Lebanon, the Maronites and the presidential vacuum

Interestingly, inter-religious Christian-Muslim strife is not the essential political or social feature.

February 15, 2016 20:49
LEBANESE CHRISTIAN opposition leader Michel Aoun.

LEBANESE CHRISTIAN opposition leader Michel Aoun of Free Patriotic Movement shows his ink-stained finger after casting his ballot at a polling station in Beirut’s suburbs in 2009.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Twenty months have passed since Michel Suleiman completed his six-year term in Lebanon’s Ba’abda presidential palace.

There has been no success in convening the requisite two-thirds quorum, 86 of 128 parliamentary members, required to elect a new president. On February 8, the thirty-fifth parliamentary session for the election was a barren exercise, and the traditional goal of finding a consensus president has eluded Lebanese politicos.

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Since the founding of modern Lebanon in 1920, and the formulation of the National Pact in 1943, the special configuration of politics assigns the office of president to a Maronite Christian, prime minister to a Sunni Muslim and speaker of parliament to a Shi’ite Muslim. These arrangements acknowledge the historical primacy of the Maronites as the more-than-equal elite founding community, recognize the intra-Muslim schism, formalize the link between state and religion, while promoting inter-sectarian cooperation for the interest of all groups.

Interestingly, inter-religious Christian-Muslim strife is not the essential political or social feature, or impediment, but rather intra-religious wrangling has been the hallmark and bane of Lebanese politics. A sweeping Lebanese identity encompasses all of the country’s groups, while acrimony tarnishes relations and sullies the atmosphere especially within the ranks of each group.

It is from within the Maronite community that we can identify the ongoing paralytic presidential crisis.

Paradoxically, without the Maronites there is no distinctive and authentic independent Lebanon with its remarkable spirit and talents; however, because of the Maronites, there is no stable, functioning and united Lebanon.

The presidential brouhaha has elicited a number of candidates. A leading contender with uncontrolled ambition is Michel Aoun, former general and leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, who is allied – he the Maronite – with militant Shi’ite Hezbollah (“the Party of God”). Aoun and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, bound by an understanding in 2006, head the March 8 camp with its Syrian/Iranian orientation.

This Maronite-Shi’ite alliance, unfathomable to the inexperienced observer of Lebanon, exemplifies cross-sectarian Lebanese inter-group cooperation.

Samir Geagea, heading the Lebanese Forces, who until recently constituted Aoun’s primary foe and former combatant, has now joined forces in a seeming reconciliation following their dreadful intra-Maronite war in 1990. But the real reason for Geagea’s about-face is not love and brotherhood. The proposed and rather recent candidacy of Suleiman Frangieh, leader of the Marada movement, and a member of parliament like Aoun and Geagea, catalyzed the Geagea- Aoun rapprochement. Frangieh, grandson of a former president whose namesake he brandishes, is also affiliated with the March 8 camp, and thus part of a coalition that includes Aoun and Nasrallah, decidedly oriented toward Syria. Geagea and Aoun have cunningly joined forces to block Frangieh.

That said, former Sunni prime minister Sa’ad Hariri, leading the Future Movement, announced his support for the Frangieh presidential bid, creating thereby the oddity of a March 14 personality promoting a March 8 candidate. Such are the confusing configurations and startling twists confounding Lebanese politics.

The political pacts involving these Maronite personalities and their Muslim allies demonstrate fractionalization in Maronite ranks, but inter-confessional cooperation as a standard Lebanese norm. This clearly refutes the contention that Muslim-Christian animosity is the source of Lebanon’s ills.

While other names have been bounced about in the presidential political banter, such as Amin Gemayel and Henri Hélou, there is no immediate prospect of their realistic success.

Aside from the Maronite contenders for the presidential office, there are some significant personalities who can feasibly influence the final outcome. Three are of special note supporting, in fact, the Frangieh candidacy: Nabih Berri, Shi’ite parliamentary speaker, who adopts a position different from Hassan Nasrallah, his Shi’ite rival; Walid Junblatt, Druse leader of the Progressive Socialist Party and its “Democratic Gathering” parliamentary bloc; and Sa’ad Hariri whose Sunni constituency opposes Michel Aoun due to his alliance with Hezbollah. It is vintage Lebanese politics to assume that Hariri’s support for Frangieh as president is part of a political deal for his later appointment as prime minister.

Lebanese domestic politics are traditionally and inextricably enmeshed with regional actors. Iran as the strategic, financial, and religious patron of Hezbollah would accept the Aoun candidacy; Saudi Arabia, as the patron of the Sunnis and Sa’ad Hariri who has lived in long exile in Paris and also in Riyadh, would ipso facto reject Aoun, Nasrallah’s ally and Iran’s first choice. It has been said that the next president will arrive either on a Persian carpet or an Arab camel.

Thus far, the Aoun “Change and Reform” bloc linked to Hezbollah has boycotted parliament to deny the requisite quorum needed for a presidential vote.

Aoun, touting the view that if he is not to be elected president then neither should anyone else, is determined to try and prevent Frangieh being chosen the next Maronite president of Lebanon. And by the way, despite the relative decline in Christian demographics as a whole and that of the Maronites themselves, the Maronite hold on the presidency is basically unchallenged – for now. The enigma of Lebanon rides on.

Rumors are afloat that the political system, which is based on Christian-Muslim parliamentary parity, may be reformed. Hezbollah would like to see it built on a new formula: a third Christian, a third Sunni, and a third Shi’ite. This would be a lethal political blow to the Christians, whose soul is embedded in the national narrative of the country, but as a capsized minority could be marginalized out of existence.

Another idea is to divide the country into cantons based on a federal formula. This would give the core of Mount Lebanon to Maronite stewardship, while destroying the political geography of a united Lebanon, as constituted nearly 100 years ago.

Instead of serving as the responsible political leaders of Lebanon, and quietly working to fill the office of president with one of their own – and this no less with the assent and cooperation of the Muslim majority – Maronites have dithered miserably and descended into disastrous self-destructive political manipulations and maneuverings. They have been and were destined to be the conciliator between groups, but they have demoted themselves into being just another one of them.

But despite the bad times for Maronites and Lebanon, don’t be misled: the nightclubs are swinging, the restaurants are full, the media vibrant, thoroughfares bustle, the arts and music flourish. All is not over for the miracle that is Lebanon.

The author, a retired lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, authored The Conscience of Lebanon: A Political Biography of Etienne Sakr (Abu Arz) in 2003 and Politics and War in Lebanon: Unraveling the Enigma in 2015.

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