Lebanon’s presidential stalemate won’t end soon

FPM leader General Michel Aoun. Charble Nakhoul  / AFP
FPM leader General Michel Aoun. Charble Nakhoul / AFP

Lebanon’s seven-month presidential vacuum continues, with no solution. While the deadlock has been blamed on the presidential ambitions of Michel Aoun, who heads the Free Patriotic Movement, in all likelihood it is more the result of Hizbollah’s calculations and the regional uncertainties shaping them.

Mr Aoun, a man of destructive aspirations, realises that, at 81, this is his last chance to become head of state. For months he has prevented his parliamentary bloc from attending election sessions (parliament chooses the president) to vote for a successor to Michel Sleiman. Mr Aoun’s decision has prompted his ally Hizbollah to follow suit, preventing a quorum.

Not surprisingly, Mr Aoun’s critics have blamed him for the on-going absence of a president. While he was never one to put Lebanon’s interests before his own, Mr Aoun in this case is merely a facade for Hizbollah. The party does not want to bring in a new president today, and has conveniently used its ally to prevent an election. Mr Aoun, believing that open-ended deadlock increases his chances, has played along with this.

Hizbollah’s motives are more ambiguous. The party faces several serious regional challenges. It wants a Lebanese president who will defend its agenda, especially its retention of weapons, and it does not want to risk electing someone who, like Mr Sleiman, will later oppose it from inside Lebanon.

That’s because the former president made a number of statements disapproving of Hizbollah’s independent weapons arsenal. Two rocket attacks against the area of the presidential palace were regarded as Hizbollah’s replies to Mr Sleiman.

Hizbollah’s biggest headache is its involvement in the war in Syria. The party has lost hundreds of combatants in the fighting and yet the Syrian regime, which it supports, seems no nearer to victory. On the contrary, President Bashar Al Assad is facing a collapsing economy, is losing territory in southern Syria, and has failed to make decisive gains against his foes around Aleppo and in Qalamoun bordering Lebanon.

The situation in Iraq is equally unsettling for Hizbollah. The takeover of territory by ISIL last summer cut off land communications between Iran and Syria, making it more difficult to send weapons, men and money to the Al Assad regime.

Hizbollah is also warily watching the American response in Iraq, which risks eroding Iran’s hold there. The Obama administration is today speaking about directly arming Sunni militias and the Kurdish Peshmerga, to the displeasure of the Shia-dominated Iraqi government, which feels it may lead to Iraq’s break-up.

Hizbollah has also awaited the outcome of Iranian-western negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme. Had an agreement been reached last month, this might have given Iran a regional lift, which Hizbollah would have sought to reflect in the person of the Lebanese president. Now that the deadline has been extended until 2015, Lebanon may remain in limbo.

Inside Lebanon, Hizbollah has sought to contain the repercussions of the presidential vacuum and the Syrian conflict by approving of a dialogue with the Sunni-dominated Future Movement, led by Saad Hariri. In this way it hopes to reduce Sunni-Shia tensions that could threaten it domestically.

The party has also supported the Lebanese army’s efforts to contain the backlash from the Syrian war. That’s normal as the army often targets Hizbollah’s enemies, and has been a de facto partner along the border with Syria. Yet the party has also been forced to grant considerable leeway to the army, whereas in the past it sought to limit its role, fearing this would encourage demands that Hizbollah surrender its weapons to the state.

In supporting Mr Aoun and implying it favours him for the presidency, Hizbollah has also reinforced its ties with a leading Christian figure. In that way it has enhanced its power against Sunnis in the game of shifting Lebanese sectarian politics.

Yet Mr Aoun has ignored the negative consequence of the presidential void: it has shown that Lebanon can function without a president, who according to an unwritten 1943 agreement hails from the Maronite Christian community. Whatever diminishes the importance of the presidency invariably does the same for the national role of the Maronites.

Some have suggested that Hizbollah’s real aim is to allow this – to move towards a renegotiation of sectarian shares that would give more power to the under-represented Shia at the Christians’ expense. That may be true, or untrue, but for as long as Maronites are deeply divided over the presidency, it will remain a political football between Sunnis and Shia.

While Hizbollah has strongly hinted that it wants Mr Aoun as president, that could be a tactical move. He is a man difficult to control. The party may not want someone in office with an independent base of Christian support who, once he has satisfied his lifelong dream, may be far less pliable toward Hizbollah.

Moreover, Maronite presidents are ultimately reliant on satisfying both Sunnis and Shia. A president opposed by one or the other finds it almost impossible to be elected, especially as he or she constitutionally embodies Lebanon’s unity.

A majority of Sunnis reject Mr Aoun due to his closeness to Hizbollah. The party will probably back him as leverage until it can give him up in a deal to bring another Maronite it finds desirable. But regional realities must change first. Expect Lebanon to be without a president for some time yet.

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star in Beirut

Twitter: @BeirutCalling

Published: December 3, 2014 04:00 AM

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