On Jumblatt's slate: Joseph Aoun, JIhad Azour, Salah Hnein Image Credit: AP/AFP/Twitter

It’s been over months now, and the presidential seat in Lebanon remains vacant. A series of back-to-back elections in parliament have failed to break the gridlock, although the two main contenders, Gibran Bassil and Suleiman Frangieh, are still to make a floor nomination.

Bassil is leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and son-in-law of former president Michel Aoun. Frangieh is the grandson of a former president and namesake, who is backed by Hezbollah.

Although Bassil’s parliamentary bloc is much larger than that of Frangieh (he commands 17 MPs while Frangieh controls only 2), his chance of success are minimal, if his former allies in Hezbollah don’t approve his nomination. And there is no indication from Hezbollah that it is going to back Bassil anytime soon, insisting that its only candidate for president is Frangieh.

Hezbollah still believes that it can gather a 65-vote majority for Frangieh. That’s easier said than done since it currently commands no more than 34 guaranteed votes (17 for Hezbollah and Amal each).

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Lebanese Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt is continuing consultations with all parties to take the Lebanese presidential process forward

It claims that it can saw anywhere between 15-20 Sunni MPs into voting for Frangieh, via Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who is being promised the premiership again in a Frangieh presidency. That would bring the total number of Frangieh votes up to 50-55, still not enough for a majority.

As the crisis deepens, other names have been put on the table by various regional and international players, including Army Commander Joseph Aoun. Many believe that Joseph Aoun is tough, sober, and capable of lifting his nation from the abyss. In mid-February, he got a new supporter, being veteran Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.

In a rapidly changing world, Walid Jumblatt is one of the few constants in Lebanese politics. He has been at the helm of the Druze community since inheriting its leadership after the 1977 assassination of his father, Kamal.

He is well-connected both regionally and internationally, and was formerly allied with both the Syrians and Hezbollah, until parting ways after the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Al Hariri. Recent months have witnessed a warming of relations between Jumblatt and Hezbollah, but not with Damascus.

Jumblatt and the Lebanese Forces had fought bloody battles during the civil war, only to mend a very tense relationship in the aftermath of the Hariri murder.

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Both stood opposed to Gibran Bassil’s presidential bid and voted for Michel Moawwad simply to drown Bassil’s ambition in late-2022. Mouawwad hails from a prominent political family and his father was voted president before being killed in 1989, towards the end of the civil war.

Both Gagegea and Jumblatt knew that little to no chance at making it to Baabda Palace, given that he lacks support from the two Shiite parties, Amal and Hezbollah. Making him president would require a majority vote in parliament of 65 MPs. During the numerous voting sessions in the Chamber of Deputies, Mouawwad managed to win no more than 40-45.

Backing him, against all odds, was Jumblatt’s way of saying that he would accept anyone other than Gibran Bassil, who is held responsible for much of the ills associated with the Aoun era.

The Jumblatt Initiative

Jumblatt realises sees that the inter-Christian rivalry between Bassil and Frangieh is nowhere close to being resolved. Meanwhile, Lebanese Sunnis are seemingly absent from the presidential problem, left leaderless after Saad Al Hariri’s retirement from politics in January 2022. That leaves the presidential problem solely in the hands of the two Shiite parties, Amal and Hezbollah. Any presidential deal therefor, would have to run through them.

They are the largest constituency in Lebanon and the only one that is armed although according to the gentleman agreement of 1943, known as the National Pact, the office of president should be strictly in the hands of a Maronite Christian.

On 20 January 2023 Jumblatt received a delegation from Hezbollah to discuss Hezbollah’s conditions for president. Eleven days later, on 31 January 2023, Jumblatt said that he will not enter into a confrontation with Hezbollah over the presidential election. This means that he will eventually support — without necessarily saying it — their nomination of Suleiman Frangieh.

Jumblatt sent his son and political heir Taymour to the Maronite Church for a meeting with Patriarch Boutros Al Raii, seeing whether he favoured Frangieh or Bassil. When that too didn’t provide answers, Walid Jumblatt came up with his own initiative, suggesting three names for the presidency.

Any of them will receive the full backing of his eight MPs, a bloc that although small when compared to that of Hezbollah and the FPM, is actually big for the tiny Druze community, who are no more than 3% of Lebanon’s population.

Jumblatt’s three names

1: Army Commander Joseph Aoun, who is accepted by France, Saudi Arabia, and the Maronite Patriarch.

2: Jihad Azour, the director of the Middle East Department at the International Monetary Fund, who is accepted by Gibran Bassil, the Maronite Church, and to a lesser extent, by Hezbollah — if they lose hope in making Frangieh president.

3: Salah Hnein, a former MP from Kafarshima in Mount Lebanon, who is accepted by the bloc of 13 newcomers to parliament, known as the “Change Bloc.” They are anti-establishment and would go for anybody who challenges the existing order, especially if he is anti-Hezbollah.

This list has soured relations with Samir Gagegea, because it was put forth without prior consultation with the Lebanese Forces. It also drops Michel Mouawwad, who was Gagegea’s original candidate for president, nevertheless pleasing a handful of regional and international stakeholders.

Jumblatt did not mention Suleiman Frangieh — at least for now — but might eventually add him to the list, if forced to ultimately chose between him and Gibran Bassil.

Jumblatt knows that endorsing Joseph Aoun so openly might actually have an opposite effect on the army commander, just like what happened in mid-2022, when Aoun was endorsed by Samir Gagegea, triggering an automatic veto by Hezbollah.

He knows that Salah Hnein is not a consensus candidate, who has no support in the political elite apart from Jumblatt himself. Azour is far more acceptable, because of his portfolio and reputation, along with the fact that Hezbollah doesn’t oppose him.

But Jumblatt realises that Hezbollah will simply go for any of the three. It has one candidate only, and his name is Suleiman Frangieh.

As far as Jumblatt’s list is concerned, it is safe to assume that this may not be the final one.

— 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.