Lebanon’s political black hole

Friday 29/05/2015
No replacement at Baabda

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.