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From Early October till Late November?
Lebanese Presidential Hustings

6 October   |   2007   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

  • Samir Kassir, 2 June 2005
  • George Hawi, 21 June 2005
  • Gebran Ghassan Tueini, 12 December 2005
  • Pierre Amin Gemayel, 21 November 2006
  • Walid Eido, 31 June 2007,
  • Antoine Ghanem, 19 September 2007

On the evening of 3rd October, a large candle-lit rally in memory of Charles Chikhani started at BIEL (Beirut International Exhibition & Leisure Centre) and ended at Parliament Square. Yet, I would not be overstating it at all if I were to add that hardly anyone outside Lebanon will have heard his name before. Chikhani was a university graduate, barely 29 years old, who was killed on 19th September along with Antoine Ghanem and four other victims as a result of an explosion near the home of former president Amin Gemayel, close to the Hayek roundabout in Hirsh Tabet of Sin el Fil suburb of Beirut - not far from the Librarie Antoine bookstore. Chikhani’s fatal mistake was that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The primary target of this assassination was the Maronite Christian Antoine Ghanem, a member of parliament representing the Phalangist party in the upper Metn region of Mount Lebanon, part of the ruling 14th March Coalition and a moderate critic of Syria. To date, his was the last in a host of sinister assassinations (in addition to the attempted assassinations of Marwan Hamadeh, May Chidiac and Elias El-Murr) which began with the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, along with Minister Basil Fuleihan and other hapless victims, well over two years ago.

Together, those murders have underscored the wobbly state of Lebanese contemporary politics and the deadly peril facing prominent Lebanese personalities whose most common denominator seems to be their Syria-unfriendly orientations. But mind you, what is happening today is not new for Lebanon. Alas, it represents a frightening return to another era not too far ago when political assassinations went hand-in-hand with presidential elections. Few Lebanese men or women could easily forget the traumas of those past four decades, not only because of the shifting savagery of the civil war itself, but also because of the existential hardships they went through day-in-day-out in their not-so-ordinary lives.

No wonder then that the whole of Lebanon today, with its disparate political factions, holds its breath again as it waits to see what might still happen between early October and late November when the incumbent president, Emile Lahhoud, vacates the Ba’abda residential palace. Following a failed attempt earlier last month, Members of Parliament have now been recalled for another meeting on 23rd October in the hope that they would constitute a quorum to elect a new president.

Contrary to the current political instinct, let alone the raw fears about further looming deaths and probable explosions in Lebanon, it seems that Nabih Berri, Speaker of Parliament and head of the Amal Shi’i party, is cautiously optimistic that the country would turn a leaf for the better. There have been almost daily meetings between key political and religious players who have been warily trying to agree on a strategy that would extricate the country from its present stalemate - and in the process speculating discreetly over acceptable [i.e., consensual] candidates for the presidency. Earlier this week, following their monthly meeting at Bkirke, the Maronite Bishops’ Conference exhorted all parties to stop bickering and stated less than subtly that the controversy over presidential nominees or the qualities of the next head of state "will not produce any results.”

So will a convergence of wills occur at long last? Is it possible that Lebanese politicians - the Gemayels, Geageas, Aouns, Hariris, Berris, Jumblatts and Nasrallahs who have together brought the country to a standstill - would come to their senses, bury the hatchet, draw back from the brink of confrontational disaster and elect a new president? Reading the reports of veteran journalists like Robert Fisk and Jim Muir, one would be forgiven to doubt it. However, my own analysis remains a tad more sanguine since a lot depends on whether it would be possible to find a candidate that is acceptable to both factions of this political divide who could muster the magical two-thirds majority in Parliament later this month.

As I see it from my vantage point, there are at least three plausible scenarios at the moment:

  • The first scenario is that the factions from both the 8th and 14th coalitions will reach an understanding on the choice of president. The candidate would in principle be independent of both political sides and therefore a consensus politician acceptable to all the main Lebanese political factions with no overt allegiances or enmities. This optimal scenario would in all likelihood secure the two-thirds majority toward the election of a fresh president.
  • The second scenario is that the factions fail to agree on a candidate. This non-starter will inevitably lead Lebanon into a labyrinthine maize of interpretations that would widen the gulf between the factions. Could Parliament, for instance, elect a president with a simple majority in the second round of voting if it fails to do so with a two-thirds majority in the first round? If this were to occur, and the 14th March coalition were to insist upon this choice, it is almost conceivable that the opposing coalition would do likewise. In this instance, Lebanon ends up with a lame president and two rival governments. Mind you, this is not novel since it has happened before whereby parallel political institutions were set up and presidents were not even elected in Parliament House itself.
  • The third scenario - already being marketed by Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement for reasons that are ostensibly to his own advantage at this stage - is that Lebanon would fail to elect a president, and the outgoing president would instead hand the reins of governance to a military man such as Army commander General Michel Suleiman. This would in turn expose Lebanon, a democracy of sorts in the region, to the hazards of a potential dictatorship.

