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Lebanon’s presidential chessboard: Nabih Berri’s dialogue and external diplomacy

While the Group of Five has called for political discussions, Berri has reaffirmed his dedication to his own dialogue initiative and reasserted his endorsement of Frangieh. Are we back to square one?

Lebanon’s presidential chessboard: Nabih Berri’s dialogue and external diplomacy

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri delivers a speech at the annual commemoration of the disappearance of Imam Moussa Sadr, Aug. 31, 2023, Jnah. (Credit: Mohammad Yassin/L'Orient-Le Jour)

What does Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri want?

With his endorsement of Marada leader Sleiman Frangieh’s candidacy, his unwavering commitment to his week-long dialogue proposal ahead of the presidential election, and the fresh French approach to the matter, Berri appears to be juggling contradictions.

This might be his way of establishing himself as the “ultimate player” in the political arena, indispensable to any potential agreement that could facilitate the upcoming election.

Nearly 20 days after launching his call for dialogue, Berri finally clarified the details of his proposal, seemingly in response to the concerns of the opposition camp, which had swiftly rejected his enticing proposal.

Berri remains resolute in his support for Frangieh’s presidential candidacy and his own vision of dialogue. Meanwhile, Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French envoy for Lebanon, who is actively representing the Group of Five (comprising France, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Egypt), is now advocating for “discussions” aimed at producing a third candidate, distinct from Frangieh and his rival, Jihad Azour, who is backed by the opposition and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM).

In a statement published Monday in the pages of the daily, al-Liwa’, Berri dispelled the ambiguity that shrouded his initiative, launched on Aug. 31.

He explicitly announced his intentions, along with his deputy Elias Bou Saab, to preside over dialogue scheduled for October. This dialogue initiative is intended to culminate in “an open session with successive rounds until a president is elected.”

“Like the election of the Pope in Rome,” Berri said drawing an analogy. “Can it be any clearer?”

This statement appears to be a jab at the opposition, which swiftly rejected Berri’s proposal and accused him of contravening the constitution.

However, beyond mere rhetoric, Berri’s message to all involved parties underscores that dialogue remains the sole pathway out of the present impasse.

His stance aligns with that of the French envoy, albeit with a subtle distinction.

Rather than endorsing broad dialogue, a notion that the opposition vehemently rejected, Le Drian suggested “discussions” with the aim of electing a president, as reported by those he met with.

In response, Berri sought to set the terms straight.

“They say discussions, and I say dialogue,” he said Monday, trying to bridge the divide between the two approaches.

“It’s only natural for us to call for dialogue as an attempt to reach an agreement,” a close associate of Berri told L’Orient-Le Jour on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue. “Failing that [reaching agreement], we would proceed (after seven days) with the voting rounds.”

Despite vigorously advocating for dialogue (under his own leadership), Berri shows no sign of relenting his own preferences, which would perhaps encourage his opponents to join in.

Even after taking careful steps to avoid openly mentioning Frangieh when he launched his initiative —perhaps to maintain an appearance of neutrality and impartiality as the dialogue’s sponsor — he reverted to his previous stance on Monday.

When questioned about whether Hezbollah and the Amal Movement were now convinced, in line with Le Drian’s perspective, that electing Frangieh as the head of state was unfeasible, Berri responded in the negative, reaffirming his traditional support for the Marada Movement leader.

This could mean that things are back to square one for the Group of Five, whose representatives are set to meet in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly to discuss Lebanon’s presidential issue.

According to Berri, it does not.

“Le Drian is aware of our stance, and we conveyed it to him during his recent visit to Beirut,” Berri’s close associate said, asserting that “it is normal for each camp to endorse a candidate while simultaneously advocating for dialogue.”

His statements appear to contradict the position he held just a few months ago. At that time, he refrained from taking the lead in a broader dialogue, citing his lack of neutrality in the race for the Baabda presidency.

A message to Hezbollah?

How to explain this return to square one?

“Mr. Berri wants to reassure Frangieh and establish himself as the master of the game,” said political scientist Karim Bitar. “The Speaker wields the power to disrupt.”

“He can undermine any agreement that is reached without his involvement or against his wishes,” Bitar explained.

The renewed support from the Berri camp for Frangieh’s candidacy comes at a time when everything seems to indicate that the “third candidate” will be Army Commander Joseph Aoun. This was evidenced in a meeting between the Aoun and the head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc, Mohammad Raad.

Berri, who has openly opposed Gen. Aoun’s candidacy, officially citing the inability (or unwillingness) to amend the constitution, was visibly perturbed by these developments.

“The head of the legislature sought to convey to Hezbollah that his path is the only means to reach an agreement,” Bitar said.

For the time being, Gen. Aoun has expressed no interest in the presidential position. He made this clear during a meeting with a delegation from the Press Association on Monday.

Hezbollah, on the other hand, is proceeding cautiously. When Raad met the army chief two weeks ago, he was quick to assuage any concerns held by Frangieh.

“We requested to be informed of any change in Hezbollah’s stance,” a source close to Franigeh told L’Orient-Le Jour on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue. “However, nothing has changed in this regard.”

The source added that Raad informed Frangieh that the meeting with Gen. Aoun was an opportunity to reaffirm the continued strong relations between Hezbollah and the army, but that the Marada leader remains the party’s preferred candidate.

“However, we are aware that the presidential election is currently unfolding on the international stage,” the source said.

All eyes are on the upcoming meeting of the Group of Five and more importantly, the outcome of discussions led by a Qatari security delegation that recently arrived in Beirut.

The delegation will lay the groundwork for the subsequent visit of a second delegation, tasked with overseeing the presidential election.

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


What does Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri want?With his endorsement of Marada leader Sleiman Frangieh’s candidacy, his unwavering commitment to his week-long dialogue proposal ahead of the presidential election, and the fresh French approach to the matter, Berri appears to be juggling contradictions.This might be his way of establishing himself as the “ultimate player” in the political...