The Lebanese lira continues its freefall against the greenback, the 2020 Beirut port explosion probe remains in a stalemate, and the agreement with the International Monetary Fund hangs in the balance. Lebanese officials were, however, keen on wishing the Lebanese people happy holidays.
Aside from some political twists and turns, the year 2021 proved merely an extension of 2020 as Lebanon continued its descent into hell.
In this difficult context, many political parties are struggling, while others seem to be strengthening.
L’Orient-Le Jour took stock of the year 2021, highlighting the challenges that might be in store for the different political parties in 2022.
The Future Movement
It was yet another difficult year for the Future Movement. Its leader, Saad Hariri, was forced to give up on forming a government in July, nine months after Parliament appointed him to the task. Hariri seemed to have lost in the standoff with the president’s camp on the distribution of cabinet portfolios and the vote of confidence.
Then a period of silence followed for the party, which, despite participating in the new cabinent of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, was unwilling to take part in his government. The Future Movement broke the silence at the end of October, when it announced that it was turning the page on its modus vivendi with Hezbollah — an announcement that cannot be considered in isolation from the Tayyouneh clashes that took place two weeks earlier.
The shootout between supporters of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement and armed men allegedly belonging to the Lebanese Forces allowed the LF party leader Samir Geagea to emerge as a hero among some portions of public opinion, including the Sunni community. This came to further weaken Hariri’s position, whose leadership is contested by those within his community who believe he has been too conciliatory with Hezbollah.
The Future Movement appears to be stepping into 2022 in the greatest ambiguity. The party’s political line is no longer clear, not to mention that Hariri has been keeping the suspense going over his participation in the legislative elections scheduled for May 15, and his position within his party.
According to corroborating sources, Hariri does not wish the Future Movement to present any list in the elections and wants party members who wish to toss their hat in the ring to do so as independent candidates — a suggestion that his aunt Bahia Hariri refuses categorically.
While party officials claim that the Sunni leader has not made his final decision about running in the elections, Hariri will have his work cut out for him because the Sunni political landscape seems to be divided between several figures scattered across the assorted Sunni cities.
Hariri, however, could pull a rabbit out of the hat and decide to enter the fray.
The Free Patriotic Movement
The year 2021 was also difficult for the Free Patriotic Movement, which suffered a few setbacks.
Gebran Bassil’s party has actually failed to have its way on several levels and on several key issues — most notably the Banque du Liban forensic audit. The FPM failed to see BDL Gov. Riad Salameh be replaced or to limit the vote of the Lebanese community abroad to six MPs in Parliament.
Also, the Aounist movement’s popularity is declining given the results of President Michel Aoun’s time in office, which have been far from satisfactory.
Aoun wants to end his mandate in October on a positive note, and in this regard he is trying to make breakthroughs on key issues, such as economic recovery and the agreement with the IMF in particular. However, the Amal and Hezbollah ministers’ boycott of the cabinet is not making this mission any easier for the president.
This is not to mention the 2020 Beirut port explosion probe that highlights the FPM’s contradictions when it comes to the “rights of Christians” and the independence of the judiciary — two main points in the party’s rhetoric.
Hezbollah, the FPM’s main ally, has been putting spokes in the wheel of investigation head Judge Tarek Bitar.
Aoun’s speech on Dec. 27 was further proof of the shaky relations between the two sides. The president did not stop at making scathing comments against Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri but went as far as to take a sharp jab at Hezbollah, putting the national defense strategy issue back on the table.
As the Christian electorate appears to be increasingly hostile to Hezbollah, the FPM is likely to try to distance itself from the party of God in 2022 — a difficult maneuver for the Aounist party, which needs an alliance with the Shiite party ahead of legislative elections. [In his recent speech, Bassil said that the Mar Mikhael agreement between the FPM and Hezbollah should be “updated” and be fitted to the current challenges the country is facing].
Hezbollah appears to be Bassil’s only potential ally in the latter's presidential election quest.
The FPM seems to have a lot at stake in 2022, both in terms of the legislative and presidential elections.
But Aoun has already made it clear that he does not intend to exit the Baabda presidential palace until a successor has been elected to replace him.
Undoubtedly, 2021 was a bad year for Hezbollah too. The Shiite party managed to import Iranian fuel, defying the United States’ sanctions, and was able to contain the discontent within its popular bases by replacing the state and offering a series of services, in a country plagued by crises. But apart from that, Hezbollah has hit several bumpy roads, including the Khaldeh clashes with Sunni Arab tribes in August, in which the party lost two members.
Also in August, Hezbollah operatives fired rockets at Israel from a rocket launcher truck in the predominantly Druze village of Shawaya. The village’s residents stopped the truck and detained eight party members, confiscating their weapons.
Finally, the party endured the Tayyouneh gunfight in October, in which armed LF men allegedly stood up against Hezbollah members.
The party of God also failed to brush Bitar aside from the port blast probe.
Bitar allegedly received a threatening message from Hezbollah security chief Wafic Safa, who reportedly said, “We’ve had enough of you. We will go to the end of the legal path, and if that does not work, we will get rid of you.”
