Commentary

Finding Lebanon's President

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

The office of the Lebanese president has remained vacant for the last 21 months, a victim of Lebanon’s complex sectarian politics. The post, which must be held by a member of Lebanon’s Christian community, is now the subject of intense behind-the-scenes political maneuvers, with old rivalries set aside and new ones kindled. The parliament has now decided that a new vote will take place in the beginning of March, making the next couple of weeks an intense period of negotiations and finger-pointing.

According to a report by the Lebanese daily Al Manar, it is clear that the country’s political and social problems have been further aggravated by the parliament’s inactivity and inability to tackle this institutional challenge: “Parliamentary session aimed at electing a new Lebanese president was adjourned till March 2 due to lack of quorum. Parliament's Secretary General Adnan Daher postponed the parliamentary session to elect a president till the second of March, National News Agency reported.  Only 51 MPs arrived at the Parliament on Monday to attend the 35th session when two-thirds quorum, or 86 of Parliament’s 128, should be secured to convene the session, Lebanese media reported. Speaker Nabih Berri had arrived Monday at the Parliament. He had last attended a session set to elect a new head of state in April 2014.”

Jerusalem Post’s Mordechai Nisan presents a troubling overview of Lebanon’s unwieldy sectarian-based politics which have cast a shadow on today’s impasse over the election of the new president: “Since the founding of modern Lebanon in 1920, and the formulation of the National Pact in 1943, the special configuration of politics assigns the office of president to a Maronite Christian, prime minister to a Sunni Muslim and speaker of parliament to a Shi’ite Muslim. These arrangements acknowledge the historical primacy of the Maronites as the more-than-equal elite founding community, recognize the intra-Muslim schism, formalize the link between state and religion, while promoting inter-sectarian cooperation for the interest of all groups. Interestingly, inter-religious Christian-Muslim strife is not the essential political or social feature, or impediment, but rather intra-religious wrangling has been the hallmark and bane of Lebanese politics. A sweeping Lebanese identity encompasses all of the country’s groups, while acrimony tarnishes relations and sullies the atmosphere especially within the ranks of each group. It is from within the Maronite community that we can identify the ongoing paralytic presidential crisis.”

There are signs that a consensus candidate may soon emerge. As Al Manar’s Marwa Haidar notes in a recent commentary on the subject: “As his eminence firmly reiterated Hezbollah’s backing of the head of Change and Reform bloc, General Michel Aoun, for presidency in Lebanon, Secretary General, Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, stressed that the next President is from March 8 camp and is no more from March 14....Sayyed Nasrallah stressed that Hezbollah, since the beginning of the presidential crisis in Lebanon, announced that it backs General Aoun for Presidency....Talking about Aoun’s nomination by Geagea, Sayyed Nasrallah stressed that Hezbollah ‘welcomes any approach or agreement between Lebanese factions.’ Hezbollah S.G. hit back at those who consider that Hezbollah is ‘confused and embarrassed’ because both Aoun and Frangieh are the party’s allies. In this context, Sayyed Nasrallah reiterated Hezbollah’s backing of Aoun, stressing that the party is morally committed to Aoun’s nomination.”

Judging from the disarray among Hezbollah’s erstwhile political opponents, it appears that Hezbollah will continue to have a disproportionate influence in Lebanon’s political and social life. This is true largely because, as The National’s Michael Young writes, the country’s other main political alliance — the March 14 group — has been unable to provide a consistent and unified alternative: “the March 14 coalition, today exists only in name. The principal reason is that two of the leading figures in March 14, Saad Hariri, son of Rafik and a former prime minister himself, and Samir Geagea, the head of the Lebanese Forces party, are divided over who to back as presidential candidate....The first major blow to March 14 came in 2009, when a leading figure in the coalition, Walid Jumblatt, announced he was leaving for the political center....The coalition would revive itself in 2011, after Mr Hariri, then prime minister, was ousted by Hizbollah and Mr Aoun when they brought down his government. The uprising in Syria further united March 14, as it rallied Mr Al Assad’s foes. Yet the period was also marked by Hariri-Geagea tensions – over a controversial election law proposal and the fact that Mr. Hariri left Lebanon, hindering all political coordination....It may call itself March 14 or something else, but the broader objectives of those in it will not have changed. It is an alliance defined by its enemies. That is the weakness and strength of March 14.”

That is not to say that members of the March 14 alliance have not tried to overcome their differences. For example, according to a report posted on another Lebanese daily Naharnet, “Al-Mustaqbal  [Marc 14] movement leader ex-PM Saad Hariri held talks Monday evening in Maarab with Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea, following a strain in relations between the two parties. The meeting between the two leaders was also attended by the LF chief's wife MP Sethrida Geagea and Hariri's advisers Hani Hammoud and Nader Hariri, state-run National News Agency reported....The talks come a day after Hariri arrived in Lebanon to attend a rally marking the 11th anniversary of the assassination of his father, former premier Rafik Hariri. Remarks voiced by Hariri during the rally have stirred a wave of angry comments by LF officials and supporters, which prompted al-Mustaqbal to issue a clarifying statement. In his BIEL speech, Hariri said that his recent nomination of Marada Movement leader MP Suleiman Franjieh for the presidency has pushed the LF to reach ‘a historic reconciliation’ with the Free Patriotic Movement, its long-time Christian rival.”

