Lebanese MPs spend night in parliament in push to end political deadlock

Eleven sessions have failed to find a successor to former president Michel Aoun, whose term ended in October

Lebanese MP Najat Saliba, above, and her colleague Melhem Khalaf want their protest to give people hope. Photo: @najat_saliba / Twitter
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Using candles and phone torches to illuminate the room, two Lebanese MPs spent the night in the country's parliament in an attempt to end the impasse that has left Lebanon without a president for two and a half months.

In 11 sessions, Lebanon’s divided and factional parliament has come nowhere near to electing a successor to Michel Aoun as the country grapples with one of the worst economic crises in modern history.

The two MPs, lawyer Melhem Khalaf and chemistry professor Najat Saliba, want parliament to hold successive sessions without interruption until a president is elected and say they will not leave the legislature until that happens. They are urging their fellow MPs to do their job, respect the constitution and come to parliament to agree on Lebanon's next president.

“The first message is to give hope to the people,” Mr Khalaf told The National on Friday night from parliament, as he lamented the fact that people in Lebanon did not have people in power willing or able to solve the country's multitude of problems.

“You think it’s normal? We don’t have a government, we don’t have a president and more than that, we have a parliament that is completely incapable. This is a dangerous situation.”

He described electing the next president as “a national, constitutional and moral obligation”.

The lack of a president comes with Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government in caretaker mode and severely stripped of its powers.

The impasse over the presidential election is not without precedent — it took 46 sessions or Mr Aoun to finally ascend to the presidency in 2016, after a series of back-door deals between major players.

“Last time we elected a president we stayed in a vacuum for about two and a half years,” Ms Saliba told The National. “We don’t want this scenario to be repeating itself. It is not constitutional and it’s just devastating to the country.

“We really want people to go on with their lives, we want the economy to get back up on its feet. This is not sustainable, we cannot continue like this.”

The move came after Thursday’s latest presidential session, which highlighted how deeply divided the 128-seat parliament is. Blank, protest and invalid papers far outstripped the votes given to Michel Moawad, who has consistently polled best of the real candidates put forward.

Ms Saliba and Mr Khalaf are part of a new generation of MPs elected last year who are affiliated with the 2019 protest movement against Lebanon’s ruling classes that led to the collapse of the government. Several of their fellow “Change MPs” have joined them in parliament in solidarity.

Mr Khalaf said it was “not the way to build the future” for a parliament to be constantly fighting within itself.

As images of the two MPs sitting in near-darkness made the rounds on social media, they pointed out that this is the same situation that many in Lebanon face.

There is a near-absence in state electricity or expensive private generators, for the few who can afford them.

In a statement on Thursday explaining his decision, Mr Khalaf had said “the people are hungry, desperate, miserable, tired of everything”.

“The display of repeating the sessions for the election of the president of the republic without any result has, unfortunately, become absurd and reprehensible,” Mr Khalaf said.

“The continued vacancy of the presidency leads us to more misery and fatal collapse.”

Lebanese MPs Melhem Khalaf, left, and Najat Saliba have urged colleagues to elect a president. AFP

Mr Aoun founded the Free Patriotic Movement, which along with Iran-backed Hezbollah and its Shiite ally Amal have been among the major parties to cast blank votes.

Gebran Bassil, Mr Aoun's son-in-law and successor as leader of the FPM, told The National in October that his opponents are failing to propose realistic candidates who can bridge the divide in Lebanon's deeply divided political class.

He has long been seen as harbouring presidential ambitions.

Mr Moawad is backed by a core bloc of parties that characterises itself as deeply opposed to Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese armed group and political party.

A 2019 economic collapse pushed much of Lebanon into poverty and has led to severe shortages in medicines, electricity and other basic essentials.

The local currency has plummeted in value by more than 95 per cent against the dollar. On Friday, it was trading at a record low of one dollar to 51,000 Lebanese pounds.

Updated: January 21, 2023, 4:44 AM