The mutual admiration between U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon David Hale and Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun along with his permanent minister Gebran Bassil, currently foreign affairs minister, is no longer a secret among political and diplomatic circles in Lebanon.
Aoun, the head of the Change and Reform bloc, describes the ambassador as one of his closest contacts because Hale is honest with him, and says there will be no rivalry or political hostility as was the case with other American ambassadors over the last nine years or so.
Aoun also stresses that he is dealing with the new ambassador in a transparent manner, and that issues and sensitive files are being touched on, from the presidential election and the current regional situation to the bloc’s relationship with Hezbollah and the ambassador’s perception of both in terms of Lebanon’s political future.
Aoun was not afraid to mention to visitors that he feels the ambassador has realized the country needs a strong Lebanese president and that extending the current president’s mandate is not desirable. He said there was a good chance that a Christian figure who enjoys broad popularity, such as himself, would be elected.
Although Aoun knows that it is too early to confirm anything, discussions, consultations and a general atmosphere of rivalry among nations interested in the presidential race have already begun.
Meanwhile, some Western ambassadors have spoken of Hale’s admiration of Bassil and his handling of the Energy and Water Ministry and his criticism of the March 14 bloc for not taking advantage of the rift between Aoun and Hezbollah over the latter’s involvement in Syria. If such a move had been made, the FPM and the March 14 could have established ties that could have led to the destabilization of the alliance between Aoun and Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, the possibility of which is likely behind Hale’s flexibility toward Aoun rather than the upcoming presidential election.
Political sources following up on the recent communication between Aoun and former Prime Minister Saad Hariri said that despite the recent positive steps, the new direction has so far not led to the Future Movement deciding whether or not to support Aoun in the presidential election due to be held before May 25.
According to the sources, neither the Maronite nor the Sunni leaders have specific information relating to where the relationship has reached, and are instead sticking to making generalized comments on the developments.
The presidential election in Lebanon will have ramifications on Lebanon’s security, politics and economy, the sources said, as well as on Western, Arab and regional capitals, although no one has yet publicly specified who they will be backing.
Christian ministerial sources from both the March 8 and the March 14 blocs confirmed that Bkirki is studying and coordinating with the Vatican on how to involve itself in the presidential election in a way that would ensure its active role in delivering a unifying Christian figure, or at the very least, how it can represent the orientations of Christian political figures during this delicate stage when the community is in danger.
These same sources ruled out the prospect that four prominent Maronite political leaders – Aoun, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, Kataeb leader Amine Gemayel and Marada Movement leader MP Suleiman Franjieh – would make it to the presidency for several reasons but largely due to their inability to put aside their rivalries and agree on one candidate.
The more realistic option is a centrist taking the highest Maronite post in the Lebanese government, but a suitable candidate’s name has not yet been nominated. Bkirki must now try to deliver its candidate and not have its role marginalized as happened with former Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir.
The issue is also linked to considerations over what stage Lebanon is at and therefore what type of president is needed right now. For example, does the current situation call for a president who will prioritize security over all other files, someone who will be able to advance Lebanon’s interests, or perhaps a politician able to manage the country’s domestic disputes?
The sources expressed their fear that the imminent disagreement among the four Maronite leaders over a presidential candidate could delay the completion of the presidential election beyond its constitutional deadline, i.e. before May 25.
It is impossible to hand over the presidency to any of the four, particularly Aoun and Geagea, but nevertheless they are likely to fight to stay close to Baabda and in the process risk pushing Lebanon into a presidential vacuum at a time when it needs stability most, the sources said.
The sources’ main fears center on the possible security disturbances that might take place if such a vacuum did occur. But perhaps the experience of spring 2008 is still in the minds of the Lebanese. Will history repeat itself?