On Saturday, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman reviewed his last honor guard at the Baabda palace near Beirut. His wife wore a modest blue dress as they made their way through well wishers. And then he was gone, chauffeured away in a sleek black car. His term technically ended Sunday, and the country has now been plunged into yet another political crisis with a presidential vacuum. Once again Hezbollah holds all the cards and has been boycotting the presidential election process in parliament.
Lebanon’s political system is a byzantine blend of democracy and confessionalism that took root with the National Pact of 1943 that enshrined a system whereby the president had to be a Maronite Christian, the prime-minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shi’ite Muslim. In 1989 the Taif agreement expanded the number of legislators in parliament to 128 (from 99) and ensured that half the seats in parliament would be held by Muslims (as opposed to before 1989 when 54 percent had to be Christian). The elections are immensely complicated in this respect with 19 parties competing in two alliances.
In the 2009 elections, for instance, the March 8 alliance was composed of two large Shi’ite parties, Hezbollah and Amal, as well as their Christian allies in the Free Patriotic Movement. It was opposed by the March 14 Alliance, whose largest party is the Sunni-based Future Movement, and which also consists of two Christian parties, the Lebanese Forces and Kataeb (Phalange). Each faction has a constituent Armenian party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (March 8) and the Armenian Democratic Liberal Party. Similarly, the Druse, who make up a sizable minority in Lebanon and are guaranteed eight seats in the parliament, have a party in each faction: the Lebanese Democratic Party (March 8) of Emir Talal Arsalan and Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party.
The fancy names, which appear to espouse socialism or democracy, are in fact very sectarian and contradictory, since both political alliances seem to have “socialists” in them.
Lebanon underwent a brutal civil war in the 1970s and ‘80s and afterward was occupied (in its southern half) by Israel until 2000 and by Syria until 2005. Its politics are partially an outgrowth of those three events. Former soldiers Samir Geagea and Michael Aoun played key roles in the civil war and both opposed Syria’s involvement in the country. Amine Gemayel’s son and brother were both assassinated, the former probably by Hezbollah and the later at the behest of Syria. Similarly March 14 leader and current Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri’s father Rafik Hariri was assassinated in 2005 by Hezbollah.
What has happened in Lebanon is that the vacuum left by the withdrawal over the years of foreign powers (Syria, Israel and briefly a US-backed multi-national force) has resulted in Hezbollah dominating the country’s politics. This isn’t readily apparent, since Hezbollah is strongest primarily in south Beirut and southern Lebanon, where it maintains an armed terrorist force, while Hezbollah only obtained 13 seats (of the 27 reserved for Shi’ites) in the 2009 election. How can such a paltry showing hold a whole country hostage? ON MAY 18 Lebanese politicians seemed to have agreed to elect a president before May 25. Sa’ad Hariri and Samir Geagea sat down with Fouad Siniora, the former Sunni prime minister, in Paris.
According to The Daily Star they wanted a consensus candidate who would be amenable to the March 8 opposition. Geagea reached out to the Saudis as well, because of their history in brokering the Taif agreement. Saudi Arabia supports the Sunnis in Lebanon and worries about Iranian-backed Hezbollah’s power.
However, a two-thirds quorum is needed in parliament to elect the president, and Hezbollah and some other opposition politicians have been boycotting sessions. Al-Arabiya reported that when Michel Suleiman left the presidential palace, Hezbollah did not send a representative. “The party has demanded a future president be sympathetic to the mititia’s intervention [in Syria],” it reported.
Sami Nader, writing at Al-Monitor, noted that these recent actions “revealed the excessive power of Hezbollah, which exceeds the state in terms of role and weight.”
President Suleiman had attempted, since 2012, to keep Lebanon out of the Syrian civil war. However in June 2013 Hezbollah sent its fighters streaming into Syria, helping to turn the tide in the battle for Qusair. Some estimates have Hezbollah committing as many as 12,000 men to the conflict, and it is training more in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.
Hezbollah knows it can get away with this because of events in 2008 when it sent its fighters into the streets of Beirut. An agreement signed in Doha seemed to give Hezbollah and its allies a veto over cabinet decisions and postponed the disarming of the organization. Thus, instead of disarming, Hezbollah learned that it could use its arms to force itself on Lebanon; its invasion of Syria to aid the Syrian government has shown that it can dictate the country’s foreign policy as well. Attempts to curtail its independent communications network or even prevent it from maintaining its own security cameras at the airport were neutered.
The failure to elect a president by the stroke of midnight on the 24th was a serious blow. Sa’ad Hariri said it is “a serious risk that threatens the safety of the democratic system and turns the presidency into a target for permanent [political] blackmail.”
He wants to see a president in office who will back Suleiman’s “Baabda declaration” of non-involvement in Syria. Wassim Mrough, writing at the Daily Star, asked whether the vacuum would “again lead to an abyss.”
Lebanese often talk in dark parables about civil war, using terms like “abyss” as code for the day after fighting breaks out. But in the end it is just talk. The non-Hezbollah factions are not well armed. In November 2013 two suicide bombers struck the Iranian embassy in Beirut and in January of 2014 someone blew themself up in a Shi’ite neighborhood, showing that Sunni extremists, allied to the rebels in Syria, can strike at Hezbollah and its backers. In Sidon and Tripoli Sunni radicals, led by clerics like Ahmed Assir, have taken root; but the army has often arrested them (prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Assir). The arrest of al-Qaeda linked Sheikh Omar Bakri yesterday was part of this trend whereby radical Sunnis are incarcerated but Shia extremists do as they please.
The real lesson the Hezbollah opposition has once again learned is that it can whittle away at Christian power in Lebanon. By having a vacuum the traditional Christian leader is absent. Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai was cognizant of that in mid- May when he devoted energy to finding a compromise candidate, warning President Suleiman that the interests of Christians would be harmed. In the end Rai left the country to attend the Pope’s visit in Jordan and Israel while Hezbollah threatened the Christian cleric with “negative repercussions” for visiting Israel.
Currently the discussions on a candidate for president sit with the Christian leaders: Geagea, Gemayel, Aoun and Suleiman Franghieh (the son of Tony Franghieh who was assassinated in 1978 during the Civil War). But the power behind the throne is Hezbollah and the Iranian-Syrian axis. It is an unfortunate story that Lebanon, whose beaches overflow with frolicking beauties (a photo on Facebook this week shows bikini-clad women sitting on top of a classy car careening around Beirut), is home to one of the most reactionary, savage religious-terrorist movements in the world.
And that movement, despite representing a minority of the population, has come to hold the country hostage.
Follow the writer on Twitter @sfrantzman