Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri called last week for a series of "open electoral sessions" on condition that they were preceded by a week of national dialogue — a proposal that was squarely rejected by Christian opposition parties.
Admittedly, opening the doors of Parliament is the opposition’s main demand to secure a constitutional and democratic process for electing a president of the republic.
Still, some of Berri’s opponents question his intentions, accusing him of trying to lure them into a "deal" that serves his own camp’s interests and those of his preferred candidate, Marada Movement leader Sleiman Frangieh.
Sessions or rounds?
Berri’s proposal provoked several reactions among the opposition.
Lebanese Forces (LF) leader Samir Geagea went so far as to say on Sunday, “They [the mumanaa [resistance camp] lure you into dialogue for months, only to kill you if you do not comply with their demands.”
“You can't trust Nabih Berri,” a leading opposition figure told L'Orient-Le Jour. “What’s more, he is keeping the outline of the 'open sessions' vague, using this ambiguous expression to avoid making any major concessions after the dialogue, if it takes place.”
Opposition parties fear that Berri will end up calling for holding new election sessions, which would be adjourned at the end of the first round if no candidate obtained the 86 (of 128) votes needed to be elected, as he has already done during the 12 sessions held September 2022-June 2023.
In previous sessions, the second round — in which only 65 votes are needed to be elected — never took place, with the March 8 MPs withdrawing immediately beforehand to make the session inquorate.
For the anti-resistance camp, this deliberate vagueness was Berri’s principal trap.
Sources close to Berri deny any ambiguity in the speaker’s proposal.
“Mr. Berri wants to break the deadlock,” said a source close to the speaker, “and his initiative is a median solution between those who want dialogue and those who want open and consecutive sessions.”
"This initiative," he added, “is guaranteed to lead to a successful outcome.”
"Firstly, the speaker will convene a dialogue with a single item on the agenda: the presidential dossier,” Berri advisor Ali Hamad told L’Orient-Le Jour. “At the end of a week of talks, he will hold an electoral session [with a quorum of 86 MPs] during which the rounds will succeed [majority of 86 votes in the first round and 65 in the second] until a president is elected.”
"All stakeholders must undertake not to force a lack of quorum,” Hamdan added.
Was this a message to the opposition parties who had threatened to use the same weapon against Hezbollah and its allies to block the election of Frangieh?
Virtual party stances
Berri’s proposal seems a far cry from a breakthrough in the presidential stalemate. While this initiative appears to be in line with the demands of the anti-Hezbollah camp, the camp’s leaders are not yet ready to give up.
“Mr. Berri cannot make the respect of the constitution conditional on any kind of dialogue,” said the aforementioned opponent. “It's his job to call for an open electoral session, and he should have done so long ago rather than blocking the election process along with his allies."
In numerical terms, 19 LF MPs, along with the 4 MPs of the Kataeb bloc and the 4 Renewal bloc legislators are likely to abstain from the dialogue.
Four other independent MPs (Mark Daou, Bilal Houchaïmi, Waddah Sadek and Michel Doueihi) would join this group, making the intransigent faction within the opposition number 31 MPs.
Beyond this faction, the topic is open for discussion. MP Paula Yacoubian, affiliated with the popular protest movement, stated that she and some of her colleagues are considering taking a more confrontational stance toward Berri.
The National Moderation bloc, made up of Sunni MPs aligned with ex-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s Future Movement, customarily join the ranks Neemat Frem and Jamil Abboud, or Taymour Joumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party (PSP). Joumblatt, said the PSP are open to Berri’s proposal, viewing it as the only way out of the crisis.
Meanwhile, March 8-affiliated MPs guests will be present.
Berri will also be able to count on Gebran Bassil's Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), even if it continues to reject Franigeh’s candidacy, as he has until now. This is not to mention the FPM’s strained relations with Berri.
"The dialogue is limited to a single week, has only one item on its agenda, and will be followed by an electoral session with successive rounds,” an FPM member said. “We can therefore only welcome this initiative.”
While waiting for the remaining MPs to make up their minds, particularly the independents, it seems that the speaker is making calculations.
"At least 90 of the 128 MPs will support our proposal," said a source close to Berri.
This tally won’t disappoint the head of the legislature, not least since it includes one of the two major Christian blocs ( and with the moral support of Bkirki), most Sunni and Druze MPs, and the Shiite legislators.
Would this be enough to ensure a quorum of 86 MPs, enough to allow dialogue to take place?
“That's a question that will be debated in the days to come," said the anonymous FPM partisan.
‘Berri does not give anything for free’
The motives behind Berri’s initiative are worth examining. Why did he decide to pull this rabbit out of his hat?
"Berri does not give anything for free," said the anonymous but prominent opposition figure.
The speaker made his proposal in parallel with the efforts of Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’ envoy to Lebanon, who is himself trying to break the political deadlock by moderating an inter-Lebanese dialogue.
Knowing that the Christian opposition has criticized Le Drian’s mission and approach, and at a time when diplomats increasingly rule out the Frangieh option, is Berri trying to bypass the French envoy just a few days before his return to Beirut?
Or might Berri’s approach be in line with that of the French?
“For us, the most important thing is for the Lebanese to get out of their crisis," said a French diplomatic source. “So, any additional effort, whether from abroad or at home, is welcome.”
“Moreover, there is nothing to prevent these initiatives from complementing each other,” the diplomat said, adding that Le Drian is due to land in Beirut "next week" to continue his mission.
In the meantime, the new French Ambassador to Lebanon Hervé Magro has entered the fray. The day after an initial meeting with Berri, he held talks with Geagea Wednesday, as well as with army chief Joseph Aoun.
Another reading of the situation is that Berri wants to take advantage of the new détente between Hezbollah and the FPM.
The FPM said it was ready to support its Shiite ally in its presidential campaign in exchange for extended decentralization and the state asset fund, which reflects a less intransigent stance toward Frangieh’s candidacy.
With the two sides reporting progress in the dialogue they launched a few weeks ago, the intent of Berri’s initiative is said to be convincing the other stakeholders — notably Sunnis and Druze — to jump on the Frangieh bandwagon.
By this reading, once the dialogue stage is over and the electoral session convened, Berri would have deprived the opposition of the weapon of the lack of quorum (which they have undertaken not to use).
Moreover, with the initiative, Berri is said to be seeking to alleviate the pressure he is under, particularly from the US, by pushing the ball in the opposition’s court.
“The opposition has been criticized for refusing the dialogue proposed by Le Drian,” recalls political observer Michael Young. “The speaker therefore wants to drive in the nail by arguing that he proposed a dialogue capable of ending the impasse, but the opposition rejected his initiative.”
Notably, Berri made his proposal the day after US envoy Amos Hochstein’s Beirut visit.
In June, US Under-Secretary of State for the Middle East Barbara Leaf raised the possibility of Washington resorting to sanctions against Berri, accused of prolonging the presidential vacuum.
Young says the speaker wants above all to show the Americans that he is trying to break the deadlock. What’s more, the US would like to see a president elected as soon as possible, especially since Joseph Aoun’s term in office draws to a close next January.
If a president is not elected by then, it would be difficult to appoint a successor to the army chief, which risks leaving the military headless — a red line for the international community, which Berri does not wish to cross alone.
Threats to boycott his dialogue would therefore not displease him.
Geagea said in his most-recent speech that he was ready to "endure the vacuum for months, even years.”
Has he fallen into Berri’s trap?
This story first ran in French in L'Orient-Le Jour, translated by Sahar Ghoussoub.