BEIRUT: Unease, if not outright disharmony, has long characterized President Michel Aoun’s relationship with Speaker Nabih Berri. Berri was among the country’s few political leaders who continued to oppose Aoun’s bid for the presidency even after it became evident that the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) founder would ascend to the country’s top post with the backing of Hezbollah, the speaker’s main ally.
In an article published only days before Aoun’s election, I argued that while Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea’s re-alignment could land Aoun the presidency, it will be Berri who shapes the dynamic of Aoun’s presidential tenure.
A dynamic, which has recently reared its ugly head with the outbreak of a quarrel between the president and Berri over a recent decree granting seniority to army officers who served under Aoun when he was army commander in the late 1980’s.
Berri insists that the decree is unconstitutional because it lacks the signature of Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil, a close aide to the speaker.
Berri wants Aoun, the state’s top Maronite official, and Hariri, the Sunni community’s highest-ranking representative, to acknowledge that the post of finance minister, which sources close to Berri claim the Taif Accord has reserved to Shiites, enjoys veto power in the executive branch under the current sectarian power-sharing arrangement.
In other words, Berri is sending a clear message to both Aoun and Hariri, who co-signed the decree, that the finance ministry portfolio in the post-legislative election Cabinet must be reserved to a Shiite loyal to the speaker.
This scenario explains why Hezbollah has refrained up to this point from mediating a compromise between Berri, with whom the party monopolizes Shiite representation, and Aoun, a trusted Christian ally who provides political cover to the militant group.
This power play becomes further evident when taking into account reports that Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and Hariri’s Future Movement have struck an agreement to join efforts in the upcoming parliamentary elections, and discussed a potential line-up of the post-election Cabinet.
The speaker’s concerns over such a potential agreement could also explain why Agriculture Minister Ghazi Zeaiter, a member of Berri’s Amal Movement clashed with Hariri over the government's agenda before storming out of the last Cabinet session. Zeaiter argued that priority issues pertaining to farmers across Lebanon were being left out of the agenda, prompting Hariri to respond that setting the Cabinet’s agenda was within his prerogative as Lebanon’s Premier.
Berri’s concerns over a dominant Maronite-Sunni partnership in power date back to the days that preceded Aoun’s election. Back then, the speaker tied his support for Aoun’s election to a comprehensive political settlement that involves an agreement over the nomination of a new prime minister, the makeup of the cabinet that follows the presidential election, and the ratification of a new electoral law.
These concerns have resurfaced once again.
This time, however, Aoun is unlikely to emerge victorious because Berri’s defeat will reflect collectively on where the Shiites--today represented by Hezbollah and Amal Movement--stand within post-Taif Lebanon.
The significant repercussions of the Aoun-Berri feud on the country’s power-sharing arrangement mean the conflict is likely to drag beyond the parliamentary elections.
But why assume that either leader is in a rush to solve the crisis?
As one FPM supporter recently told me, “I won’t be voting for the FPM if Aoun concedes to Berri.”
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