Lebanon’s endless presidential vacuum
BEIRUT - For the Lebanese, May 25th has come to symbolise triumph and looming tragedy. On that day in 2000, Israeli forces ended a 22- year occupation of South Lebanon with their troops, making an unceremonious dash for the border, driven out by a relentless guerrilla campaign by Hezbollah.
On the same day in 2014, Michel Suleiman, a former army commander, stepped down at the end of his six-year term as president and plunged Lebanon into a constitutional crisis while the country slides closer to being dragged into the civil war in neighbouring Syria and a new spasm of sectarian savagery.
Suleiman has not been replaced because Lebanon’s ever-feuding politicians cannot agree on a successor to the Arab world’s only Christian presidency, largely because Hezbollah, immeasurably strengthened by its victory in south Lebanon 15 years ago, wants to force its candidate, the mercurial Maronite Catholic Michel Aoun, into the presidential palace on the heights of Baabda overlooking the capital.
Lebanon’s 128-member parliament, which elects presidents, has been stalemated by the deepening political crisis. The only vote it has accomplished in the last year was to extend its own mandate. The divisions between Sunni and Shia are matched by an equally acrimonious split between rival Maronites, the main Christian sect.
Parliament has had 23 sessions to choose a new head of state since April 23, 2014, but all fizzled out. Another 25 sessions were scrubbed for lack of a quorum because of boycotts by lawmakers.
The bottom line is that without agreement between the region’s two sectarian titans — Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, which support the rival coalitions in Lebanon, the Sunni-led, Western-backed March 14 bloc and the Hezbollah-dominated March 8 alliance, respectively — there is no prospect of a new president being elected.
With Riyadh and Tehran increasingly at odds, there is little chance of that. “The confrontation has not reached its peak yet and recent developments in Syria do not indicate that a peaceful settlement is on the horizon,” observed Sami Nader of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, a Beirut think-tank.
At the root of the problem is an unwritten 1943 political pact devised by the French when they ended their 1920 mandate and by which they sought to leave Lebanon’s Christians in power.
Under this arrangement, the presidency is the province of the Maronites, the main Christian sect, with the prime ministry the preserve of the Sunnis and the speaker of parliament is a Shia.
The two leading Maronite candidates for the gilded glory of Baabda have been enemies since the 1975- 90 civil war but their naked enmity emphasises the deep cleavages not just within Lebanon, but its various confessional communities, that regional powers manipulate.
Samir Geagea, 62, a one-time dentist who is the only civil war militia chieftain to have been imprisoned for civil war crimes is backed by the March 14 alliance.
Aoun, 80, is a former army commander who is backed by Hezbollah, which for the first time sees the possibility of getting one of its proxies into Baabda, a momentous political coup that would cement Tehran’s influence in the Levant.
Aoun heads the Free Patriotic Movement and his presidential ambitions are impossible to conceal. He has gone from being militantly anti- Syrian to a vital ally of Damascus.