There are indications that Mr. Hariri’s conciliatory gesture came after he was outflanked by the decision of the man he appeared to have snubbed to throw his support behind the candidacy of another Maronite Christian candidate. At least that is Nour Samaha’s suggestion in an op-ed written for Al Jazeera: “January 18 was a historic day for Lebanon: The leaders of the country's most powerful Christian factions decided to put 30 years of bloodshed and political bickering behind them. Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces (LF), announced last week his endorsement of Michel Aoun, an ex-army general and head of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), for president. In doing so, Geagea essentially withdrew his own bid to be nominated president…. some within the March 14 camp have dismissed both Geagea's and Hariri's endorsements as ‘blunders’. ‘Hariri's blunder was nominating Franjieh. You can't be the leader of a political camp and nominate someone from the only opposing political camp, and do so without consulting your allies. This shows lack of leadership,’ said one March 14 source. ‘At the same time, Geagea's response to this blunder was another blunder. He had an immense opportunity to be a leader with Lebanon's Sunnis, and he's just sacrificed this’.”

The consolidation of the Christian candidacies may have also been the result of recent behind-the-scenes cajoling as well as public statements by the Maronite Patriarch calling for the rightful representation of the Lebanese Christian community in the country’s highest office: “Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rahi met on Tuesday with more Christian cabinet ministers with the aim of taking action against the alleged marginalization of Christians in state institutions. Al-Rahi held separate talks with Telecommunications Minister Butros Harb and Minister of the Displaced Alice Shabtini in Bkirki....Al-Rahi met last week with several other Christian ministers after growing complaints that Christian posts were being given to Muslim civil servants. The vacuum at the Baabda Palace as a result of a 21-month deadlock has further exacerbated the problem. The country's top Christian post has been vacant since the term of President Michel Suleiman ended in May 2014.”

Beyond the sectarian divide, Mr. Hariri’s comments seem to be motivated by other concerns. Gulf News’s senior editor Joseph A. Kechichian draws attention to Mr.Hariri’s repeated vow “that no one stood above the state. Hariri insisted that Lebanon belonged to everyone, not to a specific community, and that no party, on the strength of military might, could drag the Lebanese into adventures they disapprove of....He struck a popular note as he compared the presidential term of Michel Sulaiman and the period since, lamenting the void. He then presented a precis of developments that went from the selection of Geagea to Gemayel to Franjieh, affirming that he never backed Michel Aoun.”

The pan-Arab daily Asharq Alawsat also focuses on Sa’ad Hariri’s speech on the anniversary of his father’s assassination, highlighting the former’s warning against Iranian undue influence in Lebanese politics: “Former Prime Minister of Lebanon Saad Hariri confirmed on Feb.14 that Lebanon, under any circumstance, will not become an Iranian province. He also affirmed that no one should be allowed to drag Lebanon into a feud with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf....Hariri started his speech by saying that the period of Syrian custody had failed to compromise the Lebanese unity and so will Iranian intimidation and all forms of terrorism. “All assassinations will not break our dreams of Lebanon” he added. Hezbollah also had their share of heated criticism during Hariri’s speech, in which he condemned their choice of going into war in Syria. He said that Lebanon today pays the price of Hezbollah’s political improvising, their military braggart, their reckless impulse to jeopardize Lebanon’s best interest, and last but not least the prejudice they impose on fellow countries. Hariri made it a point that Hezbollah’s continuously bashes Saudi Arabia, a country that never brought any harm to Lebanon.”

Judging from a recent op-ed by Nasser Al-Haqbani, Sa’ad Hariri is not the only one who disapproves of Iran’s involvement, with Lebanon’s former president Michel Suleiman also taking issue with “the ‘negative’ role that Iran is playing in his country, adding that Iran ‘did not provide anything tangible for Lebanon, rather it just provided friendship and intentions’. He commented in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat that Hezbollah is also detrimental to Lebanon and its economy, pointing out that ‘the reputation of the country has declined economically due to Hezbollah’s intervention in Syrian affairs’. The former Lebanese president also mentioned that ‘the use of Lebanon and its territory as a platform to attack neighboring and friendly countries with Lebanon is considered to lessen Lebanese sovereignty greatly and the sovereignty of the country on its lands, and I am against that’....Suleiman considers the media campaign in Lebanon directed against Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states ‘a fatal and big mistake’.”


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