After 29 months of presidential vacuum that caused the stalemate of several political questions in Lebanon, Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, was elected President. This will hopefully open a new phase for the country, in a fragile balance since the beginning of the Syrian Crisis. However, the impasse of the last two years and the election of Aoun have demonstrated the inner limitations of the Lebanese political system.

On October 31, during the hours preceding the 46th parliamentary session to elect the president, the atmosphere in Beirut was predicting that something important was about to happen: the centre of the capital city was close to the public access and army helicopters were flying over. After 29 months of presidential vacuum and 45 sessions failed, the Lebanese Parliament was finally able to elect a President, position that, in the country’s sectarian power-sharing system, ought to be filled by a Maronite Christian. Michel Aoun, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, was elected president of Lebanon and Beirut turned into an explosion of orange (Aoun’s party colour), Martyrs’ Square, and especially the Christian neighbourhoods hosted celebrations all night long. Now that the celebrations are over and that the capital city is back to its usual colours, the Lebanese people wait for the first moves of the newly-elected President.

The political scenario

In order to understand the reasons behind Aoun’s presidential election, it is useful to make reference to the country’s electoral regulations inherited from the Ta’if agreement. Lebanon is indeed characterized by a political system based on religious representativeness. The Ta’if agreement was signed in 1989 in order to put an end to the 20-year bloody civil war. Such agreement states that the President must be a Maronite, while the Prime Minister a Sunni and the speaker of the Parliament a Shiite. At the same time, half of the Parliament is reserved to Christians, and the other half to Muslims; with each half distributed among 11 of the 18 officially recognized religious communities.

Nowadays, Lebanon is politically divided between the March 14 Alliance and the March 8 Alliance. The former is constituted by the Sunnite of the Future Movement (El Hariri), the Christians of the Lebanese Forces (Geagea) and the Kataeb Party – internationally supported by the United States and Saudi Arabia and hostile to the Syrian regime. On the other hand, the March 8 Alliance, which prevails in the government, is ruled by the Shia parties of Hizbullah and the Amal Movement, with the support among others of the Christian Free Patriotic Movement – backed internationally by Syria and Iran.

Lebanon was unable to elect a president over the last two years and a half, since former President Michel Suleiman vacated the presidential palace in May 2014. Surely, the on-going crisis in Syria and the lack of a Christian powerful leader were among the main factors that influenced this impasse. Above all, such a stalemate highlighted the limitations of the Lebanese democratic system. The refusal of the March 8 Alliance to attend parliamentary sessions for two years, as not to allow the election of any candidate, demonstrates how one coalition could halt the flow of the democratic process. Moreover, Hizbollah, involved in the Syrian Crisis, aimed at avoiding a President who could question its participation in the conflict. On the other side, the March 14 Alliance always considered this election to be crucial to establish a new cabinet, supporting candidates belonging to its political faction.

For these reasons, it is important to understand how Aoun was able to be elected as President. He won with the support of 83 MPs, well above the absolute majority of 65 MPs needed to win. Aoun, 81-year old, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, was fighting against both Syria and the rival Christian forces during the Lebanese civil war (1975 – 1990). He was forced to resign from his post as Prime Minister and exiled in France by the Syrian government 26 years ago. Following such a step-down, he changed his political direction allying with Hizbollah, backed by Syria and Iran, exacerbating on the already cement divisions within the Maronite Christian community. Since this moment, Aoun is indeed part of the March 8 coalition. Hence, Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hizbollah movement, always supported his candidacy, given Aoun’s strong tie with the Shia party.

Presidential election: the turning point

The situation changed at the beginning of October, when Aoun was backed also by Saad El Hariri, head of the Future Movement and son of the assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik El Hariri. Saad El Hariri has been the Lebanese Prime Minister from 9 November 2009 until the collapse of his unity cabinet on 12 January 2011, when the government partners resigned. In addition, El Hariri’s public support dramatically decreased following the financial troubles investing his Saudi-based construction firm, Saudi Oger. By ensuring his vote for Aoun, Saad El Hariri was elected Prime Minister on November 3, receiving 110 out of 127 votes; the few opposing MPs belonged to the Hizbollah movement, the Syrian Social National Party and those supporting the Syrian Government.

Internationally, the election of Aoun was well welcomed by the US president, European leaders and UN representatives as a new encouraging step in the social, economical and security stability of Lebanon. However, this fact shows once again the increase of Hizbollah power in Lebanon. Hizbollah is in fact considered as a terrorist organization by the Gulf Countries and the US (partly by the European country that consider only its military wing as a terrorist organization), since its military wing was fighting against Israel in 2006 and it is now deployed in Syria against the Islamist groups. The mere fact that a President could only be elected with Hizbullah’s support shows that the Shia Party is indeed a powerful political actor in the Lebanese scenario. Despite this, internally, the new election shows that Lebanon is still a country in which politicians seem to be similar to the board members of a company, oriented to a balance of interests and power-sharing. The board members are sharing the political power among themselves only to satisfy their own interests, using the rhetorical discourse of religious affiliation for the sole populist scope of reaching broader consensus. The old age of the new President and the familiar ties among the political parties’ leaders show the limitations and the shortcomings of the Lebanese political system. Many Lebanese citizens welcomed the new step in the political scenario as a hope for a more stable situation for the country. The President’s signature can now put an end to many issues that remained unsolved over the past two years. One thing is sure: Lebanese people suffer of war fatigue; after years of different wars that affected the country, Lebanon managed to keep a fragile equilibrium, despite the huge number of the refugees and the repercussion of the Syrian crisis on the security and political balance of the country. Ultimately, the presidential vacuum cannot be brought up as an excuse to all the problems that affect the country. Despite the vibrant nightlife and the luxury of some areas, Lebanon suffers of shortage of water and electricity, with the streets and the green areas across the country full of garbage.

Need for a change

The lengthy presidential impasse has eventually disheartened the electorate. It seemed not important enough for the Lebanese people to take down the streets and protest asking for a change. In addition, the municipal elections confirmed that the country is not ready to change its political system yet. Old political actors were still the main figures opposing new players that were asking for a change. Even the attempt of new movements like Beirut Madinati was merely concerning the capital city, as they did not aspire to run for general elections. However, the Lebanese political scenario ought to be changed drastically, starting from the political leadership that should focus more on finding sustainable solutions for the substantial problems of the country, such as high rate of unemployment, huge number of refugees and shortage of water and electricity, rather than on rhetorical religious affiliation discourses. As a matter of fact, the current political discourse seems to be exacerbating the already existing religious conflicts that were not completely over in the aftermath of the civil war.

Anita Sorrentini

Programs Assistant in Sonbola


References

Interviews with Lebanese people in Beirut

“Michel Aoun elected president of Lebanon”, Al Jazeera, 31 October 2016

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/10/michel-aoun-elected-president-lebanon-161031105331767.html

Hussein Itany and Hadi Fathallah, “Lebanon’s Taif Agreement Needs Revision”, Al Monitor, 12 June 2013, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/06/taif-accord-lebanon-civil-war-sectarian-balance-hariri.html

Elias Muhanna, “Lebanon, by the Numbers”, New York Times, 17 January 2012,

http://latitude.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/17/possible-change-in-lebanon-electoral-system-is-move-to-address-sectarianism/?_r=0