Why did ‘the deal of shame’ between Berri and Aoun falter?

What kind of a political deal was made between the parliament speaker and the president? And why did it not see the light of day? L’Orient-Le Jour managed to piece the story together based on accounts from corroborating sources involved in the negotiations.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun, here flanked by Prime Minister Nagib Mikati, right, and House Speaker Nabih Berri, September 10, 2021 in Baabda. (AFP / HO / DALATI AND NOHRA file photo)

Known for his composure and his ability to smooth things over, Prime Minister Najib Mikati looked livid when he came out of a meeting with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri in the latter’s Ain al-Tineh residence on Dec. 20.

Mikati did not even take the time to stop to address the reporters present that day. Instead, he walked hurriedly past them, saying in a raised tone that the government was “not concerned with this deal.”

What deal was he talking about? It is the same old trick of Lebanese politics: a faithless compromise among people who despise each other.

A few minutes after his “theatrical show,” as his opponents put it, rumors abounded about Mikati’s possible resignation.

In fact, the telecoms tycoon’s government has been paralyzed for more than two months because Hezbollah and the Amal Movement want to see Tarek Bitar, the lead investigator into the 2020 Beirut port explosion, out of the picture. But to get rid of Bitar, they need President Michel Aoun, and his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil.

But what do Bassil and Aoun want in return? They want the Lebanese living abroad, who could really harm their positions in the upcoming legislative elections, to be able to vote for six instead of the total 128 MPs in Parliament.

The international community backs the premier but expects him not only to put the country on the path of reform but also take a stand on several key issues, most significantly the port investigation.

But how could he make any breakthrough without allies? There was no room for maneuver.

Mikati was stuck between a rock and a hard place. For weeks, he tried to do what he does best: give a little to everyone in order to make a breakthrough in an impossible situation. But all his efforts were to no avail.

These parties are greedy, too greedy, and the rivalry between them is so strong that no one is willing to settle for a small slice.

A major blow to the judiciary

When he arrived at Ain al-Tineh on Dec. 20, Mikati was well aware of what had been cooking for weeks between the two rival top officials, the president and speaker.

A major deal seemed to be in the works — something similar to the presidential compromise that allowed Aoun to ascend to the presidency in 2016 and Saad Hariri to become prime minister once again.

All the cards were ostensibly on the table. The investigation into the port explosion had to be divided into two parts: one administrative and the other political, which would be entrusted to the Supreme Council — a judicial body tasked with trying presidents and ministers, which is more easily controlled than an independent judge.

In exchange, the Constitutional Council would accept the appeal lodged by Aoun’s party against the amendment to the electoral law and limit the diaspora’s vote to six seats.

The deal was even meant to go further than this. Suhail Abboud, the head of the Supreme Council was also supposed to resign

For Hezbollah, Abboud is guilty of not agreeing to sideline Bitar. But for the Aounists, he is backed by the international community, which makes him a candidate for the presidency.

But in return, Aoun asked for the dismissal of the financial prosecutor, Ali Ibrahim, affiliated with Berri; Bukran Saad, the head of the Judicial Inspection Committee, also affiliated with head of Amal; and Ghassan Oueidat, the Court of Cassation prosecutor, who is said to be close to Hariri.

In other words, the agreement would deal a major blow to the judiciary. In the same vein, Mikati also brought up the idea of getting rid of Ghada Aoun, the public prosecutor in Mount Lebanon, who is close to the president.

Was this enough compromise for the two sides? It did not seem so. They also wanted to have their hands on the security posts.

Aoun proposed replacing the director-general of Internal Security Forces, Imad Osman, with Brig. Gen. Ahmad Hajjar, and said he was ready to let go of Gen. Tony Saliba, State Security’s director-general, in return.

How to cut a deal like that? How could one imagine that the public opinion and the international community would stomach such a deal?

The main stakeholders do not care. They came up with a four-step plan.

First, Bitar would be brushed aside, and the Constitutional Council would accept the Aounists’ appeal. Second, the cabinet would convene again to endorse the new judicial and security appointments. Third, central bank Gov. Riad Salameh would be forced to resign, as the Aounists have always wanted to get rid of him. Fourth, they would agree on the other administrative and diplomatic appointments.

While all the concerned parties have now officially washed their hands of this deal and denied it because it faltered, L’Orient-Le Jour was able to confirm with several sources who were involved in the talks that all of this bargaining did indeed take place.

‘While I stand and watch’

On Dec. 20, Berri received Mikati to iron out the final kinks of the deal.

He informed him of the deal’s content and requested that he convene the cabinet to remove Bitar from the political side of the investigation. Mikati refused.

He was well aware that the decision would draw the ire of the population and would immediately cost him the support of France and the United States.

Mikati went as far as to ask Berri to take advantage of the visit of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, to send a strong message to the international community by breaking the governmental stalemate.

This is where things began to take a turn for the worse. Berri refused Mikati’s proposal and warned him that the Shiite ministers would resign from the cabinet if it was called to convene before taking care of Bitar.

Mikati is not quiet against the investigation being split into two parts, but he did not want to get involved in the issue and preferred that it be settled in Parliament, which means an agreement between Berri and Bassil.

The head of Amal does not trust the president’ son-in-law. He wanted the matter to be resolved within the government.

Both men were allegedly angry and elevated their tone. Berri did not understand why Mikati refused to get his hands dirty in this matter. In turn, the premier reprimanded Berri for wanting to jeopardize the cabinet.

“What do you want from me? You want to mess everything up while I stand and watch?” Mikati reportedly said before storming out of the room.

The premier was out of the deal, which seriously complicated the situation. This was when the leader of the Progressive Socialist Party Walid Joumblatt stepped in.

Joumblatt proposed to Mikati to settle the matter by lifting all immunities, as Hariri had previously suggested. This meant that even the president would be called in for questioning by Bitar. Unsurprisingly, Aoun ruled out this option.

Another appointment on Jan. 2

On his way out of Ain al-Tineh, Mikati was reportedly seriously considering resigning. But the French talked him out of it.

“You cannot brandish this threat at every obstacle,” a French diplomat purportedly told him. A few hours later, Mikati spoke with officials in the US Embassy in Beirut, and told them that he did not intend to cave in and that he strongly rejects any deal that would undercut the judiciary.

The Amal Movement and Hezbollah, on the other hand, were convinced that Mikati walked out of the deal under foreign pressure. The premier was not against the idea to remove Bitar, but he did not want to be involved. This is why he reportedly asked Abboud to handle the issue.

“I would not make the slightest concession and do not count on me to pressure Bitar,” Abboud replied.

According to officials from Amal and Hezbollah who spoke on condition of anonymity, Guterres and the Americans made it clear to Mikati that Abboud, Bitar and army commander Joseph Aoun are red lines.

As the result, the “deal of shame” was stillborn. Bitar is still in his place, although his investigation is once again on hold. The Constitutional Council, for its part, did not make any decision in the Free Patriotic Movement’s appeal against the electoral law.

Everything was postponed to the new year. But Amal and Hezbollah seem to be adamant on not allowing Bitar to carry on with his probe. Bassil, who has lost on all fronts, will not continue to stand idly by.

According to sources close to him, he is ready to start a new round as soon as Jan. 2. If by then, he does not get from Hezbollah a promise to support him for the presidency, he would be ready to step up things.

This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.

Known for his composure and his ability to smooth things over, Prime Minister Najib Mikati looked livid when he came out of a meeting with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri in the latter’s Ain al-Tineh residence on Dec. 20.Mikati did not even take the time to stop to address the reporters present that day. Instead, he walked hurriedly past them, saying in a raised tone that the government was...