Can Frangieh cut Lebanon’s Gordian knot?
After 18 months without a president, Lebanon in November appeared to be moving towards a presidential election. For now, however, that project has been frozen. Yet whatever happens, the presidential saga showed both the limitations and salutary effects of Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system.
In May 2014, when Lebanon’s previous president, Michel Suleiman, stepped down, there was no consensus over a replacement. A leading Christian candidate, Michel Aoun, who is allied with Hezbollah, sought to be president but was strongly opposed by a coalition of forces led by the Future Movement bloc of former prime minister Saad Hariri, which backed Aoun’s Maronite rival, Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces party.
Because Aoun and his allies did not enjoy a majority and feared that an election might lead to a Geagea victory, he and his bloc boycotted the sessions. Hezbollah, in solidarity with Aoun, and because the party did not want to fill the presidential vacuum, did so, too, along with another Shia ally. This prevented a quorum so there could be no election and Lebanon gradually sank into institutional oblivion.
For a time, the government of Prime Minister Tammam Salam was able to manage without a president. However, because the president always comes from the Maronite community, while the prime minister is a Sunni, the void undermined the sectarian balance of power in the state.
Soon, this created havoc as Aoun’s ministers, to raise the heat and facilitate Aoun’s election, demanded that all cabinet decisions be unanimous. They argued that, since the presidency was vacant, Christian ministers collectively represented the president and had a right to veto decisions.
This unruly, unconstitutional mechanism immediately broke down. Because the dispute was seen as affecting the political prerogatives of the Maronites and Sunnis, a compromise proved impossible. Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system had reached deadlock.
By October, Lebanon seemed on the verge of collapse: There was no president, the cabinet was not meeting and parliament was in limbo. Regional powers, as well as the United States and France, were increasingly alarmed that the disintegration of the state was inevitable and could lead to sectarian conflict.
Amid fears that Lebanon would go the way of Syria and with jihadi groups active in the country, Saudi Arabia, the United States and France sought to fill the presidential vacuum. Sectarian bargaining began to seek a solution.
The question was which Maronite candidate could bring the different sides, and their regional sponsors, together. Aoun had so alienated the Sunnis that he faced a Saudi veto, therefore one from the Future Movement. Geagea, the candidate of the March 14 Coalition, was equally unacceptable to Iran and Hezbollah.
A way out of the stalemate seemed possible when Hariri met Suleiman Frangieh in Paris. This appeared to presage a deal in which Frangieh would become president and Hariri prime minister.
Frangieh is a Maronite from northern Lebanon who is allied with Hezbollah, as well as a personal friend of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Yet he is acceptable to Hariri and the Saudis because he has Maronite legitimacy and is not regarded as overtly hostile to the Sunnis.
The hinted-at Frangieh-Hariri arrangement sent shockwaves through the Lebanese system. Aoun resented that Frangieh, an ally, was trying to push him aside. Geagea was angry that Hariri had abandoned him in favour of a pro-Syrian candidate close to Hezbollah. Both sought to block a Frangieh presidency, seriously crippling its chances, though it was Hezbollah’s opposition that was decisive. The party said it would continue to back Aoun whatever happened.
More interesting was how the sectarian power-sharing system, which had led to a domestic standstill, for a time also offered an opening towards a resolution. Not that Lebanon’s system is anything but dysfunctional, but those condemning it are bound to be surprised by its flexibility.
This is one of Lebanon’s paradoxes. As the Middle East faces sectarian conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, strangely enough the one country riven by sectarianism has succeeded, until now at least, in maintaining the reflexes of sectarian compromise and coexistence. Partly that’s because of the nature of the system itself, which has institutionalised such behaviour.
Where other Arab countries with mixed sectarian populations had advocated a mythological Arab nationalism, one that allegedly replaced sectarian and tribal divisions with loyalty to a broader Arab nation, Lebanon accepted its sociological reality and built a system reflecting it.
That is why, despite nearly 16 years of civil war, the country remained one, even as once-centralised Arab states have broken apart, without any social contract to reconcile their different communities.
But one should not go too far. Lebanon’s power-sharing system is good at generating stalemate but invariably outside intervention is required to break the Gordian knot. For now, the knot holds.
Lebanon has been described as a “garden without a fence”. Doubtless it is but it’s a garden nonetheless, one whose eccentric system has allowed opportunities for conciliation, even when all hope was lost.