When listening to Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mouallem, Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad and UN representative Bashar Al-Jaafari, one can only feel surprise at their extensive use of the term “sovereignty” in their speeches. In fact, they consider “respecting” this “sovereignty” the sole basis for any international dealing with Syria.
These figures, as well as others within the Syrian regime, could believe their own discourse. They may even believe that their audience is buying their rhetoric about “sovereignty.” However, it is the Syrian regime, which is killing its own people and disrupting the national, social and institutional fabric of the country, that has stripped the word “sovereignty” of its meaning.
The Lebanese—politicians, media and general public—are more humble. They realize two things: that Lebanon is no longer an independent country, and that nobody will believe them if they copy Bashar Al-Assad’s self-delusion.
Without beating around the bush, it is enough to note that the Lebanese military, supposedly a national fortress and a melting pot of loyalties, is not the most powerful armed force on the ground. In fact, there is a more powerful and influential power in Lebanon.
What’s more, in a country such as Lebanon, where national allegiance is on the decline, we can sense divisions running along sectarian and religious lines within state institutions. Even the government security forces are divided along a tacitly recognized sectarian quota.
Over the past few years, the Lebanese military establishment has gone through several trying experiences and has tried to demonstrate its impartiality to the Lebanese people. However, the eruption of the Syrian revolution further divided the already disunited Lebanese people into pro- and anti-Assad camps. After that, Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria and the failure of the Lebanese military to find definitions for controversial terms—including “extremism,” “fundamentalism,” “terrorism” and “Takfirism”—have served to weaken the Lebanese people’s trust in the military’s impartiality.
While it is true that such a task is the prerogative of the political, rather than the military, establishment. The army—whether it likes or not—has become the last resort for the Lebanese people, who expect it to provide consensual figures moderate and disarming enough to assume the presidency.
In fact, the military has produced one of Lebanon’s finest presidents, Fuad Chehab, who sincerely worked to ease tensions, fight extremism, restore national unity and transform Lebanon into a state of institutions.
With no aspirations for power and wealth, Chehab, a descendent of a Muslim-turned-Christian family of noble ancestry, succeeded in rebuilding the state following 1958 crisis. A lot of the Lebanese still have good memories of the man despite the growing influence of the security forces towards the end of his term.
At odds with Émile Lahoud, the former Lebanese president who gave up his role as an arbitrator among the Lebanese, preferring instead to operate under the influence of the Syrian security apparatus, is current President Michel Suleiman. Suleiman, also a former army chief, preferred to follow Chehab’s course, remaining keen to adopt a consensual approach based on a reciprocal compromise signed in the Qatari capital of Doha around the time he was elected in 2008.
Today there are a number of prospective presidents, including Maronite leaders from across the political spectrum. Although some of these names are outside the stated map of alliances, those observing the scene expect that some of the names could be serious contenders, particularly if the political actors reach a consensus and the international sponsors express a desire to ensure that Lebanon avoids another shakeup. Such a shakeup is the last thing the country needs, given the escalating Syrian crisis and its security, political, economic and humanitarian repercussions for Lebanon.
Some of Lebanon’s political and religious Christian figures—whose good intentions are in question—are calling for the election of a “strong, Christian president.” These are good words but with dubious intentions. The next Lebanese President must be an icon of national unity and provide a safety net for citizens, ensuring that state institutions remain at the service of all the Lebanese people.
Those calling for the election of a “strong, Christian president” ignore the fact that the head of the state is exactly what the title suggests—namely, someone in charge of the entire state. This is quite different from the positions of the Sunni Prime Minister, who heads a Cabinet divided equally between Christians and Muslims, and the Shi’ite Speaker of the parliament, which is also equally divided between Christians and Muslims.
Electing a “strong Christian President” in this implicitly sectarian sense will constitute a provocative step that is fated to either fail or push the country into the abyss. Moreover, the Lebanese Army’s impartiality towards the Sunni–Shi’ite tensions is now in question, particularly following the deeply felt misgivings within the Sunni community after the killing of Sheikh Ahmed Abdul Wahid and the operation against Sheikh Ahmad Al-Assir, and its failure to block the movement of Sunni and Shi’ite fighters across the Syria–Lebanon border. In light of this, the Lebanese military establishment perhaps can no longer offer presidential candidates who are equidistant from all political sides.
After ten months and ten days of stalemate, the surprising announcement of the formation of Tammam Salam’s government has encouraged the optimists among the Lebanese to believe in the presence of a secret “watchword” that helped facilitate things and ease tensions.
However, the battle for the presidency will be tougher and riskier than reaching an understanding aimed at forming a short-lived government. Even if Lebanon is able to coexist with a “shadow government”—in the presence of a de facto Hezbollah government—for a few months before presidential elections, a “shadow presidency” would mean the elimination of the country.
In the late 1950s, when the political conflict in Lebanon was raging between the “Pan-Arabist Muslims” and the “Lebanonist Christians,” famous Lebanese journalist and politician Ghassan Tueni said that “Lebanon can only be ruled by two majorities: Muslim and Christian.”
Although we now live in a “tripartite” conflict, Tueni’s principle has not changed much. No president can succeed, no internal peace can remain, nor can the state stand without a president that is accepted by each of the Sunni, Shi’ite and Christian majorities.
Any option other than the “three majorities” will be a leap into the unknown. If the next president is not a consensual pick, it could weaken his factional—national cover, and thus threaten more than his representational legitimacy.