Lebanon's Michel Aoun has wasted his presidency

The constitution does not grant a president much power, but in Beirut high office is what a politician makes of it

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On Sunday night, Lebanese President Michel Aoun made a speech on television to mark the establishment by France of Greater Lebanon on September 1, 1920. In the speech, Mr Aoun called for a “civil state”, declaring that Lebanon’s sectarian system “constitutes an obstacle to all progress and reforms and the fight against corruption”.

At any other moment, such radical remarks should have represented a stirring call to arms for change, with broader implications for Lebanese society. However, coming from a largely invisible President, it fell on a mostly indifferent public. It also does not help matters that Mr Aoun is perceived as covering for the corruption of his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, who is also a politician.

Yet the antagonism directed against Mr Aoun has underlined how the Lebanese understand that their presidents have considerable influence, even if the constitution does not accord them very much formally. They can be the object of significant popular expectations or, alternatively, profound revulsion, despite the fact that they have little real power to implement decisions.

When Greater Lebanon was established in 1920, France put in place a presidential system that it very much controlled as mandatory power in the country. At the time, the competition between two presidential rivals, Bishara  Al Khoury and Emile Eddeh, defined Lebanese politics to a great extent. Ultimately, both men would become presidents, though Al Khoury perhaps ultimately won out by holding the office at the time Lebanon became independent in 1943.

Following independence, the presidency would remain a source of competition between Maronite Christian politicians. According to an agreement known as the "national pact" between Al Khoury and a leading Sunni Muslim politician, Riad Al Solh, the president would always be a Maronite, the prime minister always a Sunni Muslim and the parliament speaker always a Shia Muslim.

At the time, the president had extensive powers, appointing prime ministers, dissolving governments and having a major voice over ministerial appointments. That changed in 1989, when constitutional amendments agreed at Taif, Saudi Arabia, led to a transformation of the system into one where executive power was vested in the council of ministers. The president's role was curtailed, even if he remained head of state "and the symbol of the nation's unity".

Many Christians, including Mr Aoun, regarded the transformation of the president’s role as a defeat for the Maronite community. Mr Aoun for many years was highly critical of Taif, even as he engineered, with the help of Hezbollah, his own ascension to the role in 2016. Evidently, Mr Aoun had grasped that, with or without Taif, in a sectarian system where a president also represents a major Lebanese religious community, he could play a role larger than what the constitution mandated.

(FILES) A file photo taken on January 12, 2011 shows a poster of Lebanese opposition leaders, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri (L) Christian Free Patriotic Movement and MP Michel Aoun (C) and Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah appears on a wall in Beirut. There will be no ceremony to commemorate 100 years since French mandate authorities on September 1, 1920 proclaimed the creation of Greater Lebanon incorporating mainly Muslim former Ottoman regions. / AFP / Joseph EID
A 2011 photo shows a poster in Beirut of Lebanese opposition leaders, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, left, then MP Michel Aoun, centre, and Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah. AFP
Michel Aoun could have exploited the implicit powers of his office to his advantage since October 2019, when the Lebanese began denouncing the ineptitude and dishonesty of their political leaders

Yet what Mr Aoun has also shown since then is that he did not have the acumen to consolidate the powers of his office. Instead, the President has completely undermined his position by failing to take the lead in guiding Lebanon out of its profound economic and financial crisis. He is now seen as part of the problem, having used his office largely to benefit the personal and political interests of his family, particularly the widely reviled Mr Bassil.

Things could have been different. Mr Aoun could have exploited the implicit powers of his office to his advantage since October 2019, when hundreds of thousands of Lebanese began denouncing the ineptitude and dishonesty of their political leaders. He could have caught the wave to enhance his authority and speak for a nation united against politicians who had brought about financial collapse.

Instead, when appearing on television at the time, Mr Aoun looked disoriented and out of touch, in part perhaps because Mr Bassil was among those the protesters had denounced most vehemently. The President paid the price for being identified too closely with his son-in-law, when a more competent politician might have used the occasion to garner power at Mr Bassil's expense.

Similarly, after the massive explosion in Beirut port on August 4, Mr Aoun should have gone down on the evening of the blast to commiserate with those who had just lost their homes and loved ones. However, the President only appeared the next day to survey the blast site, with not a moment wasted on the victims. Here was a golden opportunity to bolster his appeal, and instead, Mr Aoun came across as someone indifferent to those who had suffered terrible trauma.

What is so difficult to grasp is why Mr Aoun, who effectively fought a war to become president in 1988-1990, and who helped create a ruinous presidential vacuum in 2014-2016 in order to take office, has proven to be such an inert, mediocre president. He has not brought a single original idea or programme that he has sought to implement.

If there is one enduring message among many others on Lebanon’s centennial, it is that the country’s political system creates many informal spaces for the exercise of constructive power. Even if the presidency is no longer what it once was, a capable president who wants to make a difference can do so if he tries.

Michael Young is a senior editor at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut and a columnist for The National