Lebanon News

Stakes rise in presidency crisis, no end in sight

The president’s chair has been vacant for a year. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: As Lebanon’s presidential deadlock enters its second year, analysts say no breakthrough is likely to materialize soon and a regional deal to break the impasse is not currently in the offing. The crisis has led to paralysis in Parliament and Cabinet as well and key security posts are also faced with impending vacancy, threatening the institutions credited with preserving the country’s fragile stability amid regional turmoil.

“The Lebanese were not able to decide over the matter [to elect a president] within the Constitutional deadline, and so the issue went out of their hands,” said Sami Nader, a professor of economics and international relations at Universite St. Joseph.

“It has become a regional card, [which] can only be resolved through international consensus, and particularly an Iranian-Saudi consensus,” Nader told The Daily Star.

Since April of last year, Parliament has failed to elect a president on 23 separate occasions, as boycotting MPs prevented the body from reaching a quorum at electoral sessions.

The March 14 coalition, backed by Saudi Arabia, has nominated the head of the Lebanese Forces Party, Samir Geagea, for the post, but he has said he would withdraw from the race if the political consensus favors another candidate.

Their March 8 rivals, who are allied with Iran, support their own candidate, Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun, and say that he is more representative of the country’s Christians.

Most March 8 MPs have boycotted Parliamentary sessions to elect the president, and say they will only show up when an agreement to elect Aoun is reached. The March 14 coalition has so far refused to back him.

“The March 8 coalition does not want to abide by the constitutional rule to solve this problem, which is to attend parliamentary sessions to elect a president,” Nader said.

Fadia Kiwan, a political science professor at Universite St. Joseph., said the March 8 and March 14 coalitions are each waiting for the regional confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran to unfold in their favor, and bring their respective candidate to power.

“Aoun abandoned this logic when he said that a president should be a consensus [choice] rather than one imposed [on rival parties] and engaged in dialogue with the Future Movement,” said Kiwan. “But things did not work, and we’re back to square one.”

A fierce critic of the Future Movement, Aoun toned down his rhetoric and began dialogue with the group in early 2014 in a bid to win their support for his candidacy. Although the talks facilitated the birth of Tammam Salam’s government in February 2014, no agreement was reached on the presidency.

Nader said he does not see a presidential vote happening any time soon, and there is no sign a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement is on the horizon, with the regional rivals fighting proxy wars in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq.

“There is an Arab-Iranian and a Saudi-Iranian confrontation in several arenas and Lebanon is one of them. But fortunately, the altercation is still political here,” said Nader, also the director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, a Beirut-based think tank.

“The confrontation has not yet reached its peak, and the recent developments in Syria do not indicate that a peaceful settlement is on the horizon,” he added.

The Syrian regime has recently lost the cities of Idlib and Palmyra to Islamist militants.

Simon Haddad, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, agreed, noting that the outcome of the confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia was still uncertain.

“It’s not yet clear how the regional conflict will unfold. If there were consensus among regional powers, then a consensus president will be elected ... but nothing is final yet.”

Haddad said regional powers do not consider the issue to be urgent, and are therefore in no great hurry to see it settled.

“When they had an interest, they facilitated the formation of the government so that [Lebanon’s] security and economy would not collapse,” said Haddad.

“Up till now, the Army and security forces have been united, and the presidency is nothing more than a symbolic political issue.”

However, Kiwan said she expected that an Iranian-American deal over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, expected to be officially announced in June, could help end the interregnum.

“The US will strike the nuclear deal and allay the concerns of Gulf states [over the agreement]. This ... will ease tension inside Lebanon and pave the way for a certain settlement,” she added.

Asked whether fear of an imminent vacancy in key security posts, including the Army’s top post, could prompt international powers to step in to break the deadlock, Haddad said he did not believe these posts would actually fall vacant, despite the current debate over appointments.

Aoun has threatened that the Cabinet could be paralyzed if the terms of Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi and Internal Security Forces chief Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Basbous are extended.

Basbous is scheduled to retire on June 5, and Kahwagi’s term expires on Sept. 23.

The Cabinet has so far been unable to agree on their successors.

Earlier this month, a Western diplomat told The Daily Star that September, the month when Kahwagi is scheduled to retire, could be a suitable time for the international community to begin talks with regional and local players to set the stage for the election of a president.

“Political factions in Lebanon do not want things to spin out of control ... every party wants to put its candidate [in a key security post] but if this does not work, they will not just torpedo the Army,” Haddad said.

Aside from fears driven by the prolonged political vacuum, some are concerned that former President Michel Sleiman, whose term expired last May, could be the last Christian president in Lebanon and the Middle East.

The anxiety has been fueled by dramatic developments across the region, many involving acts of persecution against Christians.

Nader said the fear was real. “Yes of course. I have fears of attempts to re-engineer Lebanon, just like Syria, Iraq, and Yemen are being re-engineered,” said Nader.

“When you see that the entire Levant is being re-engineered, why wouldn’t this reach here?”

He said that Aoun’s proposal to hold a popular referendum to discover which presidential candidate enjoys the most support, and to elect the winner president, was in violation of the Constitution as approved in the 1989 Taif Accord.

It could directly or indirectly pave the way for a conference to reconsider the political system in Lebanon, according to Nader.

But Kiwan said that Aoun’s proposal does not reflect an interest in amending the Constitution, but is instead an expression of “Christian pain” derived from the reality that other sects are determining who occupies the majority of posts reserved for Christians.

“It is not necessarily a sign of going back on the Taif Accord. It is not wise at all to reconsider the Taif Accord right now,” said Kiwan, adding that she did not fear that Lebanon’s top political post would no longer be allotted to Christians.

Haddad ruled out such a possibility as well, saying that depriving Christians of the presidency could create a new problem between Muslim groups that they do not want.

“I don’t see that the sect of the president will be changed, because this will lead to a second problem –will he be a Sunni or a Shiite? They [both sects] will disagree over this issue.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 25, 2015, on page 3.

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