The long-simmering crisis over the election of a new president for Lebanon refuses to go away. As President Emile Lahoud's term came to an end without an elected successor at midnight on November 23, Lebanon stared into a power vacuum unprecedented in its history. Months of intense international mediation and backroom negotiation between rival politicians from the two main opposing factions – the Western-backed March 14 coalition, which holds a narrow parliamentary majority, and the opposition spearheaded by Hizbullah – failed to break a tense stand-off over the choice of a compromise presidential candidate. A last-ditch parliamentary ballot session scheduled for November 23 to elect a new head of state was cancelled because of the lack of the required two-thirds quorum. As Crescent went to press, another ballot session was scheduled to convene on November 30 for another attempt to elect a president, with no certainty that the legislature will manage to muster the two-thirds quorum.
In a final exercise of his presidential powers, Lahoud, a former commander of the army, made a vague announcement charging the army with the duty of enforcing law and order. A statement read by Rafiq Shalala, a presidential spokesman, said that the decision to entrust “the security of the country to the army and put all armed forces at its disposal” was necessitated by the fact that “there are conditions and risks on the ground that could lead to a state of emergency.” Speaking to reporters as he walked out of the presidential palace, Lahoud reiterated his view that the government of prime minister Fouad Siniora is “illegal and unconstitutional, whatever America and France and others would say.” Like the opposition, Lahoud refused to recognise the legitimacy of the Sinioragovernment after six ministers resigned their posts in November 2006. The opposition have since been holding an open-ended sit-in in front of the prime minister's office in central Beirut demanding the removal of Siniora's government. Lahoud has long made his position clear: that if no successor to him is elected, he will not hand over power to Siniora's cabinet. However, Siniora's office responded swiftly by criticising Lahoud's move to charge the army with enforcing law and order as unconstitutional, insisting that the prime minister's cabinet was assuming presidential powers in line with the constitution, and also that the army would continue to be under the command of the defence ministry.
The postponement of the session from November 23 was the fifth of its kind in two months. Four previous sessions to elect a president had also been postponed. Opposition MPs have managed to block the 128-member assembly from electing a new president by abstaining from ballot sessions, leaving parliament without the required two-thirds quorum. The governing coalition, which has a narrow absolute parliamentary majority of three, has threatened to elect a new president without the attendance of two thirds of MPs. Yet it has so far desisted from carrying out its threat, mainly because that runs counter to the explicit constitutional requirements of a two-thirds quorum and the rule that only the speaker of parliament, who currently happens to be influential opposition figure Nabih Berri, has the authority to call sessions in the chamber. The opposition has been adamant that it will never recognise a president elected by a simple majority, arguing that such a move would be tantamount to a coup.
The crisis reflects divergent ideas about the country's future. The anti-Syrian governing March 14 coalition wants a president who will enable an international tribunal to look into the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, work to disarm Hizbullahand not align the country too strongly with neighbouring Syria. The opposition, for its part, wants a president who will reduce American influence in the country's political life, work to protect the resistance spearheaded by Hizbullah, and maintain strong relations with Syria and Iran. The failure of the March 14 coalition to propose a realistic defence plan to deter Israeli aggression against Lebanon should Hizbullah's formidable military wing (which single-handedly stopped an Israeli incursion into southern Lebanon in 2006), be abolished has given credence to suspicions that its call for disarmament only serves the pro-Israel agenda of its Western backers.
A phalanx of foreign mediators has converged on Beirut in an intense burst of activity to find a compromise candidate acceptable across the political divide. A host of foreign dignitaries, including UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, Italian foreign minister Massimo D'Alema, Spanish foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos and Arab League chief Amr Musa, shuttled between the various political leaders to urge them to strike a deal. Frustrated by the insurmountable difficulties facing the diplomatic mediation that was intended to break the political impasse, Kouchner accused elements from both sides of thwarting international efforts to reach an agreement on a compromise candidate, threatening to name the spoilers. Speaking to reporters on November 19, a visibly irritated Kouchner said: “Everybody was agreed. Everybody said they had agreed. Now, I am amazed, France is amazed, that something is stuck, something is blocked, something is derailed, and I would like everyone to assume their responsibilities.”
