Category Archives: Lebanon

Lebanon – The presidential crisis lingers on

The vacuum left by the failure of the Lebanese parliament to elect a new president after the end of the six-year term of former President Michel Suleiman on 24 May 2014 is lingering on and is unlikely to be filled anytime soon. However, in spite of the intractable lack of political agreement among the MPs on the presidency, on 5 November 2014 the parliament decided to extend its own mandate until June 2017, referring to the many “security issues in the regions”, especially concerning the Syrian war.

Only Christian MPs of the Kataeb party and the Free Patriotic Movement boycotted the vote. The presidency remains the major stronghold of Maronite Christians in the post-war power-sharing arrangement, sanctioned by the Taef agreement of 1989; not surprisingly this extension was seen by most Christians as a cheap shot at the country’s gentleman’s agreement (according to which the Head of the State must be a Christian Maronite), and – more generally – to the role of Christians in Lebanon. After the parliament’s decision, the Maronite Patriarch, Bishara Rai, hit the roof and blasted this extension as “illegal and against the constitution”.

Beyond the Maronite opposition to a bill which objectively undermines the power of Christians in Lebanon, the renewal of parliament’s term fuelled a cross-confessional rage in the country. According to recent opinion polls, only 11% of Lebanon approves parliament’s extension, while the majority calls for elections. Protesters also gathered in Nejme Square, where the Parliament is located, contesting what they termed as a “democratic disgrace”.

To ignite the political debate, in a recent interview to the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir, Michel Aoun – a potential presidential candidate to the Ba’abda Palace and the main ally of the Shi’a party Hezbollah – accused the al-Mustaqbal Movement (led by the Sunni businessman Sa’ad Hariri) of blocking the current majority in the parliament, fearing a likely reduction of its share in future elections. “Where did they get the idea that parliamentary elections should not be held prior to the presidential elections? – Aoun asked. “When there is a political or national crisis in normal countries, they resort to early parliamentary elections as an option to get out of the crisis, let alone if the elections are already a year and five months late because of the previous extension[1].”

Aoun went on to say that the current presidential crisis deteriorated after his talks with Hariri broke down. According to Aoun, the rupture came after the Saudi Foreign Minster, Prince al-Faiçal, put his veto on his candidacy.

Aoun’s thesis may correspond to a real political game between the Saudi king and his Lebanese pupil Sa’ad Hariri. In his analysis, however, he conveniently forgets that even his strong ally, Hezbollah – which is in turn backed and financed by Iran – voted in favour of the parliament’s term extension.

The elephant in the room here is the failed entente between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which have been engaging in a cold war in the Arab Levant, using and manipulating their respective proxies in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, and have been unable to agree on the name of the future Lebanese president. Not for the first time, in the absence of a compromise between the two major powers in the region, any change in the political status quo is liable to lead to a further deterioration in the security situation.

Beyond this political crisis, there is no direct intention by domestic and regional actors to undermine the power of Christians in the country. However, the outcome of the dangerous geopolitical game between Saudi Arabia and Iran is anyway likely to coincide with a downgrading of the role of Maronites in Lebanon.

Looking at the evolution of the institution of the presidency in Lebanon over the country’s history, the current impasse is likely to further transform the Lebanese political system.

Born under the umbrella of a strong presidentialism, sanctioned by the mithaq al-watani (‘National Pact’) of 1943, the system was reshaped by the Taef agreements of 1989, which put an end to the longstanding Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). Taef downgraded the importance of the (Maronite) president’s role to the advantage of the Council of Ministers, led by a Sunni PM, and redefined the weight of Christians and Muslims (Sunni and Shi’a) in parliament from 6:5 to 1:1[2]. Despite the reduction in its power, the president still plays a balancing role between the prime minister and the speaker of parliament.

Nonetheless, if the presidential vacuum becomes stagnant, with a fragmented parliament exerting the functions of the presidency, the role of the Head of the State will be substantially, if not formally, reduced. By showing that Lebanon can go ahead without its highest authority, however, the Lebanese political system is also proving  more than ever to be a hostage of the various feudal-like parties, and increasingly dependent on regional patrons and their respective geopolitical games.

