Before last year came to a close, Lebanon had been on the brink of a political showdown over the tenure of army commander Joseph Aoun, which was due to expire this January.
Parliament speaker Nabih Berri had been pushing for an extension, arguing with a presidential vacuum at Baabda Palace ongoing since October 2022, the last thing needed was another one at army command. In Lebanon’s multilayered confessional system, both posts have historically been reserved for the country’s Maronite Christians.
But it wasn’t only the future of army command that was on Berri’s mind. There were other vacancies at the Lebanese Military Council, waiting to be filled, including that of chief inspector of the armed forces, director of administrative affairs, and army chief-of-staff.
They needed three signatures to pass; one from the Army Commander; one from the Minister of Defence, and a two-third approval in the Cabinet of Ministers. If Army Command remained vacant, then so would these three important posts.
Divisions within Lebanon’s political elite
The Lebanese Forces (LF) of Samir Gagegea supported Joseph Aoun’s extension, although he had originally been their candidate to replace Michel Aoun as president in 2022.
They pushed for extension, fearing that if no replacement was found, then the job of army commander would go to a non-Christian, like what happened to the governor of Central Bank Riad Salameh, when his tenure ended last year. For lack of alternative, his job — usually held by Christian — was taken over “temporarily” by a Shiite Muslim. Under no circumstances did Gagegea want that repeated at Army Command.
His rivals in the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) were strictly opposed to Joseph Aoun, whether as president or army commander, claiming that he had been unfaithful to President Michel Aoun.
Defence Minister Maurice Salem, a member of the FPM, had even toyed with the idea of rejecting an extension by naming his own army commander, a Doomsday Scenario that would have created duel and conflicting leadership of the armed forces, plunging the country into more political and administrative chaos.
The FPM were talked into shelving that option, however, and Aoun’s term was extended through parliament in December. An angry Gibran Bassil took the matter to the Constitutional Court of Lebanon while Hezbollah played along, pretending to oppose the move but behind closed doors, they did not mind it.
Hezbollah MPs simply walked out on the parliamentary session without vetoing it, allowing the extension to pass, believing that this will dilute Aoun’s chances at becoming president, thus automatically raising those of their candidate, Suleiman Frangieh.
Frangieh remains a polarising figure, backed wholeheartedly by Hasan Nasrallah and Nabih Berri, while opposed — for totally different reasons — by Gibran Bassil and Samir Gagegea. Bassil is now saying that he won’t sign off the vacancies at the Military Council, before there is consensus on the presidency, a position that is backed by the Maronite Church.
The Military Council vacancies
Bassil believes that he has already given way too many concessions, after putting off his own ambition at becoming president to replace his father-in-law. He is now striving to fill at least one of the three vacancies at the Military Council — that of chief inspector — with one of his favourites.
It’s a post traditionally reserved for a Greek Orthodox Christian and Bassil wants to name Mansour Nabhan for the job, who is presently bureau chief to Defence Minister Saleem. Now firmly back in power for twelve months, Joseph Aoun is obstructing all his ambitions, rejecting Mabhan and nominating his own pick, Brigadier General Fadi Makhoul.
As for the director of administrative affairs, the name making the rounds is Riad Alam, presently first director to the director of intelligence. Meanwhile, the post of army chief-of-staff seems reserved for Brigadier General Hassan Awdeh, a favourite of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.
But in Lebanon, nothing is settled before everything is settled and nothing seems even remotely close to being settled, certainly not today with the Gaza war entering its fourth month. Hezbollah is too busy with its side of the border. They have made it loud and clear that everything is hold until that conflict comes to a close.
Meanwhile, the entire country stands in political paralysis, still plagued by chronic electricity shortages, a duel financial and economic meltdown, plenty of unsolicited arms, and a vacant seat at Baabda Palace. The current premier, Najib Mikati, is in caretaker mode and constitutionally incapable of taking strategic discussions related to reforms in the financial sector in order for the country to be eligible for a loan by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
And if there is no money in the pipeline, unemployment will remain high and so will the country’s brain drain and monetary collapse. There won’t be a full-fledge constitutional cabinet, however, not anytime soon, and no president, until the Gaza War ends. And this means — by default — that there won’t be any appointments at the Military Council.
— Sami Moubayed is a historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of the best-seller Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.