Prodded by France, Lebanon's former colonial power, Cardinal Nasrallah Butrus Sfeir, the influential patriarch of the Maronite Church, agreed to compose a list of six potential candidates from which speaker Nabih Berri and parliamentary majority leader Sa'adal-Hariri could select a compromise candidate. However, intensive discussions between Berri and Hariri failed to reach agreement on any of the names proposed by the prelate. The March 14 coalition pushed for appointing parliamentarian Robert Ghanim to the post, while the opposition supported former minister Michel Edde. At one point it seemed that the two sides might be inching closer to agreement over the possibility of having Edde serve as interim president for an 18-month term, during which a new electoral law would be enacted to set the rules for holding general elections in 2009. Yet on November 20 Hariri informed Berri of his refusal to support Edde's candidacy on the grounds that he is being imposed on the March 14 coalition by the opposition.
Cardinal Sfeir initially resisted calls to draw up the list, fearing the possible erosion of the moral authority and stature of the spiritual leadership of the Maronite community if his intervention failed to bridge the widening political divide. His reluctance seems to have been prompted by his aversion to the possibility of repeating a similar failed experience in 1988, when he proposed a list of five names to break a comparable presidential impasse, only for it to be rejected by Syria. That led to the formation of two parallel, competing governments, an incumbent cabinet headed by former prime minister Salim al-Hoss and another appointed by then-outgoing president Amin Gemayil and headed by General Michel Aoun. That duality of authority and stalemate ended when Damascus struck a deal with Washington giving the green light to Syrian troops to launch a military assault on the presidential palace, where Aoun had barricaded himself, in return for Syria's joining the US-led coalition that evicted Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait in 1991.
The Lebanese system of government is a highly sectarian system: political positions and public offices are allocated among groups according to demographic and political weight. Under this unwritten, power-sharing confessional formula, the presidency is held by a Maronite Christian, the post of prime minister goes to a Sunni Muslim, and that of the speaker of the parliament is reserved for a Shi'a Muslim. When the system was worked out by Christian and Muslim politicians on the eve of independence in the National Pact (1943), it was hoped that the degree of intermingling and overlapping of interests between politicians from various confessional communities who hold a mutual de facto veto would mitigate the possibility of domination by a single community, ensure political moderation, and promote inter-communal cooperation, harmony and consensus. The problem is that a system where confessional politicians keep each other constantly in check has at best enabled communities to coexist in a fragile balance. It has entrenched communal divisions, produced a fragile peace and fostered a weak state stunted by cyclical recurrence of political crisis and deadlock. Under such a system of institutionalised sectarianism, politics has become a permanent, self-perpetuating game of muddling through.
Failure to agree on a successor for Lahoud has exacerbated a political crisis that has virtually paralysed the country since the death of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, Sa'ad's father, in a truck-bombing in February 2005. The killing, which Hariri's supporters hold Syria responsible for, galvanised mass demonstrations and international pressure, forcing Damascus to withdraw its troops fromLebanon after 29 years of direct military presence in and domination of the country. A coalition government, whose backbone comes from the Western-backed March 14 coalition, was formed in June 2005.
The ongoing political crisis is seen by many as part of a wider regional struggle for influence between the US and its Arab allies, who support the Siniora government, on one side, and Iran and Syria, who support the Hizbullah-led opposition, on the other. It has intensified fears of street violence between supporters of rival political groups, especially in the light of a recent increase in scuffles between supporters of rival factions. A number of opposition figures, especially from the predominantly Christian Free National Current movement led by General Aoun, have threatened drastic measures to prevent the Siniora government from exercising presidential powers, including taking to the streets with demonstrations and the occupation of government buildings.
For now, agreement on a compromise candidate and a new president remains elusive. But even if a consensus is reached and a new president is elected, no end to the grinding political crisis seems to be in sight. With the election of a new president, the dispute will move onto identifying the next prime minister, the makeup of the new cabinet, key appointments in the security forces, and rolling back the welter of decrees issued by Siniora's cabinet since the resignation of six of its members a year ago.
Fears are acute that the long-running political row could lead to the rekindling of civil war. The escalating political tensions have prompted some political groups to revive their former civil-war-era militia command structures, re-arm, and provide military training to militiamen. Ever since Hariri's assassination, the army has emerged as a neutral force that helps to keep the country together by separating supporters of rival groups and protecting and maintaining order during angry street protests and funeral processions. The opposition has also been adamant that it will not be drawn into civil strife, even “if they kill one thousand of us,” as Hizbullah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah has repeatedly said. But the escalating and protracted nature of the open-ended political crisis, and the concomitant sectarian passions and hatreds whipped up by figures in the March 14 coalition, are raising questions about the how long the opposition's exercise of rigorous composure and self-control can last, and about the army's ability to hold together and not splinter along sectarian lines, as happened during the civil war (1975--1990). Were that scenario to unfold, where Lebanon will go from there is anyone's guess.