Lebanon: one year, no president, many problems

Lebanon: one year, no president, many problems
Feature: Lebanon has not had a president for more than a year, but to many Lebanese the issue is either a distraction or has little bearing on their lives.
4 min read
27 May, 2015
A power vacuum can be bad for business [Changiz M Vardi]

On 25 May 2014 when Michel Suleiman's six-year term as Lebanese president ended, Amer Jabali wrote on the glass entrance of his shop: "Here we go again, until a new president is elected up to ? % off."

He was clever enough not to say how much the discount would be. He had learned his lesson from the presidential vacuum of 2008 when he offered a 50 percent discount, and had to keep his promise for more than six months.

Six years after the last presidential vacancy, which ended in armed conflict in Beirut and other major cities, Lebanese rival political blocs are again disputing the election of a new president. The Lebanese people, however, are bystanders. Many did not register the recent anniversary of their first year without a president.

Jabali is, however, one of the few Lebanese who is keeping an eye on the situation. He is bored of the sign at the entrance to his shop in Gemmayze, a Christian area of East Beirut. "I would like to change it and write something new," he says.

According to the confessional system in Lebanon, the president is a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni, and the speaker of parliament a Shia. The political balance between these jobs was altered in favour of the Sunni prime minister by the 1989 Taif Accord that ended the civil war. 

But a quarter of a century later the power-sharing deal fails to reflect the will of the people.

     The president should be elected by the people, not by a cabinet of war lords.

Nasser Ismail Elamine, a political science student at the Lebanese University, says politics in Lebanon happens far away from the people.

"Sectarian political parties shape the ruling class. They choose the president and they remove him, he is of no importance to me as a citizen. Nothing is going to directly change for me regardless of who ends up filling the vacancy," he says.

Elamine lives in Haret Harik in the southern suburbs of Beirut. In 2014 his town was rocked by car bombs, but he does not agree with politicians' warnings that the security situation has deteriorated because of the presidential vacuum.

"When have we had real security? What will the president do to protect us from crazy militants? The only real source of security - even for those who do not admit it - is that Hizballah is powerful enough to repel any serious threat," he says.

Mira Minkara, 35, shares the same viewpoint. She is from the predominantly northern Sunni city of Tripoli, which was the scene of fierce fighting between the Lebanese army and militants in October. A double suicide bomb attack in the city in January killed nine people and wounded 37 others.

"I don't think a president will change the situation. I lost faith in our government a long time ago," she said.

Politicians from rival blocs have repeatedly expressed concern about the presidential vacuum in Lebanon. That however, has done nothing to hasten an appointment.

Jamal Awar, a 25-year-old playwright and actor from the Druze community of Maten district in Mount Lebanon, says the confessional system is undemocratic.

"There is about 200,000 Druze in Lebanon and we have at least two ministers in the government. What about the Palestinians? There are twice as many of them but they have no representatives in the government."

Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon pay little attention to the political quarrel over electing a new president. The 450,000 UN-registered refugees cannot own property, cannot become lawyers, doctors or engineers and  cannot vote.

Ibrahim Barazi, a 27-year-old unemployed Palestinian says he believes the commander of the Lebanese armed forces will be elected president, as happened in 1998 and 2008.

Barazi, who was born in Lebanon, said: "We are living on the margins in a very hard situation. Our voices must be heard, but changing the president changes nothing for us."

Sarah Lily Yassine, an urban planner from the Maronite community, says the impasse proves it is time to change how the Lebanese system works. "The president should be elected by the people," she says. "Not by a cabinet of warlords."