Lebanese vote in first general election in 9 years

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri casts his vote at a polling station during Lebanese general election in Beirut, Lebanon on May 06, 2018 [Houssam Shbaro / Anadolu Agency]

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri casts his vote at a polling station during Lebanese general election in Beirut, Lebanon on May 06, 2018

Voters queued outside polling stations across Lebanon on Sunday for the chance to take part in its first general election in nine years – an event seen as important for economic stability but unlikely to upset the overall balance of power.

Cars and mopeds were decked out with the flags of the main parties, loudspeakers blared songs in support of candidates near their electoral strongholds and young people wore T-shirts bearing the faces of political leaders.

The election is being held under a new proportional system that has confused some voters and made the contest unpredictable in formerly safe seats, but still preserves the country’s sectarian power sharing system.

Whatever the result, another coalition government including most of the major parties, like that which has governed since 2016, is likely to be formed after the election, analysts have said.

Getting the new government in place quickly would reassure investors of Lebanon’s economic stability. It has one of the world’s highest debt-to-GDP ratios and the International Monetary Fund has warned its fiscal trajectory is unsustainable.

“We hope we will open a new era,” said Mahmoud Daouk, voting in Beirut.

But some other voters were sceptical the election signalled an improvement in Lebanon’s political climate.

“The situation is actually worse now, not better… we lost the chance to hold them accountable nine years ago,” said Fatima Kibbi, 33, a pharmacist.

Voting is scheduled to end at 7 p.m. (1600 GMT). Unofficial results are expected to start coming in overnight. Election law makes it illegal on Sunday to publish forecasts of how the parties will perform before polls close.

However, analysts are closely watching the performance of Sunni Muslim Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s Future Movement party and that of the Iran-backed, Shia Hezbollah group and its allies.

Lebanon has periodically been an arena for the intense regional competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

However, in recent years, Riyadh has pulled back from its previous support for Hariri, backing that helped Future in 2009 when it was part of the ‘March 14’ coalition focused on making Hezbollah give up its massive arsenal.

That issue has been quietly shelved as the main parties have focused on getting the economy back on track and grappling with the Syrian refugee crisis.

Donors pledged $11 billion in soft loans for a capital investment programme last month, in return for fiscal and other reforms, and they hope to hold the first follow-up meeting with the new government in the coming weeks.

Debt ratings agencies had stressed the importance of Lebanon going ahead with the election after parliament had extended its term several times.

(Source / 06.05.2018)

New Lebanese army chief warns against ‘Israeli schemes’

Brigadier General Joseph Aoun

Joseph Aoun, Lebanon’s newly-appointed military chief, said Friday that the Lebanese army must remain on guard against “Israeli ambitions and schemes” in the region.

Addressing army officers in Beirut, Aoun cited perceived threats to Southern Lebanon.

“I have full confidence that you will… be prepared to protect our southern border from the Israeli enemy’s sabotage,” he asserted.

Aoun also stressed Lebanon’s readiness to cooperate with the international community with a view to applying UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which was adopted following Lebanon’s 2006 conflict with Israel.

Resolution 1701 called on Israel to withdraw its forces from Southern Lebanon to allow the deployment of UN peacekeepers along the border between the two countries.

Aoun also said that the Lebanese military would continue to work for the release of nine Lebanese soldiers captured by the Daesh terrorist group three years ago.

In mid-2014, Daesh militants captured several Lebanese military personnel following clashes in the Lebanese town of Arsal on the Syrian border.

Aoun was made commander of Lebanon’s armed forces on Wednesday after being promoted to the rank of general.

Replacing General Jean Kahwaji at the post, Aoun is known to be close to Lebanese President Michel Aoun, although the two are not related.

Before assuming the post, Aoun had commanded the Lebanese Army’s 9th Brigade, which is deployed on Lebanon’s border with Syria.

(Source / 10.03.2017)

Graphic novel illustrates life of Syrian refugees in Lebanon

A frame from the graphic novel “Meantime,” by artist Diala Brisly. Posted Feb. 10, 2017

“Meantime” is a graphic novel project initiated in March 2016 by French nongovernmental organization (NGO) Solidarites International (SOL). Five French, Syrian and Lebanese artists spent weeks talking with Syrian refugees in Akkar and Tripoli in northern Lebanon to create five graphic stories, which have been available online since Feb. 21 in English, Arabic and French.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Lebanon hosts more than 1 million Syrian refugees; one in every four people in Lebanon is a refugee. Organizations working on the ground to help vulnerable displaced families face many challenges, such as funding for their programs and projects and telling the individual stories of this population to Western audiences.

SOL was established 35 years ago and has been working for the past three years in Akkar and Tripoli, providing cash assistance and access to water and hygiene products to their Syrian refugee beneficiaries as well as fixing their shelters.

“At the end of 2015, I was in charge of working on a communication project to bring awareness to the people in Europe and Lebanon about the living conditions of the refugees,” Pauline Gregoire, who is in charge of communications and reporting at SOL, told Al-Monitor. “I didn’t want to create a photo or video exhibition that would make people cry.”

