Now more than ever, Lebanon's missing MPs need to stand up and be counted

The country is in grave peril but parliament cannot agree on a way forward. Perhaps it is time for the judiciary to step in

The office of former Lebanese president Michel Aoun. The country has been without a head of state since late 2022. EPA
Powered by automated translation

At times of national crisis, politicians will often come together in an emergency meeting to offer leadership, direction and – ideally – solutions.

In 2002, the UK Parliament held an emergency debate on the government’s decision to send 1,700 combat troops to Afghanistan. Nine days after the 9/11 attacks, US president George W Bush addressed worried legislators meeting in a joint session of Congress and in 1962, leading Indian politician Atal Bihari Vajpayee sought and secured an emergency meeting of MPs amid the Sino-Indian War.

The seriousness of such national challenges demand that a country’s leaders turn up and be counted. In Lebanon, however, the MP with the best attendance record this year is one who has been on a sit-in protest in parliament that has lasted for more than 400 days.

Lebanese MPs fail to elect a president on 12th attempt

Lebanese MPs fail to elect a president on 12th attempt

In a demonstration aimed at his fellow MPs for their long-running failure to convene and elect a president, Melhem Khalaf has shone a spotlight on the bitterly divided 128-seat legislature, which is comprised mainly of parliamentarians from parties that have long been accused of protecting their own interests. MPs have not met to vote since last June and parliament has failed on 12 occasions to elect a successor to the last president, Michel Aoun.

This would be a sign of profound dysfunction at the best of times, but the failure to provide political leadership at this particular moment – when Lebanon is being bombed by the Israeli military, remains mired in a long-running economic crisis, has to contend with Hezbollah’s refusal to disarm and faces the threat of war as the Gaza crisis deepens – is deeply troubling.

How can recalcitrant political parties be persuaded to put their divisions aside and come together for the good of a country facing extreme peril? Mr Khalaf is a lawyer by profession and a former head of the Beirut Bar Association, so he brings a typically legal focus to the problem. According to him, Article 74 of the Lebanese constitution says parliament should be convened immediately to elect a president in the event of a leadership vacuum. Clearly, that requirement has been ignored.

Perhaps the judiciary – one of Lebanon’s last remaining functional institutions –can turn this situation around? Compelling politicians to abide by the legal requirements of the constitution and carry out their duties may be a way of at least getting the legislature up and running again.

Lebanon has a strong history of legal expertise; the election of Lebanese judge Nawaf Salam as president of the International Court of Justice last month provides an example of the quality of legal minds available. But this is not to suggest that taking the legal route to end Lebanon’s political paralysis is perfect. The country’s judiciary has been in turmoil over the handling of a long-running investigation into the 2020 Beirut port blast.

Nevertheless, for a country crying out for capable leadership in a moment of acute crisis, it may be the case that a judicial examination of parliament’s failure to get the job done may be in order. In Roman times, Beirut was known as the “mother of laws” for its prominence as a centre of legal study. This moniker has remained the motto of Lebanon's capital and adorns the city's flag. A return to this reputation is long overdue.

Published: March 15, 2024, 3:00 AM