Feud between president and speaker threatens Lebanon’s March 8 alliance

At daggers’ end. Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun (R), Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri (2nd R) and parliament Speaker Nabih Berri (L) attend a parade at a military academy in Fayadyeh near Beirut

BEIRUT - A new crisis is looming in Beirut, threatening to cripple the already highly dysfunctional Lebanese government. This time it isn’t between Hezbollah and its enemies in the Western-backed March 14 bloc but within the powerful and hitherto united March 8 alliance.
A major feud is snowballing between the long-serving Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, 79, and President Michel Aoun, 82 — two staunch allies of Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah. If not controlled, the conflict could have disastrous consequences for the March 8 alliance, especially ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for May.
Aoun and Berri have known each other for a very long time and were at daggers’ end throughout Lebanon’s long civil war. When it started in 1975, Aoun was an army officer who refused the break-up of the armed forces along sectarian lines. A Maronite Christian, he felt sidelined and over-muscled by the country’s Muslim militias, a coalition of Sunni, Shia and Palestinian groups operating under the command of Yasser Arafat. Berri was commander of one of those groups, the all-Shia Amal Movement, which he still leads today, 40 years later.
In 1988, Aoun became prime minister of Lebanon in clear violation of the National Pact, a gentlemen’s agreement between Lebanese politicians that allocated the presidency to the Maronites and the prime minister’s post to Sunni Muslims.
Berri mobilised his Shia power base to fight Aoun and ejected him from Baabda Palace, at the gunpoint of the Syrian Army, in October 1990. Aoun was exiled to France, where he remained until 2005.
Berri became speaker of parliament in 1992, a post he still holds. He became a protege of the Syrians while Aoun spent 15 years calling for their departure from Lebanon. During his exile, Aoun accused Berri of autocracy, corruption and submissiveness to the Syrians.
When he returned to Lebanon after Rafik Hariri’s assassination in 2005, Aoun promised to bring down the political system altogether, promoting himself as an agent of reform and change.
Aoun and Berri set aside their differences in 2006 when Aoun reached a ground-breaking alliance with Nasrallah, cemented during that year’s summer war with Israel. He promised to protect and support Hezbollah’s armed struggle and Hezbollah pledged to make him president of Lebanon one day — a promise it fulfilled in November 2016.
Berri signed off on Aoun’s presidency, rather unwillingly, unable to say no to Nasrallah. For ten years, they worked in the same pro-Syrian camp, struggling to win an open conflict with Saad Hariri and the Saudi-backed March 14 coalition.
The tension was visible, however, in the two-way relationship between parliament and the presidency. Aoun considers himself a father figure, above all Lebanese politicians — more senior, constitutionally and politically than Berri, who writes him off as ungrateful. He claims that if it weren’t for his support and that of the Amal Movement, Aoun would never have entered the Presidential palace.
For 11 years (2005-16), Aoun was just a player in a coalition of parties that was partially headed by Berri, who said Aoun is overplaying his presidential role and should not forget those who made him president, arguing that they could unseat him if they should wish.
In short, Berri doesn’t take Aoun very seriously as president. Big egos are obstructing progress, topped with a clear lack of personal chemistry between the two men, despite the fact they are politically allied — or should be — ahead of next May.
Aoun in January signed a decree, using powers vested in the presidency, advancing the rank of officers who had graduated from the military academy in 1994, giving them one-year seniority. The decree requires that they be promoted in rank and payment, meaning that by the constitution it needs to be signed off by Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil, a member of Amal and a Berri protege.
Aoun ignored the finance minister, signing the decree without referring either to Berri or to Khalil. Berri was furious, arguing that Aoun violated the 1989 Taif Accord, which curtails the president’s powers and gives much of his authority to the cabinet of ministers.
Aoun snapped back that he alone is the president of the republic and the former commander of the Lebanese Army, able to promote or fire officers, without having to seek the approval of any Lebanese politician. He suggested that Berri take the matter to court (given that Justice Minister Salim Jreissati is a member of Aoun’s party). Berri said he would once the judiciary becomes independent — in reference to Aoun’s influence over the judicial branch. He proclaimed the constitution, Taif Accord and National Pact “dead” due to the handling of Aoun.
A recording of Aoun’s son-in-law, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, addressing members of his Free Patriotic Movement was leaked January 28. In it he described Berri as a “thug.” Khalil snapped that Bassil was a political dwarf and Amal members demanded a public apology. They took to the streets the following night, cutting off roads and setting tyres on fire. Berri instructed Shia businessmen in the diaspora to boycott a conference for Lebanese expatriates in Abidjan.
Nasrallah is attempting to mediate the conflict before it gets any bigger. To restore equilibrium among the prime minister, president and speakership of parliament, one suggestion is to write a law calling for all three leaders to sign off such legislation, something Aoun furiously resists, saying it would cripple his constitutional and political rights as president.
If not solved in the next two months, this will have serious effects on the performance of the March 8 alliance next May. In the elections of 2009, Aoun’s team won 19 seats, while Berri’s lot dropped from 14 to 13. Both planned to raise their share of seats in the next chamber, which might be hard if the two leaders are not speaking to each other.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and author of Under the Black Flag (IB Tauris, 2015). He is a former Carnegie scholar and founding chairman of the Damascus History Foundation.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.