BEIRUT, Lebanon — Amid escalating external volatility in the Middle East, Lebanon is grappling with the internal issue of a presidential vacuum.
The country has been without a president since the six-year term of former President Michel Suleiman ended May 25.
Under Lebanon’s sectarian-based power-sharing system, the president must be a Maronite Catholic, the speaker of parliament a Shiite Muslim and the prime minister a Sunni Muslim.
At issue are long-standing divisions between the two main opposing political blocks: the March 8 Coalition, headed by the Shiite group Hezbullah and Maronite Catholic Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, and the March 14 Coalition, led by the Sunni Muslim Future Movement. Their failure to agree on a candidate has led to the stalemate.
Lebanon’s parliament failed to elect a new president July 2 for the eighth time, due to a lack of quorum. The sessions have been boycotted by the majority of March 8 Coalition members, who say they would attend only when a consensus is reached on a presidential candidate ahead of time. The ninth session was scheduled for July 23.
Cardinal Bechara Rai, patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church, officially known as the Syriac Maronite Church of Antioch, has repeatedly called for rival lawmakers to put aside their differences and elect a president, warning in his homily July 6 from the patriarchal summer residence in the northern Lebanese village of Diman that the delay “threatens the very existence of Lebanon.”
“Don’t the officials know that, because of the presidential void, the country’s economic and security conditions are further deteriorating?” the patriarch asked.
Cardinal Rai emphasized that the selection of a president is a national issue.
“To those who are hindering the election, directly or indirectly, and those who are supporting them in and outside the country, those who do serious harm to Lebanon: We say that it [the presidency] does not belong to anyone,” but to the Lebanese, the patriarch said.
Already, the role of Lebanon’s president has been eroded by the Taif Accord of 1989 that marked the end of Lebanon’s civil war that began in 1975. Included in the Taif Accord was a formal acknowledgement that Christians and Muslims in Lebanon each account for 50% of the population, from a political perspective. Currently, however, as a result of a long-standing erosion in the Christian share of Lebanon’s population, Christians actually constitute only about 40% of the country’s 5.9 million people.
“In return for accepting this fictitious equality, the post of the Christian president has been stripped of most of its power and prerogatives,” Habib Malik, associate professor of history at the Lebanese American University in Byblos, explained to the Register. “This is a problem for the Christians,” he said, adding that the current prolonged polarization within the Christian community is “detrimental” to Christians.
Under the terms of the Taif Accord, Lebanon’s prime minister is no longer subject to the authority of the nation’s Maronite Catholic president, as was previously the case. The prime minister now is responsible to the elected parliament instead.
The Taif Accord also stipulates that Lebanon’s Muslims and Christian communities are both assigned 50% of the 128 seats in the country’s parliament, with these seats being further apportioned among various religious groups within the two communities. Of the 64 Christian members, only 34 are currently reserved for Maronites, with the remainder being assigned to the Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholic and Protestant communities.
Maronite politicians continue to covet the position of president and compete vigorously for it. At center stage in the running for president is March 8’s Michel Aoun and Samir Geagea of the March 14 Coalition.
“Aoun wants the presidency and feels entitled to it. Geagea knows he can never attain the presidency, but will run and gather support only to block the way of Aoun in getting there,” Malik said. “The March 14 Sunni-dominated coalition supports Geagea only to block Aoun’s chances and to keep Christians divided.”
Further complicating the presidential stalemate is the influence of regional powerbrokers: Saudi Arabia (Sunni Muslim) and Iran (Shiite Muslim) support March 14 and March 8 parties, respectively. Those pressures are exacerbated by increasing tensions between Sunnis and Shiites throughout the Middle East.
“As long as these tensions remain unresolved, it is difficult to see Saudi Arabia and Iran coming to an agreement over a compromise Maronite president in Lebanon,” Malik said.
In late June, Aoun suggested a limited constitutional amendment that would allow the people, rather than members of parliament, to elect the president. Under that proposal, only Christians would vote in the first round, paving the way for an election in which the top two candidates would run, open to all voters.
Aoun also called for a new electoral law under which each religious group would elect its own members of parliament, noting that, under the current law, Christian members of parliament were being elected by Muslims.
“This is not fair,” Aoun stated in announcing his proposal. “Christians are not well represented,” he said, adding that 17 Christian members of parliament are elected by Christians, while 24 members of Parliament “are selected by a Muslim weighting.”
Geagea criticized his rival’s proposal, saying it was an attempt to pressure the Lebanese parties into electing Aoun as president.
The patriarch in his July 6 homily called for House Speaker Nabih Berri to invite parliament to hold sessions on a daily basis to elect a president, stressing that “daily sessions are compulsory under the constitution.”
Bombings and Threats
Meanwhile, as the political stalemate continues, Lebanon has been plagued by a series of suicide bombings as well as terrorist threats.
Leaked documents from Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces, obtained by Ad-Diyar newspaper, indicated that the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria was planning attacks against Shiite and Christian villages in Lebanon’s northern Bekaa Valley, as the newspaper reported July 6.
Furthermore, there are more than 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon — equal to more than one-fourth of Lebanon’s population — putting more pressure on a host community that is already stretched to the limit. Masses of refugees continue to arrive in Lebanon each day.
In his homily, Cardinal Rai stressed the importance of safeguarding Lebanon’s pluralistic democracy “in the midst of the Islamic theocracies that dominate many Arab countries and the Jewish theocracy of Israel.”
The Maronite Catholic patriarch urged the Lebanese to maintain what St. John Paul II had said about Lebanon’s religious coexistence — that “Lebanon is more than a country; it is a message.”
“The Lebanese experience,” the patriarch said, “could help the Middle-Eastern countries suffering from wars, violence, terrorism and the emergence of fundamentalist movements to avoid the lethal slip into religious, social and political monopoly.”
Doreen Abi Raad writes
from Beirut, Lebanon.