Michel Aoun Image Credit: Supplied

Beirut: Lebanese citizens have little to say about their choice for president.

Instead, members of parliament, currently 128 deputies who were last elected in 2009 through an outdated mechanism and who cavalierly extended their own term of office for 17 months until November 2014, do the honours.

According to the 1943 national charter and the 1989 Taif Accords, the “lucky” individual who will be asked to preside over a wholly dysfunctional state must be a Maronite Catholic, which pretty much reduces the pool of eligible contenders.

Consistent with Article 49 of the Constitution, the president is elected by secret ballot by a two-thirds majority of the Chamber of Deputies on the first ballot, or an absolute majority starting with the second.

The term of office is for six years and no incumbent can succeed himself unless the Constitution is properly amended, which occurred on three previous occasions, and may yet ensue in 2014.

The incumbent, the third commander of the armed forces who assumed the post of president, publicly expressed his desire to leave office, though a three-year extension of his mandate cannot be ruled out at this stage, especially in case of a political deadlock among leading parties. Therefore, and if all goes according to plan, which in Lebanon is the stuff of speculation, parliament must convene within a 30-day window before May 25 to elect a successor to President Michel Sulaiman.

While every Maronite was a putative aspirant to the office, who were the leading candidates for the president of Lebanon? Eight leading candidates are profiled below, listed according to age, starting with the oldest. 

Michel Aoun: At 80 years old, Michel Aoun served as commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces and was elected a member of parliament in 2005. A controversial figure, Aoun leads the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), and was prime minister from September 22, 1988 to October 13, 1990, when two rival governments contended for power.

He declared a “Liberation War” against the Syrian Occupation in March 1989 but was muzzled by Damascus in October 1990 when Syrian forces invaded Beirut, inflicting heavy casualties.

Aoun fled to the French embassy, though he was later allowed to travel to France, where he remained in exile for 15 years. He returned to Lebanon on May 7, 2005, 11 days after Syrian troops withdrew, and visited Syria in 2009 after he transmogrified his political views. Surprising most, Aoun signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Hezbollah in 2006, which enhanced his electoral opportunities given the military strengths of this alliance. Notwithstanding profound ideological differences among FPM and Hezbollah constituencies, the presumed coalition was valid, even if wholly unpredictable. 

Jean Obaid: Born in 1939, Obeid served in several cabinet posts, including, as minister of foreign affairs from 2003 to 2004. A trained journalist as well as an attorney, Obaid was an adviser on Arab affairs to two former presidents, Elias Sarkis and Amin Gemayel. The latter appointed him special envoy to Syria in 1987, which earned the minister Damascus’ support. On February 11, 1987, Obaid was kidnapped in West Beirut but was freed unhurt four days later, largely through Syrian intervention. Viewed as a moderate politician with excellent relations across the political spectrum, Obaid was nevertheless pro-Syrian in his outlook, which was reflected in 2008 when he was considered as a possible consensus presidential candidate. 

Cardinal Mar Bisharah Boutros Rai: Much like the first president of the Republic of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios III, Cardinal Mar Bechara Boutros Rai was a serious contender given his immense political appetite. Born in 1940, Rai was selected as the 77th Maronite Patriarch of Antioch in 2011, succeeding the charismatic Cardinal Mar Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, and was appointed cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012. A highly controversial prelate, Rai declared in April 2011 that he would work “to establish a sincere and complete dialogue” with Muslims, “and build together a future in common life and cooperation.”

His views on Syria and Hezbollah were problematic. He supported Hezbollah’s right to hold arms in defence against Israel, and lamented that the Syrian uprising awakened the rise of Islamists, which he feared.

More controversial, he told Reuters on March 4, 2012, that while all Arab regimes adopted Islam as a state religion, Syria was the exception, which made it “the closest thing to democracy.” Given the legacy of the Ba‘ath regime in Lebanon, and notwithstanding Rai’s unprecedented February 2013 visit to Damascus, the Über cleric-cum politician was perceived by many as a serious contender for the position. 

Amin Gemayel: At 71, Amin Gemayel wished to return to the position he first occupied between September 21, 1982, and September 22, 1988. Gemayel, a leader of the Kataeb Party, was elected president a few weeks after his brother, President Bashir Gemayel, was assassinated. His rule, which coincided with an Israeli invasion and occupation of the country, proved problematic as Washington imposed a bilateral peace accord with the occupier in 1983 that was never implemented. To his credit, Gemayel dissolved the “Arab Deterrence Force” in 1984, which was then composed of Syrian troops that cherished the legal framework for their presence in Lebanon after 1976.

