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Michael Young

Presidential finding

Is Lebanon really deadlocked over a head of state?

Lebanese President Michel Sleiman (C) meets with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri (L) and prime minister-designate Tammam Salam at the presidential palace in Baabda ahead of announcing the formation of the new Lebanese government following a 10-month vacuum

Two weeks into Lebanon’s presidential election period, we seem to be in a deadlock. In an election that everyone has called a purely Lebanese affair, it seems the Lebanese are failing to take advantage of their newfound leeway.

 

That’s the story at least. But usually solutions in Lebanon are devised at the last moment, when the situation becomes so untenable that everyone is ripe for an alternative. Where are we today, and what has the election revealed to date?

 

It has shown us, first, that both the Future Movement and Hezbollah are prisoners of their alliances. Future did not want to back Samir Geagea as its leading presidential candidate, nor Hezbollah Michel Aoun (even if the general is not officially a candidate). However, both were more unwilling to lose a vital Maronite ally by failing to publicly back Geagea or Aoun, respectively.

 

A second message is that March 14 did not try to anticipate the Geagea gambit by selecting a more conciliatory figure early on who could have won votes from members of Walid Jumblatt’s bloc as well as from independents. This showed that Future has been less adept at shaping March 14’s strategy than Hezbollah has been at defining March 8’s.

 

Aoun, to his credit, read the dynamics rather well. He did not corner Hezbollah and force it to take an official stance on his candidacy. In return, the party agreed to follow Aoun’s lead in attending the election sessions. If there is movement toward a compromise candidate, Aoun will not be embarrassed by having announced his candidacy, which means that Hezbollah will retain the flexibility to approve of someone else.

 

A third message is that even if foreign powers are not directly involved in the election, the calculations of several regional governments are inherent in the presidential process. When Hezbollah determines who it wants, it will ensure that he is someone acceptable to Iran and, to a considerable extent, Syria. By the same token, Saad Hariri must guarantee that any candidate of his choice is not objectionable to Saudi Arabia.

 

Western governments, too, have a say in what goes on, though less than that of the regional powerhouses. The primary Western concern is to avoid a vacuum, and a headache, in Beirut, particularly as several European countries have contingents in the United Nations force in southern Lebanon. It’s difficult for them to justify domestically that that the troops are maintaining stability, when the Lebanese are allowing a potentially unstable situation to emerge at the head of their state.

 

In recent days there have been reports that the Maronite patriarch, Beshara al-Rai, had taken up the matter of extending President Michel Sleiman’s term with the speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, in order to avert a vacuum. How strange coming from a man who had earlier spoken of the election as a national necessity. Does Rai now believe it is no longer so, and that it is therefore time to shift to keeping Sleiman in power?

 

If so, the patriarch, not for the first time, is jumping the gun, and he’s doing so in a political context very unfavorable to a Sleiman extension. Hezbollah wants the president out, and not surprisingly Berri is said to have made no commitments to Rai. It appears, however, that the speaker may have tried to push for a constitutional amendment that would allow Hezbollah’s preferred candidate, the army commander Jean Kahwaji, to stand for elections. Rai rightly rejected that proposal.

 

More realistic is a scenario that takes into consideration the imperative that brought Tammam Salam’s government to life. Both Hezbollah and Future, and very likely their regional sponsors, saw benefits in filling the increasingly dangerous vacuum in Lebanon with a national unity government. No one wants Lebanon to descend into sectarian violence, particularly when sectarian relations in Syria and Iraq are so worrisome.

 

Nothing has changed in this regard since the Salam government was formed. The major Sunni and Shiite representatives are still very keen to avoid conflict. That is what makes more likely the possibility that as the presidential election period nears its end, a candidate will emerge who can win a majority in parliament and satisfy most governments in the region.

 

For now, eyes are on former parliamentarian and minister Jean Obeid. He recently visited Saudi Arabia, and is believed to be favorably viewed by Saad Hariri, Hezbollah, and Walid Jumblatt – not to mention the Syrian regime. He’s the kind of candidate that Samir Geagea warned against when he insisted that a compromise candidate would seek to satisfy all sides, and therefore would not be a “strong president.” But Obeid remains a favorite precisely for those reasons.    

 

To get to Obeid, more time is needed for the current stalemate to fester. That’s why talk of an open-ended vacuum may be premature. Now is the time for Hariri and Hezbollah to persuade their Maronite allies that they must give up on the presidency and go for a compromise, as Sunni-Shiite relations demand it. Stalemates often produce solutions. We shall soon see if Lebanon can pull a rabbit out of its hat again this time.

 

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper. He tweets @BeirutCalling

Unchanged circumstances. (AFP Photo/HO/Dalati and Nohra)

"The major Sunni and Shiite representatives are still very keen to avoid conflict. That is what makes more likely the possibility that as the presidential election period nears its end, a candidate will emerge who can win a majority in parliament and satisfy most governments in the region."

