BEIRUT: At 11 a.m., just one hour before the first Parliament session to elect Lebanon’s president was due to begin, the pigeons and shop owners of Nijmeh Square were settling in for yet another sunny spring day in Downtown Beirut.
Yet just meters away, an unusually full roster of MPs were gliding up in their luxury cars for a session of Parliament quite unlike those that have been held in the past few years.
Instead of the Army, members of the Internal Security Forces lined the outside of the Parliament building, and in contrast to previous legislative sessions, the top brass were even present this time.
Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun was the first to arrive; he headed directly to Speaker Nabih Berri’s office, where the two held a meeting. They were later joined for a separate meeting by MP Mohammad Raad, the head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc, and Marada Movement leader MP Sleiman Frangieh.
Several MPs who rarely show up to legislative sessions or meetings of Parliament committees were also present for the session, so that nearly all of Parliament’s 128-member body was present. Among these were Chouf MP Dory Chamoun and MP Issam Sawaya, who lives outside Lebanon and is from Aoun’s parliamentary bloc. MP Nayla Tueini was also on hand, arriving with her grandfather, MP Michel Murr.
Inside the General Assembly hall, politicians waited for Berri to finish his meeting with Aoun, Raad and Frangieh and announce the start of the session. To pass the time, many rival MPs greeted each other and cracked jokes.
March 8’s Frangieh exchanged hugs and kisses with March 14-allied Kataeb Party MP Sami Gemayel, and the two had a long conversation.
Many flocked to where Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt was sitting to greet and chat with the PSP leader, known informally as Lebanon’s kingmaker. Among those was MP Gilbert Zwein, from Aoun’s bloc, who warmly greeted the Druze chief.
Some, such as Future Movement MP Samir Jisr and Hezbollah Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Mohammad Fneish, decided to take advantage of the down time to go through a copy of the Constitution.
Just before the session was due to start, Aoun entered the hall and his MPs gathered around him, listening to what appeared to be his final voting instructions.
Sources told The Daily Star that during their pre-session meeting, Berri and Aoun had agreed that March 8 MPs would walk out of the session and prevent a quorum being reached once the first round was over, given the absence of consensus on a presidential candidate.
One of the last lawmakers to enter the hall was Lebanese Forces MP Strida Geagea, wife of one of the presidential hopefuls, dressed in a red skirt suit that made her stand out in the room of men wearing somber black ensembles. Four MPs did not attend, including Saad Hariri.
Berri announced the start of the session at around 12:05 p.m. with 124 MPs in attendance.
“Long time no see,” he said jokingly, addressing the MPs who rarely show up to Parliament.
Before the start of the vote, Berri read the names of the presidential candidates: Geagea, and MP Henry Helou from Jumblatt’s bloc.
But Berri was interrupted by lawyer Nadine Moussa, Tracy Chamoun – the daughter of the late head of the National Liberal Party, Dany Chamoun – and environmental activist Bechara Abi Younes, who were sitting with reporters in a designated balcony overlooking the hall. Latecomers to the election, they stood and added their candidacies to the list by raising their hands.
The voting process itself took less than 10 minutes. As the vote counting began, it quickly emerged that some ballots bore the names of people alleged to have been killed by Geagea during Lebanon’s 1975-90 Civil War: late Prime Minister Rashid Karami, Dany Chamoun and his son Tarek, Jihan Frangieh – the sister of Sleiman Frangieh – and LF official Elias Zayek.
Geagea, who headed the LF Christian militia during the Civil War, was sentenced to life in prison over Chamoun and Karami’s deaths after being arrested in 1994. He was released in summer 2005 after Parliament passed a general amnesty.
The LF leader denies involvement in any of these murders and argues that the accusations he was charged over were fabricated against him by the Syrian regime that controlled and occupied Lebanon between 1990 and 2005.
MP Ziad Aswad, from Aoun’s bloc, told a local television station that he cast the name of Jihan Frangieh – who was murdered along with her mother and father, Tony Frangieh, in June 1978 – to remind people of Geagea’s history.
Aswad also called for Geagea to be retried now that Lebanon was free from Syria’s tutelage.
A little-known group called the “Lebanese Initiative” held a small protest at Riad Solh Square near Parliament as the session was convened, with participants expressing their opposition to Geagea’s candidacy, describing it as a “stab” to his alleged victims and their families.
In line with the agreement between Aoun and Berri, 48 March 8 MPs walked out after the first round from which no candidate emerged victorious, meaning no second round could be held due to a lack of quorum.
Berri pretended not to know about the March 8 MPs’ move. “I hope you will come back soon,” he joked.
“No, it looks like they will not come back soon,” Future Movement MP Atef Majdalani commented.
After the first round was finished, Berri asked Parliament’s administrative staff to check whether the MPs who had left the hall were still in the building and if so, to call them in to attend a second round. After being told that they had left, the speaker adjourned the session and called another one for April 30.
The session lasted barely 30 minutes, and MPs quickly departed again, heralding the end of the first episode of a presidential election series that is unlikely to be concluded any time soon.