With limited expectations, Lebanon to elect a president
After two years and a half and 45 previous attempts the Lebanese parliament is finally expected to elect 81 year old Michel Aoun as president. With a controversial background in the civil war – which ended in 1990- Aoun is an ambitious and tenacious Christian leader. More telling, he is a political ally of Iran and Syria-backed Hezbollah.
By Ghassan Michel Rubeiz
After two years and a half and 45 previous attempts the Lebanese parliament is ready to elect 81 year old Michel Aoun as president. With a controversial background in the civil war – which ended in 1990- Aoun is an ambitious and tenacious Christian leader. More telling, he is a political ally of Iran and Syria-backed Hezbollah.
Aoun has to find a way to preserve Lebanon’s state integrity and continue to live with Hezbollah’s active role in Syria’s civil war. Hezbollah is fighting in Syria to survive as a political party, a militia and a vulnerable community. The Lebanese society is split on whether Hezbollah is undermining Lebanon’s sovereignty or protecting all the Lebanese from ISIL and other foreign and radical threats.
Under an archaic, sectarian power sharing formula, Aoun may be the last Christian president that Lebanon will ever have. By tradition, the Lebanese president is expected to be a Maronite Catholic; the prime minister has to be a Sunnite and the parliament speaker a Shiite.
Parliament’s failure to elect a president for over two years is an indication that this sectarian formula of power sharing is no longer functional. But Lebanon is not about to introduce drastic reforms. Syria’s war is at Lebanon’s borders and the Syrian refugees are overwhelming Lebanese society. Counting the Palestinian refugees of Lebanon, nearly every other resident is a displaced person or a refugee.
Regional developments have incrementally sobered Lebanon’s unruly political leaders and have recently made them uncharacteristically flexible. The first important reconciliatory move occurred last week when Saad Hariri, a wealthy Sunnite leader, who had been a strong opponent of Michel Aoun, surprisingly declared his support for Aoun’s candidacy. Aoun must have covertly promised Hariri the position of the next Prime Minister. Next, three days after Hariri’s game-changing move, Hezbollah’s chief and most powerful Shiite leader, Sheikh Hasan Nasrallah, blessed the Aoun-Hariri deal. When the warlords of the three largest religious communities make a deal they boost the confidence to the people.
What is happening in the region to sober the Lebanese leaders? Saudi Arabia and Iran are relaxing their grip in Beirut. The Saudis are running out of money with tumbling oil prices, excessive militarization and a futile war in Yemen. Moreover, Riyadh’s meddling in Syria is costly and counterproductive. Finally, the Saudi image in the US and the West has been somewhat tarnished. The Saudis are being blamed for the ideology that is radicalizing Muslims around the world. An exhausted Saudi Arabia can no longer interfere deeply in Lebanon’s affairs. Saudi weakening translates to reluctant acceptance of Hezbollah’s friend, Aoun, for the presidency.
In contrast to Saudi Arabia’s declining influence Iran is rebuilding its economy, rejoining the world of business and gaining strength in Syria and Iraq. The Syrian regime is currently regaining power in Aleppo and other urban areas; as a result Hezbollah is feeling more comfortable in the Syrian war. The momentary ascendancy of the Iran- Syria-Hezbollah axis gives Hezbollah the confidence to work with an incoming Lebanese head of state. However, the majority of the Lebanese and most Arab societies, as well as the world community, expect the new Lebanese president to try to distance his country from the Syrian dispute. With the recent strengthening of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah alliance, Aoun’s presidency will be easy to process.
Aoun’s filling the long vacant presidency will revive Lebanon for a while. But this fragile state will remain vulnerable to a deteriorating conflict on its eastern and northern borders- with Syria. Moreover, Lebanon’s southern neighbor, Israel, is waiting for the “right opportunity” to try to defeat Hezbollah, even if that would destroy Lebanon.
Aoun might be the last president that has to be a Christian and Hariri might be the last Prime Minister that has to be a Sunnite. In theory, the end of the sectarian power sharing formula may be the start of the rebirth of Lebanon. But politics does not respect theory.
To resuscitate itself Lebanon must radically transform or it will die as a state. The reform can start with the Christians giving up their exclusive claim to the presidency and continue to excell in business, education, technology and other creative pursuits. Correspondingly, the Shiites must shift their strategy from leading Lebanon militarily to achieving parity in political representation; this will require taking a step away from Tehran politically. What the Sunnite community may consider is a full reconciliation with their Shiite brothers while taking a small step away from Saudi Arabia.
Will the Lebanese remember that the “confessional democracy” system of power sharing has has led to a bloody civil war that displaced half the population? Futher, Lebanon’s weak state has made it the dumping ground of refugees from both the Arab-Israeli wars and the Syrian conflict.
The Lebanese may start reform by rotating leaderships among the three largest communities for two decades of public education for secularism. Since Aoun is the founder of the Change and Reform party it is apt that he takes bold steps toward secular power sharing. Does Aoun has the “software” for change?
A new generation may be able to start a full secular democracy; not necessarily the current one.
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