Lebanese presidential candidate Michel Moawad on putting ego aside to prevent ‘chaos’
The circus over who will become Lebanon’s next president continues to scale new heights.
Speaker Nabih Berri has even stopped scheduling presidential sessions in the deeply divided 128-seat legislature, while two new MPs are holding an indefinite sit-in in parliament in a bid to find a successor to Michel Aoun.
And then, on Monday, representatives of the US, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt warned Prime Minister Najib Mikati — whose cabinet is in a caretaker role — that they would reconsider “all ties” if Lebanon failed to elect a president.
The governance vacuum comes at a time when Lebanon finds itself entrenched in one of the worst economic crisis in modern history, blamed on decades of corruption and mismanagement by the country’s elite.
Amid the deadlock, one name has stood out from the rest in the 11 parliamentary sessions.
Michel Moawad has consistently courted the support of a third of parliament — a long way off the two-thirds majority required in the first round and the absolute majority needed in subsequent sessions in the same round — but his voice still carries weight.
“Having a president is extremely important,” he told The National from his office in Baabda, minutes away from the presidential palace that Mr Aoun departed from in October.
“But … it’s not the election of any president. It’s the election of a president that is sovereigntist, that is reformist, and that is ready to tackle clearly the issues and problems that have led Lebanon to the total collapse that we are living in today.”
Politics runs in the family. His mother Nayla was once an MP and minister. His father Rene was assassinated in 1989 after serving as president for only 17 days.
“I lost my father — I was 17. And, of course, after that, I had that very big questioning,” he said.
“Is it worth continuing the battle? Or should I drop everything and do something else? And that has been a question that has haunted me throughout my political and public life.”
Lebanon has a sovereignty problem
The bloc behind Mr Moawad, which is sometimes referred to as the “opposition”, is an array of traditional political parties, independent MPs and others linked to the 2019 protests against Lebanon’s ruling classes that led to the collapse of the government at the time.
But, generally speaking, they are united by their opposition to Iran-backed Hezbollah, the powerful armed group and political party with significant influence across Lebanon.
So, when there is talk of a president dedicated to supporting Lebanon’s sovereignty, Mr Moawad sees a problem where “the state does not have the monopoly on arms, where the strategic decisions are taken today by Hezbollah”.
He also attributes Lebanon’s apparent isolation on the world stage to the problem of sovereignty.
Gulf countries were once major supporters of Lebanon but have distanced themselves amid Hezbollah’s alleged influence in the country’s day-to-day operations.
Mr Moawad is also keen to stress the important of an independent judiciary — long politicised in Lebanon — and the need for a meritocratic system.
Hezbollah is believed to support Suleiman Frangieh, a close ally of Syria who is also from Mr Moawad’s hometown of Zgharta.
Together with its allies, Hezbollah has largely cast blank ballots during elections to pick a president. The party attributes this to the lack of a realistic candidate from its opponents in parliament.
A bloc led by the group held the majority in the previous parliament and many positions in the current cabinet.
That bloc includes the Amal Movement, Hezbollah’s Shiite ally, and the Free Patriotic Movement founded by Mr Aoun.
One issue, Mr Moawad believes, is that there is no full consensus within the opposition grouping.
While he has secured more support, a handful of other votes from potentially sympathetic MPs have been for other candidates or protest ballots.
“I think that transforming the issue into an issue of a name is a false problem. I wish it was only a problem of name, we would have found a compromise within days or weeks. But I believe it’s a problem of direction for the country,” he said.
“It’s either we decide to have everyone find a solution through freeing the state institutions from the grip of arms and corruption, and build an inclusive Lebanon, built on sovereignty and reforms — or we accept the continuation of things as is today. That will only lead to more chaos.”
Mr Moawad’s supporters believe there are enough potentially like-minded MPs inside parliament that they could at least galvanise an absolute majority.
That would not initially lead to an election — the second rounds of each session have been abandoned because of a lack of quorum as Hezbollah MPs and their allies have walked out. But it would at least put them in a powerful position.
Mr Moawad is very open in saying that he would happily stand aside for another candidate if they are able to secure more votes and have the credentials he supports.
“[It’s] totally true. I think that my candidacy is a political candidacy and a clear statement. It’s not about me; it’s about the project itself. And any person that could embody this project and [has the chance] to get elected will have my full support on this.”
It took two and half years for parliament to finally agree on Mr Aoun, which came after a series of backdoor deals.
The matter was finalised when the Lebanese Forces — currently Mr Moawad’s largest backer — agreed on a deal with Mr Aoun for the latter to begin a six-year term as president.
A similar thing will not happen this time, Mr Moawad said as he highlighted the importance of the next six years.
“We will not allow the revival of the strategy they did in 2014 — block parliament for two and a half years and then in one way or another impose a solution that is not acceptable. We have paid a very heavy price for this,” he said.
“Today, having a bad president will not only have effects on Lebanon in the next six years, it will have effects on Lebanon in the decades to come. Because in the next six years, very important decisions will be taken that will have effects on the generations to come.”