Theme: This ARI explains the current political crisis in Lebanon.
Summary: The presidential election in Lebanon has become the latest battle between two political coalitions competing for the reins of the country’s future. The polarisation of the Lebanese political arena has resulted in a political and institutional stalemate: the presidency is vacant, the opposition refuses to recognise the current government and Parliament has not met for over a year. Moreover, during the past three years Lebanon has been shaken by events that would destabilise any country, let alone one as weak and fragmented as Lebanon. Despite the fact that Lebanese politicians have so far refrained from taking the step that would unleash chaos, the situation could spiral out of control.
Analysis: After nine years as President of the Republic, Emile Lahoud stepped down on 23 November without the Parliament electing a successor. The crisis that has ensued is the latest chapter in the saga that started with the assassination of the former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri on 14 February 2005.
Hariri’s assassination and the subsequent withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in April 2005 have confronted the country with major challenges. Lebanon has to find a new balance between the different factions, redefine its relations with its neighbours and other players in the region and handle a deteriorating economic situation. Today, more than ever, these challenges demand a coherent political and economic strategy. However, the upsetting of the status quo has deepened the political vacuum that has always existed as a result of the country’s confessional system.
In addition to the complexity of the internal situation, Lebanon finds itself once again at the centre of the Middle East’s political turbulence. Lebanon is vital for Iran’s policy in the region, Syria’s political and economic interests, Israel’s security and US strategy. Although these dynamics are not new, regional developments since 2000 have broken the international consensus –existing since the end of the Lebanese civil war– that stability was the first priority in Lebanon. First, the collapse of Israeli-Syrian negotiations in 2000 consecrated Lebanon’s position as a strategic battlefield in the conflict. Second, Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in May of that same year started to erode the Lebanese consensus on the need for and legitimacy of Hizballah’s weapons. The internal and external calls for disarmament increased after the Syrian withdrawal in 2005. Third, Lebanon is caught in the middle of a showdown between the US and its Arab allies on the one hand and Iran on the other over the latter’s ascendant power and its desire to be recognised as the dominant regional power in the Middle East. Lastly, the deteriorating relations between the US and France, on the one hand, and Syria, on the other, resulted in the end of American and European acquiescence to the role played by Syria in its neighbouring country.
These changes in the internal and external political formula have exacerbated divisions among the Lebanese political factions. Within a year of the Syrian withdrawal, the disparate parties and confessional groupings had coalesced into two rival camps. The ‘March 14 coalition’ (named for the largest of the anti-Syrian protests in 2005) is composed mainly of Sunni, Druze, and Christian politicians, enjoys a majority in Parliament (68 out of 128 seats), and controls key ministries. The main aim of this group, which receives diplomatic support from the US, France, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, is to contain Syrian ambitions in Lebanon and implement UN Security Council Resolutions 1559, 1701 and 1757, which call for, among other things, the extension of the Lebanese government’s authority throughout Lebanon, the disarmament of all militias, and the creation of an international tribunal to investigate Hariri’s assassination. On the other hand, the ‘March 8 coalition’ (named after the day of the mass pro-Syrian rally organised by Hizballah in 2005) is composed of two Shia parties (Hizballah and Amal) and the Free Patriotic Movement of the Christian Maronite leader Michel Aoun. This coalition, which enjoys the support of Iran and Syria, considers that the current government is illegitimate and accuses it of promoting American and Israeli interests in Lebanon.
At the beginning of 2006, 14 political leaders launched a series of meetings known as the ‘national dialogue’ in an attempt to find a compromise on the major issues that divided the two camps. After several meetings, they agreed to support the creation of an international tribunal to try the suspects in al-Hariri’s assassination, the disarmament of Palestinian groups outside refugee camps in Lebanon and the establishment of diplomatic relations with Syria. They also agreed that the border region known as Shebaa farms, which is under Israeli occupation, belongs to Lebanon and not to Syria. However, two of the most controversial issues on the agenda remained unresolved: the call for the disarmament of all Lebanese militias under UN Security Council Resolution 1559 (a clear reference to Hizballah) and the future of President Emile Lahoud, whose mandate was extended as a result of Syrian pressure in 2004.
The July 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon brought the ‘national dialogue’ meetings to an end, rolled back the progress that had been made during the meetings, and deepened the country’s political divide. In November 2006, the ‘March 8 coalition’ withdrew its six cabinet ministers and took to the streets of downtown Beirut to force the government –which it now considered illegitimate because it no longer included Shia representation (five of the Ministers were Shia)– to resign. Since then, the two camps have been engaged in a ‘war of attrition’.
The Presidential Crisis
The end of the mandate of President Emile Lahoud, a former army commander who was close to Syria, has deepened the political paralysis. The ‘March 14 coalition’ is demanding a President who will support UN Security Council Resolutions 1559 and 1701, while the ‘March 8’ movement wants a President who does not challenge Hizballah’s weapons, is not an ally of the US, and has close ties with Iran and Syria.
