of the rule of law will face a daunting rebuilding job. The situation only deteriorated further today, with the appointment of Ahmed el-Zend as justice minister: The head of the influential “Judge’s Club” famously told a television show that judges “are masters in our homeland. Everyone else are slaves.”

The army, which paved Sisi’s path to power, remains the president’s only native constituency. But there’s no evidence to suggest that in a crisis — say, an economic collapse or a widespread popular uprising — Egypt’s generals would sacrifice their own institutional privileges to protect Sisi.

Even authoritarian rulers must play politics to retain power, pacifying the key organizations and constituencies that support them. Under the former dictator Hosni Mubarak, the military had to compete against the police, the intelligence services, and the circle of business moguls around the ruling family for its perks. Today, the military possesses unchecked power, which is likely to lead to greater corruption, unaccountability, and serial failures to accomplish the basic bread-and-butter business of the state.

This incompetence will negatively affect the very war on terror upon which Sisi is building his legitimacy. Jihadis are openly operating out of the Sinai, but according to the few independent reports that come out of the peninsula, poorly trained soldiers have employed scorched-earth tactics in retaliation, bombing towns and arresting random men while actual jihadis escape. Convicting and trying men for crimes theyprobably didn’t commit — as appeared to occur over the weekend in aballyhooed terror trial — won’t end the destabilizing domestic insurgency either.

Sisi also faces other long-term threats that are not solely of his making. These include an untenable national balance sheet, subsidies too expensive to maintain and too crucial to eliminate without massive social dislocation, growing unemployment, and inadequate water for agriculture under current usage practices.

Ultimately, any economic reform will depend on foreign pressure — a formula that didn’t work when the United States was the primary donor. Perhaps financial advisers from the United Arab Emirates will have better luck as they try to implement better practices in the ministries and government offices that will absorbed upward of $32 billion from the Gulf monarchies ever since Sisi’s coup. If those massive sums can’t buy meaningful political influence or instill sound economic practices, no amount of foreign money will.

The new regime is clearly unable to resolve these challenges, but history suggests that mismanagement can continue for a long time. Indeed, perhaps the greatest threat to Egypt is that Sisi simply muddles through. There are surely fissures within the regime, but he doesn’t need a monolithic ruling elite: He needs just enough power to stay in charge, and enough international support to ignore the outrage of Egyptians who want civil rights, political freedom, and genuine economic development.