Are we witnessing the death of the Taif accords?
The 1989 Taif accords, which ended Lebanon’s nearly 15-year civil war, set out a political system dividing power between the country’s Christians and Sunni and Shia Muslims. After more than two years of political deadlock more Lebanese, particularly among the Shias, are calling for a constituent assembly to amend the country’s political formula.
Even after Michel Aoun, a Christian political ally of the powerful Hezbollah militia, was elected president at the end of October, calls have persisted for a constituent assembly to draft a new agreement that would mean the end of the Taif accords.
The political situation in Lebanon is influenced by the regional balance of power. It is clear that the balance of power in the region is tipping in favour of the Shias and their allies, particularly due to the rise of Iranian influence in Iraq and Syria, which has caused concern among their Sunni communities.
In Iraq, Iran-backed Shia militias are taking part in the fight to liberate the northern city of Mosul from the Islamic State (ISIS). In Syria, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and other Iran-backed Shia militias are fighting alongside President Bashar Assad’s forces. In Lebanon itself, Hezbollah has in Aoun a direct line to presidential palace.
In short, the so-called axis of resistance is winning. What this means is that the current political deadlock in Lebanon, even after the end of the presidential vacuum, is a reflection of what is going on in the wider region. So, for many in Lebanon, now is not the time for making adjustments or offering concessions but instead to make as many gains as possible.
What is required from Lebanon’s political forces is to read this regional reality and deal with it. Lebanon’s emboldened Shias are seeking to impose their will on all prevailing agreements and strengthen their position in the country.
Aoun secured the presidency thanks to a deal that effectively united Lebanon’s Christian vote and a wider agreement between the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance that backed him for president and the rival Future Movement of Sunni former prime minister Saad Hariri.
But parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri, who heads the Shia Amal movement, continues to throw up roadblocks to the formation of a new cabinet, leaving analysts to conclude his aim is to create an atmosphere that would lead to the need for a constituent assembly. Hezbollah is using its ally Berri, though supposedly an impartial lawmaker, to create political deadlock in a bid to strengthen its position.
There is a clear intention on behalf of both Hezbollah and Amal, Lebanon’s two biggest Shia parties, to redraft the system of governance in the country. All of this is a necessary preamble for a constituent assembly that would put in place new rules for presidential powers and the formation of a government and even for holding new elections, which would mean that the existing formulas would no longer be relevant.
While the president affirms the Taif accords in terms of parity between Muslims and Christians, he had previously secured the agreement of the rival Christian party on the basis of putting forward an orthodox sectarian election law. He is also ignoring one of the most important parts of the Taif agreement, namely that all Lebanese militias must surrender their arms to the state.
The Taif agreement requires the head of state to deal with Hezbollah’s arms and ensure their surrender to the state, which is something that Aoun must do, especially as he has sought to portray himself as a strong president. The irony is that Aoun is a close ally of Hezbollah and would never have secured the presidency without its backing.
So, will Aoun be able to stand firm in the face of attempts to push Lebanon towards a constitutional crisis even by some of his own allies? Or are we witnessing the end of the Taif accords? We must wait and see what a new government looks like before we can make that determination.