[1] The Parliament had already extended its mandate on May 2014.

[2] Paul Salem, “Framing post‐war Lebanon: Perspectives on the constitution and the structure of power”, Mediterranean Politics 3 (1), 2007: 13-26.

Lebanon – 58 days without a President

Lebanon has been without a head of state since 25 May, when the six-year mandate of the former president, Michel Suleiman, came to an end. This is because the parliament was unable to elect a new president. Even as all political parties have now formally agreed to overcome the presidential stalemate, this power vacuum is unlikely to be filled anytime soon. This crisis may affect the entire political and security equilibrium of the country and also put into question the Lebanese “consociational democracy” model.

What is especially worrying about the current presidential stalemate is that it comes on top of another major institutional crisis: the failure to elect a new parliament. The term of the previous parliament ended on 20 June 2013 but, due to disagreements over how to manage the spillover from the Syrian war, the political forces could not agree on holding fresh parliamentary elections. Instead, the parliament opted for an extra-constitutional fix by extending its own mandate until 20 November 2014, thus forgoing popular consultation. The democratic (un)suitability of this political solution was never put in question. The next parliamentary polls are scheduled in November 2014, but, as the two-month-old presidential stalemate lingers on, it seems highly unlikely that elections will be held by then. This may, in turn, entail postponing the election of a new government to replace the current interim cabinet led by Premier Tammam Salam.

With the deterioration of democratic legitimacy of the whole institutional system and an inability to overcome the political impasse, Lebanon’s already intractable problems may become impossible to manage, thus leading to a security collapse. To name but a few, these problems include: Syrian refugees in Lebanon that are expected to soon reach 1.5 million (in a country of 4 million people); car bombs every few months hitting strategic areas of the country; increasing sectarian clashes; fighting between the Army and Islamist militias along the Lebanese-Syrian borders since several months. As if this did not suffice, the general geopolitical landscape of the Arab Levant is falling apart, after the ISIL (Islamic State for Iraq and the Levant) took over Iraq and around 35% of the Syrian territory, proclaiming the birth of the Islamic caliphate.

Against this backdrop, on17 July, the former Sunni Prime Minister and leader of the al-Mustaqbal movement, Saad Hariri, giving televised speech from his residence in the Saudi city of Jeddah, outlined a road map to “preserve Lebanon’s stability”. In his speech, Hariri called for the start of consultations between the two parliamentary blocs of ‘14 March’ and ‘8 March’. However, he ended up by further dividing the two political sides. It is important to note here that, according to the National Pact – an unwritten agreement that regulates the distribution of power among the three main confessional groups— the President of Lebanon has to be a Christian Maronite, while the Prime Minister a Sunni and the speaker of parliament a Sh’ia. But while Hariri’s roadmap has been approved by his Christian ally, the Kataeb member Samir Geagea, who is part of the ’14 March’ bloc and one of the Presidential candidates, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and member of the ‘8 March’ bloc Michel Aoun accused Hariri of discarding tout court his proposal for solving the presidential crisis. Indeed, on 30 June, Aoun had proposed amending the constitution so that the Lebanese people, thus not the parliament, could directly elect the head of state. Aoun’s proposal foresees two election rounds whereby in the first round only Christians can vote, and in the second ballot the two candidates with the most votes would face all Lebanese voters.

However, the 14 March bloc rejected Aoun’s plan, with the approval of Samir Geagea. The fear lurking in the background of these exchanges is that Aoun, who is supported by Hezbollah and the Shi’a community in Lebanon, which is the largest Lebanese community, would easily get elected president through direct polls. In other words, intra-Christian rivalry seems to further exacerbate the dispute between Sunni and Shi’a, respectively represented by the Hariri-led 14 March and the Hezbollah-dominated 8 March.