One major hub of the problem in Lebanon - since the 1970’s - has been the persistent fact that some of the factions lean toward Syria, whilst others lean away from Syria. How is it possible to ensure that any future president would not be seen as a Syrian pawn, but conversely not as an anti-Syrian one either? Syria should indeed learn not to meddle in Lebanese politics, but by the same token it is almost axiomatic that this ought not to translate the political discourse into one of tactical hostility against Syria either. If this critical balance were achieved somehow, a big stride will have been marked in terms of progress.

In the midst of this ever-shifting political miasma, the position of Hizbullah has become a determining factor in the future compass of the crisis. Having militarily withstood an Israeli onslaught in the summer of 2006, its political position became inescapably stronger. However, its success against Israel has now allegedly become translated into an even closer alliance with Syria and Iran, giving rise to the claim by some pundits that these two countries, not Lebanon, are calling the shots. 

Much as they might be viewed with suspicion in some quarters, I disagree with the analysis that Hizbullah is antithetical to Lebanese national interests. However, I am equally aware this movement has become in some sense a “political freelancer”, almost an authority all to itself, flying in the face of a raft of UNSC Resolutions - key amongst them 1559 and 1701. But any containment of Hizbullah within the national project would obliquely necessitate addressing what its leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, has long termed the ‘four bleeding wounds’. They are the (1) handing over of maps of the land mines the Israelis left in South Lebanon during the occupation, (2) return of all Lebanese prisoners, (3) end to Israeli over-flights of Lebanon and (4) Israeli relinquishment of the disputed Sheba’a Farms. Complying with those demands would, I believe, put to the test Hizbullah’s national mettle and its allegiance to the overall interests of Lebanon.

There is also an expectation in some circles that one way toward resolving this debacle necessitates an Israeli attack against Syria and / or an American-Israeli attack against Iran. Such a military strike, the proponents of this thesis argue, would end any prospect for those two countries to interfere in the affairs of Lebanon. Much as I encourage non-interference as the right of any sovereign state, war is not the facile answer either, nor for that matter is the one-dimensional belief that it alone would pull Lebanon away from this quagmire. War is not a resolution to a conflict; it is a temporary solution fuelled by histrionics. As Churchill once told Roosevelt, it is better to “jaw-jaw” than to “war-war” - and this is quite true in this instance too.

Lebanon should avoid playing into the hands of all foreign vested interests that are pushing it toward dangerous tangents. It should also avoid turning the standoff between the two camps into a treacherous and introverted confessional battleground - whether intra-Christian given growing Christian militancy, intra-Muslim between Sunnis and Shi’is or even Muslim-Christian. The militia-leaders-turned-politicians should forsake their chronic and inward-looking solipsism to explore a middle ground that no longer depends on outside influences or claims to impose its own manacled viewpoints. Otherwise, Lebanon would become steeped in self-absorbing constitutional re-definitions and further political and confessional crises.

According to the latest assessment of the International Crisis Group (ICG), the situation in Lebanon has deteriorated further in the last month. Not startling news, really, but I hope that those politicians controlling the future fate of their citizens would desist from scourging each other or jockeying for power and let the presidential hustings become truly democratic - therefore truly Lebanese - so they reclaim their own country and foil any internal or external attempts at fomenting dissension.

An anonymous saying goes that “if you think you understand Lebanese politics, it obviously has not been explained to you properly”! I would like to counter this aphorism with another one whereby min kulli ikhtilafin i’tilaf (out of every difference of opinion emerges a coalition). Lebanon deserves a break: so is it perhaps not time to evince the kind of political maturity that strengthens Lebanon’s unity within its rich diversity - and in the process define an honourable way out of its qualms?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2007   |   6 October


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