Lebanese presidential election sparks Christian power-politics revival

Lebanese presidential election sparks Christian power-politics revival
Comment: Sectarian rivalries have divided Lebanon for years, but Aoun's election may signal the beginning of a new balance of power in Lebanon, writes Imad Salamey.
6 min read
02 Nov, 2016

At last Lebanon has a president. Michel Aoun was inaugurated yesterday as the country's thirteenth president, his election ending a 29-month power vacuum and a stalemate that has polarised the country's sectarian rivals.

This is the second time that Aoun has reached high office amid a power vacuum. In 1988 he was appointed as interim president after parliament failed to meet and elect a new head of state. His term, however, was short lived - the Syrian army forced his ousting and exiled him in 1990. His opposition to the Taif agreement was thought to be to blame.

The Taif agreement brought an end to the Lebanese Civil War and paved the way for Syrian military and political tutelage. Its prerogatives tilted the balance of power by recognising the demographic shifts in the country, as Muslims became the majority. 

It stripped out many presidential privileges. It vested executive power within the hands of the Council of Ministers and positioned a Sunni Prime Minister as head of government. At the same time, it tacitly legitimised Shia group's right to arms in the pretext of resisting Israeli occupation.

Taif paved the way for a Shia-Sunni ruling alliance under the auspices of Syrian guardianship. For more than 25 years Lebanese Christians were marginalised. The president, a position reserved for a Maronite Christian, as well as most parliamentary Christian-allotted seats, were hand-picked by Lebanese Muslim leaders or directly chosen by Syrian residing officers.

Following the 2005 Syrian military withdrawal, however, Aoun returned from his exile, vowing to restore "rights" and to correct the injustice many Christians perceived had been committed against them. But Aoun was immediately opposed by Muslim politicians - as well as many Christian leaders - who feared sidelining.

In a deeply fragmented and polarised society, successful rule requires gaining the largest possible consensus

Aoun's comeback was accompanied by a post-Syriana politics that witnessed unprecedented Sunni-Shia contention. Whether by political design or historic circumstances, Aoun appeared to have exploited the nadir of the Sunni-Shia divide to his advantage.

In 2006, he forged an alliance with Hizballah against the Sunni-dominated government of Prime Minister Siniora. He supported Hizballah's right to weapons against the state's exclusiveness to arms, and went as far as declaring civil disobedience that brought the 2008 anti-Hizballah government to collapse. 

Backed by Hizballah, Syria, and Iran, during the 2008 Doha negotiation, he forced electoral concessions that redrew many Sunni-gerrymandered districts in favour of Christian and Shia groups. The Aoun-Hizballah alliance continued to undermine the work of the Sunni-led Saad al-Hariri government, and eventually helped forced its collapse.

For many, the recent support for an Aoun presidency from his most bitter nemeses and long-term rivals, Sunni leader Saad al-Hariri and Maronite leader Samir Geagea, comes as a surprise. Many viewed the conversion as an ultimate submission of defeat in favour the Aoun-Hizballah alliance.

Geagea may potentially have found many gains from a "Christian resurgence". Hariri, on the other hand, had limited options: maintain a permanent power vacuum that threatened every state institution with continuing paralyses and failures, or elect Aoun as president.

The Aoun presidency is already emerging as distinct from its predecessors

Both men consider that Aoun's opposition rhetoric and alliance with Hizballah will dramatically change when faced with the reality of governing. In a deeply fragmented and polarised society, successful rule requires gaining the largest possible consensus.

But more critical for a president is to live up to his oath in preserving the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nation. A commitment that some claim will ultimately drag the president to constrain Hizballah's peculiar and transnational proxy role.

But the Aoun presidency is already emerging as distinct from its predecessors.

First, Aoun will likely be a strong president. Contributing to his power is his popularity among Christian citzens, the backing of a powerful political party, and a sizable parliamentary bloc and a wide alliance backing his bid. Hence, Aoun is sure to rise as an indisputable Christian political leader.

Second, the failure of either Sunni or Shia to forge a post-Syriana ruling alliance is an indication of the coming end to the Taif epoch and the beginning of a Christian political revival.

Aoun's Muslim opponents are weakened and divided

As the wedge between Sunni and Shia grows, Maronites gain leverage on domestic issues.

Third, the weaknesses of Sunni and Shia political groups alike are sure to be reflected in sectarian rifts. This has already been articulated in intra-Shia and intra-Sunni rivalries and splits over Aoun's presidency.

Thus, Aoun has greater leverage to sway political choices compared with previous administrations. His Muslim opponents are weakened and divided. Both Sunni and Shia groups compete for his support. Ultimately, constitutional revisions and electoral reforms that "correct Christian representation" and rejuvenate the role of a Christian leader balancing power between rival Muslim groups become feasible.

It is highly unlikely that Aoun will enter into a confrontation with Hizballah over its procession of weapons or military intervention in Syria.

After all, Hizballah's encroachment in Syria has solely targeted Sunni militancy. Aoun draws strength and backing from Hizballah's military prowess to pre-empt a "Sunni threat".  

Aoun will have to satisfy the Shia duet, Amal and Hizballah, through an acceptable distribution of portfolios

Hizballah's arsenal can be utilised not only to suppress Sunnis' domestic resentment, but also to curb any potential armament of mostly Sunni Syrian refugees. Likewise, the party can help safeguard against the potential for a return to arms for Palestinian refugees.

That said, it is equally unlikely that Aoun will seek the total marginalisation of Sunni power in the country. 

Aoun is eager to gain political legitimacy in, and financial access to Arab states. An ailing economy soaked with huge debts and placed under the watchful eyes of world financial monitoring institutions could benefit tremendously from the support of mostly Sunni Arab states.

Saad al-Hariri can help Aoun restore a positive relationship with Saudi Arabia, as well as other Gulf states. Aoun will require a Sunni Prime Minister to rebut international pressure targeting Lebanon, particularly that pertaining to Hizballah's duality with the state.

Of course the challenges are many, yet perhaps the first rests on Aoun's ability to complement the prime minister's efforts to form a cabinet. Failure to do so may have serious repercussions and expose Aoun to accusations of betraying Arab neighbours in favour of Iranians.

The second is satisfying the Shia duet, Amal and Hizballah, through an acceptable distribution of portfolios and the drafting of a policy statement that asserts the Shia's right to arms. Such a failure could be equally be fatal.

The third is devising an electoral law that lives up to Aoun's promises and consolidates his powerful grip over Christian constituencies.

None of these are easy to overcome, but Aoun's presidency has already initiated new political momentum. Most salient is the injection of "Political Maronism" back into the life blood of Lebanese politics. A new balance of power is being articulated that places the Maronites on an equal footing with the Sunnis and their Shia counterparts.


Imad Salamey is Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs and the Director of the Institute for Social Justice and Conflict Resolution (ISJCR).  He is the author of The Decline of Nation-States after the Arab Spring: the Rise of Communitocracy and The Government and Politics of Lebanon. His research examines sectarian and power sharing politics in the Middle East.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.