Why is Lebanon failing to pick a new president?
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.