As 2007 draws to a close it seems as if Lebanon is likely to replace Iraq in Middle East headlines. Still without a president and limping along under a caretaker government, Lebanon is manifesting the early signs of a failed state.
At first glance, the crisis appears to have been prompted by the failure of the parliament to elect a new president. In reality, however, the problem goes beyond the mere election of a president. After all, the Lebanese political system is centred on the parliament with the prime minister exercising executive power. The president could slow things down but is in no position to force a change of course or set a new agenda for the nation.
The fight in Lebanon is not over who should become president, although ex-General Michel Aoun’s personal ambitions and Syria’s attempts at imposing one of its clients on Lebanon have highlighted the issue. The real fight in Lebanon is over the nation’s structural political development, it is a choice between democracy and civil war.
Under democracy, Lebanon should have elected a new president weeks ago. Both the text of the constitution and decades of practice provide the guidelines required. The parliament should start by attempting to elect a president with a two-third majority of its members. If no such majority emerges after three round of voting, the parliament has the right and the duty to choose a president with a simple majority.
(The elections of Suleiman Frangieh and Bashir Gemayel to the presidency set the precedent.)
What the constitution does not provide for is cynical political horse-trading outside the constitutional framework. And this is precisely what the 8 March opposition faction, backed by Tehran and Damascus, has been trying to impose right from the start. The pro-Tehran faction wants things to be “arranged” behind the scenes as is the practice in the Islamic Republic itself where all candidates are vetted by a group of mullahs and no one is declared a winner of any election unless he receives the stamp of approval from parallel organs of power.
The majority, known as the 18 March bloc, made its first mistake by accepting to be drawn into horse-trading and parallel manoeuvres designed to by-pass the legitimate organs of power such as the parliament and the council of ministers.
Instead of going ahead and electing a president in accordance with transparent constitutional rules and practice, the majority became a party to Byzantine manoeuvres some of which were designed in foreign capitals.
One reason why the 18 March bloc entered this sinister game was France’s quixotic intervention.
Anxious to pull off a diplomatic coup early in his term, President Nicolas Sarkozy and his Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner managed to persuade the Lebanese majority to take part in a set of extra-constitutional efforts to resolve the problem. They organised a game in which Damascus and Tehran were recognised as legitimate players with veto power. They then brought the prelate of the Maronite Church, Cardinal Sfeir, into play, also giving him a veto, as if Lebanon had an ersatz version of the Iranian system of “walayt faqih” (rule by the mullahs).
These manoeuvres produced three results.
First, it was established that the majority, although it is supposed to reflect the interests and view of most Lebanese people, does not have the right to choose the president. This, if it is allowed to stick, will set a terrible and dangerous precedent. Why should a majority not choose the person it considers as the most qualified for the job? Should it lie to the people by pretending that a candidate that it wouldn’t have even considered for the job is the best?
The second result of the Byzantine game was to significantly underline Lebanese sovereignty by giving Tehran, Damascus, Paris, and in a roundabout way Washington an almost official say in who should become Lebanon’s next president. This too, if allowed to stick, would set a dangerous precedent. To be sure, weak states such as Lebanon can never ignore the views of powerful neighbours and big powers with regional geo-strategic concerns. However, this does not mean giving outsiders a direct, almost institutional, role in domestic politics.
The third result of the game was that it whetted the appetite of all those who do not, indeed cannot, accept Lebanon as an independent and sovereign nation. Once the majority had accepted to consider a compromise formula for the presidential election, the opposition, no doubt egged on by Tehran and Damascus, started to ask for more. By the start of this week, ex-General Aoun, Tehran’s point man in this phase of the Lebanese crisis, was trying to dictate the composition and the policies of the future government. He was telling everyone whom Iran would or would not accept as the next prime minister and whom Tehran and Damascus wish to see excluded from future ministerial posts.
The pro-Iran faction wants one-third plus one of the future Cabinet positions, effectively securing a veto power on all key issues. It also wants to decapitate the majority by insisting that its key leaders, that is to say Saad Hariri, Fouad Siniora and Walid Jumblatt should be excluded from the future government.
Last but not least, the pro-Iran faction wants the future government to stop cooperating with the United Nations’ Security Council probe into the murder of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005 and close the files of a series of other political murders for which, rightly or wrongly, Syria has received the blame. In other words, the minority wants to rule without a popular mandate.
All this means that the minority wants to impose its agenda on the majority without elections. It tells the Lebanese that they cannot live in a democracy and that their fate should be decided by rival foreign powers. All this is done under the threat of civil war. Hezballah pulls Aoun’s strings while its own strings are pulled by Tehran and Damascus.
Lebanon can avoid civil war only if the majority has the courage of its convictions. The March 18 bloc has no mandate from its electorate to enter into shady deals that would undermine the nation’s independence and sovereignty. Its mandate is to act under the constitution and elect a new president, with a simple majority it necessary. All those powers that wish to see a stable Lebanon should support that choice by making it clear that they will defend the choice of the Lebanese people. If the faction backed by Tehran and Damascus then wishes to provoke a civil war, it would have to assume its responsibility openly.
The best way out of the current crisis is the shortest and the most transparent one, that is to say the constitutional way.