Looking for a president for Lebanon in all the wrong places
BEIRUT - It is not uncommon for parliaments to fail to pass a specific bill or to even elect a president but to fail to choose a new head of state 45 times, as the Lebanese chamber of deputies has, is perhaps a record of abysmal failure.
This deadlock might soon be broken, or so it seems, and the Lebanese parliament might achieve the required quorum to elect a president. This breakthrough was partly due to an initiative led by former prime minister Saad Hariri to broker a deal with one of the two presidential candidates, Hezbollah’s main Christian ally, Michael Aoun.
Hariri, who heads the largest parliamentary bloc, had made Suleiman Frangieh his choice for the presidency, something that would have secured Frangieh’s election had the parliament actually convened.
While Aoun and Frangieh theoretically belong to the same pro- Syrian-Iranian political camp, Hariri, House Speaker Nabih Berri and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt opted to support the latter who was politically more reliable and a more pleasant character to deal with than Aoun, who is famous for his anger fits and his unorthodox demeanour.
The main obstacle for the election of Aoun transcended his personal qualities. Saudi Arabia, Hariri’s main patron had implicitly vetoed Aoun viewing his election as a win for its regional nemesis, Iran.
While this anti-Iran position does not seem to have changed, much of the Hariri initiative indicates that Riyadh no longer objects to Aoun. This one-dimensional interpretation might be misguided, mainly because Saudi Arabia simply no longer cares for developments in Lebanon.
This Saudi position is mainly triggered by its engagement in conflict with Iran and its allies in Yemen and Syria, which naturally takes precedence over Lebanon’s inconsequential position. Moreover, Saudi indifferences primarily stems from its disappointment with its Lebanese allies, as Hariri has failed time and again to field a proper political front to respond to the attacks of Iran and its Lebanese subsidiary, Hezbollah, against the Saudi monarchy.
Consequently, the potential election of Aoun or any other figure might not be the way out for the Lebanese predicament but rather a continuation of chaos that started with the 2005 assassination of Saad Hariri’s father, former prime minister Rafik Hariri.
In 2008, the Doha agreement gave the Lebanese political elite the required regional support to elect Michel Suleiman as president and to end a violent confrontation between Hezbollah and pro-government elements.
At this important juncture, the election of Aoun, with Hariri’s backing, and without this regional consensus will not yield any positive outcomes but would rather alienate
Lebanon from its regional surroundings, i.e. the Sunni environment. Berri and Jumblatt seem to be aware of this regional abandonment and have requested that the election of a president comes within a package deal with the blessing of the regional and international actors.
Aoun, and Hezbollah by extension, has refused to pledge any commitments that he has publicly declared would impede the prerogatives of a strong president, which Aoun will certainly fill. This so-called myth of a strong president clearly disregards the fact that strong leaders within a stratified country, such as Lebanon, have to be balanced arbitrators capable of resolving many of the problems of governance rather than simply reclaiming the rights of the Lebanese Christians.
Aoun time and again has failed to understand the regional role that Lebanon could play, if a strategic and substantial road map is adopted, both to reform the geriatric political system and to more importantly navigate the murky waters of the ongoing Sunni-Shia regional war.
As interim prime minister from 1988 to 1990, Aoun unwisely decided to ignore the global ramifications of the end of the cold war and the unfolding Gulf War. Aoun’s decision to launch a suicidal war plunged the Lebanese Army under his command into a losing battle with the Syrian Army, which ended with the occupation of Lebanon.
Aoun could nevertheless prove his critics wrong if he and his entourage realise that the burden of responsibility requires a shedding of their populist exclusionist rhetoric; even then it might be too little too late for the 81-year-old prospective president.