Lebanon’s political black hole
BEIRUT - For a year now Lebanon has been without a president. In that time the country has managed to function more or less normally, despite facing major difficulties. However, the big loser from the presidential vacuum is the Maronite community, from which the president traditionally is named.
For all its many problems, Lebanon often seems to be a place that adapts relatively well to constitutional imbroglios. Perhaps that is because the system, built on a diffusion of power among the religious communities and weak central authority, allows for flexibility when the institutions of state no longer function properly.
This has been frequent in the past decades. In 1969 politics were brought to a standstill when Rashid Karami suspended his activities as prime minister while refusing to resign.
His actions followed clashes between pro-Palestinian demonstrators and the Lebanese Army in April of that year. This situation lasted until November, when the Lebanese government signed the Cairo Agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organisation, regulating and legitimising the behaviour of Palestinian guerrilla groups in Lebanon.
Even during the civil war years, when the country descended into chaos, Lebanese society and state institutions continued to operate as best they could, maintaining continuity amid abnormality.
More recently, there was a void in the presidency when Emile Lahoud stepped down in 2007. Lebanon was divided at the time between 14 rival coalitions and there was no consensus over a successor.
The deadlock was only broken after a military conflict between the two sides in May 2008. At a reconciliation conference in Qatar, a political solution was agreed and one of its main points was the election of the former army commander, Michel Suleiman, as president.
What has been different since his term expired on May 25, 2014, is that major political actors are not in open conflict and are represented in the government. A consensus exists to preserve national unity in light of the sectarian conflicts throughout the Middle East, above all in neighbouring Syria.
However, that has not translated into an agreement over a president. The reasons for this are two: that the Maronite politician Michel Aoun seeks to become president himself but does not have a majority in parliament, which elects the head of state. He has prevented his bloc from going to vote, effectively preventing a quorum. Aoun fears that if there is an election, a rival may win.
Aoun’s strategy is to hold the election process hostage and in that way force his political adversaries to accept him before a vote, to end the deadlock. There are no signs his plan will work.
A second, more significant, reason for the stalemate is that Hezbollah hopes to bring in a president of its own choice but it also does not have a majority to do so.
Hezbollah has hidden behind Aoun’s conditions to block the election process and has even stated that Aoun is its preferred candidate. Perhaps he is but it is more likely the party will take anybody credible who vows to endorse and defend Hezbollah’s retention of its weapons. In addition, the party feels that the likelihood of an accord over Iran’s nuclear programme would put it in a better position to bring in the president it wants. President Bashar Assad regime’s setbacks in Syria only make the party more decided to do so. If Assad is forced out of office, Hezbollah will feel doubly vulnerable, which is why it wants to ensure a friendly president is in office.
The party’s inability to bring any of its favoured candidates to power, coupled with recent setbacks in Syria, means that we are not likely to soon see a new president in Lebanon, unless Aoun changes his mind and stands down. But that is unlikely.
Like the Spartans, Aoun will emerge from that battle either with his shield or on it.
Those who lose most from this situation are the Maronites, who have been divided over candidates. If executive decisions are taken normally by the cabinet, headed by a Sunni Muslim, it will dawn on most people that Lebanon can function just as well without a Maronite president.
What is worrisome is that this may build momentum for a change in Lebanon’s constitutional structures.
One anxiety is that Hezbollah may use the presidential void to further discredit the political system established by the 1989 Taif Agreement, which it never embraced, and push for constitutional change that gives the Shias more power.
Some have spoken of Hezbollah’s desire to replace the 50-50 breakdown of posts and parliamentary seats between Muslims and Christians in favour of, loosely, a three-way breakdown between Sunnis, Shias and Maronites. While it is true the Shias are under-represented by the present arrangement, such a change would be regarded by Christians as a sign of further marginalisation.
Hezbollah’s desire to leave the presidency vacant is not innocent. If Maronites are worried, that is understandable. Their worries will hardly be lessened by the prospect of the presidency becoming a tool of Hezbollah.