At that time, French artist Lisa Mandel was featured in the French newspaper Le Monde with her graphic novel about life in the Calais “jungle,” an informal camp for migrants and refugees wishing to reach England from France that was dismantled gradually from February 2016 onward. “I thought the graphic novel format was nice and light,” Gregoire recalled. “Plus, it is really accessible to everyone and there is this trend of the journalistic graphic novel nowadays, so that is really a modern approach.”

She added, “We had the idea of humanizing refugees — give them an identity. They are human beings who lost everything, who arrived at a new place without anything. They are very vulnerable, but also with very different personalities and stories. It is important to make people understand that they could be any of us. Mandel in her blog on Calais used the comparison with a metro car, saying, “All these people in it could also be in a camp. We have to put names on the numbers to create empathy.”

For the project, which was realized in partnership with UNICEF, the European Union and the US State Department, five artists from France, Lebanon and Syria — Diala Brisly, Kamal Hakim, Lena Merhej, Mandel and Nour Hifaoui Fakhoury — were chosen to give a local, regional and international perspective in regard to the refugee crisis in Lebanon.

For Mandel, whom SOL first contacted given her experience in Calais, coming to Lebanon was a logical step after covering Calais. “I wanted to discover Lebanon and discover differences and similarities between the two situations,” Mandel told Al-Monitor. “Of course, the quantities are not the same. In Calais, there were 10,000 people and everyone was living in a terrible situation — in the mud, in the rain, it was really glaucous. In Lebanon, people are not alone, they are with their family, they are mostly sheltered, even though they are the poorest of the poorest and can only wait for the war to be over. The only thing is that in France, anyone can access proper health care, not like here [in Lebanon] where you have to pay huge amounts of money for everything.”

Mandel described her role in the project as an “information giver.”

On the other hand, for Syrian artist Brisly, who used to independently work with refugees in collaboration with different associations and NGOs, especially children through workshops and murals, it was a way to express something that really struck her during her work in the informal settlements: the relationship between families and men. “I concentrated on how men are also traumatized and need psycho-social support,” Brisly told Al-Monitor.

She added, “Everyone is focusing on women and children and thinking men are like rocks, like they don’t need anything. My culture and in general the culture in the region stipulates that men have to financially support and protect the family. Because of the war, men lost this status and feel totally lost. The family balance has been completely changed.”

With more risks of being stopped at checkpoints and often lacking legal documentation, male refugees rely on their wives or children to work in order to survive because women and children have more freedom of movement. “This trauma often reflects on the man’s relationship with his family, and NGOs — by helping mainly women and children — participate in increasing the gap between the family members,” Brisly said. Her fictional story therefore allows the reader to understand each family member’s perspective in a way that highlights the feelings of the men who find themselves in this situation. “Anyone coming back home not being able to fulfill his role would be angry and frustrated, and it affects everyone around him. Men can also be sad and weak,” she added.

Three Lebanese artists participated in the project, including young Fakhoury, who chose to work on the situation of refugees in Tripoli, their daily struggles and survival skills. She had previously worked for her master graduation project on a comic about the point of view of a Lebanese Christian neighborhood on refugees. “I could do the exact opposite and discover how refugees are actually managing to live,” Fakhoury told Al-Monitor. “It was also a chance to do some research and understand people I didn’t really know.”

As a Lebanese, she was glad to discover strong people who are fighting to survive, still having hope and taking care of their family. “I gained a lot in this project — both professionally and personally,” she said. “I want their stories to be heard.”

This graphic novel project contributes to providing another perspective on what millions of people go through while living in exile in countries around world, as well as humanizing the individual displaced person.

(Source / 01.03.2017)

Hezbollah torn between its local and regional roles

Lebanese Hezbollah supporters carry flags and gesture during a religious procession to mark Ashura in Beirut’s southern suburbs, Lebanon, Oct. 12, 2016

On Jan. 17, the Loyalty to the Resistance Bloc, Hezbollah’s political wing in the Lebanese parliament, held its regular meeting and said in a statement that the meeting was mostly dedicated to discussing the national draft laws, in particular the electoral law.

However, the most remarkable thing about the bloc’s statement was its position on four regional issues, in addition to the local matter of the draft laws: offering condolences for the death of former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani; condemning Bahraini authorities for executing three young men and renewing support for the Bahraini Shiite uprising; condemning the silence of international human rights organizations over the rebels in Wadi Barada near Damascus cutting drinking water to millions of Syrians; and condemning the US-Saudi aggression against the Yemeni people.

The bloc’s stances vis-a-vis the regional issues are not something new for Hezbollah since Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has had a say about the Arab and Islamic issues in the past. However, the bloc’s statement raises an old question again: Is Hezbollah a Lebanese group or has it become a regional institution taking political stances regarding every regional and international development? What is its military, logistic, advisory and training role in certain countries, namely Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Yemen? How could the Lebanese party reconcile its political local role of resisting the Israeli occupation and aggression, with its growing regional role, which raises the concerns of Israel, the West and the neighboring Arab countries?

To answer this question, one ought to go back to the beginning of the party’s founding in 1982 as an Islamic resistance movement in the face of Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon. The movement used to be financed by Iran through Syria, believing in the obedience to the Iranian supreme leader at the time, Ruhollah Khomeini, and subsequently his successor, Ali Khamenei.