Equally important, he promulgated the 1987 law that annulled the 1969 “Cairo Agreement,” which was imposed by the Nasir regime on President Charles Helou and that authorised the Palestine Liberation Organisation to use Lebanon as a base for military operations against Israel. His current candidacy, ostensibly to bring various factions together, posed serious challenges since his own son, Pierre, was gunned down on November 21, 2006. Pierre’s killers issued a communiqué in which they referred to themselves the “Fighters for the Unity and Liberty of Greater Syria,” and justified the assassination allegedly because the 33-years old minister was “one of those who unceasingly spouted their venom against Syria and against Hezbollah, shamelessly and without any trepidation.” 

Boutros Harb: A deputy from Batroun, Boutros Harb, 69, served as a minister in several cabinets, most recently as Minister of Telecommunications. A participant in the Taif Accords, Harb was a maverick politician with a rare command of the Arabic language, which allowed for acerbic commentaries against foes. He first announced his candidacy for the presidency in 1998 but withdrew his nomination the day the polls began under Syrian pressure.

Though he switched sides several times before 2004, Harb helped create the National Face for Reform along with Nayla Moawad, Omar Karami, Salim Hoss, Hussein Husseini and Albert Mansour. He eventually broke his alliance with Omar Karami whom he considered to be too pro-Syrian. After the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005, Harb joined the massive protests and demonstrations against the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, and demanded that Syrian troops withdraw. Importantly, Harb called for the integration of Hezbollah’s military arm into the Lebanese Army in 2007, and escaped an assassinate attempt in early July 2012, allegedly ordered by Hezbollah. 

Jean Kahwaji: The current Commander of the Army, Brigadier-General Jean Kahwaji was born in 1953 and received command training in both the US and Italy, before he was elevated to his position on August 30, 2008. Because his predecessor moved from the army to the presidency, many speculated that critical security conditions required a steady military hand at the helm, although such an outlook was deemed less likely in 2014 because wily politicians no longer approved of officers making the jump from army headquarters at Yarze to the Baabda presidential palace. 

Samir Geagea: At 61, Samir Geagea led the Lebanese Forces, which he first joined in 1986. To date, Geagea was the only politician who was arrested and tried for crimes committed during the Lebanese Civil War, including the assassination of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Rashid Karami in 1987. He denied all charges but was found guilty and sentenced to four death sentences in 1994 by a pro-Syrian court, each of which was commuted to life in prison, and was kept in solitary confinement below the Lebanese Ministry of Defence building for 11 years.

In the aftermath of the 2005 Cedar Revolution, and the subsequent withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, parliament granted him amnesty in July 2005 [three dozen Islamist criminals were also released simultaneously]. After his release from prison, Geagea acknowledged that his time in jail permitted for meditation and significant review of his actions during the war, to determine whether what he did was right. As he devoted most of his time to reading (literature, Christian theology, and Hindu philosophy), Geagea channelled his anger into patience, and patriotism. He remained avowedly anti-Syrian and rebuild the Lebanese Forces into a popular party aligned with March 14. Close to Saad Hariri, he nevertheless rejected the latest compromises, and opted to remain outside of the Tammam Salam-led government. 

Sulaiman Franjieh: A grandson of a past president with whom he shared a name, Sulaiman Frangieh was born in 1965, and led the pro-Syrian Marada Movement that was also aligned with the March 8 coalition. Like his namesake, Frangieh was a traditional Za‘im (strongman) beholden to Damascus. In fact, in August 2012, Frangieh opined that the pro-Al Assad coalition would win the war, and gave his full support to the Syrian government. Nevertheless, he supported the “positive neutrality” of Lebanon, because he wished to ensure the country’s stability, though he quickly added that he opposed “negative neutrality,” allegedly because no Lebanese could pretend “to be neutral while arms were smuggled from Lebanon to Syria.”

An openly pro-Syrian candidate, a Frangieh election would mean a wholesale victory for Damascus, which was unlikely under current circumstances.

Beyond these eight contenders, several other Maronite aspirants were available, including Central Bank Governor Riad Salame, former minister Charles Risk, March 14 Secretary-General Fares Bouaiz, and deputy Robert Ghanem.

Even the eminently qualified parliamentarian Sethrida Tawk Geagea, Samir Geagea’s spouse, was a serious candidate although Lebanese misogyny probably ruled that candidacy out. It was now up to Speaker Nabih Berri to convene parliament.