REG 210217 Michel Aoun and Gebran Bassil
Michel Aoun with his son-in-law and heir-apparent Gebran Bassil. The latter is hated even my most Christians in Lebanon. Image Credit: AFP files

Damascus: On October 31, 2022, Michel Aoun’s six-year tenure at the Lebanese presidency will end. Attempts are presently underway, led by Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), either to extend his term for an indefinite period or bequeath the post to his son-in-law and political heir Gibran Bassil.

But, a third option is now making the rounds, which calls on Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati to assume the presidential seat, albeit temporarily, if no candidate is chosen anytime between now and next October.

FPM Initiative

The Aounists are peddling an extension of their boss’ term, citing a clause in the Lebanese constitution, which says the president cannot be sworn into office unless there is a full-fledge cabinet of ministers, approved by the Lebanese Parliament.

Mikati is currently in designate mode, tasked with forming his fourth government last May. In Lebanon, that is a process that can take weeks, or months.

A Prime Minister-designate cannot supervise a presidential election, nor inaugurate a new president, giving Aoun a legal pretext to extend his term at the Baabda Palace. Although he has often said that he has no intention of staying in office longer than his presidential term, he has also said he won’t surrender office to a “power vacuum”.

And it’s a power vacuum that the Aounists are trying to create, in order to keep Aoun as president. They have been trying to obstruct Mikati’s attempts at cabinet formation, to keep him in prime minister-designate capacity.

A suggested cabinet reshuffle was sent to Aoun on June 29, which he automatically rejected, because it suggested replacing the FPM’s current Minister of Energy Walid Fayyad with an independent.

They hope to keep finding more excuses to delay cabinet formation, saying that they will only facilitate the process if Mikati agrees to support Bassil for president. And that is something which Mikati refuses to commit, given that Bassil is an extremely unpopular figure, even among Lebanese Christians, and is sanctioned by the United States.

The Berri Initiative

Bassil’s presidential bid is being challenged by everybody who matters in Lebanon, including former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the Lebanese Forces chief Samir Gagegea, the Marada Movement of Suleiman Frangieh, Walid Jumblatt’s Social Progressive Party, the Amal Movement, and the 13 independent newcomers to Parliament.

Only two parties support him, apart from his own FPM: the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and the Armenian Tashnag Party. Combined they are not enough to secure a 65-vote majority in the Chamber of Deputies for Bassil to be become president.

A counter-proposal is now making the rounds, put forth by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, saying that if no cabinet is formed between now and October, then Mikati’s caretaker cabinet will assume full executive and presidential powers “for lack of alternative.”

This would make Mikati acting president of Lebanon, which will be music to the ears of Lebanese Muslims. It’s nightmare for Christians nonetheless, who abhor the thought of surrendering the presidency - which has traditionally been held by a Maronite Christian - to a Sunni Muslim.

None of the mainstream Christian parties would agree to the Berri initiative, however, considering the presidency to be the last vestige of Christian power in Lebanon, which has gradually eroded since the end of the Civil War.

If Berri goes down that path, then Bassil plans to call on his six ministers to step down, forcing the caretaker cabinet of Najib Mikati to dissolve itself completely, and lose all legal standing ahead of the presidential elections.

The Hezbollah Initiative

For its part, Hezbollah is leading another initiative, hoping to convince Bassil to abandon his presidential bid in favour of its friend and ally, Suleiman Frangieh. The two men were hosted over a Ramadan iftar at Hasan Nasrallah’s home last April, and on July 9, 2022, Bassil met with Frangieh’s parliamentary ally Farid Al Khazen, who happens to be on good terms with both Hezbollah and Amal.

Khazen is carrying an initiative for Bassil to shelve his presidential bid and support Frangieh for president. In exchange he will get to help chose a new premier and be rewarded with a handful of important posts in the new government.

Bassil is yet to respond to the Hezbollah offer. He might take it up, however, seeing that a secured presidency in six years is far better than one forced on the Lebanese public today.