In this context, a Hezbollah official, who requested not to be named, told Al-Monitor, “Hezbollah originally combines between its Lebanese and regional roles. First, the party adopts the Palestinian cause and the conflict with the Israeli occupation, which is not only a local issue but also a regional cause. Second, it espouses an Islamic ideology with a global dimension, meaning that the party accords attention to the affairs of Muslims all around the world.”

The source added, “The conflict with Israel prompted Hezbollah to forge regional alliances with Syria, Iran, Palestinian resistance movements, political parties and Arab countries that are against occupation and imperialism. The rise of the terrorist and takfiri threat in Syria and Iraq and the danger of its expansion to Lebanon were behind Hezbollah’s intervention in the war raging in Syria, as a preventive and defensive measure to prevent extremist groups — such as the Islamic State [IS], Jabhat al-Nusra and their likes — from entering Lebanon. This is not to mention the need to protect religious shrines and prevent the Syrian state from falling in the hands of such extremist groups.”

The source also quoted Nasrallah as saying on June 17, 2014, “We will be wherever we need to be,” in reference to the party’s involvement in the battles on several Syrian fronts against armed groups, and the participation of some of its units in the training of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), after Mosul and other Iraqi cities and governorates fell into the hands of IS starting summer 2014.

Nasrallah said in the same statement, “Our involvement in Syria was a duty to protect Lebanon. We will not allow the attack on Zeinab twice [in reference to the attacks on the holy shrine of Zeinab in Damascus since the Syrian revolt erupted in 2011].

“In Iraq, we say, it is long gone that we will allow anyone in the world to destroy or defile our religious and holy sites in Najaf, Karbala and Samarra,” Nasrallah said.

Al-Monitor was the first to learn that Hezbollah had sent its cadres as advisers to guide and train the PMUs in Iraq in their battles against IS in June 2014.

On March 6, 2016, Nasrallah revealed that Hezbollah had been interfering in Iraq by sending advisers and trainers to help Iraqis in their fight against IS, and that its fighters were also involved in the Muslim battles in Bosnia against the Serbs in the 1990s.

The Hezbollah official, however, stressed that despite the party’s regional role, it strongly believes in the need for the Lebanese state to restore its power and sovereignty, stressing that should the state assume its responsibility to fight against the Israeli occupation of Lebanese territories, there would not be an urgent need for the rise of resistance in Lebanon.

In the same vein, researcher Bashir Saada, the author of “Hezbollah and the Politics of Remembrance,” told Al-Monitor that it is difficult to predict how Hezbollah would manage its local and regional role. Saada, however, does not see any contradiction between the Lebanonization of the party and its Islamic ideology. He believes that Hezbollah’s Islamic ideology is based on its understanding that it is part of the local environment of Lebanon, and that its regional involvement serves the local interest.

He also added that Hezbollah would not embark on a regional venture, which could undermine its position locally.

Kassem Kassir, a researcher in Islamic movements and the author of “Hezbollah between 1982 and 2016,” told Al-Monitor, “Hezbollah’s regional role has been growing in light of the ongoing conflicts in the region, the current tensions and the previous political vacuum [in Lebanon], not to mention the involvement of some other Lebanese sources — in reference to the Future Movement and jihadi Sunni groups — in such conflicts. However, this role is likely to dwindle once the state regains its prestige and institutions, the local parties’ involvement in regional conflicts declines, and the search for solutions and compromises to the ongoing Arab crises starts.”

Kassir said, “This is what happened earlier following the Taif Agreement in 1989,” when the Lebanese militias were dismantled and they handed over their weapons to the Lebanese army. “Hezbollah will find itself in the future facing many challenges, prompting it to reconsider its position and role. This is especially true, should the regional parties reach a settlement on Syria. Lebanon can no longer tolerate the party’s growing regional role” at the expense of the Lebanese sovereignty, Kassir added.

It is worth noting that the March 14 Alliance has repeatedly accused Hezbollah of undermining the Lebanese state by holding on to its weapons, especially long-range missiles, thus causing potential Israeli threats to Lebanon. The alliance also held claims that Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria and its positions toward the Gulf states have led some of these states (namely Saudi Arabia) to impose economic sanctions on Lebanon.

Nasrallah said on May 21, 2016, that Hezbollah has moved from being a local power to becoming a regional one given its military capabilities on the ground. Sheikh Naim Qassem, Nasrallah’s deputy, said Nov. 16 that the party “has become bigger than a party and smaller than an army.” The party is better armed and trained with well-developed expertise. Qassem described Hezbollah’s military parade in the Syrian city of Qusair on Nov. 13 as “a show of strength and a message to everyone,” in reference to Israel and the regional states that support the rebels in Syria.

