A new reign in Lebanon ushers in new challenges
A new reign has begun in Lebanon. It will be different from previous ones if we take into consideration the circumstances surrounding the election of Michel Aoun as president of the Lebanese republic.
Many have found similarities between these circumstances and those that surrounded Bachir Gemayel’s election in 1982. The comparison, however, is unwarranted for reasons too many to enumerate here but one is that in 1982 no one dared to play the card of the presidential vacuum to force members of the parliament to vote for Gemayel.
Up to 2014, when Michel Suleiman’s term as president ended, never had an interim period without a leader at the top lasted two-and-a-half years. During this time, a question crucial to the future of the country kept popping up: Was the political vacuum in the presidency perpetuated to justify the call for ending the current political system in the country given that the balance of power that had led to the Taif agreement was no longer in place?
What is important is that Lebanon has a president. The state has a head. It is true that Aoun’s nomination for president originated from Hezbollah, with which he has had ties since 2006. Still, the road to Baabda Palace would not have been possible were it not for two breakthroughs: The reconciliation between the Free Patriotic Movement and the Lebanese Forces Party, which has given Aoun a wider Christian base, and winning the endorsement of the Future Movement Party.
From the beginning, the actions of Saad Hariri, the Future Movement leader, were dictated by a strong sense of duty towards Lebanon and whatever was left of its institutions. The only hope for Lebanon was through filling the vacuum at the presidency. So, Hariri selflessly nominated Suleiman Frangieh. The men shared similar visions of what was needed to put the country back on track. A year later, nothing had changed.
It has to be admitted that Aoun knew how to handle Hezbollah. Perhaps the 10-year-long experience as allies had something to do with it. In any case, Aoun’s nomination saved the country from the vacuum at the head of the state.
The new mood is optimistic despite Aoun’s less-than-rosy past. His speech on taking the oath of office was well-balanced. The president broached three themes: the importance of upholding the constitution and the national pact; the economic crisis in the country; and the importance of keeping distance from the war in Syria, into which Hezbollah has deeply inserted itself.
Aoun seemed to be well aware of the challenges posed by the new reality in the region. One of these challenges is Lebanon’s relations with the Gulf countries. In his speech, Aoun reiterated Lebanon’s adherence to the Arab League. In other words, and until further notice, Lebanon is an Arab country and not the black sheep it was made to be during recent Arab and Islamic summits.
The coming days will reveal whether plugging the political void will clean up the existing chaos. The quick formation of a new cabinet will certainly speed up things. It will also be known whether Hezbollah backed Aoun only after being cornered by Hariri.
Hezbollah continues to veil its true intentions in Lebanon, namely to change the very nature of the regime. Its manoeuvrings during the presidential election say a lot about that. Unfortunately, a large segment of the Lebanese population, especially among the Christians, still ignores the serious threats it faces.
Sooner or later, the topic of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon is going to flare up. Aoun did well by bringing it up in his speech. He said: “We must deal with the migration from Syria by working to ensure the quick repatriation of the migrants. We need to prevent the migrants’ camps from becoming security camps. Any solution to the situation in Syria that does not start with and does not guarantee the return of the refugees will not hold.”
With 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the country, Lebanon must prepare for a serious crisis. The Palestinian refugee situation pales in comparison. What is worse is that the Syrian regime is actively pursuing a policy of depopulation with the help of its sectarian allies and militia. Small countries in the region, such as Lebanon, will pay the price of those policies.
A new dawn has broken in Lebanon bringing with it new challenges. There is no choice but to face up to these challenges. There are signs of hope and everybody must come together to embody that hope through actions that break the shackles of the past.