(Beirut) Najat Saliba shivers under her ski jacket in the cavernous, dark and unheated parliament building in Beirut, Lebanon. This member of the Lebanese Parliament has been staging a sit-in inside the building with her colleague Melhem Khalaf for nearly a month.
“We are here to entice the other 128 legislators to think about why they have been elected,” the lawmaker from the Change bloc said firmly.
Lebanon has not had a president since Michel Aoun left office at the end of October after his term-limited, six-year stint in office. “Four months after the deadline, the MPs don't seem to be in a hurry to find a president that would fill in the power vacuum that we have,” Saliba told The Media Line.
Since last fall, Lebanon’s legislative chamber has had just 11 electoral sessions to choose a new president, which all failed to yield results.
“Our presence in Parliament uninterruptedly is in application of the Constitution,” Khalaf and Saliba stated in a tweet about their sit-in, which began on January 19. Their call to their fellow lawmakers is meant to force them to comply with the country’s constitution, which calls for the parliament to remain in open session until a president is chosen.
Dark time in Lebanon
Lebanon is going through an exceptionally dark time now, as it deals with a power vacuum both in presidential and governmental positions.
“We have to fill the place for the president, form a cabinet since we have a caretaker government, and resume our legislative work because as long as we don't have a president, the parliament cannot do any work other than electing a president,” Saliba told The Media Line.
After the 11th unsuccessful parliamentary election session, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri did not announce a new meeting date to elect a president. But Berri has convened joint parliamentary committees to examine several bills and proposals, which the two lawmakers believe goes against the constitution.
When they first started their sit-in, many people thought that the long hours without electricity in the cold winter would dissuade them from staying.
“Amid the complete emptiness of the executive and legislative bodies of the country, there is a need to reinstate these institutions immediately, especially because we are witnessing a huge collapse of the economy and our people are living in a humanitarian crisis,” said Saliba. “There is an urgency, an emergency I would say,” she added.
Lebanese economy is the worst globally
Lebanon is currently in one of the worst economic crises globally in centuries, according to the World Bank. The Lebanese pound has lost more than 95% of its value since the start of the country’s economic crisis in 2019.
Since Aoun left office, the Lebanese parliament has never progressed beyond a first-round vote to elect a president, in which a candidate needs a two-thirds majority to win. In second and subsequent rounds of voting, a candidate only has to secure a simple majority. According to the Lebanese power-sharing system, the president must be a Maronite Catholic. Many of the 128 legislators have cast blank ballots during the several election processes or even written in mock candidates. There is no consensus and no camp has a clear majority to impose a candidate.
This critical political situation adds to the worrying “big gap between the population and the political class,” said Lebanese academic Carmen Geha. “The political class’s legitimacy doesn’t come from the majority, it comes from foreign funding and weapons, so they don’t even bother to appeal to the people,” she told The Media Line.
But Saliba, who became part of the political system after the elections in May, has seen the reality.
“In the past, people have relied on international support to sway the opinion of the MPs one way or the other, but now no one is really interested in Lebanon anymore, and foreign powers don't have the time nor the energy to push for reform,” according to Saliba.
This week the World Bank expressed its concern about Lebanon, which is “really one of those places that keeps you awake at night,” Farid Belhaj, the World Bank’s vice president for the Middle East and North Africa region, told Reuters.
“Politicians have no interest in having a national strategy in water, electricity, human rights, or public services,” Geha explained.
This is not the first time that Lebanon has faced a presidential vacuum. Before Aoun took office, lawmakers took two-and-a-half years to elect him. It took until the 45th session on October 30, 2016, for the political fighting to come me to an end when the lawmakers found a quorum in support of the former military general during the Lebanese civil war.
“Some of the MPs have not changed and they are still bargaining and looking for their own benefits instead of the benefits of the people,” Saliba charged.
This shows that some of Lebanon’s political leaders may be stuck in the past, Geha points out.
“The major challenge Lebanon has yet to overcome is the presence of warlords in the institutions,” Geha said, since many of the political leaders took active part in the Lebanese civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990.
“The economic situation is more pressing now, so waiting for two-and-a-half years again would be a complete disaster, although we are living in a disaster,” the Change bloc lawmaker added.
This week, the Lebanese pound reached a new historic low of 74,000 pounds against the dollar. Three-quarters of the population are living under the poverty line, according to the United Nations. On top of that, Lebanon had the secon-highest inflation rate worldwide in 2022.
“Lebanon is a failed state,” Geha stated. “The country doesn’t have a strategy: we need a national health strategy, we need to recognize refugees since we have the highest refugees per capita, we need a lot of things to get done, but politicians don’t want to do them.”
In addition to the critical economic situation, there are fears that a prolonged political paralysis will further delay a possible International Monetary Fund deal to help the Lebanese economy recover and renew investor confidence in the country. The IMF has offered Lebanon billions of dollars in aid to put the country on a path to economic recovery, on condition that it implements painful austerity measures and reforms. In order to do so, the country requires a president and a government, however.
Saliba is clear about who is to blame for the tragic financial and political situation.
“The 128 members of parliament who are delaying the election of the president could do it tomorrow and start on the path of reform,” she said. “I hope people would be aware of that and put more pressure on those 128 who hold this country hostage,” Saliba concluded.