In this context, a source close to the Future Movement told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that Hezbollah’s message was addressed to the new Lebanese president, Michel Aoun, and Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

Hezbollah’s approach to its regional role is based on a national basis, arguing that Lebanon is part of the Arab region and cannot disassociate from the region’s conflicts, especially since Israel is “a hostile and aggressive entity” (according to Nasrallah) and would not hesitate to reoccupy parts of Lebanon whenever it can. As jihadi extremist groups are international movements that extend to where they can, and if Hezbollah did not intervene to confront them on the border with Syria and beyond, they would have entered to the heart of the country. Nasrallah said on Nov. 8, 2013, “If we did not go to Syria, Lebanon would have turned into a second Iraq.”

(Source / 03.02.2017)

Lebanese Women Call for 30 percent Quota in Parliamentary Seats

Lebanon gets its very first ministry for women's affairs [AFP]

Lebanon gets its very first ministry for women’s affairs

Beirut– Lebanese women rallied on Wednesday to call for an increased female representation in any parliamentary electoral law approved by the different political parties.

While women constitute 51 percent of the Lebanese population and 54 percent of university graduates, they are merely represented in Parliament, as they currently occupy 3.1 percent of parliamentary seats.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Saad Hariri have stressed on several occasions their commitment to allocate a certain quota to women to support their active participation in political life.

On Wednesday, dozens of women and activists gathered in downtown Beirut to voice their demands for a women’s quota. State Minister for Women’s Affairs Jean Oghassabian joined the march to express his solidarity with the demonstrators.

In remarks to Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, Free Patriotic Movement MP Alain Aoun said that the parliamentary administrative and justice committee was currently studying “women’s quota”, in addition to other necessary reforms that should be implemented in the new electoral law.

Aoun added that while the majority of parliamentary blocs support the introduction of a women’s quota in the new law, some other blocs have expressed reservations on the matter.

“Reservations are not on women’s participation but rather on the quota,” the FPM deputy said.

For his part, Oghassabian expressed full support for women’s demands. “It’s a righteous cause; we will work on it until we reach the aspired goals.”

“We believe that women have strong capabilities; we need such energy inside Parliament and the government,” he said.

The minister hoped that Wednesday’s rally would spread across different Lebanese areas to guarantee a women’s quota in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Oghassabian also expressed the prime minister’s support to this endeavor.

“Prime Minister Hariri joins you in these demands and believes in your cause,” the minister said, addressing the demonstrators.

(Source / 02.02.2017)

After Aleppo victory, what’s next for Hezbollah?

Lebanese Hezbollah supporters carry a replica of Hezbollah’s emblem during a religious procession to mark Ashura in Beirut’s southern suburbs, Lebanon, Oct. 12, 2016

The capture of Aleppo by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia and Hezbollah, has given a boost to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Shiite movement’s deepening involvement in the Syrian war since 2013 had led to a narrowed margin of maneuver at home, as political and social pressures increased on it. The battle for and victory in Aleppo Dec. 22 has reinforced Hezbollah’s “winning” narrative vis-a-vis its political opponents and among its popular base and will potentially help justify future battles the organization might wage in Syria.

“Hezbollah’s capture of Aleppo shows that its fight alongside the regime of Assad was the right thing to do,” Abdallah Younes, a Shiite resident of the Bekaa Valley, told Al-Monitor. Hezbollah’s decision to send thousands of fighters to support Assad resulted in heavy fallout in the Bekaa and elsewhere in Lebanon, for which the Lebanese criticized the organization. The fertile Bekaa, on the border with Syria in eastern Lebanon, has been on the front line of the Syrian war since 2013. Syrian rebels have repeatedly shelled the region, which has also been the target of several terror attacks. In 2014, Jabhat al-Nusra carried out suicide attacks in the area. Hezbollah and the Lebanese army have also clashed with Islamic State (IS) fighters in the mountainous Qalamoun area, east of the Bekaa. IS was behind several attacks in the Bekaa, including one on the Christian village of Qaa in June 2016.

The intense fighting in the Syrian war has pitted a mostly Sunni insurgency against pro-Assad regime forces bolstered by Hezbollah and other Shiite forces in the form or troops from Iran and Popular Mobilization Units fighters from Iraq. Syrian government forces and their allies have also received Russian air coverage since Sept. 30, 2015. The conflict is today increasingly seen as a sectarian proxy war between two axes: one pro-Shiite (consisting of Iran, Hezbollah, Syria and Russia) and the other Sunni dominated (including Gulf countries and Turkey). Nonetheless, Ankara changed its position after reaching a deal in September with Russia that allowed it to launch attacks on its Syrian Kurdish nemeses under the banner of Operation Euphrates Shield.

Meanwhile on the Lebanese political scene, Hezbollah has been backed by the Christian Free Patriotic Movement, led by Michel Aoun, and the Shiite Amal movement and pitted against a coalition of the Sunni Future Movement, headed by Saad Hariri, Christian Lebanese Forces and the Druze Progressive Party. A clear power shift on the battlefield in favor of the Iranian, Shiite axis in Syria in the weeks prior to the fall of Aleppo translated in Lebanon into the Oct. 31 election of Hezbollah’s preferred presidential candidate, Aoun, and the formation of a government headed by Hariri as prime minister.

