A massive political vacuum exists in Lebanon. This should be no surprise. The Mediterranean nation is deeply divided and essentially an appendage of neighboring Syria. Lebanon thus finds itself at the mercy of more powerful stakeholders who each try to manipulate ethnic and sectarian divides for their own ends. With regional competition at a peak, it is unsurprising that Lebanon has struggled to form a government and has been without a president for nearly two and a half years. But this impasse might be close to a resolution: signs suggest that a president will finally be elected Oct. 31. This may even signal the start of a broader regional shift.
First, the basics: The Lebanese government operates under the 1989 Taif agreement, which ended 15 years of civil war but ushered in an era of political paralysis. The agreement stipulates that power must be shared among the country’s three main sects: the Sunnis get the premiership, the Maronite Christians get the presidency and the Shiites get the house speaker position. Over the past quarter century, Shiite militant group Hezbollah has been building up representation to help ensure that Lebanon’s substantial Shiite population is not sidelined by Sunni and Western attempts to minimize Iran’s influence over Lebanon. To protect Shiite interests and legitimize its role in politics, Hezbollah has tried to forge strategic alliances with members of other sects to help influence policy in its favor. When that does not work, Hezbollah has built up a large parliamentary presence to block political decisions. And if that fails, Hezbollah can rely on its militia strength to create chaos and paralyze the system.
One of the most important alliances that Hezbollah struck has been with former army commander and Maronite Christian leader Michel Aoun in February 2006 — just months before Hezbollah’s summer war with Israel. At the time, Hezbollah was trying to ward off Sunni efforts to disarm the group over its role in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri a year earlier. The strength of the Hezbollah-Aoun alliance rose and fell, but Hezbollah maintained a working relationship with the prominent Maronite leader, hoping it would pay off should he ever take the presidency.
That day may be approaching. Saad al-Hariri, son of the slain prime minister, has been trying to build a government that would first elect a favorable Maronite president and then choose al-Hariri as prime minister. Although the Hariri name carries serious political weight in Lebanon, Saad himself lacks credibility among the Sunni mainstream population and has fallen out of favor with his Saudi royal sponsors. The bankruptcy of his construction firm, Saudi Oger Ltd., has only worsened his reputation and helped boost the profile of rival Sunni leaders such as former Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi. But Saad is making a last ditch effort to maintain relevance. With French mediation, Saad struck a deal with Aoun that would elevate Aoun to the presidency and break the political deadlock in Beirut when the parliament convenes Oct. 31 for its 46th attempt to elect a president.
The question now is whether outside stakeholders will endorse the deal. Saudi Arabia and Iran are far and away the most important of these. Iran seems to have assented for now, albeit with some reservations. Hezbollah has strong ties with Iran and, although the militant group has a relationship with Aoun, it is still deeply distrustful of the politician. This intensified following Aoun’s pact with Saad, who opposes Hezbollah alongside his Saudi backers. That said, Hezbollah and its Shiite allies may still end up supporting Aoun on Oct. 31, although the militant group has the ability to block the formation of the government if it wants to.
But for Saudi Arabia, the Aoun-Hariri pact seems to have come as a surprise. Riyadh has become increasingly uncompromising with its Sunni allies in Lebanon over the past year, making it clear that it will not continue to subsidize them if they cannot produce results. Since Saad proved himself incapable of breaking the political deadlock and was sinking deeper into debt, the Saudis have come to view him as unreliable. That said, Saudi Arabia will not necessarily block the Aoun-Hariri compromise. In fact, newly appointed Saudi Minister of State for Gulf Affairs Thamer al-Sabhan, who may soon be named ambassador to Lebanon, is meeting with all the key players to get a better handle on what lies ahead for the country. Iran will be watching closely.
Lebanese politics is convoluted and there is no guarantee that Aoun will be elected or that the deadlock will be broken. Even if Aoun becomes president, the process of forming a government will be fraught with delay. Yet, if he is named president, it raises the question whether even this limited compromise could extend to compromises elsewhere in the region.
It is clear that neighboring Syria and nearby Iraq are not the places to look for signs of such a compromise. The ethnic and sectarian struggles across the combined battlespace are in full gear with the battle over Aleppo escalating and the fight for Mosul extending into a scramble for territory and influence. In Yemen, however, there may still be hope for a Saudi-Iranian dialogue. Saudi Arabia, backed by the United States, is concerned about Iran’s weapons assistance to Houthi rebels, particularly following Houthi missile attacks on U.S. vessels. Iran for its part is concerned about Saudi airstrikes and the large civilian casualties they have caused. Attempts at a political compromise in Yemen have hit wall after wall thus far, but Saudi Arabia is still looking for a face-saving exit from the conflict, which it cannot achieve without negotiating with the Houthis and Iran. From Iran’s perspective, it could use the threat of escalation in Yemen to pressure Saudi Arabia to compromise in other theaters, including Lebanon. Compromise may sound anathema to the region at the moment, when the Saudi-Iran rivalry is at a fever pitch, but the latest developments in Lebanon do spark some hope, however small.