Lebanon’s new political crisis: Now what?
There is no chemistry between the two men. This is well-known in Lebanon. Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Speaker Nabih Berri have been at odds for decades. Rarely have their positions coincided. Their common ally, Hezbollah, has played the role of mediator several times, sometimes succeeding; failing in other circumstances.
Berri’s parliamentary bloc refrained from voting for Aoun in the presidential elections in October 2016. Almost all other parties voted, though reluctantly, for the president.
The common efforts that Aoun and Berri exerted after the abrupt resignation announcement of Prime Minister Saad Hariri last November was not sufficient to cement their differences. Though they reduced local tensions after the crisis and led international efforts to secure Hariri’s travel to Paris, their relationship returned to ground zero on the prime minister’s return to Beirut and the resumption of work in constitutional institutions.
A new crisis erupted after Aoun and Hariri signed a decree that gives Lebanese Army officers from 1994 financial and administrative rights. As Berri considered that the decree should be signed by the minister of finance because it entails financial obligations, Aoun refused to adopt a new custom that makes the signature of the finance minister mandatory.
Attempts to keep the cabinet neutral in this conflict led to a December 28 session, presided over by Aoun, putting the decree issue aside.
Most interesting was the silence of Hezbollah on the issue, bearing in mind the close ties of the party to both Aoun and Berri. No information has been leaked as to whether Hezbollah would mediate between the two leaders because any such mediation would be an immense embarrassment. It cannot refuse Berri’s objection requesting the signature of the Shia minister of finance on the decree and it is simultaneously keen to preserve the alliance relationship it has with the president.
In Lebanon, there is no constitutional body that has the prerogative of explaining the articles of the constitution when there are contradictory views on a certain article. This issue had recurred on several occasions. It has become a popular statement in Lebanon that the constitution is more of a viewpoint.
A constitutional council was established in 1991 after the Taif Agreement. It was given the prerogative of investigating the claims of losers in elections, whether parliamentary or presidential, in addition to claims by leaders of spiritual authorities regarding personal status laws.
Authority of explaining controversial constitutional articles has not been granted to the council, probably to keep the vagueness in the service of politicians. This makes the constitution flexible to meet the aspirations of the contending parties in the country.
If this political crisis is not resolved soon, Aoun might have a hard time running affairs smoothly. The political weight of Speaker Berri, supported by the leader of the Progressive Socialist Party, Walid Jumblatt, needs to be taken into consideration, especially that Hariri stands in the middle, though he signed the decree.
Lebanon’s internal political balance has always been a delicate issue. Every time it was upset for a reason or another, the country lived political stagnation and in some cases violence. This is not necessarily the case now. However, this needs to be taken into consideration.