“The Aleppo victory put an end to the party’s local struggle and helped create a shift in the political equation,” Brahim Beyram, a Lebanese journalist and analyst who covers Hezbollah for an-Nahar, told Al-Monitor. Sources close to Hariri who spoke to Al-Monitor said that the imminent fall of Aleppo and the tilt in the political outcome in Syria in favor of the regime were among the factors that facilitated the political deal in Lebanon. Hariri, already weakened by the financial scandal of his company Oger being on the verge of bankruptcy, believed that if Aleppo fell, it would mean a clear shift in power to Hezbollah and its allies, so he agreed to form a government when Aoun selected him to do so.

“People are more optimistic. Hezbollah has been able to turn the tide in Syria and in Lebanon. This will definitely stifle the criticism, though limited, faced by the organization locally,” Hassan, a Dahieh resident who declined to reveal his full name, told Al-Monitor.

Hezbollah has lost between 1,500 to 2,000 fighters in Syria, and 5,000 others have been wounded or injured, according to sources close to the party with whom Al-Monitor spoke. Hezbollah has lost important symbolic and military figures in the Syrian war. Jihad Mughniyeh, son of Hezbollah operations chief Imad Mughniyeh, who was assassinated in 2008 in Damascus, was killed in an Israeli attack in southern Syria in January 2015. In December 2015, Hezbollah commander Samir Kuntar, who was working on developing a new brigade in the Golan region, was also killed. Hezbollah star commander Mustafa Badreddine was killed in May 2016 in a mysterious explosion in Syria. Hundreds of Hezbollah fighters were killed in Zabadani and in Homs. More than 200 died in Aleppo alone, Beyram said.

“People were starting to complain about the number of martyrs in Syria, as well as about corruption allegations surrounding some commanders deployed there,” a source close to Hezbollah’s mid-level leadership told Al-Monitor. Hezbollah as a political party controls a third of the Lebanese parliament and government. It had been accused of corruption involving the trash scandal that triggered protests in 2016 and faced allegations of maintaining illegal internet transmission stations that benefited local political figures. “The war in Syria has made a lot of people rich through trafficking of all sorts. The Hezbollah leadership knows about it, but can’t do much,” the source asserted.

Recent victories in Syria will not only allow Hezbollah to consolidate its popular base in Lebanon, but will also provide it more space to maneuver on the battlefields of Syria. According to a Hezbollah fighter who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “All opposition front lines are in a state of weakness and up for grabs.”

The fighter believes, nonetheless, that some areas, such as the Ghouta suburb in Damascus and southern Syria, may be handed over after a reconciliation deal is reached with the opposition. “The next battle will most probably take place in Idlib,” he remarked.

According to Beyram, Hezbollah will now focus on areas on the outskirts of Damascus, such as Wadi Barada, which sits along the road leading to the Syrian capital, and are considered strategic by the party. “Wadi Barada is located on the other side of the Qalamoun Mountains, a region that Hezbollah wants secured because of its geographical [proximity] to its Bekaa bastion,” Beyram explained.

As the main offensive force in Syria, Hezbollah has become a major player in shaping that country’s future. Its involvement in Syria has also provided the organization with a platform from which to project regional influence, such as in Iraq and Yemen, where, Hezbollah sources told Al-Monitor, the organization has deployed experts.

Hezbollah increasingly faces an ideological dichotomy given its evolution from a pan-Arab resistance movement focused on fighting Israel to a sectarian militia helping advance Iran’s controversial agenda across the Arab world. It has become one of the biggest mass parties in the Middle East, boasting thousands of members and hundreds of thousands of mostly Lebanese Shiite supporters. With Hezbollah’s power comes responsibility, and its Iranian agenda may not necessarily be in the best interest of its Lebanese popular base, which lives surrounded by Sunnis.

(Source / 26.01.2017)

New Lebanese president makes Gulf priority

Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud (L) greets Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun in Riyadh, Jan. 10, 2017

Lebanese President Michel Aoun marked his first foreign policy success during his visit to Saudi Arabia Jan. 10. He broke the ice in the ties between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, which have been tense for over a year due to the repercussions of the Saudi-Iranian tug-of-war on Lebanon.

The rhetoric of Saudi Arabia and its Lebanese March 14 coalition allies in the past few years emphasized that the Lebanese state had been hijacked by Hezbollah, which was violating Lebanon’s sovereignty with its military intervention in Syria and its meddling in Arab and Gulf affairs, especially in Yemen and Bahrain. As a result, in March 2016, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) put Hezbollah on its terrorist list.

But Hezbollah denied these accusations and accused the kingdom of supporting and funding jihadi groups in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. The party also blamed Saudi Arabia for the spread of Wahhabi thought in the Muslim world and condemned its war in Yemen and military intervention in Bahrain, as well as its support for the armed opposition in Syria to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. On Dec. 3, 2013, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah accused Saudi Arabia of plotting the bombing of the Iranian Embassy in Beirut Nov. 19.

Also, Saudi Arabia had frozen the military aid grant for Lebanese security services in February 2016, after the Lebanese government failed to condemn the attacks carried out by Iranian protesters against Saudi diplomatic delegations in Iran.

For that reason, Aoun’s visit to Riyadh was considered an important step to restore the historical warm ties between the two countries. A large ministerial convoy accompanied Aoun in his first official visit abroad since his election on Oct. 31, 2016, and it received remarkable Saudi attention.

