Who will choose the next Lebanese President?
By Ghassan Michel Rubeiz
Since September of last year the Lebanese parliament has failed to elect a president for a country which has been bankrupt for four years.
The Parliament has voted eleven times, but the results have been inconclusive. Banks are not able to return money to their depositors.
Government services are collapsing. In a short period the country has moved from relative comfort to deep poverty.
The Lebanese choose their president indirectly through their representatives: the parliament votes for the head of state.
The president has to be a Maronite – Catholic, the prime minister a Sunnite and the speaker of the parliament a Shiite. Regrettably, the parliament has rarely listened to the people in voting for the president. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2022%E2%80%932023_Lebanese_presidential_election
On May 10, the following unlikely news item attracted my attention: Ziyad Baroud, a popular and reputable civil servant has a good chance of becoming elected the next president of Lebanon. He was, purportedly, in the lead for that day among three candidates, who are considered “acceptable” to the bickering heads of parliamentary factions.
For Baroud, to consider the presidency of a failing state is noteworthy, if true. Baroud’s political record is phenomenal. He was the key organizer of the free-and-fair 2009 elections. He won international awards for his contributions to electoral law and support of non – governmental organizations. He served well with devotion for three years (between 2008 and 2011) as Minister of Interior and Municipalities in two successive cabinets. When he resigned in 2011 he said that he was witnessing the “death of the state”. He is not likely to want to run for a position of head of state, if the state remains hostage to tribal politics. In short Baroud is among the very few who are fit to try to save Lebanon. But is Lebanon ready for reform?
Chances of presidential candidates are daily announced and analyzed. Election campaigns look like peace negotiations; they create a civil war like climate of fear. Three political figures have dominated these campaigns: two rival political leaders who claim to represent the Christian community and the Shiite leadership of Hezbollah. The Sunnite leadership is involved, but not taking hard positions.
Lebanese politicians are proxy agents for foreign powers. Regionally, Iran and Saudi Arabia are now the two most influential foreign powers in Beirut politics. President Macron of France and the US State Department are significant players. The future of Lebanon is tied to financial assistance from the Arab Gulf States. The satisfaction of Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Ben Selman is important. France, which is historically tied to Lebanon, has been more visible in the Lebanese elections than any other Western nation.https://www.lemonde.fr/en/opinion/article/2023/05/11/france-s-diplomacy-in-lebanon-causes-misunderstanding-among-its-allies-and-risks-isolation_6026272_23.html
Washington supports the Lebanese army and two major American universities. The US tries to control the influence of Hezbollah in Lebanon, primarily with economic sanctions, and provides cues on how to deal with Israel. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/u-s-hits-hezbollah-accountants-in-lebanon-with-terrorism-sanctions
Hezbollah has been pushing for a Christian candidate who would be friendly to its cause, the “Resistance”. Hezbollah can do better in their choice of a leader who is qualified to lead the country out of a crippling crisis. The word “Resistance” (al Moukawama in Arabic) is capitalized for a reason; it has the “savior” status for some, and the “spoiled child’ for others. Unfortunately, there is no other form of resistance to the multiple threats which Lebanon faces. Resistance to corruption, for instance, is not on the agenda of the political class.
Progress made in regional relations would help Lebanon. Baroud must be watching regional developments closely to find out if the state has a chance of political survival.
Lately, the region has been witnessing some dramatic changes. Iran and Saudi Arabia have reestablished diplomatic relations. Will Tehran work with Riyadh for Lebanon’s benefit? Syria has just been allowed to rejoin the Arab League. Is Syria now better able to repatriate its one million refugees from Lebanon? Turkey will have a more cooperative foreign policy in the region if the May 14 presidential Turkish elections bring in progressive leadership. Latest polls show President Erdogan’s opposition on the verge of winning. https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2023/05/turkey-elections-latest-polls-put-erdogan-challenger-verge-first-round-win
Such regional developments should have a significant impact on Lebanon and the region.
Should Iran and Saudi Arabia decide to cooperate in Lebanon the outcome would be a game changer, not only in terms of facilitating the next election. Iran has a sway on The Resitance. For future stability in the country, Hezbollah must find a better way to integrate in Lebanese politics.
If the refugees of Syria are humanely repatriated, Lebanon would have a chance to begin recovery. A new regime in Turkey may help to repatriate its four million Syrian refugees. If the diplomatic steps we are witnessing continue in the same direction both Syria and Lebanon might have the opportunity for rebuilding their future. The challenges for reform are immense.
I do not know what is in Ziyad Baroud’s mind as he contemplates a possible return to political leadership. What I know is that he is not likely to want to return to a position of national leadership before he is promised space and support to conduct reform. If Baroud, or someone of his level of credibility, becomes the next president, it would be a historical first. It would mean people’s interests have outweighed personal desires (of representatives) in determining leadership.
To stay hopeful, one has to imagine the hard-to-imagine.
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