  • JoeKhalife1

    The Lebanese parliamentry members and politicians in general, have proven they have the ability to agree on anything at anytime and under any circumstances when they wish to... The constitution is nothing but a thing they hide behind, when they feel they need to... but there are many instances where they have decided and agreed without any regards for the consitution in the name of 'Democratic agreement' and "for the good of the country. The people, on the other hand have had enough of all sides. Even followers of one group have no faith for their own leaders ploys, aims, deals etc... If we were to accept that all parties have Lebanon and the good of the people at heart, Why don't they agree to share power... Power sharing can be on a three year term and they can all have turn and realize their dreams of the presidency.. The years for Aoun, Three years for Jaajaa, Three for franjieh, Three for Harb and so on and they can knuckle down and keep this country stable politically and save our sanity and hope in a better future for our children in this country. Agree on the global benefit for lebanon and its people and power share... Unfortunately, should they get to this, they will undoubtedly fight over who goes 1st. Lebanese politics is abismal to saythe least. It's a group of Mafia leaders and Mafia would-be's to share the spoils of the country. Sad situation.. it's nothing new, it will always be. Lucky are those who have opted to leave it. Not very clever to swim in a pool full of sharks and Pihranas. I have decided not to hear the news anymore, not to be involved in political debate, nor listen to radio or watch TV news... I hope I can survive this.

    May 15, 2014

  • stanislav.iliev.1232

    Direction of Terrorists Criminals Hezbollah must going in Prison! Direction of Hezbollah kidnapped and maked Torture to my Bulgarian Husband Talal Mohamed Khalil on period 25.11.2012- 28.01.2013y. Terrorists Hezbollah forced Talal to sign FALSE CONFESSIONS! On time of Torture Talal get three Heart attacks and two Brain Hits!! After Torture Hezbollah gived my husband to Prison Roumieh in Beirut. Talal stay one year and six Months INNOCENT, VERY ILL IN PRISON. On the 16.05.2014y. Talal will be on the front Military Lebanese Court in Beirut. Terrorists Criminals Hezbollah killed Bulgarian Citizens in Bulgaria, Burgas on 18.07.2012y. We Bulgarian Citizens want JUST COURT PROCESS FOR TALAL MOHAMED KHALIL! Talal is 63 years old, very ill in Prison! Lebanese State Institutions MUST SAVE HUMAN RIGHTS TO ALL PRISONERS IN LEBANON! DIRECTION OF HEZBOLLAH TO THE PRISON !!! FREEDOM FOR TALAL MOHAMED KHALIL ! WE CONTINUE MAKE PROTESTS ON THE FRONT LEBANESE EMBASSY IN BULGARIA AND GERMANY!!! GROUP OF EUROPEAN CITIZENS May 10, 2014 Delete

    May 14, 2014

  • ekn

    i am a frequent reader of your articles, yet this one, is not only biased, but lacks any objectivity. pure speculation and non sense. assuming that the corrupt elite and mafia currently in power through a last minute agreement called the national unity government , will reach a compromise called jean obeid, how do you imagine this guy is going to express governance ? lately i interacted with some options in this lebanese conundrum and figured out that the nation is in dire need of reforms, yet these reforms must be expressed , introduced and implemented by generating a popular wave of pressure, while simultaneously advancing the legislative agenda . Jean obeid is a favorite candidate for losers , those who wish the check mate in lebanon persists, the one that israel imposed after 2006, where lebanon is divided into 4 republics, the state, the palestinian camps, the hezbollah enclaves and the syrian refugees. jean obeid is the man that can walk through all this and detonate the silent mines spread all over the land. while other candidates are raising much powder kegs in their opposing blocs ( geagea, aoun, franjieh, gemayel), or wishful thinking ( moussa), jean obeid is the total failure of lebanon. considering that we can express a choice between bads, the lesser bad is definitely another jean , who at least can bring in a team, represent more checks and balances, even though the experience of the militarist commanders so far since G. Chehab brought only complexity and problems. General Kahwaji can have an opportunity to empower the army and express civil governance if he learns from the mistakes of the militarists since chehab, lahoud, and up to suleiman. As for the civil option well much better than Jean obeid , definitely can be Sami Abi LLAmah who is the maronite league prez at the moment. So dear Michael let us put things on the right direction. To end any figure that will preside will necessitate luminance and a major breath for reforms. Whenever the army co

    May 12, 2014

  • JoeKhalife1

    What I would like to know is... for those wanting a presidential vacancy and are saying that the government would continue taking presiding over the country until a president is voted in... what happens if the head of this government resigns or gets assassinated?... who does what?... an interesting situation. (I 'm not wishing for any of this, just thinking).

    May 15, 2014