Before the Saudi invitation, Aoun had received invitations from Egypt and Iran, but he prioritized Saudi Arabia in his first foreign visit, due to the kingdom’s influence on Lebanon and the Muslim and Arab region. Besides, he wanted to mend ties between Beirut and Riyadh following the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Hezbollah over Bahrain and Yemen, and the frozen $4 billion Saudi grant to the armament of the Lebanese army and security forces.

During the Syrian tutelage in Lebanon (1990-2005), the Lebanese president paid his first foreign visit to Damascus. But after the Syrian crisis erupted in 2011, Damascus no longer enjoys the same influence it did on Lebanon, and any president would hesitate to pay his first visit to Syria.

To regain its influence in Lebanon, the kingdom approved of Future Movement head Saad Hariri’s nomination of Aoun as president to end the presidential stalemate — although Aoun and Hariri are strange bedfellows politically and Aoun has good relations with the Future Movement’s enemy, Hezbollah.

Saudi Arabia also sent a special envoy, Emir of Mecca Khaled Al-Faisal, on Nov. 21, to congratulate Aoun on his presidency and invited him to visit.

Aoun had prolonged one-on-one talks with Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud and said in Riyadh Jan. 10, “The historical relations between the Saudi and Lebanese people will persist.” He asserted Lebanon’s desire to strengthen cooperation ties with the kingdom in several fields, mainly in countering terrorism.

Salman underlined during the meeting that “Lebanon is irreplaceable.” He said, “The relations between the two countries are historical, and we want to preserve and develop them.” He reiterated his “immense” trust in Aoun and noted, “You will lead Lebanon to safety and stability despite the current challenges.”

Salman added, “The kingdom does not meddle with Lebanon’s affairs, which concern the Lebanese people only.” He called on Saudi officials to “look into the security, economic, military and touristic issues that Aoun brought up.” He also told them to visit their Lebanese counterparts and urged Saudi citizens who love Lebanon to fly to it.

With his visit to Saudi Arabia and then Qatar on Jan. 11, Aoun sought to normalize Gulf-Lebanese relations, encourage Gulf tourists and investors to return to Lebanon, and increase economic ties with the Gulf countries to improve the deteriorating economic situation.

The visit was also important for Saudi Arabia to regain influence in Lebanon and reduce Iran’s power in the country.

The kingdom gave a warm welcome to Aoun and agreed to hold bilateral talks regarding the frozen Saudi grant to the Lebanese army and other bilateral cooperation affairs.

Perhaps Saudi Arabia referred Aoun’s demands to its officials because it does not want to hand Lebanon quick approval on a silver platter. The kingdom might have a set of conditions and tests for Aoun and the Lebanese government to make sure that Aoun and Hezbollah are distant and that the president can implement sovereign and independent policies far from the Iranian-Syrian influence.

Some pro-Saudi analysts believe that the first test for Aoun and his government will entail overseeing the nominations of pivotal positions in the state and security apparatus and looking out for the influence of Hezbollah and its allies on these nominations.

Aoun told Al Jazeera Jan. 11, “The misunderstanding with Gulf states has been cleared and the issue of aid to the Lebanese army — including the Saudi grant — was discussed … and the concerned Saudi ministers are currently reviewing the case. However, the issue of military aid has yet to be resolved, as France is also involved,” since Paris is the supplier of arms.

Aoun further noted that his visit to the kingdom did not irritate his allies (Hezbollah). He clarified that Hezbollah is involved in the regional conflicts and has become part of the international and regional crises whose solution is beyond Lebanon’s capacity. After all, the United States, Russia, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia are also involved in these conflicts. He added that the Lebanese state cannot oppose Hezbollah, as the party represents a significant category of the Lebanese people. Aoun asserted, “We are trying to distance Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria from the Lebanese domestic situation.”

Head of Hezbollah’s Political Council Ibrahim Amin al-Sayyed said from Tehran that Aoun’s visit “was a normal and regular one since Lebanon is a member of the Arab League.”

A source close to Hezbollah told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the party trusts Aoun and his ability to strike a balance between improving Gulf-Lebanese relations and maintaining his alliance with the party. The source said that Aoun considers Hezbollah’s weapons as resistance weapons directed against the Israeli enemy and describes Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria as a pre-emptive operation to protect Lebanon from the potential arrival of terrorist groups.

It is worth noting that Aoun said in his inaugural speech in October, “We shall prevent, deter, counter and even eliminate terrorism.”

Despite its conflict with Saudi Arabia over regional and sectarian issues, Hezbollah acknowledges the importance of the kingdom and its politico-religious influence in Lebanon, as well as its economic role in terms of tourists, investors and aid to the country. For that reason, the Shiite party welcomes implicitly the restoring of the ties with Riyadh, but it will be cautious of any Saudi attempt to create a rift between Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement led by Aoun.

For his part, Aoun may try to balance between his alliance with Hezbollah and its regional patrons and his rapprochement with Gulf states, as he understands the local and regional equations.

(Source / 19.01.2017)

What challenges await Lebanon’s new government?

Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri (C) outside the parliament building after his new government won a vote of confidence, downtown Beirut, Dec. 28, 2016

After handily winning parliament’s vote of confidence Dec. 28 with 87 out of 92 votes, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his new unity government will now tackle their top priorities, which include protecting Lebanon from fallout from the Syrian civil war.

Other leading items on the agenda include approving a 2017 budget, stimulating the economy, and taking immediate action to address electricity and water problems as well as difficulties with traffic and solid waste treatment. Priorities also include developing a strategy to prevent corruption, fighting terrorism and speeding up license approvals for oil exploration and extraction.

Hariri managed Dec. 18 to form the first government in two years, under President Michel Aoun, despite differences that erupted between the major blocs over the number of ministers and their responsibilities.

Hariri’s national consensus government has a total of 30 ministers representing the country’s major parliamentary blocs and parties, with the exception of the Christian Phalanges Party, which rejected the state ministry position it was offered. The government includes seven state ministers, and six new state ministries have been established, for women’s affairs, anti-corruption, presidential affairs, displaced citizens, human rights, and planning. The Planning Ministry had been abolished in 1977 and replaced with the Council of Development and Reconstruction.

The government includes 29 men and only one woman — Minister of State for Administrative Development Inaya Azzedine, the first veiled minister in the history of Lebanon. Azzedine is a member of the Shiite Amal Movement’s political bureau.

Aoun and his party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), have a large share of the ministries with eight, including the Foreign Ministry, the Defense Ministry, the Justice Ministry, and the Energy and Water Ministry.

In addition to the premiership, Hariri and members of his party, the Future Movement, have six portfolios, including Interior Ministry and the Telecommunications Ministry.

Besides Azzedine’s position, the Amal movement led by parliament Speaker Nabih Berri has two portfolios: the Finance Ministry and Agriculture Ministry.

Meanwhile, the Shiite Hezbollah Party has two portfolios: the Industry Ministry and the Youth and Sports Ministry. The Shiites waived the Public Works Ministry to the Marada party, led by Suleiman Franjieh. Hezbollah made this gesture to thank Franjieh for backing down from his presidential candidacy; Hezbollah backed Aoun.

Hezbollah had signed a joint memorandum of understanding with Aoun’s FPM on Feb. 6, 2006. The latter supported resistance positions during the Israeli war on Lebanon in July and August 2006, and later the Shiite group’s intervention in Syria. This led Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah to say: “We owe Gen. Aoun a debt until the day of judgment.”

Giving Franjieh’s bloc a basic ministry was one of the main issues that delayed forming the government, as his bloc has only three parliament members, which is not enough to allow him to assume such a ministry. Also, the FPM wanted to prevent Franjieh from getting a basic ministry as punishment for competing with Aoun over the presidency.

However, the Lebanese Forces (LF) party led by Samir Geagea got four portfolios, including the post of deputy prime minister and the Health Ministry. The LF’s share was a reward from Aoun, who had worked out an arrangement with LF that allowed him to win the presidency. This came despite Aoun’s and Geagea’s being longtime foes.

Their arrangement earned LF a larger share of posts than it would normally have. The LF has only has eight parliament members, while the Future bloc has 33 members and got six ministers. For their part, the Amal and Hezbollah blocs have 26 parliament members and obtained five ministers. This led Hezbollah and its allies to object and refuse to give the LF five ministers or what is termed a “sovereign ministry” (the four sovereign ministries are defense, foreign affairs, interior, and finance). As such, the LF share was reduced to four ministers.

The ministerial statement was drafted in six days, though it was expected to take longer. The statement is a declaration of the government’s political and economic visions and plans, and is submitted to parliament to win its confidence. However, the article related to the “resistance against the Israeli occupation” usually raises differences between the March 8 alliance and the March 14 coalition, which refuses to mention the Hezbollah resistance in the statement so as not to bestow legitimacy on the armed movement.

This time, however, the statement was drafted in a way that brought together the inaugural speech of the president and a declaration by the government of Tammam Salam when he was prime minister regarding the right to resist the Israeli occupation. The result was as follows: “We will spare no effort or resistance to liberate any Lebanese territory that is still under occupation or to protect our country from an enemy that still has ambitions regarding our land, water and national resources based on the responsibility of the state and its role in preserving Lebanon’s sovereignty, independence and unity as well as the safety of the citizens. … The government emphasizes the right of the Lebanese citizens to resist the Israeli occupation, counter its aggressions and recover the occupied territories.”

A source close to Hezbollah told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the party was satisfied with the statement.

The statement stressed the need to work on the imminent approval of a new and modern law for parliamentary elections, one that grants fair representation to all the Lebanese people. The elections are supposed to take place in May.

Adopting the electoral law will be the biggest challenge to the government as Aoun, Hezbollah, Amal and their allies are in favor of the proportional system, while parliament member Walid Jumblatt, the leader of the Druze bloc, is absolutely against it. The Future Movement and the LF also reject the law and either support the existing 1960 law, which is based on a majority system, or a mixed law that combines the majority and proportional systems.

