In April 2004, the late Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri visited Armenia. Then, too, Lebanon was in the midst of presidential elections. Syria wanted to extend President Emile Lahoud’s term in office beyond its constitutionally mandated time, and Hariri, along with France and the US, was vehemently opposed to it. The United Nations even passed a resolution against the extension. During a private breakfast meeting, I asked him about the likelihood of that happening. His reply was hard to forget: “Only over my dead body.” Lahoud’s term was extended, six weeks later Hariri resigned and a year later, in April, he was assassinated.
I have just returned from a week in Lebanon. Driving through Lebanon’s mountains or walking along Beirut’s streets, inevitably two seemingly contradictory questions pop up. First, why has this place not flared up in a ball of fire yet? Second, what are these big investors pinning their hopes on, and on what do they base their confidence?
Yet, in this very contradiction lies the source of Lebanon’s fragile stability. The notion that this is politically “too messy to tamper with” and economically “too invested to destroy” are what seem to sustain the current political and economic status quo.
Today, Lebanon is in the midst of presidential elections. President Michel Suleiman’s single six-year term ends on May 25. By then, a new president must be elected by the parliament if the Lebanese are to avoid the political vacuum that they both know and dread. There is no consensus candidate yet.
Lebanon is at such a critical stage that it needs a strong, charismatic, forceful and visionary president – characteristics that the current president generally lacked.
Picking a president is no easier than anything else in Lebanese politics. The required two-thirds parliamentary majority makes it incumbent for the main political rivals to agree on a candidate.
So, the March 14 Alliance, dominated by Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, and the March 8 Alliance, which includes Hassan Nasrallah’s Hezbollah and Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, are wrangling, and at the same time, seeking the agreement of their respective allies. For the former, those allies are Saudi Arabia, the US, France and maybe Turkey; for the latter they are Iran, Syria and maybe Russia.
The president’s seat
Given this delicate set of relations, it is important who assumes the president’s seat. All of Lebanese politics is crude, cruel, relentless and violent. Often, disputes, disagreements and rivalries are resolved and disentangled through bombings and targeted assassinations. Also, Lebanese politics is not party politics. Neither is it a contest of ideas and visions. It is sectarian and confessional. After all, no other Middle Eastern country has as many religious groupings as Lebanon – nearly two dozen sects of Islam and Christianity populate the country, and run its government.
From the Shia and Hezbollah dominated regions of the south and northeast, to the core of the Shia (Alawite) and Sunni divide in Tripoli, and on to the more affluent Sunni and Christian areas of Beirut, the social, economic and religious discrepancies are vivid. A country of 4.5 million people has additionally received one million Syrian refugees. Political tension is in the air. Yet, there is hardly a plot of land that is not under construction or recently developed. The economic activity is overwhelming, so is the hustle and bustle of Beirut.
Indeed, all the trappings of a domestic implosion are omnipresent from within and from without.
Obstacles to unity
One such source of tension is an outdated sectarian and confessional balance that has clearly changed. Although the Taif Agreement of 1989 partly accommodated the demographic shift to a Muslim majority, the current allocation of top positions in the country is still based on a 1932 census, when Christians constituted 54 percent of the population.
Based on this, a 1940s gentlemen’s agreement known as the National Covenant gave Maronite Christians a permanent right to Lebanon’s presidency. The prime minister’s job was given to the Sunnis and the parliament speaker’s position to Shia Muslims. Today, Muslims are Lebanon’s majority and they would like to see deeper changes introduced in the National Covenant. This can only create serious turmoil. But what Lebanon needs today is precisely a Maronite president with even more constitutionally mandated balancing powers to be able to overcome the increasingly deepening Shia-Sunni divide.
The second source of tension is that the March 14 Alliance adamantly insists that Hezbollah be disarmed or their divisions be brought under the national army’s umbrella or command. Hezbollah considers this to be suicidal and any imposed change will clearly submerge the country into bloody conflict.
He is the one that ensures respect for the Constitution and safeguards Lebanon’s independence and territorial integrity. These are the core beliefs that every political figure needs to subscribe to if Lebanon is to weather the current storm that engulfs it.
The third issue: The March 14 Alliance supports the decision of the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which was convened after the Hariri assassination, and would like to see the apprehension of those charged with the crime. Hezbollah is fiercely opposed, rejects what it calls a political decision and refuses to cooperate.
The fourth and newest source of conflict is the massive resentment on the part of the March 8 Alliance, the Lebanese Sunnis in general and all other anti-Syrian forces, of Hezbollah’s direct military involvement in the Syrian conflict. Occasional bombings in Hezbollah-controlled areas are “expressions” of this opposition.
These, among many others, are all open wounds and serious challenges and each one could become the trigger for a major eruption in the country.
Furthermore, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad announced his candidacy for the upcoming June presidential elections where he is certain to win. This will eventually require that Lebanese factions and the state take a stance on the outcome and therefore, the future state of affairs between the two countries.
What it takes
Indeed, Lebanon is at such a critical stage that it needs a strong, charismatic, forceful and visionary president – characteristics that the current president generally lacked. It needs a consensus builder. Seated around the table during future meetings of the League of Arab States or other international organisations, it is the new president who will play a major role in shaping and articulating Lebanon’s position.
The president of the republic is the head of state and symbol of the nation’s unity. He is the one that ensures respect for the Constitution and safeguards Lebanon’s independence and territorial integrity. These are the core beliefs that every political figure needs to subscribe to if Lebanon is to weather the current storm that engulfs it. But it is the new president who will have the indispensable task of consolidation.
One major reason why Lebanon has sustained this seeming tranquillity is that the country has lived through 15 painful and devastating years of civil war, in the very recent past. Mark Twain once said: “A cat who sits on a hot stove will never sit on a hot stove again. But he won’t sit on a cold stove, either.”
Vartan Oskanian is a member of Armenia’s National Assembly, a former foreign minister and the founder of Yerevan’s Civilitas Foundation.