For Hezbollah, the deck is stacked against it because it is accused by a portion of public opinion of being behind the storage of several thousand tons of ammonium nitrate that triggered the 2020 explosion in the Beirut port.
But within its own community, Hezbollah has not much to fear for the 2022 elections, as Amal and Hezbollah have managed to impose a fait accompli in relation to their electorate in the South and the Bekaa.
The Shiite party, however, will have to find the right balance between its two main allies, the FPM and Amal, which have been embroiled in a fierce conflict with each other.
Should the elections take place, the pro-Hezbollah camp may lose points and end up in a situation with even greater hostility toward it.
For the party, the risk is twofold: the LF might have the upper hand against the FPM [within the Christian community], and the Sunni leaders who are less conciliatory against it, might also gain more ground within their own community.
Hezbollah must address all this in parallel with the Vienna talks between Western powers and its Iranian patron on the revival of the nuclear deal.
While Iran insists on the need to dissociate the issue of its proxies in Lebanon, Iraq or Yemen from the nuclear agreement, some Western powers, notably France, hold a different position.
The Lebanese Forces
The LF might be the only party to pat itself on the back for having had a good year. While the Christian party has remained relatively on the sidelines of the country’s economic issues, the Tayyouneh clashes allowed Geagea to position himself as the leader of the so-called “sovereigntist” camp.
The former warlord managed to score points locally and internationally, winning praise from both Christian and Sunni public opinion — a positive dynamic that has come at the right time for the LF.
If the party manages to translate the momentum into good electoral results, it could be in a strong position when it comes to choosing the next president.
It gets, however, complicated for the LF at the level of alliances in the elections, which could mean it feels pressure to join hands with traditional parties, such as the Future Movement and Walid Joumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party — something that would undermine the LF’s credibility in the eyes of public opinion.
The Progressive Socialist Party
Joumblatt’s party has had a rather quiet year, except for the Shawaya episode.
While the PSP has been generally positioning itself increasingly in opposition to Hezbollah and the president, it has repeatedly called for political compromise over the past year, avoiding going down a path on which there’s no going back.
The upcoming elections, however, are likely to be complicated for the Druze leader, because the constituency of Mount Lebanon IV, from which the majority of PSP-affiliated MPs hail, is one of the most competitive with a relatively low electoral threshold. It is also one of the constituencies on which the reformist camp seems to capitalize the most.
The Amal movement
It was a year of tug-of-war for the Parliament speaker and his movement. Nabih Berri has been embroiled in a standoff with the president in relation to several issues, most notably the forensic audit, the BDL governor, the economic recovery plan, the issue of Bitar, the date of the 2022 elections, the expats’ vote and MPs’ diplomatic immunity provided for by the Constitution.
Berri might seem to emerge unscathed from all these confrontations and political bickering, but this is not the case. All these issues with the president are weighing on Amal’s alliance with Hezbollah — a coalition that the speaker will not risk breaking.
Hezbollah’s base, however, appears to be increasingly hostile to this alliance, which could complicate the situation for Berri.
For him, it is imperative to be re-elected Parliament speaker this year, but also to undercut his Aounist enemy, and see the ascension of a new president who would be more conciliatory toward him.
Another issue weighs heavily on Amal: that of the Bitar, who had already ordered the arrest of former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil, a close associate of Berri, who does not want the investigator to handle the interrogation of politicians, [which he wants to be restricted to the Supreme Council, a judicial body established to try presidents and ministers].
The reformist camp
The movements that claim to hail from the Oct. 17, 2019, uprising did not have much luck either in 2021.
This plethora of more or less heterogeneous groups was mostly absent during key moments, such as the Tayyouneh clashes, and remained silent as the Lebanese citizens’ living conditions deteriorated by the day.
The reformist camp is losing ground in favor of abstention or even of the LF.
Movements with a real, coherent and detailed political agenda remain rare, and most groups are content with catch-all slogans.
The year 2022 will therefore represent an opportunity for these groups to demonstrate that they are credible alternatives to the traditional political parties ahead of the elections scheduled for May.
To maximize their chances of forming a large bloc in Parliament, they will have to join hands in a bid to reach electoral thresholds.
This means they have to make difficult choices in terms of alliances, especially with traditional figures, such as the Gemayel family, Fouad Makhzoumi, Nehmat Frem, Oussama Saad, Bahaa Hariri, among other names.
While any alliance with traditional forces might secure funding and more votes, it would also damage the protest movement’s credibility, especially in the eyes of the most purist voters.
On the Christian side, these groups will have to compete with the LF, the disappointed Aounists and those who abstained from voting in 2018.
Within the Sunni community, which is suffering from an apparent political vacuum, the thawra (revolution) forces have to prove themselves to be a solid alternative.
Finally on the Shiite side, the revolution forces could make breakthroughs in areas such as Jbeil, Beirut or Zahle, where there’s more room and chances for competition than in the South or Baalbeck-Hermel.
In any case, once these forces reach Parliament, they have to prove themselves in order to become truly influential players on the political landscape. For 2022, the Lebanese need more than just mere spectators.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.