Lebanon’s constitution establishes that the President of the Republic must be elected for a six-year term by the Parliament. The two coalitions have evoked different interpretations of the legal text to defend their positions. The ‘March 8 coalition’ argues that two-thirds of the members of Parliament are required to reach a quorum –this interpretation grants the group veto power simply by failing to attend the voting session–. On the other hand, the ‘March 14 coalition’, which holds an absolute majority in Parliament, insists that the voting can take place even if only an absolute majority of the members are present. The Speaker of Parliament, Nabih Berri, leader of the Shia Amal movement –which belongs to the ‘March 8 coalition’– has not summoned parliamentary sessions for over a year.
The candidacy of Michel Suleiman, commander of the Lebanese army since 1998, which was proposed by the ‘March 14 coalition’ at the end of November 2007, appeared initially to open the door to a resolution of the crisis. Due to his relative distance from both coalitions and the respect earned by the army as a neutral institution in the current divide, Suleiman was perceived by many as the candidate of consensus. His designation would require a constitutional amendment given that the Constitution prohibits the election of high-ranking government officials as President of the Republic unless they resign from their posts two years earlier. The need for a constitutional amendment does not in itself pose a hurdle to Suleiman’s candidacy since the Lebanese constitution has been repeatedly modified for political calculations. A similar amendment was approved by Parliament in 1998 to facilitate the election of President Emile Lahoud. Furthermore, two constitutional amendments have been introduced in order to extend presidential mandates. The obstacle in this case was one of political will. The ‘March 8 coalition’ accepted the proposal in principle provided that a new Prime Minister be appointed before and that all the Ministers of the new government as well as some high-ranking government officials be approved. The March 14 coalition rejected these conditions and the opposition responded by arguing that an ‘illegitimate’ government cannot introduce a constitutional amendment.
Lebanon is teetering on the edge of an abyss, but so far the political parties have refrained from taking the step that would plunge the country into absolute chaos. When Lahoud’s mandate was about to end, the opposition threatened to create a parallel government, which would have certainly divided the country in two, as occurred in 1988. The General Secretary of Hizballah, Hassan Nasrallah, asked Lahoud to create another government before his term expired. Lahoud refused to do so in an attempt to protect the reputation of his post. For its part, the parliamentary and government majority has repeatedly threatened to elect the President of the Republic by absolute majority in the Parliament. Ultimately, it has refrained from doing so because such a move would cause a definitive break with the opposition and would destroy all the efforts that have been made to secure a national consensus.
At present, both political coalitions seem more willing to maintain the status quo than to take on the risk of making concessions to reach an agreement. Despite the existence of internal divisions within each group, these have not been enough to shatter the divide between both groups. Moreover, the attacks against ten political leaders of the “March 14 coalition” (in which seven of them lost their lives) have rendered negotiations even more difficult. The group’s MPs have locked themselves in a highly supervised hotel in downtown Beirut in an attempt to avoid new assassinations, given that the death of three more MPs would put the group’s parliamentary majority at risk. The coalition accuses Syria of being behind the attacks in an attempt to promote instability in Lebanon and regain control over the country. On the other hand, the ‘March 8 coalition’ argues that internal turmoil only serves Israeli interests to weaken Hizballah. In addition to preventing the election of a President, this deadlock comes at a high price for Lebanon’s security.
First, although politicians from all political parties have repeatedly stated that civil conflict must be avoided at all costs, the spectre of civil war hangs heavily over Lebanon. There are reports that groups from both coalitions are training and arming. It is well known that Hizballah has a sophisticated arsenal, but other groups of the ‘March 8’ and ‘March 14’ coalitions, who already have military experience due to their participation in the Lebanese civil war, are also training and acquiring weapons. This does not necessarily imply that Lebanon is headed towards violent conflict, but it certainly increases the possibility of that clashes between these groups would spiral out of control.
Secondly, the current situation is radicalising the sectarian rhetoric of politicians as well as the population. In this context, a Shia-Sunni or Shia-Druze confrontation can no longer be ruled out. Street clashes in Beirut between Shia and Sunni youth in January 2007 highlighted the dangerous sectarian character the conflict is developing. A clash between Christian Maronites cannot be ruled out either, since the main Maronite leaders, Michel Aoun and Samir Geagea, are in different coalitions and were already engaged in a very violent confrontation during the last years of the civil war, when they were both fighting for the leadership of the Maronite community.
Third, the events of the past three years demonstrate how vulnerable Lebanon’s security is and the many different battlefronts that exist. The attacks against politicians were accompanied by a series of car bombs targeting civilians and commercial neighbourhoods in and around Beirut, an attack on the Spanish contingent of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in southern Lebanon on 24 June 2007 –which killed seven soldiers–, and four months of combats between the Lebanese army and the radical Islamist group Fatah al-Islam in the Naher al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in north Lebanon.
These incidents bring up two main issues. For one thing, they reveal the danger of infiltration by radical al-Qaeda-inspired groups willing to convert Lebanon into a battlefield against the West. These groups could spark another war between Israel and Lebanon, pose a threat to the presence of UNIFIL, and increase Shia-Sunni tensions. Some Lebanese parties accuse the Syrian regime of facilitating the entry of these radical groups to Lebanon. Even if this were the case, these groups could act on their own.
