Explainer: Without a president, what will happen to Lebanon?

Explainer: Without a president, what will happen to Lebanon?
Analysts have called Michel Aoun's presidency an "utter failure."
5 min read
01 November, 2022
Without a president, Lebanon is without a functioning executive or legislative branch. [Getty]

Lebanon is officially without a president as of Tuesday, after parliament failed to elect a successor to former Lebanese President Michel Aoun, whose six-year term ended on 31 October.

The 89-year-old president's departure left Lebanon with a political power vacuum as the country has neither a president nor an elected government.

The Prime Minister has been unable to form a new cabinet and the country is being ruled by a caretaker government without a popular mandate.

The situation is unprecedented in Lebanon and it is unclear what powers the cabinet and the parliament have without a head of state or government.

Parliament has held four rounds of voting to pick a new president – by unwritten agreement always a Maronite Christian – but has failed to come to a consensus. Thus far, there is no clear favourite to succeed Aoun.

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What happens next?

Lebanon's president has the power to sign laws and form governments. Without a president, Lebanon will continue to be ruled by a caretaker government with a limited mandate. Parliament will also not be able to pass new laws.

In effect, the country is without a functioning executive or legislative branch.

Experts say the political vacuum will delay reforms in Lebanon as it remains mired in what the World Bank has described as "one of the world's worst" economic crises in the last 150 years.

"We will have a government that has the perfect excuse to face the international community that is calling for reforms to tell them that 'we can't reform.' It's all about buying time," Dr Karim el-Mufti, a professor of political science at the University of Saint Joseph, told The New Arab.

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International organisations like the IMF and World Bank have said they will not give Lebanon any money without comprehensive reforms. Among the reforms requested is a lifting of the banking secrecy law, a capital controls law, the ending of energy subsidies and overall increased transparency.

"It's a dangerous situation, where you have a caretaker government that inherited the prerogatives of the presidency. You have a concentration of power, in a powerless cabinet," el-Mufti added.

Lebanon's parliament must agree on a candidate for Aoun's successor in order for a new president to be elected. It seems no closer to doing so at the end of Aoun's term than it was a month prior.

"The vacuum is a continuation of the tools of those who have an upper hand in Lebanon – Hezbollah, the Amal Movement and the Free Patriotic Movement. They are the ones breaking the quorum and not allowing the presidency to move forward," Mark Daou, an independent MP, told TNA.

"This is a tug of war. I will believe we will never reach a consensus, but there will be … a political agreement on particular issues that different parties consider critical," Daou added.

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In the past, Lebanon's president has been decided through political agreements between the country's major political parties.

Today, Lebanon's parliament stands divided between three distinct blocs: The pro-Hezbollah bloc, the anti-Hezbollah bloc (mostly made up of the right-wing Lebanese Forces and its allies) and the reformist bloc.

The lack of a clear majority for any of the legislative body's three blocs could mean months of protracted gridlock before a new president is elected.

The Hezbollah bloc's preferred candidate is Sleiman Frangieh, a pro-Syria MP. The Anti-Hezbollah bloc is pushing for Michel Maowad, a businessman. The reformist bloc is divided between three separate candidates for the presidency.

"I want someone who can be a salesman for Lebanon, who can talk to the west and the Gulf at the same time. Foreign affairs will be a top priority of the next president," Fadi Khoury, a former independent candidate for parliament, told TNA.

Khoury said the president he would like to see would be one who would emphasize transparency, bolster the powers of the executive, and would re-enforce "rule of law and liberty" in Lebanon.

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Aoun's mandate: 'An utter failure'

Former president Aoun styled himself as a reformer and a non-sectarian leader before he became president. He remains popular with some in his Maronite Christian base, but most analysts have little positive to say about his presidency.

"Lebanon was much better before he became president than when he left. It was an utter failure of his mandate. The entire system collapsed, imploded …. on his watch," el-Mufti said.

Aoun's tenure saw a massive uprising in 2019 when millions took to the street demanding an end to the corrupt governance, which characterised Lebanon for decades. His tenure also saw the Beirut port blast, one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in human history, which killed over 250 and wounded 7,500, and Lebanon's economic death spiral.

The government's response to these overlapping crises has generally been inaction, with few reforms being enacted, justice in the port blast case stymied and the economy continuing to fail.

According to the Secretary General of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights, Wadih al-Asmar, some important legislation for human rights was passed during Aoun's tenure. These include the criminalisation of torture, the appointment of a national corruption commission and a law against enforced disappearance.

"Unfortunately, like everything in the Lebanese state, these were just words on paper only. They were just formalities," al-Asmar told TNA.

Besides the political and economic shocks that the country endured under his presidency, analysts say Aoun utilised sectarianism to bolster his power.

His party, the Maronite Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), relied heavily on sectarian rhetoric to bolster its base among Maronites.

Aoun and the FPM also made a deal with the pro-Iran militia and political party, Hezbollah, in order to occupy the presidency.

As a result, he fundamentally changed the sectarian balance of power in the country.

"Hezbollah is now ten times stronger than in 2006. Aoun could have reigned back Hezbollah in Lebanon, but did not," el-Mufti said.

The one achievement analysts have pointed to is the maritime deal with Israel, which came just a few weeks before his term ended.

The maritime deal was a priority for Aoun and will help ensure peace between Hezbollah and Israel, experts say.

The deal could also potentially pave the way for increased energy independence and revenues for Lebanon if hydrocarbons are found offshore. Critics have said the Lebanese president conceded too much to the Israelis.