Myra Abdallah:Will Syria’s core ally in Lebanon be the next president?


Will Syria’s core ally in Lebanon be the next president?
Myra Abdallah/Now Lebanon/December 02/15

Sleiman Franjieh’s name has been suggested and discussed as a presidential candidate in Lebanon in the last week among various political leaders. Franjieh, the Maronite political leader from Zgharta, North Lebanon, is not only the head of the Marada Movement political party — he also comes from a political family that has played a large role in Lebanese history, more specifically Lebanese-Syrian history. A close ally of the Syrian regime, his family’s relationship with the Assads started in his grandfather’s time and has been preserved ever since.

 Sleiman’s grandfather, Sleiman Kabalan Franjieh, was the fifth president of Lebanon, from 1970 to 1975. He was the author of the famous quote, “My country is always righteous.” In her book My Country is Always Righteous Sonia Franjieh al-Rassi, Sleiman’s daughter, wrote, “With [Sleiman Kabalan] Franjieh, the affiliation of Lebanon to the Arabic camp became unconditional” to describe her father’s role in setting good relations between Lebanon and neighboring Arab countries, specifically Syria. According to a New York Times report, Sleiman Franjieh was accused in the machinegun slaying of nearly a dozen members of a competing clan. He then took refuge in the Syrian coastal city of Latakia, and there he became friends with two Syrian Army officers, Hafez and Rifaat Assad.

 The Lebanese Civil War began during his term as president, during which the Ehden massacre took place. In 1978, his son — Tony Franjieh, who was in charge of the Marada Brigade — was murdered in Ehden with his wife and daughter. A Kataeb Party squad was accused of the murder. Sleiman Franjieh Jr., being the only survivor in his family after the Ehden massacre, was brought to Syria by his grandfather and was taken under the wing of Bassel Assad, the eldest son of former president Hafez Assad and brother of Bashar. Franjieh has maintained a close relationship with Assad family ever since.

 A consensual candidate?
In the last few days Sleiman Franjieh has emerged as the leading candidate for president in Lebanon. Meeting with a large number of Lebanese politicians, from March 8 and March 14 coalitions equally, his chances of becoming the new Lebanese president after almost a year and a half of presidential vacuum are getting more serious. However, being a pro-Assad Lebanese politician and a March 8 coalition member, he is not exactly the picture of a consensual president.

“If Franjieh wanted to remain in the same political position, it would be hard for him to become president,” said Future Movement MP Ahmad Fatfat. “But, if he manages to be a consensual candidate and works for a certain settlement, we won’t use a veto against him. We all know the history of his politics, but we know that we won’t achieve anything if we keep focusing on the past.” Fatfat also told NOW that, in his opinion, if Franjieh is a consensual candidate, even head of Lebanese Forces Samir Geagea will agree to his presidency. “In 2014, Geagea confirmed that he supports the candidature of a consensual president,” he said. “Therefore, if Franjieh can be one, Geagea will probably not stand in the way.”

Future Movement MPs whom NOW spoke to said that the characteristics of a consensual president are simple: someone who can protect the Lebanese Constitution and the Taif Agreement and be representative of the Lebanese people’s unity. However, the way in which Sleiman Franjieh could be a consensual candidate is not clear.

Moreover, it is not the first time that Sleiman Franjieh’s name has been suggested. Almost a year ago, NOW published a report about Franjieh being among names discussed as a possible Future-Hezbollah deal loomed. Likewise, in a NOW opinion poll, Franjieh was the preferred presidential candidate.  “[Even this time], the idea of Franjieh becoming a president has been under discussion for over four months now,” said analyst Ibrahim Bayram. “Two months ago, Franiieh met Hassan Nasrallah and seriously discussed his candidature, although Nasrallah confirmed Hezbollah’s support for Michel Aoun as a presidential candidate unless the latter nominated Franjieh instead.”

Future Movement MP Bassem al-Shab said that today the country is standing on the edge of chaos and that the regional situation had changed drastically. “The previously-major powers in the region, specifically Iran and Saudi Arabia, have become secondary powers compared to the international powers that are currently involved in the region,” he told NOW. “In addition, regarding Lebanese issues, the positions of the March 8 and March 14 coalitions have become unclear. Therefore, Franjieh might be the solution for Lebanon, especially that his name was also suggested by Bkerke.”

What can Lebanese Forces do?
“It is known that Sleiman Franjieh is a Bashar Assad regime ally and a big supporter of Hezbollah and March 8,” said Bayram. “The question to be asked is why [Saad] Hariri decided to suggest Franjieh’s name now.” The Future Movement — and specifically the Hariri family — and Sleiman Franjieh have not had the best relationship over the past few years. This tense relationship goes back to the period prior to the assassination of former Prime Minister and Future Movement leader Rafic Hariri, which Hezbollah and the Syrian regime have been accused of.

However, the Future Movement seems to be supporting Franjieh’s candidature. Analysts NOW spoke to said that Future will get the prime minister’s position in return for accepting Franjieh. “It’s a foregone conclusion for Saad Hariri to become prime minister, especially that this deal brought him back to the political frame after he was out of it for a while,” said Bayram. “The Future Movement will accept a president who belongs to the March 8 coalition if the prime minister is a Future Movement member. In addition, there is more for them to gain. They might accept Franjieh as a president if, for example, the new electoral law is voted in their favor.” Furthermore, unlike Aoun, Franjieh is not a man who calls for reform. He might be a guarantee for the Future Movement because he will not try to change the current political composition.

In order to agree on the name of a president, the main component of the decision remains the Lebanese Christians. The Kataeb party probably won’t object on Franjieh in order to put an end to the presidential deadlock. Although Michel Aoun does not seem to be accepting the idea in the meantime, but the FPM might potentially compromise Aoun’s presidency if Hezbollah decided that Franjieh should become president, especially that the profile of a president according to Hezbollah is someone consensual who supports the resistance and has a strong Christian popular base, and Franjieh fits this requested profile. However, the Lebanese Forces are still the only objecting political party, especially that Head of the LF, Samir Geagea, considered Hariri’s initiative to nominate Franjieh for presidency was an “unjustified and incomprehensible strategic mistake.”

Lebanese Forces political officer Maya Sukkar told NOW that the party had decided, for the time being, to not comment on Franjieh’s potential election. “[Samir] Geagea is currently negotiating with different political Lebanese authorities — mainly Saad Hariri — in order to reach an agreement, she told NOW. “He will announce the Lebanese Forces’ final decision once it is made.” As the only party firmly objecting to Franjieh becoming president, it remains to be seen whether it can block his election should it choose to object.  “The situation today can be compared to the situation in 1988,” Bayram told NOW. “Back then, the equation was about choosing between Michael Daher and chaos. Today, I think the situation is about choosing between Sleiman Franjieh or a presidential vacuum for two additional years, and maybe more.”
Myra Abdallah tweets @myraabdallah