The election of Michel Aoun (below right), as president of Lebanon and his appointment of long-time rival Saad Hariri (below left), as prime minister after two-and-a-half years of crippling political gridlock have drawn a regional sigh of relief. It has probably averted a political and economic meltdown but this unlikely partnership between two politicians who have been at daggers drawn for years has wider implications in the Middle East.
The most important of these is that Shia Iran, striving to become the Middle East’s paramount power, has shifted the balance of power away from Saudi Arabia, the beacon of the mainstream Sunnis, in a continuing confrontation that could affect the entire region. Despite the evident political compromise that occurred in Lebanon, it is clear “that neighbouring Syria and nearby Iraq are not the places to look for signs of such a compromise”, the US-based global security consultancy Stratfor observed.
Aoun, an 83-year-old former army commander who has long hungered for the presidency, finally secured it on October 31st, primarily through a ground-breaking alliance with the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, the most powerful force in Lebanon, on February 6th, 2006, that breached Lebanon’s rigid sectarian barriers. The pact was based on Aoun securing the presidency, with Hezbollah’s support. Six months later, Hezbollah triggered a 34-day war with Israel. Under a 1943 agreement, Lebanon’s president must be a Maronite, while the prime ministry is reserved for Sunnis and the speakership of parliament for Shias.
So now, for the first time, the Tehran-backed Shias have unprecedented influence in the presidential Baabda palace, although it remains to be seen how they use it.
This new era in Lebanese politics suggests that, even though Tehran had to accept Hariri, named prime minister on November 3rd, it has supplanted Riyadh, which had championed Lebanon’s Sunnis and had strongly opposed Aoun’s nomination to fill the politically dangerous presidential vacuum.
This was caused in May 2014 when the six-year presidential term of Michel Suleiman, another ex-army commander, expired with parliament unable to elect a successor, largely through the machinations of Hezbollah. The breakthrough, via French mediation, only came after Hariri, his popularity at an all-time low, endorsed Aoun after months of backing the Maronite leader’s rivals. Significantly, Hezbollah abstained from endorsing Hariri.
The Saudis have been gradually giving up on Lebanon as Hezbollah’s power grew.
In 2015, Riyadh, increasingly alarmed at Iran’s influence growing in Lebanon, cut off billions of dollars in military aid to protest anti- Saudi pronouncements by Aoun’s son-in-law, then Foreign minister. Riyadh withdrew its ambassador in September.
The Aoun-Hariri partnership, part of a complex power-sharing agreement, is an unlikely, and potentially volatile, one. Hariri, 46, leader of the Sunni-dominated March 14 alliance, previously served as prime minister of a national unity government in 2009-11 that was eventually sabotaged by Hezbollah.
His endorsement of Aoun is all the more surprising since the event that propelled him into politics — the February 14th, 2005, assassination of his billionaire father and former premier Rafik Hariri — allegedly involved Hezbollah.
Four of its members have been indicted by a UN-mandated court in The Hague. Hezbollah denies any involvement.
This article by Ed Blanche originally appeared in The Arab Weekly