Friday, May 9, 2014

Presidential finding - Is Lebanon really deadlocked over a head of state?

Lebanese President Michel Sleiman (C) meets with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri (L) and prime minister-designate Tammam Salam at the presidential palace in Baabda ahead of announcing the formation of the new Lebanese government following a 10-month vacuum

Two weeks into Lebanon’s presidential election period, we seem to be in a deadlock. In an election that everyone has called a purely Lebanese affair, it seems the Lebanese are failing to take advantage of their newfound leeway.

That’s the story at least. But usually solutions in Lebanon are devised at the last moment, when the situation becomes so untenable that everyone is ripe for an alternative. Where are we today, and what has the election revealed to date?

It has shown us, first, that both the Future Movement and Hezbollah are prisoners of their alliances. Future did not want to back Samir Geagea as its leading presidential candidate, nor Hezbollah Michel Aoun (even if the general is not officially a candidate). However, both were more unwilling to lose a vital Maronite ally by failing to publicly back Geagea or Aoun, respectively.

A second message is that March 14 did not try to anticipate the Geagea gambit by selecting a more conciliatory figure early on who could have won votes from members of Walid Jumblatt’s bloc as well as from independents. This showed that Future has been less adept at shaping March 14’s strategy than Hezbollah has been at defining March 8’s.

Aoun, to his credit, read the dynamics rather well. He did not corner Hezbollah and force it to take an official stance on his candidacy. In return, the party agreed to follow Aoun’s lead in attending the election sessions. If there is movement toward a compromise candidate, Aoun will not be embarrassed by having announced his candidacy, which means that Hezbollah will retain the flexibility to approve of someone else.

A third message is that even if foreign powers are not directly involved in the election, the calculations of several regional governments are inherent in the presidential process. When Hezbollah determines who it wants, it will ensure that he is someone acceptable to Iran and, to a considerable extent, Syria. By the same token, Saad Hariri must guarantee that any candidate of his choice is not objectionable to Saudi Arabia.

Western governments, too, have a say in what goes on, though less than that of the regional powerhouses. The primary Western concern is to avoid a vacuum, and a headache, in Beirut, particularly as several European countries have contingents in the United Nations force in southern Lebanon. It’s difficult for them to justify domestically that that the troops are maintaining stability, when the Lebanese are allowing a potentially unstable situation to emerge at the head of their state.

In recent days there have been reports that the Maronite patriarch, Beshara al-Rai, had taken up the matter of extending President Michel Sleiman’s term with the speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, in order to avert a vacuum. How strange coming from a man who had earlier spoken of the election as a national necessity. Does Rai now believe it is no longer so, and that it is therefore time to shift to keeping Sleiman in power?

If so, the patriarch, not for the first time, is jumping the gun, and he’s doing so in a political context very unfavorable to a Sleiman extension. Hezbollah wants the president out, and not surprisingly Berri is said to have made no commitments to Rai. It appears, however, that the speaker may have tried to push for a constitutional amendment that would allow Hezbollah’s preferred candidate, the army commander Jean Kahwaji, to stand for elections. Rai rightly rejected that proposal.

More realistic is a scenario that takes into consideration the imperative that brought Tammam Salam’s government to life. Both Hezbollah and Future, and very likely their regional sponsors, saw benefits in filling the increasingly dangerous vacuum in Lebanon with a national unity government. No one wants Lebanon to descend into sectarian violence, particularly when sectarian relations in Syria and Iraq are so worrisome.

Nothing has changed in this regard since the Salam government was formed. The major Sunni and Shiite representatives are still very keen to avoid conflict. That is what makes more likely the possibility that as the presidential election period nears its end, a candidate will emerge who can win a majority in parliament and satisfy most governments in the region.

For now, eyes are on former parliamentarian and minister Jean Obeid. He recently visited Saudi Arabia, and is believed to be favorably viewed by Saad Hariri, Hezbollah, and Walid Jumblatt – not to mention the Syrian regime. He’s the kind of candidate that Samir Geagea warned against when he insisted that a compromise candidate would seek to satisfy all sides, and therefore would not be a “strong president.” But Obeid remains a favorite precisely for those reasons.   

To get to Obeid, more time is needed for the current stalemate to fester. That’s why talk of an open-ended vacuum may be premature. Now is the time for Hariri and Hezbollah to persuade their Maronite allies that they must give up on the presidency and go for a compromise, as Sunni-Shiite relations demand it. Stalemates often produce solutions. We shall soon see if Lebanon can pull a rabbit out of its hat again this time.

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