As you may know, Lebanon has been functioning without a president for over two years now. If this seems odd, well, it is, but more in a “why” sense than a “how” sense. The “how” is actually fairly simple; the Lebanese president is elected by parliament, and the Lebanese parliament requires a 2/3 quorum in order to do that. In the parliament’s 46 (yes, that’s right) attempts to elect a new president since former president Michel Suleiman’s term ended in May 2014, it has failed to achieve a 2/3 quorum each time. This is not, as you’re maybe thinking now, because Lebanese legislators forgot how to get to the capital–although it wouldn’t be entirely surprising if they sometimes got lost amid Beirut’s occasionally large piles of uncollected trash–but rather because Lebanese politics is especially fractured these days.
The fault lines aren’t very surprising–there’s some Saudi and Iranian-fueled Sunni/Shiʿa stuff happening here, but the real exacerbating factor is the war in Syria. Under Lebanon’s traditional power-sharing arrangement, which was modified somewhat by the 1989 Taif Agreement reached at the end of the Lebanese Civil War, Lebanon’s president must be a Maronite Christian. But the Maronite community has been caught up in the same divisiveness that has seized the rest of Lebanese society and has had a hard time even coalescing internally around a single candidate for the office. Consequently, there’s been no consensus on a new president, and each time a parliament session is called to consider a candidate, enough legislators simply opt to stay home to invalidate the proceedings.
However–and I know we’ve all had our hopes raised on this before–there’s a real chance that the vacant presidency is about to be filled.
Saad al-Hariri, who served as Lebanese Prime Minister from 2009 through 2011 and, one assumes, would kind of like to be prime minister again one of these days, announced today that he’s throwing his support behind Michel Aoun, a former general in the Lebanese army and a leading Maronite politician, to become the next president. This is actually more interesting than the usual political endorsement. The Lebanese parliament is dominated by two political coalitions–the March 14 Alliance, named for the anti-Syrian 2005 Cedar Revolution that broke out after the February 14, 2005, assassination of Saad al-Hariri’s father Rafic, and the March 8 Alliance, named for pro-Syrian demonstrations that broke out in opposition to the Cedar Revolution. March 8 holds 61 seats in the 128 seat legislature, and March 14 holds 60 seats (the other seven seats are held by the leftish Progressive Socialist Party). As you might guess, these coalitions break down largely on pro- and anti-Syria lines, and it’s been their falling out over the Syrian civil war that has caused the lion’s share of Lebanon’s political gridlock.
Without getting too deep into the weeds, Saad al-Hariri is a leading figure in the March 14 Alliance, and Aoun is prominent in the March 8 Alliance, so Hariri’s endorsement carries some pretty hefty “across the aisle” cache, and turns Aoun into a sort of avatar of national unity. Or it would, except that there are several other prominent members of the March 14 Alliance, along with a few prominent members of Aoun’s own March 8 Alliance, who have already announced that they won’t support Aoun’s candidacy. Michel Aoun has a bit of a past, you see, having been an active participant in the civil war and having been deeply enmeshed in the all the military and political fallout that war produced. So he’s got some enemies, is what I’m saying.
Hezbollah, which is powerful enough (it does have its own army, you know?) to have an effective veto in the March 8 bloc, is on good terms with Aoun but has nonetheless been non-committal on his candidacy, officially saying only that it welcomes efforts to end the stalemate. So it’s by no means guaranteed that Aoun is going to be elected, but this is probably the best chance for a reconciliation that Lebanon has seen since Suleiman left office.
Electing a president wouldn’t in and of itself fix what ails Lebanese politics–far from it, actually, since the Lebanese presidency is a fairly weak office. But it couldn’t hurt, and it might even be the first step toward the March 8 and March 14 coalitions finding a way to work together on other things, like–and I’m just throwing this out there–making sure the trash in Beirut gets picked up regularly, consistently. The way trash pickup is, you know, supposed to work.
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