Six months before Lebanese Army Commander-in-Chief Joseph Aoun retires, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati no longer seems to be in any hurry to fill vacant posts on the military council.
He seems to have forgotten that the chief of staff posting (traditionally held for a Druze) — who shall carry out the duties of the troops' chief in the interim — has been vacant since December.
That is not to mention the inspector general posting (traditionally held for a Greek Orthodox) and that of director general of administration within the army (traditionally held for a Shiite).
“There will be no appointments in the near future,” Mikati told L'Orient-Le Jour. “We still have more than six months to resolve the problem. It is therefore pointless to begin on an ill-timed tug-of-war.”
The caretaker prime minister clearly wants to avoid a political face-off with the Christian parties, especially the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), which has shunned cabinet meetings since the start of the presidential vacancy and looks unfavorably on the way Mikati is running the country without a president.
Mikati also said the cabinet will not meet in the near future, as priority will be given to finalizing the 2023 draft budget, particularly following the increase in civil servants' salaries.
This new stance comes less than two weeks after the cabinet moved to promote military officers from the class of 1994 (the class of Michel Aoun), 1995 and 1996, which some argued were beyond its prerogatives
“There is nothing to prevent the cabinet” from adopting a package of appointments and promotions, Mikati told L’Orient-Le Jour at the time.
So why does he now seem to be stepping back? It is very likely that Mikati's traditional supporters, starting with the Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, contributed to curbing his enthusiasm.
All the more so as Amal and Hezbollah have given the green light for Banque du Liban (BDL) Deputy Governor Wassim Mansouri to serve as acting BDL governor to avoid the appointment of a successor to Riad Salameh— whose term in office expires at the end of July.
Mikati is therefore now looking for broad political support for the appointments. It is for this reason that he intends to make contact with the caretaker Defense Minister Maurice Slim — who is close to the FPM — and with caretaker Finance Minister Youssef Khalil — who is close to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri — according to Ali Darwish, a former MP for Tripoli who is close to Mikati.
The presidential election, again and again
The caretaker prime minister therefore intends to make the most of a downtime that does not work in the troops' favor.
“We are in a hurry to finalize the appointments, which are still in the pipeline,” deplored a source close to the Defense Ministry, insinuating that the army chief did his duty in this respect.
A military source also recalled Joseph Aoun's recent statement that only the chief of staff should take charge of the troops after the retirement of the army chief.
“If General Aoun is saying this, it is because he has already finalized the [list of] proposed names,” said the aforementioned military source, who guess that the matter is currently obstructed for considerations linked to the presidential battle.
All the more so because Aoun is a serious presidential candidate— an option categorically rejected by FPM leader Gebran Bassil.
Does it mean that Slim is holding the issue hostage because his relationship with Joseph Aoun is not at its best?
The Defense Ministry does not share this point of view but told L'Orient-Le Jour that it still has six months to settle the issue.
“Particularly since a caretaker cabinet cannot [make appointments to] fill vacant posts,” said a source close to Slim. “Otherwise, the cabinet would have appointed a General Security director [to replace Abbas Ibrahim after his term of office ended in March. Elias Baissari is the acting director of General Security), or a BDL governor,” the source continued.
BDL and the army are not the only institutions to be shaken up by appointments. There is also the Internal Security Forces (ISF), whose leader, Imad Osman, is retiring in January 2024.
Imad Osman appointed General Ali Skaini — who is Shiite — as the first deputy director of the gendarmerie. This post should pave the way for him to succeed General Marwan Sleilati, who is a Christian and currently in the post but due to retire in two months.
This move raises fears that this post would be transferred from one community to another amid a tense politico-sectarian context.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.