The dispute between Lebanese President Michel Aoun and parliament Speaker Nabih Berri has gone beyond the promotion of military academy officers to enter the realm of constitutional and sectarian differences that are a culmination of years of tensions between the two leaders.
The two officials see themselves as the respective leaders of their sect, Aoun of Maronite Christians and Berri of Shi’ites. They have however been separated by a “lack of chemistry” that dates back to at least 2009 and this dispute will likely cast its shadow on the government, May 6 parliamentary elections and beyond.
The current dispute reopens old wounds among Shi’ites over the return of the Maronite-Sunni equation (despite its imbalance) that was prevalent before the signing of the Taif Accord in 1989. This has therefore led Berri to express his commitment to the agreement that ended Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. It enforced the role of Shi’ites in power through the executive authority and represented in the signature of the finance minister.
Shi’ites have assumed the Finance Ministry portfolio in two consecutive governments in the post-Taif period before it was held by Sunni figures in the cabinets of late former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. It again fell in Shi’ite hands in the governments formed in 2014 and 2016.
The Aoun-Berri dispute erupted in December when the president and Prime Minister Saad Hariri signed a decree, without the signature of the finance minister, to give priority in promotion to military academy officers who graduated in 1994.
These officers joined the academy when Aoun was head of a “transition government”, which comprised three Christian military figures, before he was forced out of power by the Syrian regime in 1990. The military stipulates that officers must spend three years of training before graduating. Those officers however were forced to spend a year at home due to the Lebanese war. They did however rejoin the academy at the end of the war, graduating in 1994.
Berri deemed December’s decree a violation of legal norms because it incurs financial burdens on the state, which requires the signature of Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil, one of the speaker’s most prominent representatives in government.
Aoun declared on December 25 that granting the 1994 officers priority was “justified” and due to “certain political spite at the time, they were sent home and summoned two years later. We therefore tried to give back to them half of what they are owed.”
They were “sent home” at the time when Aoun was ousted from power in 1990.
The president declared that anyone objecting to the decree he signed with the premier should plead his case before the judiciary.
Responding to his declaration, Berri stated: “Only the weak go to the judiciary.”
He also warned that Aoun’s actions violate the Taif Accord and constitution, throwing the ball in the president’s court.
The truth of the matter is that ties between Aoun and Berri had never witnessed positive development since the former returned to Lebanon from exile in Paris in 2005. The differences between them took a turn for the worse when Hariri reached a settlement with Aoun that saw him elected president in 2016, knowing that the speaker was one of the most ardent objectors of his candidacy.
Observers are not shy in pointing out the “lack of chemistry” between the president and speaker, saying that had they enjoyed good ties, the current dispute between them would not have reached such a complicated phase.
The lack of meetings between Aoun and Berri has only exacerbated the problem. Members of the president’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) have said that a meeting between them will help resolve the issue, especially in wake of media escalation between the camps of either official.
“Hezbollah”, an ally to both Aoun and Berri, has tried to mediate a solution between them. Hariri meanwhile announced that he is not concerned with such efforts, therefore opening a debate on the role of Shi’ites in the executive authority.
Shi’ite concerns of elimination
The Shi’ites’ concern of the elimination of their role in the executive authority has come to the forefront in the Aoun-Berri dispute because Hassan Khalil’s signature was excluded from the promotion decree. The president and speaker’s camps have however denied that such sectarian and constitutional concerns are at play.
Former deputy Speaker Elie Firzli told Asharq Al-Awsat: “There are often points in the Lebanese constitution that end up being contentious issues between the president, speaker and prime minister due to their multiple interpretations.”
“We have always stressed the need to implement and commit to the Taif Accord. We have also spoken of the need for a constitutional authority that can serve as arbiter in interpreting its disputed articles,” he added.
He said the current dispute between Aoun and Berri does not revolve around the “Shi’ite voice” because the same problem would have arisen had a finance minister from another sect been present in cabinet.
He therefore reiterated the demand for the establishment of an authority that could act as arbiter in constitutional disputes.
“The new parliament should resolve this predicament,” stressed Firzli.
He did not deny however that Shi’ites may be concerned about being shut out of the executive authority given the current Christian-Sunni agreement.
“This does not mean that the Christian-Sunni relationship should be abandoned. It should instead grow and develop because it is in the country’s high national interest,” he added, while emphasizing that the Sunni-Shi’ite relationship must also be given the opportunity to grow.
Other sources said that these concerns were unfounded because “political agreements are part of the democratic process in Lebanon and in politics there are alliances and rivalries. This is normal.”
“All sides are in agreement over the constitution and Taif that should not be violated,” they told Asharq Al-Awsat.
The current dispute is not sectarian, they stressed.
The Taif transformed the Lebanese system of rule from the presidential to the collective whereby the executive authority is now represented by the government when previously it was limited to the president, who was aided by the ministers. The accord therefore ensured that powers are distributed in a manner that offers fair representation for all sects.
The pre-Taif period saw “bilateralism in rule” where the decrees needed the signature of the Maronite president and Sunni prime minister, knowing that the president had the authority to appoint and sack the premier.
In the post-Taif period, the government now controls rule and its decrees need the signature of the concerned minister, as well as that of the president. The signature of the finance minister is needed for any decree that incurs financial burdens.
Political researcher George Alam told Asharq Al-Awsat that talk of the marginalization of Shi’ites is valid at this point, referring to what Berri once said: “The Lebanese paid 150,000 lives in the civil war for the Taif so that the decision-making power of the state does not lie in the hands of one person, but in a cabinet that represents consensus in Lebanon.”
Given that Lebanon will witness parliamentary elections in May, Alam said that the problem will be resolved if Aoun and Berri met and reached an agreement that would see the latter remain as speaker in the post-elections phase. Observers however remain skeptical that the dispute could be resolved in this way.
Alam added that the Aoun-Hariri understanding did arouse concerns among Shi’ites and led Berri to question his fate as speaker of parliament if elections are held. He has been holding that position since 1992.
Given the current political scene however, there appear to be no alternatives to the speaker at this point, he noted. The post-elections phase may have other options in store, “especially since Lebanon is not an isolated island from regional changes,” he remarked.
The changes in the regions may bring about new equations, similar to the ones that led to the Aoun-Hariri agreement, he said without elaborating.
Alam did not rule out the possibility that the Aoun-Berri dispute could affect government work, while also highlighting “Hezbollah’s” neutral stance on the problem involving its ally, describing it as “negative.”
Differences between Aoun and Berri had emerged from as far back as 2005 when the former returned to Lebanon. Soon after his return, Aoun signed an understanding with “Hezbollah”, Berri’s most prominent ally, to form a Shi’ite-Maronite balance. This did not help in adding warmth to ties between the two leaders. The speaker at one point described his rival as “the ally of my ally.”
Tensions between them exacerbated during the 2009 parliamentary elections when Aoun’s FPM fielded candidates in the southern Christian-majority Jezzine region against Berri’s candidate. In the end, the speaker’s candidate was defeated in a battle that Aoun dubbed “restoring Jezzine’s voice.”
Even though the two sides were part of five governments since 2008, differences between them came to the forefront and soured when Aoun refused the extension of parliament’s term in 2013 and again in 2017. He even went so far as to describe the parliament as “illegal”. Tensions boiled even further when Berri nominated MP Suleiman Franjieh, instead of Aoun, for president.