The dangerous side-effect of this intractable division among the Christians is twofold: not only could a protracted presidential vacuum continue to hinder the proper functioning of the parliament and the government, but it may also challenge the viability of the National Pact. In other words, it might jeopardize the pillar of Lebanon’s consociational system, based on a division of powers among Christians, Sunni and Shi’a. And all this is not at all to the benefit of secularism, but creates room to what seems to be more and more a zero-sum game between the Sunni and the Sh’ia in Lebanon, and in the whole Levant.

Lebanon’s conundrum: Presidential elections in regional turmoil

The Lebanese Parliament’s Speaker, Nabil Berry, seemed to put an end to the arduous debate about the feasibility of the forthcoming presidential elections when he called for a parliamentary commission to elect the new president on 23 April. Yet it is hard to tell whether this surprising move reflects some emerging agreement about the next president or whether it simply serves as an anchor in turbulent waters. What is nevertheless certain is that next person to occupy the Ba’bda Palace will send a crucial signal about the future (in)stability of the country. Moreover, in the best tradition of Lebanese “permeability”, the next president will be the result of domestic, regional and international negotiations, which represent in and of themselves the biggest obstacle for the integrity of the presidential race. Whilst the effects of the Syrian war are increasingly felt in the overall security and policy-making of the country, the worst possible outcome would be to see multiple internal and external veto points resulting in the postponement of the elections.

As sanctioned in the Lebanese constitution, the future President must be a Christian Maronite from among political figures of the likes of Samir Geagea, Michel Aoun, Amin Gemayel, Suleiman Frangieh, Jean Obeid, Riad Salameh, Boutros Harb, Robert Ghanem, or the Army Chief, Jean Kahwaji. This makes the Maronite Patriarch Bishara Rai one of the most influential figures over the successful candidate. Rai is in discussion with the Vatican, and is likely to give his ‘blessing’ to a man who will not disappoint Damascus. The Patriarch is in fact a major source of legitimacy for Syrian President Bashar al-Asad.

So far, Samir Geagea, the Head of the Lebanese Forces, is the only one to have announced his candidacy for the presidential race. He is a strong ally of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri – the exiled leader of the 14 March bloc in Paris last month – and is not exactly what one would call a unifying figure. He spent 11 years in prison after he was found guilty of ordering four political assassinations. Parliament granted him an amnesty in 2005, after the withdrawal of Syrian military occupation. His recent criticism of Hezbollah makes it difficult for him to be a consensus candidate.

The name of General Michel Aoun, a pillar of the 8 March coalition, has also been widely discussed. He is an ally of Hezbollah, although he has criticised the latter’s role in the war in Syria. He met with Saad Hariri, something that allegedly led to the formation of the Salam Government, after 10 months of political void. His rapprochement to Hariri was meant to pave the way for his candidacy. However, Aoun is widely criticized by many of the 14 March-affiliated, specially the Christians. It is however noteworthy that none of the regional players that are heavily involved in the presidential race through the backdoor – Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria – seem to be working against Aoun’s candidacy.

Hezbollah’s Secretary General Nasrallah has called on the Parliament to elect a “made-in-Lebanon President”, which is an unusual expectation given Lebanon’s political history and is quite unlikely to happen in the next elections. Iran and Syria will surely opt for a candidate that will not prevent Hezbollah from continuing its support for the Syrian Army in the war against the rebels. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia, which supports the military opposition in Syria and the Sunni-dominated bloc ’14 March’ in Lebanon, is not likely to give its approval, unless Ryad gains some concessions in return. In the meantime, Paris and Washington are also struggling to preserve the country’s fragile stability in light of the on-going Syrian conflict and the fear of radical Islamist groups spreading in the whole Levant, including in Lebanon.

However, the worst scenarios would be either the extension of Michel Suleiman’s mandate – a president who has openly taken part against the 8 March, thus forgoing his above-party commitment to the State and the political system – or the lack of an agreement on the future man in the Baabda Palace. This would mark the beginning of a new wave of violence in a country that barely succeeds in maintaining stability in face of regional turmoil.