Why is Lebanon failing to pick a new president?

Sunday 01/05/2016
Lebanon’s Prime Minister Tammam Salam is welcomed upon his arrival to attend the 37th presidential election session at the parliament building in Beirut, last March.

Beirut - The election of a new pres­ident for Lebanon has proved to be much more complicated than any­one could have imagined when Michel Suleiman’s term end­ed on May 24th, 2014. Although the parliament has convened 38 times since then, no quorum has been achieved. Hezbollah parliamentar­ians and their mainly Christian al­lies have refrained from showing up each time, dragging the country into political crisis.
It was not the first time that Leb­anon, which has long suffered from heavy foreign influence, faced such a “challenge”. The election of Suleiman in May 2008 was only made possible after the rival par­ties — Shia Hezbollah-led March 8 and Sunni-led March 14 alliances — were summoned to Doha to end six months of a presidential vacuum and to agree on a national unity government and a law to have par­liamentary elections.
Today, no one seems interested in coming to the rescue of Leba­non’s rival politicians. The wars in neighbouring Syria and Iraq are dominating the attention.
The Lebanese themselves, locked in their local disputes, ap­pear to be dragging their feet on the presidential issue, awaiting the Syria war outcome to reinforce their own positions.
Despite Hezbollah’s dominance, the pro-Iranian group has failed to impose its own favourite presiden­tial candidate, Michel Aoun. It fell short of supporting its other ally from the March 8 camp, Suleiman Frangieh, who was unexpectedly named by rival Sunni leader Saad Hariri as his candidate for the pres­idency.
“The election of the Lebanese president is usually the result of compromise and accommodation. The Lebanese political system does not afford competition because it is thoroughly fragmented,” said Hilal Khashan, chairman of the political studies department at the American University of Beirut. “It is sufficient for a major Lebanese sect to veto a candidate in order to rule him out.”
The problem lies deeper than a dispute over who is to be the next president. According to analysts, it is about Lebanon’s political system and redistribution of power, with the Shias eyeing a bigger share and their Christian allies better repre­sentation, which cannot happen but at the expense of the Sunnis.
The real battle, they say, is over a new electoral law, which the Sun­nis are strongly opposing for it would be designed in a way they would lose the majority of seats they hold in the 128-member par­liament.
“Hezbollah is operating under the assumption that it has won the war against Israel and, therefore, it is entitled to its dividends. This brings in the need for a new cov­enant, i.e. the inauguration of the Third Republic, that will reflect the new balance of power in Lebanon and [for the] Shias in the region,” Khashan said.
He argued that Iran’s strategy in the region “is predicated on spreading anarchy and inducing the collapse of the existing political formula. It is a sine qua non condi­tion for introducing a weak politi­cal system on its ruins, one that it can easily control and manipulate. It happened in Iraq, Yemen and it will probably happen in Syria. Leb­anon is no exception.”
Kassem Kassir, a political analyst and an expert on Islamic move­ments, including Hezbollah, said the Iran-backed group is no longer proposing to change the country’s political system and would be con­tent with implementing the 1989 Saudi-brokered Taif accords.
The agreement, which ended the 15-year civil war, emphasised the principle of “mutual coexistence” between Lebanon’s different sects and their proper representation. In fact, it changed the power-shar­ing formula that had favoured the Christians and enhanced the pow­ers of the Sunni prime minister over those of the Christian president.
Being engaged in the bloody Syr­ian war alongside President Bashar Assad’s forces, Hezbollah’s prior­ity is not “the internal situation in Lebanon but rather its own regional role and the struggle in the region”, explained Kassir. “While awaiting the regional settlement, Hezbollah does not want to discuss strategic issues. In the meantime, it wants to maintain security and stability in Lebanon.”
To Khashan, Hezbollah “is not interested in the Taif agreement… and has not abandoned the idea of creating an Islamic state in Leba­non modelled after Iran’s velayet-e faqih“.
The assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 started “the process of evicting the Sunnis from Lebanese politics”, he said, adding that “the general re­treat of the Sunnis in the region is reflecting negatively on their Leba­nese coreligionists”.
Kassir said the Lebanese have an “opportunity to rediscuss their po­litical system, which no more holds with the current developments” in the region. “There is need for a genuine dialogue but the Lebanese parties are not ready: the Future Movement [led by Saad Hariri] doesn’t want to lose [any of the Sunni powers]… while Hezbollah is not in a hurry.”
“There will be no settlement in Lebanon unless there is a review of the political system. Any settle­ment should lead to a bigger share for the Shias and to preserving the Christians and this require con­cessions by the Sunnis… who will be the ones to pay the price. Until then, things will remain unsettled,” he said.
With the Sunnis still hanging on and Hezbollah’s military power growing, the “cold” battle contin­ues and the next parliament session set for May 10th is unlikely to end the presidential crisis.