In the second and last episode of excerpts from the memoirs of Lebanon’s parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Asharq Al-Awsat focuses on the agreements that paved the way for the election of Michel Aoun as president following two-and-half-years of presidential vacuum.
In his memoirs, which will soon be published by Dar Bilal, Berri recalls how then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri decided to go back on his decision to support the election of former Minister Suleiman Franjieh in favor of Aoun.
He also talks about his frank discussion with Aoun, when he told him that he would not vote for him as president.
Berri begins the narration, citing a festival for his Amal movement in the coastal city of Tyre on August 31, 2016, two months before Aoun’s election:
“This festival was an opportunity for me to talk about political futility that some parties were practicing with regard to disrupting the government and the parliament. I said at the time: I hear words from here and there about building a state; it is beautiful indeed. But heading towards a state demands stopping political stalling and removing the idea that each one of us has the power or veto over national decisions.
“I also tell you, stop disrupting the institutions and let us avoid political meddling and abide by the constitution. I honestly tell you that faced with the forces that continue to revolt against various political principles, we will confront all this with the power of the people…
“I cannot forget that day. I was following up on the preparations for the festival and was ready to head to the square of the Imam Mousa al-Sadr Festival in Tyre. Suddenly the phone rang, and I was informed that an explosive device had detonated in the Zahle region. I was shaken by the news… I learned that a bus transporting Amal movement supporters had been targeted. My deep regret was for the lady who was martyred, as well as for the wounded. It was a bloody message.
“From the Imam’s square in Tyre, I almost couldn’t control myself in front of the crowds that gathered for the festival, as well as those who flooded the streets leading to the square. At the beginning of the speech, I found myself addressing the hundreds of thousands of people and telling them if I could only change the celebration into prayer… The scene of the people in front of me was touching, and I could not express the extent of my affection in front of these young people who defied the explosion and came from all over the country…”
Berri recounts how some parties have exploited the opportunity to manipulate his speech at the event.
“In my speech I referred to political stalling and coyness, so they started to project this description on whatever suited their political interests, although my words on this matter were very clear... I did not mean any particular person or side. That day, I replied to them, saying I will teach you the Arabic language… Didn’t I say each of us? Didn’t I say, let’s avoid political tampering and abide by the constitution?”
He continues: “I was shocked by their attempt to manipulate my words and suggest that I was trying to put preconditions on the government formation.”
The Lebanese speaker says in his memoirs that he made sure to tell all sides that it was necessary to admit that much time had been lost and that it was crucial to reach an agreement over the presidential elections.
“I remember that I gave them an example and told them: let’s suppose that the president was elected without prior agreement, and a person was assigned to form the government, also without prior agreement… In this case, we would have done nothing but complicate the situation…
“During that period, the presidential elections were like a vicious cycle… At the beginning of October 2016, Prime Minister Saad Hariri was still committed to nominating MP Suleiman Franjieh, based on the agreement that was concluded between them in Paris. Had the presidential election session taken place at that time, Franjieh would have been elected, because he had the support of more than 70 deputies, and [Berri’s] Development and Liberation bloc publicly endorsed his candidacy. However, the session was not convened due to lack of consensus.
“Samir Geagea then surprised everyone by endorsing the candidacy of General Michel Aoun. The speculation at the time was that Hariri would stick to Franjieh’s nomination. I remember that during that period, I met Hariri and told him I support you, but no more than that, this is your battle, and you have to assume responsibility. I am ready to help you if you continue to support Franjieh. Hariri did not conceal the fact that he was feeling overwhelmed and under pressure, so I urged him to persevere.
“However, the situation soon changed and my predictions turned to be true. Hariri began to go back on supporting Franjieh’s candidacy and prepare for Aoun’s nomination. The first signs were evident in the lengthy meeting that Hariri held with Aoun at Rabieh in late September 2016. That day, before Hariri headed to Rabieh, he met with Franjieh.
“I would like to point out here again that Hezbollah had already publicly announced his support for General Aoun as the final candidate. Basically, our position was not the same regarding the presidential elections: the party had its candidate, and I had my own.”
Berri recounts how Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FMP) launched a campaign against him, accusing him of violating the constitution.
“I was surprised at that time by a campaign by the FPM and its media, accusing me of working against the constitution. They said that while a near consensus on Aoun was reached, Berri was still rejecting his election. I did not let these words slide, so I refuted the allegations and told them that it was not the time for political games.
“I, Nabih Berri, am the keenest on the constitution, and the most committed to its provisions. I challenge you to prove your credibility.
“In the second week of October and as I faced negative responses to my request for a package of prior understandings, I decided to take a step back and watch Hariri announce his final position on Aoun’s nomination.
“After Hariri formally adopted his candidacy, General Aoun visited me in Ain al-Tineh, and we held a friendly meeting and a very frank conversation. I insisted on my position that the safest way to hold the presidential elections was the understanding package that I had proposed, which would pave the way for the new presidential term and remove all obstacles.
“When he asked me about my position on the election session that I scheduled for Oct. 31, 2016, I told him: You know, Your Excellency, the extent of my affection and respect for you, but I tell you frankly that I will not vote for you.
“He asked me: Why, I know that your relationship with Gebran [Bassil, Aoun’s son-in-law] has improved.
“I replied: I will not vote for you, because of my commitment to others.
“He said: I understand your position.
“But I stressed: In any case, I assure you, Your Excellency, that disrupting the quorum of the presidential election session is in my hands, but I will not do so.”