The Empty Republic?

By: Kai E. Kverme, University of Oslo.

Lebanon has always been an exception when compared to the other states in the Middle East, not only due to its political system that is based on sectarian belonging, but also due to the freedom of speech and the plethora of newspapers, magazines and books published in Beirut. But while being an exception in these respects, it is also where regional rivalries and conflicts are played out, and it is usually also where the consequences of these are first felt. Through history we have seen this on numerous occasions; the rise of pan-Arabism which in 1958 led it to the brink of civil war, the Palestinian armed struggle against Israel which more than anything else contributed to the outbreak of a fifteen year civil war in 1975, and later with the mass protests which drove the Syrian forces out of the country in 2005. Now it is the war in Syria that is looming over the Lebanese, and threatening the relative stability of the country.

The consequences of the war have been felt almost since the peaceful protests around Syria turned into an armed conflict towards the end of 2011. Lebanon is host to the largest number of Syrian refugees in the region and by and large left to deal with this impact on its own. And while all the major political forces voted for the so called Baabda-agreement, and adopted a policy of distancing the country from the conflict in Syria, Hizballah chose to ignore this and is participating with several thousand of its fighters on the side of the Assad regime.

The Baabda-agreement was sponsored by former president Michel Suleiman, who subsequently criticized Hizballah on several occasions for their blatant breach of the agreement, calling on the Party of God to withdraw its forces from Syria immediately. This is significant as Suleiman was elected president in 2008 as a consensus candidate, following the clashes in May of that year when Hizballah turned its weapons against fellow Lebanese for domestic gains, as they had sworn they would never do. Suleiman was at that point the head of the Lebanese Armed Forces and was considered to be close to Syria; after all he rose to that position during the years of the Syrian tutelage over Lebanon. His predecessor both as head of the LAF and later president was Emile Lahoud, possibly the most pro-Syrian of all Lebanese presidents.

While Suleiman proved not to be the dupe some portrayed him as being, his independent policies enraged Syria’s allies, and most of all Hizballah. His criticism of their involvement in Syria severely undermined the legitimacy of the Party’s strategy in the eyes of many Lebanese, but rather than heeding the advice to withdraw their forces the Party employed another tactic which it had tried before; paralyzing the Lebanese state.

When Suleiman’s term ended earlier this year, which he himself refused to extend, a rather macabre spectacle set in motion. Only two candidates declared themselves as being just that; Samir Geagea, leader of the vehemently anti-Syrian Lebanese Forces, and Pierre Helou from the Progressive Socialist Party led by maverick Druse chieftain Walid Junblat. Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement and ally of Hizballah, is a candidate for all practical purposes but has refused to openly declare his candidacy. Rather he has moved behind the scenes to build an image as a consensus candidate, amongst other things through talks with Saad a-Hariri, leader of the largest Sunni block in parliament.

While Geagea has launched a comprehensive presidential program and called for a transparent election of a new president in parliament, Junblat has promoted Helou as the sole consensus candidate. But both are vetoed by Hizballah and other pro-Syrian forces, which have sworn that the experience with a president not firmly backing the Party and its right to retain its weapons outside the reach of the Lebanese state shall not be repeated. Publicly calling for a consensus candidate does not help; there is no consensus in Lebanon concerning Hizballah and their weapons, and as such finding a consensus candidate is bordering the impossible. So Hizballah and the FPM are boycotting the sessions in parliament where a new president are supposed to be elected, depriving it of the quorum needed for such an election to take place.

Lebanon has been without a president for months, and it looks like we are set for yet another extension of the parliament’s term next month. The current parliament voted in June 2013 to extend its term for 17 month, the motivation being that the MPs were unable to agree on a new election law. The term ends in November, and an agreement on new law is not on the horizon. This will leave the country without both a president and an elected national assembly at a time when the whole region is in flames. The empty republic might well be the result, with whoever having the force and resources trying to fill the void. Embrace yourselves for the next episode of the tragedy.