Lebanon’s endless presidential vacuum

Friday 29/05/2015
Desperately seeking a quorum

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.