By Marwan Asmar
Since the end of the presidential term of Michael Slieman last May, Lebanon has been in political deadlock, with no real clue as to who the next president of the country might be.
Leaving aside the machinations, alliances, allegiances and affiliations inside the Lebanese parliament, choosing a president has become an recurring headache. In 2007 when president Emile Lahoud’s term ended, it took Lebanese deputies six months to decide on a candidate to succeed him. Today the situation is similar but much more divisive with Lebanese deputies split between two fundamental groups, each with their own agenda.
There is the 8th March Group of Shiite and Hizbollah deputies, and their allies the Christian Free Patriotic Movement under Michael Aoun. His credentials for presidency are claims that he has 19 parliamentary seats among the 64 seats of Christian parties and, Aoun adds, he represents the majority amongst them in the 128-member parliament.
Countering that is the 14th March Group of Sunnis, led by Sa’ad Hariri’s Future Movement. Allied with them are the Katab Party and the Lebanese Forces under the leadership of Samir Geagea.
The two alliances have been holding the country’s parliament hostage since 25 May, rendering the assembly largely ineffective. Each time parliament tried to hold a session on choosing a president, deputies – mainly from the 8 March Group – would fail to show up and consequently the 86-vote quorum would fail to be met.
Since 25 May more than 16 parliamentary sessions to elect a president have all ended in failure. While there is renewed hope that a new ‘understanding’ is being thrashed out between Hizbollah and the Future Movement to turn swords into plowshares, few are expecting much to come of the meetings and, so far, the doubters have not been disappointed.
The Maronite Patriach Beshra Rai has intervened to try to brake the deadlock between the two sides. A National Pact drawn up in the early 1940s established broad guidelines for the political structure Lebanon; the concord decreed a Sunni Muslim should always hold the office of prime minister as a counterbalance to a parliamentary speaker, elected from the Shiite community.
However, the choice of president has become increasingly complicated because of external elements pulling strings linked to the geo-political structure of Lebanon and internal forces, for the most part seen as proxies of other countries.
Hizbullah is allied to Syria and Iran and seeks a president who will not upset its balance of power in Lebanon. Meanwhile, the14th March Group has its own external allies who have not budged on who they want at the top. They are Sunnis, pro-Saudi and pro-western and include members of the traditional political establishment such as Fouad Al Sinoira, and former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri himself, who for security reasons has been living between Paris and Riyadh for the last few years.
Hariri is now in favour of what he calls a “consensus candidate” being agreed upon by both groups outside the two traditional names being put forward. However, many observers say this is just political game playing and insist neither of the two factions has truly moved one iota from their original choice of candidate.
The “stop-go” talks between the two sides give increasing credibility to those who have long believed the only way left to fill the presidential seat is through external intervention which, although it might produce a prime minister capable of rescuing Lebanon from its current political inertia, would be a sad refection indeed on its prospects of ever being regarded as a satellite state of external governments based in foreign capitol cities.