While only seven weeks separate Lebanon from the end of President Michel Aoun’s term in office, a local and international effort is underway to find his successor.
On the local scene, the 13 Forces of Change MPs began visits Monday with political actors from all parties in hopes of reaching common ground on the future head of state.
At the same time, France and Saudi Arabia seem invested in Lebanon's ability to find a consensus candidate and avoid a presidential vacancy.
A meeting was recently held between French and Saudi officials in Paris. France was represented by Patrick Durel, advisor to the French president for Middle East and North African affairs; Ines ben Karim, head of the Middle East department at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and a representative of the French intelligence services.
Saudi Arabia was represented by Nizar Al-Aoula, representative of the Saudi royal court; Walid Boukhari, the Saudi ambassador to Beirut; and a member of Saudi intelligence services.
A Lebanese source familiar with the content of the meeting told L’Orient-Le Jour that participants discussed the aid provided to Lebanon under the joint Saudi-French fund, which was established following the Jeddah summit between French President Emmanuel Macron and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman back in December 2021.
A second meeting is scheduled for the end of September.
The same source said they believe the French asked the Saudis to put pressure on Lebanese MPs to hold presidential elections before the constitutional deadline, the same date as the end of Aoun’s six-year term on Oct. 31.
That is to say, France asked Saudi Arabia to put pressure on their local allies, especially the Lebanese Forces, who are threatening to block the electoral process in order to prevent the election of a candidate from the opposite political camp.
The Saudi representatives reportedly responded by stating the critical issue at hand is not the timeline of the election, but prevention of the election of a Hezbollah ally or a figure close to the March 8 camp.
According to the same source, France and Saudi Arabia agreed on the need to elect a consensus president.
“[The Saudis] do not want to repeat the experience of Michel Aoun,” said a deputy from the opposition camp who declined to be named. “They expect a candidate who would return Lebanon to its place on the Arab scene.”
What impact could this meeting have on the presidential election? Ashraf Rifi, a Tripoli MP and strong supporter of Riyadh, said it is too early to answer this question.
“We have not yet seen anything concrete,” he told L’Orient-Le Jour. “For now, we are doing our duty to agree on a candidate.”
Protest MPs take action
On Monday, leader of the Lebanese Forces Samir Geagea, who wants to rally the opposition and adopt a confrontational position against Hezbollah and its allies, reiterated his call to form a united camp, particularly since a narrow parliamentary majority emerged in the last elections.
“The protagonists [of the opposition] have a responsibility to agree on a single candidate for president,” said the Maronite leader at a press briefing in Maarab after a meeting with his parliamentary bloc. Geagea thus clearly put the ball in the court of the protest movement MPs, who were initially reluctant to reach out to him.
In a statement to the MTV website on Saturday, the LF leader expressed optimism by saying “the opponents will agree on a candidate within a few weeks.”
Many opposition MPs do not share this view. “We agreed to agree. But to get our story straight, the hardest part remains to be done,” said one MP on condition of anonymity.
For their part, Forces of Change MPs began talks with the various actors Monday to present their initiative, launched in early September, which centers on the need to elect “a rescue president” who can carry the country out of its current chaos.
The delegation began its tour with a visit to the Tashnag party.
“The atmosphere was very positive and the party said it was ready to help us in our approach,” said independent Beirut MP Paula Yaacoubian, who took part in the meeting.
The second meeting was held in Saifi between Forces of Change MPs and the four Kataeb MPs. Here too, Melhem Khalaf, also an MP from Beirut, spoke of “positive discussions.”
“This initiative will allow us to elect a unifying rescue president,” Khalaf said.
Kataeb leader Sami Gemayel emphasized the importance of the opponents to coordinate in light of a “confrontation that could result if some insist on imposing their will on us,” referencing the Hezbollah camp.
“We have made it clear that in this first stage, there is no question of names. We must first agree on a common approach,” said Mark Daou, MP for Aley, who was present at the meeting in Saifi.
Rai’s messages to Aoun
In its major points, the protest MPs’ initiative overlaps with multiple calls made by the Maronite patriarch Bechara al-Rai to elect a president capable of ending Lebanon’s state of crisis.
In a televised interview Sunday evening, the prelate said he wants a president “who would be unifying and not have personal interests.”
Indicating he was not convinced by the notion of a “strong” president, a slogan raised by the Baabda camp throughout Aoun’s term in office, Rai asked the head of state to exit his post after Oct. 31.
“My advice to President Aoun is to leave the Baabda Palace with honor, just as he entered it,” Rai said.
The patriarch’s remarks seemed like an indirect response to threats made by Aoun and his son-in-law Bassil last week.
“If a new president is not elected and a ministerial team is not set up before Oct. 31, and if [Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati and his supporters] put my back against the wall, there will be many questions surrounding the next step I will have to take,” Aoun told al-Joumhouriya daily. Bassil also threatened “constitutional chaos.”
Commenting on the candidates, Rai said, “It is not the Church’s job to propose presidential candidates.” He explained that, unlike 2014, he does not intend to bring Christian leaders together under his leadership in Bkerke.
“I prefer to unite the Lebanese,” Rai said.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.
While only seven weeks separate Lebanon from the end of President Michel Aoun’s term in office, a local and international effort is underway to find his successor. On the local scene, the 13 Forces of Change MPs began visits Monday with political actors from all parties in hopes of reaching common ground on the future head of state. At the same time, France and Saudi Arabia seem invested in...