Factionalism and political paralysis reign supreme in Lebanon

Factionalism and political paralysis reign supreme in Lebanon
Analysis: Lebanon's political paralysis continues as the deeply divided country enters its second year without a president and attempts to keep the Syrian conflict from spilling over onto its territory.
5 min read
26 May, 2015
Lebanese citizens have protested against the unconstitutionality of the situation [Anadolu]

The anniversary of the liberation of south Lebanon on 25 May from its near 20-year occupation by Israeli forces should have been an occasion of national celebration.

In 2000, the Israeli army withdrew from Lebanon, shutting down their gates on Palestine and leaving behind an army of collaborators and many stories of "the first heroic resistance to liberate Arab territories from Israel".

Fifteen years later, this occasion looks different, and marks the first anniversary of the presidential vacuum. On 24 May 2014, President Michel Suleiman stepped down when his term ended. He has not yet been replaced.

No president, little or no government

The presidential vacuum has meant state institutions' work has been reduced to a minimum. This year, Liberation Day has also marked the withdrawal of the state from its own country.

Nabih Berri called for 23 parliamentary sessions to elect a president, none of which secured a quorum.

Over the past year, Lebanese Speaker Nabih Berri called for 23 parliamentary sessions to elect a president, all of which failed after lawmakers failed to secure a quorum.

The presidential vacuum will continue until the lawmakers effectively blocking the sessions decide otherwise, ie: until Hizballah and its presidential candidate, Michel Aoun, and their other, smaller, allies are convinced it is time to participate in the parliamentary sessions to elect a president.

With all the wars and destruction sweeping the Arab world, all Lebanese leaders can hope for is to keep their country away from the fire, even if this comes at the expense of state institutions.

Many constitutional and legal experts agree that the problem lies in the system itself, attributing the problem to the political aspirations of the sectarian blocs and their attempt to guarantee what they consider their rights.

The presidential vacuum and the crisis of the regime opened the door to General Michel Aoun's proposal to amend the constitution to hold a popular election for president.

Other calls were made by the Phalange Party and other Christian forces for "administrative decentralisation", which could either mean division or federalism.

Calls for a triumvirate were also made, a three-way balance of representation in parliament and government among Christians, Sunni, and Shia, to replace the 50/50 representation between Christians and Muslims agreed in Taif.

These discussions are being aired at a time when the very exercise of power itself is at risk.

While the debate on the type of the regime is adjourned now until the regional balance of power is settled, the Lebanese state is on the verge of mayhem.

Any cabinet decision needs the signature of all ministers, who collectively act on behalf of the president, according to the constitution. But the presidential vacuum remains closely tied to the crisis of the Lebanese system itself, with all political forces calling for a new electoral law - the ratification of which would require the consent and signature of the president.

Delayed elections

So, before anything else, parliamentary elections should be held to elect lawmakers who will elect a president.

But because the state is neither able to hold these elections nor ratify a new electoral law, the term of the Lebanese parliament has been extended until June 2017.

The parliamentary legislative sessions were also hindered by Christian forces boycotting them because of the presidential vacuum. These forces argued parliament should prioritise electing a president over making legislation.

With Lebanese state institutions effectively paralysed, one can just imagine how many pressing issues are waiting for parliament and the cabinet, the most important of which is the issue of administrative appointments, which is likely to stir up a serious crisis within the government at any moment.

The ministerial blocs are clearly divided over security and military appointments and, in the absence of a president, no one is able to settle this dispute among ministers. According to custom and tradition, the president appoints the army commander and has the final say on security and administrative appointments.

While Lebanese security institutions either face a vacuum or extensions to the tenures of existing personnel, the country's security is yet another issue that must be discussed.

Before anything else, parliamentary elections should be held to elect the lawmakers who will elect a president.

Shortly before his term expired, President Michel Suleiman called for all parties to respect the Baabda Declaration, an agreement between rival political groups stipulating Lebanon should remain at a distance from regional conflict - and particularly the crisis in neighbouring Syria.

Adherence to the declaration was stressed during the national dialogue sessions headed by Suleiman between 2010 and 2014. He also voiced opposition to Hizballah's interference in Syria.

Even though his objections to Hizballah's involvement in the Syrian war did not hold the party back, they highlighted the concerns of the Lebanese state and its head over the sovereignty and borders of the country.

Neither the government nor the prime minister can voice similar objections, as the cabinet is under the influence of Hizballah in one way or another.

The vacuum has allowed Hizballah to expand its involvement in Syria to shore up the Damascus regime, which has embroiled Lebanon in the Syrian war even deeper.

The repercussions of the presidential vacuum were made fully manifest during Lebanon's participation in the recent Arab League summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, when Lebanese officials, particularly Prime Minister Tamam Salam and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, were in open conflict.

While Salam voiced support for any Arab decision that preserved Yemen's sovereignty, including the formation of a joint Arab force, Bassil said Lebanon respected the sovereignty of Arab countries and refused to interfere in their affairs.

The divide among the Lebanese has deepened, and a solution seems more difficult than ever. The Lebanese have to find an exit, even if unconstitutional - such as the election of a president by a parliament that has extended its own mandate.

Despite all that is going on, ordinary Lebanese people are carrying on with their lives, just as they did during the civil war and occupation.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.