The latest incidents also show that the Lebanese army has become the target of attacks. The clashes in Naher al-Bared, the most violent incident since the end of the civil war, seriously challenged the army and resulted in the death of more than 160 Lebanese soldiers. However, the worst case predictions were not fulfilled: the battle with Fatah al-Islam did not spill over to other refugee camps or cause a confrontation with other Palestinian groups, who declared their support for the Lebanese army and participated in the evacuation of civilians from the camps. Ultimately, the crisis reinforced the army’s position as a symbol of national unity in Lebanese society, although this institution will find it hard to maintain this position, as shown by the deadly attack of 12 December against the general and head of army operations François al-Hajj. Al-Hajj had led the offensive against Fatah al-Islam and played an essential role in the coordination with UNIFIL and the deployment of the Lebanese Army south of the Litani river after the summer 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon. Al-Hajj, considered to be Michel Suleiman’s most likely successor in case he became President of the country, was the first military officer to fall victim to an attack during the past years. The attack reveals a significant escalation in tensions, given that the army is the only institution that remains united in spite of the country’s divisions.
International Positions and Reactions
No Lebanese crisis unfolds without the intervention of the main players in the region, and this latest one is no exception. The reactions to the presidential crisis have revealed some changes in external positions, although for the time being these changes are not sufficient to secure a long-term solution to the conflict.
French policy towards Lebanon has experienced some changes in style. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has sought to depersonalise relations between French and Lebanese politicians (Jacques Chirac was a personal friend of the late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri). Sarkozy’s Administration has also adopted a more conciliatory approach towards the ‘March 8 coalition’ in an effort to become a more neutral mediator in Lebanon and restore a climate of confidence to foster a resolution to the crisis, French intervention in Lebanon has tried to reflect that it is part of a European consensus, as shown during the visits of the French, Spanish and Italian Ministers of Foreign Affairs (Bernard Kouchner, Miguel Ángel Moratinos and Massimo D’Alema) on 20 October and 22 November. However, in spite of this change of approach, French policy is still governed by the same principles. For France, the priority is to ensure Lebanon’s stability and Kouchner has played a very active and flexible role to this regard, with various diplomatic visits to Lebanon in an effort to prompt an agreement for the election of a new President. Sarkozy and Kouchner have stressed that the priority is to appoint a President and that changes in the cabinet should be discussed at a later stage. Furthermore, although Sarkozy’s government reopened dialogue with the Syrian regime (following the deterioration of French-Syrian relations during Chirac’s mandate), it has made it clear that it will not make concessions vis-à-vis the creation of an international tribunal for the investigation of Hariri’s assassination, which according to France is not negotiable.
The results of French diplomacy have confirmed the limits of European policy in Lebanon. Even though Europe can, by means of a very active policy, convince the different national parties to pull back from the brink and thus help to prevent a deepening of the crisis, EU countries lack the influence required to mediate a long-term agreement between all parties to the conflict, internal and external.
The absence of changes in the relationship between the US, on the one hand, and Syria and Iran, on the other, does not bode well for a lasting resolution in Lebanon. The war of statements between Iran and the US due to the former’s uranium enrichment programme hinders an agreement that could neutralise the Lebanese battlefield. In addition, the US and Syria are still accusing each other of hindering an agreement in Lebanon. Syria has declared itself in favour of electing a President as soon as possible and has accused the US of blocking French efforts towards consensus. The Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Walid al-Muallem, has declared that the creation of a national unity government is as important as electing a President, an opinion that clashes with American and French priorities.
In the first stages of the presidential crisis, the Bush Administration adopted a lower profile in its involvement in Lebanon, remaining in the background and publicly voicing support its support for French diplomacy. Washington also ceased its calls for the parliamentary majority to appoint a President without reaching a consensus with the opposition. However, the absence of a solution to the conflict has led the Bush Administration to play, once again, a direct role, as shown by the unexpected visit to Beirut of the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, David Welch, on 18 December. Welch accused the ‘March 8 coalition’ of blocking the election and surrendering to external pressures, in a clear reference to Syria and Iran.
Conclusion: Lebanon’s political and institutional crisis highlights, yet again, that the country’s confessional system has failed at all levels. The system, initially designed to secure stability in a heterogeneous society, has entangled the country in crisis after crisis since its independence in 1943. Based on maintaining a fragile balance among all sects rather than on fostering strong and independent central institutions, the system has proved ungovernable when there is no consensus among the main groups. The latest crisis has also revealed the lack of leadership among Lebanese politicians and the existence of legal loopholes in the constitution. While all Lebanese politicians recognise these flaws, no efforts have been made to devise a formula that promotes profound reform of the confessional system. The election of a President is not going to solve these problems, but it is essential to control the country’s spiralling tensions. Long-term stability in Lebanon demands a fundamental reform of political institutions that would render Lebanon governable, but such reform is a moot point in the current environment of growing distrust between the main political forces. The election of a President would open the door to the creation of a government of national consensus and would start to knock down the barriers that have been erected between the two coalitions.
Julia Choucair Vizoso
Expert in politics of the Arab world
Theme: This ARI explains the current political crisis in Lebanon.