Beirut, Reuters/Asharq Al-Awsat—Lebanon’s parliament extended its own mandate until 2017 on Wednesday, a move protesters camped outside parliament and rights groups say denies citizens their democratic privileges.
Lebanese politics has become deadlocked amid security concerns resulting from the conflict in Syria next door. Parties supporting the extension bill say the security situation is too unstable to hold elections.
This would be the second postponement of the elections, which should have taken place in June 2013 when parliament’s four-year term expired. Ninety-five out of 97 parliamentarians present voted for the bill, Lebanon’s National News Agency said.
The agency quoted Christian Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi calling the extension “illegitimate and unconstitutional.” Angelina Eichhorst, head of the European Union delegation in Lebanon, said on Twitter that Wednesday was “a sad day in Lebanon’s constitutional history.”
An umbrella group of Lebanese non-governmental groups had urged lawmakers not to extend their mandate. Downtown Beirut, where the parliament is located, was locked down by security forces on Wednesday and protesters hurled tomatoes at police.
This development is likely to fuel growing fears of further spillover from the war in neighboring Syria into the small Mediterranean state. As well as several outbreaks of inter-communal violence between sects backing different sides of the Syrian conflict, there have also been incursions by jihadist groups fighting in Syria and Iraq onto Lebanese territory.
Last week, Lebanese troops were deployed to the northern port city of Tripoli in order to expel members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Al-Nusra Front. This also followed a battle between the Lebanese security forces and both groups over the border town of Arsal in August.
In an effort to bolster the Lebanese security forces to meet the threat, Lebanon signed a major arms purchase agreement with France on Tuesday in the Saudi capital Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia pledged 3 billion US dollars in military assistance to Lebanon last December, which is being used to finance the new deal, amid growing fears that Lebanon will not be able to cope with the spillover from Syria, and the possible expansion of Iranian influence in the country.
The announcement of the arms deal was widely welcomed in Lebanon.
Lebanese Information Minister Ramzi Jreij said the agreement “puts an end to all the doubt that some parties sought to spread in the previous period.”
He also hinted that the deal would make Iranian assistance unnecessary, adding: “All the arms needed by the army will be guaranteed from this [Saudi–French] deal.”
The Iranian government, a close ally of the Lebanese Shi’ite militia and political movement Hezbollah, also offered to arm the Lebanese military at the beginning of October.
Jreij highlighted the importance of securing “domestic unity” over the issue of arming the Lebanese military. He added that Lebanon’s cabinet has yet to discuss the Iranian offer, and said this would most likely occur later in the week.
French sources said that 2.1 billion dollars of the deal will be allocated to purchase new equipment, including armored vehicles, patrol boats and helicopters, as well as advanced radar equipment. The remaining funds will be spent on maintaining Lebanese military equipment over the next five years.
The deal was strongly welcomed by the government and the Future Movement-led March 14 Alliance.
While questions remain as to how Hezbollah and its March 8 Alliance partners will react to the Saudi–French deal, and if they will push for the acceptance of the Iranian offer, March 8 Alliance sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that Hezbollah had not linked acceptance of the arms deal to Tehran’s offer, adding that the priority was to arm the Lebanese army.
Paula Astih contributed reporting from Beirut.