By: David Gardner in Beirut
Lebanon is the one country in the Middle East with a Christian president, and it has not had one for a year. This matters: for the cohesion of a fragile state, and because it further erodes the tenuous position of Christians in the Levant, caught in the sectarian crossfire of the vicious struggle between Sunni jihadis and an Iran-backed Shia axis from Baghdad to Beirut.
Lebanon has been without presidents and governments before. It has lost presidents and prime ministers to assassination. Rarely is it able to hold elections on time.
Towards the end of the 1975-90 civil war, parliament’s inability to elect a president — always a Christian — saw two governments under rival prime ministers. One of them was General Michel Aoun, the army commander who in the last spasms of the sectarian conflict in 1989-90 launched a self-declared “war of liberation” against Syria’s occupation of Lebanon, which fratricidally split the Maronites, the largest Christian sect.
Gen Aoun returned from 15 years of exile in Paris in 2005, after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the former prime minister, triggered the withdrawal of Syrian troops. The general, acclaimed by his most enthusiastic fans as Lebanon’s De Gaulle, then went into alliance with Hizbollah, the Shia paramilitary movement allied with Syria.
Gen’s Aoun’s presidential ambition — opposed by former Maronite paramilitary leaders allied with the Sunni bloc around Hariri’s son Saad, another former prime minister — is part of the present impasse. But the most substantive reasons concern Hizbollah.
The pro-Iranian group was behind the last presidential vacuum in 2007, which ended when it won the veto rights of a blocking minority in May 2008. But once it entered the Syrian civil war in 2013 to shore up the embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad, that was not enough. It toppled a government it was presumed to control in order to tighten its grip on Lebanon’s security services.
Lebanon now has a caretaker government, because elections due in 2013 were not held, since MPs could not agree on an election law that would secure their re-election. These are the same MPs who are unable to convene to elect a new president in the face of a Hizbollah-Aoun boycott rendering parliament inquorate. They had no problem voting themselves an extended mandate, however, placing a legislature that has failed to pass a budget since 2005 in a legal penumbra that shields its members from even minimum accountability.
Lebanon manages to stumble on, reliant on the quality of its civil servants, from the central bank to the education ministry. Yet, as states collapse around it, from Syria to Iraq, it is turning into an institutional wasteland — always in danger of catching fire from the flames next door in Syria. There is resurgent Sunni-Shia sectarianism — with Christians divided between the two sides.
Christian divisions suit Hizbollah. Few students of this group, which has always put a premium on control, believe that it really wants its politically ambidextrous ally Gen Aoun as a loose cannon in the presidency.
There are practical consequences, such as the hold-up of security appointments: the head of the Internal Security Forces is due to retire on Friday; the term of the present army commander ends in September.
But for the Christians, led by superannuated warlords still locked in a vendetta, the stakes are much higher. Hizbollah wants to reopen the Taif accord that ended the civil war and parcelled out office in proportions that favoured the Christians — dividing parliament 50-50 between Muslims and Christians, even though the latter are probably now no more than a third of the population. Hizbollah would like to split representation into equal thirds, for Christians, Sunni and Shia.
Most importantly, Christian disarray over the presidency — fount of their political legitimacy and a beacon for Arab Christians under threat across the region — is self-destructive. The Lebanese could get used to life with no president, whose powers are now exercised by the cabinet.
“I think they are committing collective suicide,” said a European diplomat with experience of the region. “They are simply not ready for reconciliation among themselves.”