It is an open secret in Beirut that President Michel Aoun has cherished the idea of ââextending his presidential term, when it expires in October 2022. He would then be 89 years old. Many thought it was Plan B for the octogenarian president, whose first choice was to bequeath power to his son-in-law and political heir, Gibran Basil, who also makes no secret of his desire to become president. Basil’s chances have fallen to comically low levels, however, due to US sanctions, dwindling support within the Christian community, and lack of support from Hezbollah. In light of this, President Aoun seems to have shifted his priorities: Plan A now is to extend his own term, and if that fails, Plan B is to make Basil president.
It is not uncommon for Lebanese presidents to seek a second term, starting with the country’s first president, Charles Dabbas, who was seeking a second term in 1929. Others have tried, with varying degrees of success, such as Beshara Al Khoury, who amended the constitution to allow himself a second term in 1947, triggering a nationwide uprising against his regime that ended with his resignation in 1952. This was repeated after the civil war, under both presidents Elias Hrawi and Emille Lahhoud, but none of these presidents were as old as Michel Aoun when they were re-elected.
The idea of ââextending Aoun’s term was first peddled by MP Maron Aoun, a member of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of Aoun. He said so in January 2021, however insisting that it was his own suggestion and that she was not mandated by the president. Last week, however, Aoun came out and said it openly: âIf the Parliament decides that I must stay at Baabda Palace, then I will stay.
The parliamentary obstacle
Aoun forgot to mention which parliament he was talking about. This could be doable if the current chamber stays in power until October 2022, as his party takes the lion’s share of seats (a total of 29). But even then, it’s still not enough to secure a majority vote, which requires 65 out of 128 MPs. He would still need the support of Hezbollah (13 MPs) and various smaller blocs to secure that majority. If his supporters are still in power in October and still have a majority, they would likely vote for an extension of his term or for Basil’s nomination as president.
But this parliament will not be there in October 2022, given that Prime Minister Najib Mikati has called for early parliamentary elections on March 27, 2022. The chances of Aounists winning a significant number of seats in fair elections are slim, the least. People are furious with his administration, which is notably held responsible for the economic collapse, financial collapse and the explosion of the port of Beirut in August 2020. On election day, they would vote either for activists of civil society that sparked the October 2019 revolution, or for traditional Christian parties such as the Lebanese Forces (FL), the Lebanese Phalange or the Marada Movement.
For this reason, Aounists were trying to postpone the elections, saying that due to a security breach it would be dangerous to hold a nationwide vote in March. When this failed, they tried to prevent expats from voting, as a large number of them had left Lebanon during Aoun’s time and were certainly not going to vote for Aoun and / or his son-in-law.
Aoun now appears to have decided to suspend Basil’s nomination as president, in order to protect him from what appears to be certain defeat in October. Instead, he and his advisers are now pushing for the extension of the presidential term, citing article 69 of the Lebanese constitution as a legal pretext.
This article says that a cabinet must resign if a prime minister dies during his tenure, or at the start of a new presidential or parliamentary term. This means that Najib Mikati is due to step down by April 2022, although upon his appointment last September he was led to believe he would remain in power throughout the legislative and presidential elections. Unless a new replacement is immediately appointed and then approved by the Chamber of Deputies, then Mikati would remain in power as an interim from April to October 2022.
The formation of a cabinet is never quick in Lebanon and often takes months, sometimes exceeding the threshold of one year. Former Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned from his post in August 2020 but was not replaced by Najib Mikati until September 2021, serving as interim prime minister for 13 months. And even if a prime minister is appointed quickly, it could take him months to form a cabinet. This is what happened to Tammam Salam, who was appointed Prime Minister in April 2013 but did not form his government until February 2014, holding the title of Prime Minister-designate for 10 months.
Neither an interim prime minister nor a prime minister designate can constitutionally endorse a presidential election, nor can they attend a presidential inauguration. If Lebanese politicians are unable to decide on the replacement of Najib Mikati, which is very likely, then it will mean no presidential elections, no new occupant at Baabda Palace and a forced extension of Michel Aoun’s term.
Basil’s obstruction methods
What makes this scenario all the more gruesome is that Gibran Basis is well trained in obstructing cabinet training. This is what he did to ex-Prime Minister Saad Al Hariri between November 2020 and July 2021, highlighting a series of impossible conditions that Hariri absolutely could not fulfill. He asked for the lion’s share of ministerial posts, including all positions of sovereignty like defense, foreign affairs and the interior (which were historically in the hands of a Sunni Muslim).
When Hariri tried to meet him halfway through, he raised the bar, insisting on the right to appoint all Christian ministers in government, in total disregard of other Christian parties. After eight months of endless bickering, Hariri resigned. This is exactly what Basil can do next spring, ensuring that no prime minister is there to oversee the upcoming presidential elections, in order to extend his stepfather’s tenure.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also the author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.