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Middle East

Political ploys gather pace in Lebanon

The Lebanese are known for their sense of drama, but not irony. Yet there is more to Samir Geagea's move than meets the eye. Michel Aoun's presidential bid is far from secure, as Martin Jay reports from Beirut.

Tensions in Lebanon, linked directly to the war in neighboring Syria, could be dramatically eased due to a radical change of heart from one of the nation's key presidential candidates who has decided

to pull out of the race to support his nemesis.

At first sight, the move is seen as a considerable victory for Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and a setback for the Saudis whose influence appears to be fading.

Lebanon has been in a state of political paralysis for over 18 months when a candidate with a lucid majority of support could not be found in a system which requires a 2/3 turnout from its parliament. Two aging warlords, General Michel Aoun and Dr Samir Geagea - both Christians with controversial backgrounds from Lebanon's civil war (1975 to 1990) - locked horns in May of 2014 in a political battle which saw the parliament convene 35 times without electing either candidate.

Political thunderbolt

Yet this week, where storms pounded this tiny country perched on the edge of the Arab Peninsula, a thunderbolt shook the political establishment and a weary electorate who were getting used to the failed state and the country slipping to new lows of desperation.

group of protesters copyright: Juliane Metzker

The Lebanese people are hoping that the latest developments will lead out of the impasse

Geagea, apparently irked by his political master, Saad Hariri - who nominated another candidate for the post of president - did a U-turn and backed his own arch enemy, Aoun, an elderly and perhaps craven figure who many Lebanese remember for running to the French embassy in Beirut once the Syrians attacked his own army in 1989 and for remaining in France for seven years before returning to Lebanon.

Aoun was one of the strongest opponents of the Saudi-brokered Taif agreement, which ended Lebanon's civil war and gave Syria extraordinary powers in Lebanon. Yet these days, Syria's Assad is more of a friend than a foe with the 82-year-old former prime minister and, if elected, Aoun will officially make Lebanon an Iranian satellite, which many believe could usher in a period of calm.

Fragile Lebanon is at the center of a geopolitical tug of war

between Iran

and Saudi Arabia and, although small, is considered by both regional powers to be an important jewel in their crowns. Both Aoun and Geagea share many views on Lebanon but both are divided on which Muslim groups they align themselves with - and which regional super powers - which raises more questions as to which direction Aoun - considered as Hezbollah's man - would take.

Political divide

However, Geagea is so staunchly against the Shiite movement (Iran's proxy army which fights alongside Assad's regime forces in Syria), it has stunned most in Lebanon, with many hardly able to believe the news.

In an interview in 2014, Geagea repeatedly drove home the point that Hezbollah needs not only to be disarmed in Lebanon but needs to get its troops out of Syria - the latter involvement seen by many as the root cause of all of Lebanon's ailments.

What could have turned Gaegae, whose recalcitrance toward Hezbollah, is so widely known? And what's the trade off?

Regional meddling is at the heart of this latest move. Geagea has not even remotely abandoned his Saudi support, but merely orchestrated a new tactic which is backed by Saudi Arabia's deputy prime minister Mohamed Bin Nayef, who analysts claim is jockeying for power over Lebanon with the kingdom's new minister of defence, Muhammad Bin Salman. The latter is close to Saad Hariri - who is the leader of Lebanon's March 14 opposition block which Geagea is aligned to - and who in December proposed Geagea's Christian foe Suleiman Frangieh as presidential candidate, a move which would have also installed Hariri as prime minister.

Many claim that Aoun now has a clear run to the presidency. But cynical observers believe that Geagea's latest move to support him is a devious ploy to actually eliminate him.

"Frangieh as president would give KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia - the ed.] an upper hand for the next six years…however Hariri didn't have the courtesy to inform his ally Geagea, who is sensitive to Frangieh due to a long lasting hostility dating back to the civil war and the same Christian area they both compete over in Northern Lebanon," the respected academic and author Dr Jamal Wakim of the Lebanese University told DW.

Opaque outcome

two men at a table Photo: Aldo Ayoub

Geagea's motives are being scrutinized

"So Geagea made another move, supported by Bin Nayef, to nominate Aoun, knowing he could never become president," said Wakim, who believes that a two-horse race with Aoun and Frangieh will conclude with the latter the eventual winner.

Indeed, contrary to media hype, Aoun still has a lot of ground to cover to secure the 2/3 majority in the parliament. Even his own supporters candidly admit it.

"If we are talking numbers, it's not enough," member of parliament Ziad al-Aswad told DW. "But if elected, his first priority will be to resume the full sovereignty of the state as people in Lebanon have no respect for it or the constitution - plus a new agreement between the communities to

stop confrontation between religious groups."

But there's a long road ahead for Aoun. For those who know Geagea, many find it inconceivable that he could give such enfettered support for the Hezbollah camp.

Indeed, his entire political forte has been forged on his uncompromising stand on Hezbollah.

"Of course [Hezbollah] must be removed from the Syrian war. There are some things which we need to take a clear stand about. Hezbollah should not remain in Syria," he told DW in an interview in 2014. "We cannot afford to have an illegal paramilitary organization within the state. We cannot afford to keep these strategic military decisions outside the state."

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