On December 10, the Lebanese Parliament failed to elect a president for the 16th time since last May. Despite a general air of cynicism which has metastasized into most Lebanese politicians and citizens over the past eight months, newly announced and under-publicized meetings indicate genuine reason to be hopeful that after 228 days of a headless state. The 17th attempt, slated for January 7, might be the one which finally sees the election of a new President.
The origins of the presidential crisis stem from the deep ideological divisions between the two main blocs in parliament: The March 8th Alliance, which endorses Michel Aoun as their presidential candidate and the March 14th Alliance which endorses Samir Geagea. Rather than agree on a third mutually acceptable consensus president, the two factions have thus far, stood firm on their nominations, refusing to even meet for negotiations. This might likely change after several recently scheduled top-level meetings between rival actors, who in some cases have not had dialogue for years.
This newfound desire to return to the negotiating table quickly developed on December 16 when the Lebanese government received intelligence that ISIS, in conjunction with the Nusra Front, was planning a large-scale attack on the country's eastern border around New Year's Eve. The last attack of this magnitude occurred in August when ISIS sacked the Lebanese border town of Arsal and kidnapped over 30 Lebanese soldiers. The capture of these soldiers, who are still being held by ISIS and the Nusra Front, has developed into a symbol of national tragedy.
In order to prevent a national trauma on par with Arsal, both the Lebanese Armed Forces and Hezbollah mobilized troops toward the border. However, without coordination between these organizations, the militaries could not share intelligence, preform in joint operations, or properly delineate areas of jurisdiction. As a result, the two militates stood little chance of effectively combating ISIS.
Realizing the necessity for immediate security coordination, on December 22 Hezbollah and the Future Movement; the two major rivals of the respective March 14th and March 8th alliances, announced that a meeting would take place within 24 hours. This would be the first encounter between the two parties since 2010. Although the agenda of the meeting was dedicated to more approachable issues like state security, now that a rapport has been established between the negotiators, the parties will be able to delve into more contentious issues during any future meetings. Sure enough, just a few days after the first meeting, it was announced that a second one would take place on January 5 -- two days before the 17th session.
An agreement between Hezbollah and the Future Movement couldn't solve the crisis alone, as they are just two parts in the much larger alliances. An agreement must also be actualized between their respective presidential nominees, who are also the heads of the two largest Christian parties. Michel Aoun, the leader of the March 8th affiliated Free Patriotic Movement and Samir Geagea, the leader of the March 14th affiliated Lebanese Forces Party have also not met to discuss the presidential crisis since it began. Fortunately, after increasing pressure by moderate actors immediately following the Future Movement-Hezbollah dialogue, the two nominees took great strides to set a date for a meeting, which sources suggest will likely take place on January 3 -- three days before the 17th session.
Perhaps more important than all domestic meetings concerning the crisis are the international efforts taking place. As a microcosm for the sectarian divides in the middle east, Lebanon has two distinct patron groups: The West and Saudi Arabia, which traditionally back March 8th affiliated Sunnis, and Iran and Syria, which have traditionally backed the March 14th affiliated Shia. France signed a $3 billion dollar arms deal with Lebanon just last week. Since such an expensive vested interest was incurred by the French people, the country has taken a much greater role in attempting to solve the crisis. In this context, French Foreign Ministry's Middle East Department chief Jean-François Girault is embarking on a whirlwind tour of the region in the beginning of January. He plans on meeting high-level Saudi Arabian and Iranian delegates concerning Lebanon's crisis before flying to the Vatican for a meeting with Pope Francis. The Pope will be essential in the negotiations between Aoun and Geagea, whose purely Christian constituencies hold him in the hallowed regard. These meetings will take place around January 5 -- two days before the 17th session.
It seems doubtful that all these meetings are occurring by happenstance on the days leading up to January 7. Looking at the flurry of change that occurred over the past two weeks when compared with the relative deadlock that characterized the past six months, it seems highly possible that the country is headed toward a President on the day of the 17th session.