Could a new Washington -Tehran nuclear deal facilitate presidential elections in Lebanon?
By Ghassan Michel Rubeiz
It is time for the Lebanese to get their act together and overhaul their political system. That may be easier said than done, but the status quo is unsustainable.
Not all is grim. Despite its chaos, Lebanon still serves as a destination of leisure, culture and family ties. This unique state is neither a democracy nor a dictatorship, but it has notable features of liberty, which are rare in the region.
The system allows the Lebanese to exploit freedom and avoid compliance with the law.
People here do not tolerate dictatorship, but they are hesitant to relinquish a tribal system of warlords. Modern Lebanon has never had a tyrant, but its leaders have established a corrupt order of “scratch-my back and I’ll scratch yours”.
Decisive elections become a theater of “consensus”, a market of devious deal-making.
An archaic formula of sectarian power-sharing makes Lebanon’s domestic politics highly sensitive to external pressures – equally from the East and the West. Beirut suffers when tension rises between Washington and Iran.
The local economy suffers when Saudi Arabia is unhappy with any Lebanese prime minister. President Macron is quoted daily in the local media. Some observers believe that if US sanctions would be lifted on Iran, Lebanon’s Resistance force, Hezbollah, would become more cooperative with rival Lebanese parties.
Since October, the parliament has met twelve times to vote for a six-year term President of the Republic, who must be a Maronite Christian. With elevated expectations, the latest electoral session was conducted on June 14, but this attempt, like many others before it, was inconclusive.
Results showed Suleiman Franjieh, the candidate supported by Hezbollah (and its allies) receiving 51 votes and Jihad Azour, (an IMF official) the candidate supported by the opposition, receiving 59 – out of 128 MPs. Neither side reached the required two-third winning score in the first round. Hezbollah and its ally (Amal) voters chose to leave the electoral session, ending quorum, in order to avoid second round, decisive voting.
The failure of the June 14 elections may be partially related to the ongoing tension between the US and Iran – and its allies in Lebanon and Syria. Hezbollah and the Syrian regime may not be willing to facilitate free elections in Lebanon before Washington changes what is considered a punitive approach to Iran and allies.
Some analysts have speculated that the June-14 electoral session may have wiped out the candidacy of Franjieh as well as that of Azour. Both electoral camps have demonstrated more resentment to the opponent than admiration of own candidate. This was an election to eliminate rather than to choose, many believe.
Lebanon is becoming ungovernable. Acts of sabotage of electoral events recur periodically. Banks have not been able to return saving deposits for three years. Public services are shrinking. Court decisions are being deferred. The salary of a retired ambassador is equivalent to US 40 dollars a month. Yet there is no sign for a pause to rethink the way the country is run and how leadership is formed. Everybody knows change is needed, but how to revive Lebanon, is what divides the Lebanese into hard-line political and ideological groups.
It is clear that the sectarian power-sharing system is not working. The Maronite – Catholic leadership is attached to its monopoly positions of the presidency, army chief and Governor of Central Bank; the Shiite leadership runs the parliament and insists on keeping Hezbollah as a mighty Resistance force, a militia stronger than the national armed forces; and the Sunnite leadership has gotten too comfortable with their “ownership” of the position of the prime minister.
A sectarian formula of power-sharing reinforces the role of the religious institution in politics. Structural sectarianism shapes religious identity. The “sharing” formula is based on outdated demography: the Christians are overrepresented and the Shiites are underrepresented. The system discourages the role of the resourceful Lebanese Diaspora, a multicultural community, sick and tired of sectarian politics. Quota based power-sharing leaves the warlords, who dragged Lebanon to a 15- year civil war, entrenched in permanent positions of power. How can a country be saved by its abusers?
If a new president is elected, it may be the last sectarian election Lebanon would have. The level of state failure has already reached a deep bottom; the damage is irreversible. That said, it is not easy to change a political system without a revolution of some sort. Bad news: in the Arab world revolutions are usually bloody and often inconclusive.
May be the unfolding changes which are taking place in the region would somewhat facilitate progress in the way the Lebanese elect their leaders and build their state. As political alliances are currently making better sense in the Middle East the region may be slowly moving in the right direction.
Other developments might help. The chances of electing Lebanon’s next president could improve if Washington and Iran would soon conclude their latest cycle of negotiations over nuclear issues with a positive outcome. Over the past two weeks, several reports have discussed a sequenced and limited nuclear arrangement with Tehran. The plan would curb enrichment and include prisoner exchange between the two countries which have been in conflict since 1979.
Israel’s consistent efforts to stop any form of negotiations with Iran, through its lobby in the US Congress, seem to have weakened but not failed yet. Washington feels being ignored by its closest allies in the region. After China brokered a deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia the US has felt somewhat left out.
Washington may be trying a new approach in the region. While softening a notch its punitive approach to Iran, it is promoting the Arab- Israel, Abraham Accords, by enticing Saudi Arabia to join the Accords. Washington believes that if Saudi Arabia were to make peace with Israel, the Jewish state will be become less confrontational with Iran. The Biden Administration may argue these days that Iran’s improved relations with the Arab world should be balanced by improved Arab- Israeli relations.
Lebanon is at the bottom of a peace domino effect. If Tehran is relieved from US sanctions, the regime in Damascus might also get some gains from possible reduction of US military presence in north east Syria. Should Washington’s relations with Tehran and Damascus improve, Hezbollah would be easier to live with in Lebanon.
A new round of elections has not been set yet. Domestic eyes are focused on Tehran, Paris and Riyadh for additional directions. A president is badly needed, but no leader will be able to radically change a toxic political system. With a new president and a suitable prime minister, Lebanon might be able to rehabilitate its economy but not reconstruct its statehood.
- Palestinians stand firm on their land - July 9, 2023
- Could a new Washington -Tehran nuclear deal facilitate presidential elections in Lebanon? - June 16, 2023
- Lebanese parliament afraid to vote for next president - June 1, 2023