Current Situation: The Lebanese newly elected president
On October 31, the Lebanese Parliament elected the Free Patriotic Movement’s (FPM) leader, Michel Aoun, for President of Lebanon. The Lebanese newly elected president was elected in the second round of voting after 83 out of 127 members of parliament voted in his favor, following a failure to achieve two-thirds of the votes in the first round. Days later, on November 3, the newly elected President Aoun tasked Mustaqbal Movement leader Saad Hariri with the formation of a new government, after the latter was elected by the Lebanese Parliament as the new Prime Minister, receiving 110 votes out of 127. Additionally, on December 18, a national accord cabinet, led by the newly appointed Prime Minister Saad Hariri, was formed following the reaching of an agreement regarding portfolios. The cabinet includes 30 appointed ministers who represent various factions of the Lebanese political demography.
The aforementioned developments are highly notable given that they follow a two-and-a-half year deadlock, with Lebanon’s political system failing to elect a President, as well as the fact that the recently formed government was agreed upon by rival political elements. This includes the FPM’s leader and a prominent member of the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance, Michel Aoun, and the Mustaqbal Movement’s and March 14 alliance leader Rafiq Hariri. Thus, it is clear that the two sides struck a deal that includes the endorsement of Aoun by Hariri, while in return the latter would be appointed as the new Prime Minister. Previously, tensions have been elevated between these two political adversaries, mainly surrounding the FPM leader’s alliance with Hezbollah, as well as his support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In light of these recent developments, we assess that the political situation in Lebanon is liable to significantly stabilize over the coming months due to the Lebanese newly elected president.
In this context, Rafiq Hariri’s willingness to make concessions and his endorsement of Aoun can potentially be linked to a number of factors. For instance, over the past several months, Hariri’s popularity has been decreasing across the country. This is highlighted by the Hariri-backed candidates’ poor performance in May’s municipal election, including in Tripoli, a city which has traditionally been a known stronghold of Hariri. By finally agreeing to endorse Aoun’s appointment as president, and the placing of himself in the role of the Prime Minister, it remains likely that Hariri seeks to secure his political power as Lebanon’s most powerful political figure, thus avoiding the risk of a further decrease in his popularity. Additionally, in light of the growing influence by Hezbollah and its ally President Bashar Assad, it is possible that Hariri is attempting to assert his power as a prime minister in order to curb any potential attempt by the former to subsequently bolster their influence in Lebanon.
Lastly, on part of the March 8 Alliance, namely Hezbollah and the FPM’s leader Michel Aoun, we assess that by making such concessions they attempt to improve their domestic image in the eyes of the Lebanese public. In this context, over the past several years, the Shiite militant group, which is the main political ally and backer of Aoun, has been criticized for its support for the Syrian government and its participation in the Syrian conflict. With this in mind, by becoming Lebanon’s “number one citizen”, Michel Aoun and his March 8 alliance may seek to appear less sectarian.
Expected political stability is liable to diminish instances of civil unrest, Sunni militant activity in coming months; Hezbollah-linked activity likely to increase in coming months.
With this in mind, on the ground, we assess that the aforementioned political concessions will likely lead to a significant quieting of civil society activity and incidents of unrest, as well as strikes by Lebanon’s labor unions, which witnessed a peak in the last two years. Such unrest was largely attributed to the persistent refusal of Lebanese lawmakers to resolve socioeconomic issues, given the lack of a president. This includes, for example, during the summer of 2015, when numerous wide-scale demonstrations were held to denounce the Lebanese government’s inability to solve the issue of overflowing garbage and inadequate disposal.
With the Lebanese newly elected president and formation of a government, these issues are liable to be finally addressed by the Lebanese parliament, and potentially resolved, likely leading to a resulting decline in related protest movements over the coming weeks and months. Furthermore, given the interest of multiple regional powers to sustain Lebanon’s long-term stability, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, it remains possible such countries will enhance their financial support to Lebanon, thus allowing the latter to effectively solve some of the socioeconomic and labor-related issues over the coming months. That said, should internal battles within future governments prolong the resolution of socioeconomic issues, the likelihood for additional protest campaigns will increase, as activists will denounce the government’s ineffectiveness, despite the short-term anticipated political stability.
With regard to the threat of militancy, in light of the possible increase of financial support by the international community to the Lebanese state, there remains a potential that such aid will be directed to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), thus enhancing its capabilities and resulting in a potential decline in militant activity over the coming months. This is further likely given the anticipated reduction of criticism towards Hezbollah’s militant activity, which traditionally emanated from Hariri’s political camp, thus enabling the Shiite militant group to operate more freely against militants across the country without the partial restraints of negative public opinion. However, due to such elements’ increased interest in destabilizing the Lebanese state, Sunni Islamist militants are liable to persist in their efforts to conduct acts of militancy throughout the country, albeit to a more limited extent.
Finally, the new political conditions bear the potential to increase the threat of an escalation of hostilities between Hezbollah and Israel along the border area over the long term. This can be explained by the previously mentioned anticipated decrease of criticism regarding Hezbollah’s militant activity, given the formation of a unity government between the Shiite group’s main political ally and their chief critic, namely Hariri. With the potential removal of this obstacle, the Shiite militant organization may be able to operate more freely along the border with Israel. With that being said, in light of Hezbollah’s deep involvement in the Syrian conflict alongside the Syrian government, which required heavy deployments by the group on the expense of the border area with Israel, the probability for an escalation of hostilities between Israel and the Iranian-backed group into a broad conflict does remain low at this time.
We advise against all nonessential travel to Lebanon at this time, while restricting essential travel to Beirut’s northwestern districts. Those operating or residing in Beirut are advised to continue avoiding nonessential travel to the interiors of the capital’s southern suburbs, including Dahiyeh neighborhood, given the potential for militant attacks, spontaneous Hezbollah checkpoints, and civil unrest.
Due to ongoing instability, it is advised to avoid all travel to Lebanon’s outlying areas, particularly near the Syrian border, the Bekaa Valley, the area south of the Litani River, and the cities of Tripoli, Hermel, Baalbek, Arsal, Tyre, and Sidon. In such areas there remains an increased risk for sectarian related attacks and abductions targeting foreign nationals as well as local Lebanese residents. Travelers are additionally advised to keep identification and travel documents on their persons at all times, due to the increasing prevalence of Lebanese military or Hezbollah checkpoints in Beirut. When coming in contact with a security checkpoint, comply with the instructions of security personnel, regardless of their affiliation, avoiding behavior which may be viewed as threatening.