Lebanon set to have a new president but fears remain
BEIRUT - The long-awaited election of a president in Lebanon is just around the corner. If no last-minute surprises emerge, Hezbollah’s sole presidential candidate, veteran Christian leader Michel Aoun, is to be elected to the post by the parliament on October 31st.
What was not conceivable just days ago is almost a reality. Sunni leader Saad Hariri shifted his stance and endorsed Aoun for the presidency and Hezbollah Secretary- General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah reciprocated Hariri’s “sacrifice” and allowed that Hariri could again become prime minister.
With opposition to Aoun’s presidency decreasing, the implicit blessing from the two main regional powers — Saudi Arabia and Iran — and the apparent lack of objections from international powers, Aoun’s election would terminate the 29-month presidential vacuum.
Having Aoun, 83, at the presidential palace is not the end of the game. Many hurdles are yet to be surmounted, starting with sealing the Aoun-Hariri package deal with Hariri becoming prime minister, facilitating the formation of a new cabinet without delay and formulating the new government policy statement, a sticking point with Hezbollah’s traditional insistence on recognising its “armed resistance” and right to keep its powerful arsenal.
How to translate the pledge to adopt a neutral stance regarding Syria, with Hezbollah heavily involved in the war there alongside Iranian and Syrian government forces, is another issue. Separating Hezbollah’s military activities from the government’s neutral diplomatic stance is difficult but not impossible as Lebanon’s often-confusing policies have become accepted regionally and internationally due to its peculiar status.
This time, the Lebanese seem to be on their own to shape their country’s internal politics. Samir Geagea, the leader of the Lebanese Forces — the country’s second largest Christian political party — who helped pave the way for the new presidential deal, boasted that the next president was completely made in Lebanon, away from any foreign influence.
That was somehow true, given the fact that regional and international powers have more urgent issues to deal with and the Lebanese presidential arrangement was not a threat to the security cover provided to the tiny country to maintain its delicate stability.
The international powers would have intervened if the Lebanese lost security control, their economy in danger or the Lebanese pound was about to collapse, said Riad Tabbarah, Lebanon’s former ambassador in Washington. To them, he noted, having Aoun or someone else as president would not make a big difference as long as Lebanon “remains calm and stable while awaiting the final settlement in the region”.
That applies to Iran and Saudi Arabia, the respective sponsors of Hezbollah and Hariri’s Future Movement, which have no interest in any escalation that would plunge Lebanon into another war, hence their apparent consent to the presidential deal, Tabbarah said.
Aoun, known for his unpredictable behaviour, bad temper and controversial personality, will be under close watch to see whether he will be able to distance himself from a 10-year close alliance with Hezbollah and act in the country’s national interest — though such a national interest is still an issue of dispute among the Lebanese.
Many Lebanese have expressed doubts about Aoun but others say they have confidence that he would bring the Lebanese together and create a comprehensive understanding, especially between Hezbollah and its Sunni rival, the Future Movement.
“Electing a president does not mean that we have agreed on everything. There are still many big and not easy problems to solve,” said Fadi Karam, an MP from the Lebanese Forces, a strong Hariri ally. “What we did is to take this (presidential) file out of Iran’s hands and turned it into a Lebanese one. Hariri cornered everyone and forced them to take a decision and shoulder their responsibilities.”
Karam, who said “nothing will stop” Aoun’s election, referred to a process that is to start with the presidential election, followed by a new prime minister and cabinet and completed with a new electoral law. “This is the right way to build understanding and avoid internal conflict and the country’s collapse,” he said. “Eventually, Hezbollah will have to stop running away and start discussing the issue of its weapons.”
The success of the process remains in the hands of Hezbollah, the country’s most powerful armed group and political player, which imposed itself as a regional force, and how far it would go to stabilise the country, appease the fears of its frustrated Sunni partners and stop its staunch campaign against Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries.
Recently, Sarkis Naoum, an Arab commentator and senior columnist for An-Nahar newspaper in Beirut, wrote that Aoun’s election would “consecrate the victory” of Iran and its allies over Saudi Arabia in Lebanon. However, he quickly added: “This is a victory in a battle as the war is still long.”