Is Lebanon heading towards a constituent assembly?

Sunday 18/09/2016
A general view of a parliamentary session in the Lebanese capital Beirut.

Beirut - There are rising fears in Lebanon, which has been without a president for more than two years, that its beleaguered gov­ernment fails and there will be no choice but to demand a constituent assembly to change the country’s constitution and its political sys­tem.

Member of Parliament Talal Ar­slan, head of the Druze-dominat­ed Lebanese Democratic Party — which has close ties to Damascus and Hezbollah — was among the latest Lebanese political figures to call for a constituent assembly.

“Lebanon is on the brink of ca­tastrophe,” he said at a news con­ference. He added that a constitu­ent assembly to change a system of rule that was agreed by the 1989 Taif agreement that ended Leba­non’s civil war was the only way to return things to normal in the country.

Lebanese Forces MP Antoine Zahra countered, saying: “What is required is to elect a new president, not hold a constituent assembly.”

But Arslan’s call is not as con­cerning as what can be expected by those who stand behind him, as his statement is expected to be fol­lowed by actions that will seek to force Lebanese politicians to move towards a new settlement along the lines of the 2008 Doha agree­ment. It was this agreement that ended an 18-month political crisis in Lebanon and brought about the election of Lebanon’s most recent president, Michel Suleiman.

Domestically, former prime min­ister Saad Hariri’s Future Move­ment, which leads the March 14 al­liance that rivals Hezbollah’s March 8 alliance, is facing its “worst period” according to diplomatic sources, owing to uncertainty over Hariri’s future as leader and that of construction company Saudi Oger, which he owns.

Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah called for a con­stituent assembly in June 2012 to build a “real state”, as he put it. This is something that March 14 views as an attempt by Hezbollah to impose a Sunni-Shia-Christian status quo on the Lebanese political system, rather than the Christian- Muslim parity that is enshrined in the Taif agreement constitution.

Arslan’s warnings about the col­lapse of Lebanon’s political system are demonstrated by Hezbollah’s recent behaviour seeking to by­pass the state and impose its will through force of arms and drag­ging the country into the conflict in neighbouring Syria.

Many in Beirut suspect that Hezbollah’s actions during the presidential vacuum — boycotting parliamentary sessions and refus­ing to budge from their support of presidential candidate Michel Aoun — aim to pressure Prime Min­ister Tammam Salam to resign. Given the presidential vacuum and parliamentary paralysis, this could land Lebanon in a constitutional crisis and necessitate the constitu­ent assembly Arslan is calling for.

The March 14 alliance rejects any constituent assembly at this time, saying that the current circum­stances would not allow for a bal­anced debate due to Hezbollah’s ability to bring its arms into play. Hezbollah has a clear agenda of its own that aims to change the status quo in Lebanon and impose a polit­ical system that is more in line with its agenda, as dictated by Iran.

Of course, not everybody agrees. MP Nabil Nicolas of the Change and Reform bloc, which is allied with Hezbollah and headed by Aoun, has blamed Hariri’s Future Move­ment for the impasse, saying that Lebanon has reached a “dead end” and that a constituent assembly is the only way out. The bloc denies that a constituent assembly would benefit any one party over any oth­er.

Lebanon’s media have been ablaze following leaks that appear to reveal that Hezbollah wants to create a vice-presidential post that would be held by a Shia figure who would be in charge of security ser­vices. The post of president would remain for a Maronite Christian, who would be commander-in-chief of the armed forces and also in charge of Lebanon’s foreign affairs, while the prime minister (a Sunni) would oversee government and do­mestic issues. The latest calls for a constituent assembly seem to con­firm the leaks.

Deputy head of Lebanon’s Higher Shia Islamic Council Sheikh Abdul Amir Kabalan, who has close ties to parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri, called for this a few months ago based on the need to establish a “civil state away from intolerance”.

Berri, who heads the Shia Amal Movement that is part of the Hez­bollah-led March 8 alliance, has said he has no interest in a constit­uent assembly.

This is the same Berri who put forward a “package deal” in June that involved resolving the presi­dency, the government and the electoral law. However, many ob­servers said the “package deal” is a mask for a constituent assembly.