Lebanon’s republic at a crossroads
BEIRUT - Since the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005, Lebanon has been facing the challenge of preserving the structure of its political and sectarian forces and the fate of its republic.
A surprise suggestion to elect MP Suleiman Frangieh to the post of president, which has been vacant since 2014, was the first signal for a possible political compromise to end an almost 11-year of political schism.
The political compromise stirred a situation in which political forces were divided into two main groups — one supporting Iranian-Syrian policies and the other harmonising with the Saudi-led Arab coalition and Western policies.
It triggered debate about the election of a friend of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose country enjoyed military and intelligence influence in Lebanon for 29 years, ending in April 2005, after Hariri’s assassination and the breakout of the Cedar revolution.
The presidential election came to the front with a stunning call for a political compromise by former prime minister Saad Hariri, an ally of Saudi Arabia and a key critic of Assad and Iran-backed Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria’s war. While some doubted the call’s seriousness, Frangieh, a former cabinet minister, suddenly garnered more international backing than other presidential candidates.
Hariri’s call, however, came in line with several political developments. First, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian called for a presidential election in Lebanon.
Soon afterward, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah proposed a “complete basket” to end the political stalemate by electing a new president, forming a new cabinet and resuming parliament work in line with the Saudi-sponsored Taif agreement, which ended the Lebanese 1975-90 civil war.
Nasrallah seemed to dismiss claims that Iran wanted to alter the 1989 Taif accord for a new distribution of powers among Lebanon’s sectarian groups.
The process seems to have started at the height of Iran-US negotiations about Tehran’s nuclear programme. Washington insisted on a comprehensive political compromise that would solve all crises in the Arab region and guarantee a balance of powers between Iran and the Arab world. The US administration was worried about conflict between Sunnis and Shias and the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS).
The Saudi and Iranian stands, voiced by Hariri and Nasrallah, followed Iranian-French meetings, held one and a half months ago, during which it was agreed to help elect a president in Lebanon. The move was thought necessary to guarantee the sustainability of the Lebanese republic with its Christian-Muslim balance away from the region’s military and security conflicts where minorities are paying the price.
Lebanese officials were advised that the international community could not help Lebanon anymore unless the Lebanese reached a political compromise to put the country on track.
According to well-informed sources in Beirut, Saudi Arabia may not have given a final word about the Lebanese presidential election. The US Ambassador to Lebanon David Hale and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov agreed on Frangieh.
Frangieh relies on the fact that his friend, Assad, might be on his way out. The compromise is to include guarantees that Hezbollah would point its weapons strictly at Israel; the group would not repeat its 2011 overthrowing of Hariri’s cabinet or its 2008 use of armed force to gain the right to veto cabinet decisions, sources told The Arab Weekly.
They, however, noted that the compromise needs to overcome the hurdle of a national agreement on a new parliamentary election law. Christian forces want an election law that would guarantee the election of Christian MPs by Christian votes.
Another hurdle is Hariri’s condition that his March 14 Coalition be granted more than two-thirds of the cabinet’s seats to guarantee that the opposing March 8 Coalition would not overthrow it. This condition worries Frangieh and Hezbollah because the March 14 Coalition could strip Hezbollah from its official recognition as a resistance movement and turn Frangieh into a lame duck from the onset of his term.
A partnership between Frangieh and Hariri, who represent the conflicting blocs in the region, would be a “golden chance” for Lebanon, according to some politicians, but only if a comprehensive regional compromise is reached. If regional wars and crises continue, Lebanon’s cabinet and parliament would be far from activity and productivity.
Some argue that Frangieh’s election would preserve Lebanon’s republic, otherwise there will be no president in Lebanon any time soon. Maybe rescuing the Lebanese republic “at a price” is a good thing at a time republics in the region are collapsing. Take Iraq, Syria and Yemen as examples.