The same source explained that should the 1960 majority law remain in place, Hezbollah would not lose any seats in parliament. Yet, the source added, the party wants the proportional system to be adopted to ensure that all groups and currents are fairly represented and to secure national fusion amid national, rather than sectarian, representation.

In this context, former Minister of State Karim Pakradouni told Al-Monitor that Aoun supports the proportional system but will accept another mixed or majority law that garners the support of all the other blocs.

Political analyst Yasser al-Hariri told Al-Monitor no bloc opposes the 1960 law, even if some blocs say they do. However, a new law that is based on the majority and proportional systems could be agreed upon provided it leads to the same results of the 1960 law.

Since Lebanon is a country of deals and national consensus, all parties likely would agree on an electoral law that satisfies the major sects and blocs, although Aoun, Hariri and Berri agree on adopting a new reformist modern law.

(Source / 31.12.2016)

Lebanon: Electoral Law is the New Government’s Big Challenge

Lebanon's President Michel Aoun meets with Prime minister-designate Saad al-Hariri and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri at the presidential palace in Baabda

Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun (C) meets with Prime minister-designate Saad al-Hariri (R) and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon December 18, 2016

Beirut – Contrary to the status quo that prevailed in Lebanon by the end of 2015, the situation today in the Mediterranean country looks significantly more positive, especially following the election of a new Lebanese president in October and the formation of a unity government that has restored life to the different state institutions.

Nonetheless, the new government, led by Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, has a major challenge, represented in the adoption of an electoral law that would gain the approval of the different Lebanese factions.

In this regard, sources told Asharq al-Awsat newspaper that there has been an overwhelming agreement over the need to put behind the 1960 electoral law, which was used in the last parliamentary elections in 2009.

Based on the majority system, the electoral law, which was adopted in 1960, divides the country into 24 electoral districts. However, Lebanese politicians are currently studying the adoption of a modern electoral law that provides an appropriate representation of the different Lebanese factions.

While Hezbollah and other political factions are insisting on a law that would be solely based on the proportional system, other parties, including the Future Movement, the Lebanese Forces and the Progressive Socialist Party, back the adoption of a proportional system in some regions and the majority system in others.

Former Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar told Asharq al-Awsat newspaper that he was not optimistic about the achievement of a significant progress in this regard, adding that he believed that the different political factions would only develop the 1960 law, by setting a 20 percent quota for women and activate election monitoring bodies.

Also in remarks to Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, former Minister Karim Pakradouni said that holding the parliamentary elections within the constitutional deadline would be a great achievement.

He added that he was confident that the Lebanese political parties would agree on a law that would be solely based on the proportional system.

(Source / 29.12.2016)

Lebanon: Government Paves Way to Ministerial Statement before Moving to Electoral Law

The newly formed Lebanese Government Ministers posing for a photo at the Lebanon presidential palace of Baabda east of Beirut with President Michel Aoun.

The newly formed Lebanese Government Ministers posing for a photo at the Lebanon presidential palace of Baabda east of Beirut with President Michel Aou

Beirut- Lebanon’s cabinet kicked off its first session on Wednesday headed by President Michel Aoun in the presence of Prime Minister Saadi Hariri and all ministers after posing for the official memorial photo.

All political forces delivered positive statements on Wednesday reflecting their readiness to start work in the first cabinet of the new era, with a main mission to prepare for the parliamentary elections. The road to the ministerial statement seemed paved on Wednesday, as the statement would include a text including the “presidential oath statement” and the “previous ministerial statement.”

However, the mission of agreeing on a new electoral law is expected to be more difficult in light of a dispute among political parties, and that might technically delay the elections expected next May.

Meanwhile, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault arrived in Beirut on Wednesday evening in a first visit of a high-ranking French official following the election of a new president and the formation of a cabinet.

A statement issued by the French Embassy in Beirut said Ayrault is in Beirut to extend an invitation to President Aoun from French President Francois Holland to officially visit France.

The embassy also said the French minister would focus in his visit on the preparations for the parliamentary elections in 2017 “that will ensure a fair popular representation.”

Following Wednesday’s cabinet session, Information Minister Melhem Riachi quoted President Aoun as saying, “Amongst the duties of a national unity cabinet are finding a new electoral law and holding the parliamentary elections thereafter, safeguarding local security, giving the priority in each ministry to what citizens have for long been waiting, quickening to approve on the budget draft and settling the necessary appointments in vacant positions.”

Aoun was also quoted as calling for the necessity to combat corruption in all ministries.

During the cabinet session, Hariri called upon security apparatuses to preserve security across all Lebanon, especially in touristic places during holidays.

President Aoun also decided that the cabinet would convene every Wednesday, Riachi said.

And while Hariri asserted that drafting the ministerial statement would face no obstacles, Speaker Nabih Berri said Wednesday: “The priority, first, second, third and tenth is to complete a new electoral law as soon as possible.”

Labor Minister Moahmmed Kabbara told Asharq Al-Awsat on Wednesday he was optimistic that the newly appointed committee to draft the ministerial statement would soon complete its task before the cabinet received Parliament’s vote of confidence.

The ministerial committee kicked off its first session on Wednesday afternoon.

(Source / 22.12.2016)