OPN Suleiman Frangieh jr
Suleiman Frangieh, leader of the Marada movement in Lebanon Image Credit: AFP

In 2016, Suleiman Frangieh Jr. was Hezbollah’s choice for the Lebanese presidency. He was then asked to wait, at the very last moment, given the party’s need to accommodate its other Christian ally, Michel Aoun.

The ageing Aoun was 83; many thought he would not live long enough to see the end of his term, when becoming president in October 2016. Frangieh was much younger, at 51.

Hezbollah reasoned that he could wait until the next elections took place in 2022. They never did and since Aoun’s departure from Baabda Palace last October the presidential seat has been left vacant.

Three names have since been making the rounds to replace Aoun: his son-in-law Gibran Bassil, Army Commander Joseph Aoun, and Frangieh.

Eleven voting sessions took place since then — which all ended in failure — mainly because neither Hezbollah was willing to bend on Lebanon’s next president, and nor was Bassil.

Nasrallah was pushing for Frangieh without directly naming him, while Bassil was insisting that only he and no other would succeed Michel Aoun as president. On 6 March 2023, Nasrallah formally announced his support for Frangieh’s nomination.

Bassil’s position

To some, that will really advance Frangieh’s candidacy, but it’s still not enough to make him president. Electing a president requires a 65 out of 128 votes in Parliament.

The two Shiite parties, Hezbollah and Amal who both support Frangieh have a combined bloc of 30 MPs. Frangieh himself has a tiny bloc of 2 MPs. Any voting cannot happen before they secure double the votes that they presently have.

Reportedly, Prime Minister Najib Mikati and his Azm Movement will vote for Frangieh as well, and so will independent Sunnis and those affiliated with the Hezbollah-led 8 March Coalition. Unless he is swayed with some kind of deal, Gibran Bassil still says that he will never vote for Frangieh, and nor do any of the 21 MPs within his orbit.

That deal would have to nothing less than promise from Nasrallah that he would become Lebanon’s next president, post-Frangieh. It means that Bassil would have to wait for another six years, just like Frangieh did in 2016-2022.

And yet, there are other problems associated with Bassil which have been brushed under the rug and would prevent him from becoming president, whether now or in the future.

One of them is that he is not very popular among mainstream Christians, nor among Lebanon’s political elite. Second is the fact that he is sanctioned by the US since 2019.

Gibran Bassil
Gibran Bassil still says that he will never vote for Frangieh, and nor do any of the 21 MPs within his orbit

A family history

Born on 18 October 1965, Suleiman Frangieh Junior is scion of a leading Maronite feudal family of landowners-turned-politicians since Ottoman times. Suleiman’s grandfather and namesake, Suleiman Senior, was president of Lebanon between 1970-1976.

In the late 1950s, he fled arrest for his role in an uprising against then-president Camille Chamoun, taking refuge in Syria. And it was in Damascus where he met a young air force pilot named Hafez Al Assad; they became friends and went on to become presidents of their countries within a span of two months in 1970 (Frangieh was elected in September, Assad came to power in November).

The two families have been close ever since. In June 1979, tragedy befell the Frangieh family when early during the civil war Suleiman Sr.’s son, Tony, was gunned down, along with his wife and baby girl, in a brutal massacre carried out by rival Maronite militia-leader Samir Gagegea.

President Frangieh had been out of office for nearly two years by then, and fearing for the life of his grandson and namesake, sent him to Damascus where he stayed at the home of President Assad, becoming a good friend of his children.

From Frangieh Sr. to Junior

Suleiman Frangieh remained loyal to Syria throughout the war, nominating himself for president for a second term in August 1988. He died in 1992 and leadership of the family, and Zghorta, went to his twenty-seven-year-grandson.

Frangieh Jr. had already been promoted through the ranks of Marada — the Frangieh’s family’s militia — and inserted into parliament to replace his slain father. Suleiman Frangieh Junior would also serve as minister in various capacities during the years 1990-1996, when he was chosen for the portfolio of health under Rafik Al Hariri.

He was also minister of interior at the time of Hariri’s assassination on 14 February 2005. Unlike many former Syrian allies, his position did not change with the exodus of Syrian troops from Lebanon in mid-2005, nor after outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011.

OPN Walid Junblatt-1566389296249
Walid Jumblatt is expected to back Frangieh for the presidential bid

Frangieh today

When the civil war ended, Frangieh surrendered his militia’s arms and transformed it into a political party that seen has been solidly allied to Hezbollah. But it was always a small party when compared to Samir Gagegea’s Lebanese Forces, which controls 19 seats in the present parliament, or the Free Patriotic Movement of Gibran Bassil.

The crux of its influence is the backing of Hezbollah, although Frangieh is also on good terms with various other players in Lebanese politics, including ex-Prime Minister Saad Al Hariri, who retired from politics in January 2022.

Hariri still has a say in Lebanese politics, and he wouldn’t mind Frangieh for president. Nor would the incumbent premier Najib Mikati, who has reportedly been promised to keep the premiership under a Frangieh presidency, along with the powerful Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who after years of tension with Hezbollah, has been slowly mending relations since 2022.

It was actually Jumblatt’s father Kamal, whose final word turned the tides in favour of Suleiman Senior, making him president back in 1970. And it might be Walid Jumblatt who will make Frangieh’s bid in 2023, if his bloc of eight MPs votes in favour of Frangieh.

Although the man is not an immediate favourite for Mikati, Hariri, or Jumblatt, they would prefer seeing him as president than Gibran Bassil, whom they all distrust.

— Sami Moubayed is a historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.