Damascus: Away from media attention, a new rivalry is brewing in Lebanon between President Michel Aoun and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. The two men, technically part of the same Hezbollah-led March 8 Coalition, are at odds over the promotion of army officers loyal to Aoun, which ought to have happened on January 1, 2021.
Shorty before the Christmas holidays, Lebanese Army Command prepared a list of officers earmarked for periodic promotion and sent it to the Ministry of Finance to fix their salary increase, as is customarily done. Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni, a protégé of the speaker of Parliament, signed off only on half of the salary increase requests, claiming that he wanted to equate between Muslim and Christian officers.
Notably left out of the promotion list were officers from the Class of 1994, who had entered the Military Academy under Aoun’s patronage, during his brief stint as premier in the late 1980s. The majority of them are Maronite Christians ideologically affiliated with the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), the political party founded by Aoun and now headed by his son-in-law, Gibran Basil.
The Lebanese President cried foul play, saying that Berri was deliberately delaying the promotion of his men while accusing him of discriminating against Christian officers.
Basil has now been tasked with negotiating a solution with Speaker Berri. In exchange for approving the promotions, Basil is suggesting fixing the employment of Berri’s proteges at the Fire and Civil Defence Departments. Mostly members of the Shiite community, most of them had been hired on temporary contracts, with no perks or pension from the state.
Berri is yet to reply to Aoun’s offer, made shortly before New Year’s. But last recently, Basil added a new clause, making the deal more difficult for Berri to accept. He is demanding the right to name the director of the Music Conservatory and the Lebanese Museum, two jobs that are handled by the Ministry of Culture, which is part of Berri’s share in government. The current minister Abbas Mourtada is refusing to give those posts to the Aounists, claiming that they have no authority over the cultural sector.
“Nobody is asking the question of where to secure funds for those promotions and appointments” said Lebanese political analyst Fadi Akoum. Speaking to Gulf News, he added: “The Lebanese treasury is empty — but Basil is not thinking about that.” He added: “Basil is using this case, like many others, to restore part of his powerbase, which was slashed severely in recent months due to his malpractices and alliance with Hezbollah. He needs to come across as a defender of Christian interests ahead of his presidential bid, when his father-in-law leaves office next year.”
Berri and Bassil have seldom been on the same page, with Berri having opposed Aoun’s ascent to the presidency in 2016. The two men are presently at daggers-end over the maritime talks with Israel, which began in late 2020. Berri insists that the disputed water area is 860 square kilometres of Lebanon’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) with Aoun placing it at 2,290. He is trying to pull through with a disputed area that was never approved by Berri, who has been handling the maritime talks with the Americans for an entire decade, based on the 860 square kilometre disputed area.
Since 1943, Lebanon has been ruled through a delicate sectarian balance where the presidency has been held by a Maronite Christian, the premiership by a Sunni Muslim, and the speakership of Parliament by a Shiite Muslim. Berri has been at his post since 1992 where along with Hezbollah, he claims to speak on behalf of the country’s Shiites, who are the majority of the population. Aoun claims the same for Lebanese Christians, who are divided between his FPM and the Lebanese Forces of Samir Geagea.
Aoun is presently demanding that he gets to name all Christian ministers in the cabinet of Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, just like Hezbollah and its partner, the Amal Movement, have been given the right to name all Shiite ministers in the new cabinet.