This week, for the 40th time in a row, the Lebanese parliament failed to elect a replacement for the country’s former president Michel Suleiman. President Suleiman’s six-year term concluded on 25 May 2014, and Lebanon has been locked in a state of political paralysis ever since.
In 1943, when Lebanon gained its independence from France, the National Pact was set up to guarantee a multi-confessional system of government. Although it is not specifically written in the constitution, according to this agreement the president must be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister must be a Sunni Muslim and the Speaker of the Parliament must be a Shia Muslim. The last official census took place in 1932 and it was publicised that around 53% of the population were Christian. The conclusions of this questionable census built a government structure in which control of the presidency and command of the armed forces was forfeited to a Christian parliamentary majority.
However, after the state of Israel was established, Palestinian refugees that were displaced during the exoduses of 1948 and 1967 assisted in the rapid expansion of the Lebanese Muslim population. It had become clear that the amount of political power that the Christian population was exercising was immensely disproportionate. Unstable demographic tensions and protests against the government structure ignited a bloody civil war. In 1989 the Taif Agreement brought hostilities to a close, replacing a 6:5 ratio of Christians to Muslims in parliament with 1:1 representation.
In this day and age, we know that such a faith-based method of distributing power typically leads to sectarian politics. An example of this would be the Saudi Arabian government, which has long been a strong oppressor of Shia Muslims due to the ultraconservative ideology of wahhabism.
There are many questions that could be asked regarding the political deadlock Lebanon is facing. In order to understand the situation fully, one must take a look at the intriguing relationship between Lebanon and its neighbour Syria, and then deduce the impact a Lebanese president has on the partnership between the Syrian government and Hezbollah.
Syria had dominated Lebanon for almost thirty years between 1976 and 2005, when the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri sparked the withdrawal of Syrian military forces. Syria may have removed its military from the area but it remains a key player in orchestrating the politics of Lebanon. Two notable Shia Islamist movements, Hezbollah and Amal, exist in Lebanon and they both have strong ties with a variety of communities. These exist as political instruments for the Syrian government.
Syria gains several benefits through controlling Hezbollah. Firstly, there is the loyalty of a majority of the Shia community (around a third of the Lebanese population). Secondly, Syria uses the manpower of Hezbollah to fight Israel and this appeals to the Palestinians seeking liberation from Israel. Finally, anti-Syrian groups in Lebanon are easily crushed by Hezbollah, allowing the Syrian regime to keep its control of Lebanon’s political system.
Syria may not be able to directly prescribe government policy, but it has long found ways of interfering in Syrian elections and can still obstruct certain political decisions that it disagrees with. For example, Tammam Salam, the current Prime Minister of Lebanon, was unable to form a cabinet for ten months due to political division construed by the Assad regime. In the current impasse over the presidency, members of parliament who support Hezbollah are even obstructing the election by refusing to sit in election sessions unless an outcome favourable to them is certain.
The two political party alliances in Lebanon are known as March 8 and March 14, both named after momentous dates in modern Lebanese history. March 8 is backed by Iran and Syria and their main presidential candidate is General Michel Aoun, a former Lebanese Army Commander. March 14, who are backed by Saudi Arabia and Western countries, are backing Suleiman Frangieh, Jr. who is also a March 8 candidate. The main reason March 14 are supporting Frangieh is because they want to divide the votes of March 8. March 8 have a strong candidate but now they are facing a predicament, they are split between Aoun and Frangieh. In actual fact, March 14 doesn’t really support either candidate – they want both to clash so that neither can achieve the presidency.
Modernising the political system in Lebanon through secularism remains a difficult task for a country which is heavily divided and inundated with sectarian policies. The best hope would be to rotate the three major offices of President, Prime Minister and Speaker between different confessional groups to promote a more democratic process – this might lead to a steady increase in secular politics.
But for now, to solve the current deadlock, a new parliament must be elected by the people of Lebanon before a president can be selected in accordance with the constitution. I believe the outcome will be largely determined by the Syrian Civil War, through its effect on the Lebanese political alliances. If Assad remains in power, those who are on the fence will swing towards March 8. If he is replaced, they may back March 14 instead.
Lebanon’s future hangs in the balance.