The stakes in the Lebanon’s Presidential Election
(Story appearing in the 19 October edition)
After 10 months of a divorce that had almost been consummated, the Lebanese majority and opposition resumed speaking to each other on September 25th. The Presidential election, scheduled to take place on October 23rd, provided the impetus. [...] The trading of accusations has given way to a wild goose chase of meetings at every level. Everyone claims that they are making every attempt to avoid a Presidential vacancy in order to prevent the country from sinking into chaos. Regional and international allies of both sides are pushing them, or pretending to push them, to continue along the path of negotiation. But encouraging signs do not mean success. This is because this issue is not so much about agreement on the candidate; it is really about the reconciliation of two radically different views on the future of the country.
The 127 MPs were to have met in an electoral college on September 25th to elect a new President of Lebanon. Sixty-eight majority MPs and a handful of opposition MPs turned up, but the Parliamentary Speaker and leader of the Amal movement (Opposition), Nabih Berri, postponed the session until October 23rd to give bi- and multilateral negotiations a chance to find consensus on the candidate to serve as Head of State.
This negotiating project was already at the core of an initiative launched by Mr. Berri at the end of August. He announced the refusal of the Opposition to accede to his urging to form a national unity government prior to the presidential elections. He also asked that the Majority put an end to its program to go it alone and to abandon the notion of electing a president by simple Parliamentary majority in the last 10 days of debate of the electoral period in the event that no consensus is reached on a nominee.
The Majority, the so-called “14 March Coalition”, wants desperately to hang on to this trump card because, in its opinion, Mr. Berri's initiative is as good as a bum check without two guarantees: first, the restoration the power of the State in all domains and the primacy of its decision-making powers, especially with respect to military questions; second, to facilitate the efforts of the special international tribunal in judging the parties believed guilty of the assassination of the late Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri.
The Majority believes that the future of the country is threatened by the “State within a State” constituted by Hezbollah, with its networks of social assistance, schools, telecommunications and, above all, military coordination. In addition to its own militias, Hezbollah has trained the militants of several other opposition parties who wish to have their own militias, as army and police intelligence has been reporting. Some of these militants have been trained in Syria, while others, according to sources within the Majority, have received “more sophisticated training” in Iran.
This is why the Majority is insisting on Resolution 1559, which the United Nations Security Council passed in September 2004 and of which at least two of its provisions have not been implemented. One relates to the disarming of Lebanese (Hezbollah) and non-Lebanese (Palestinian) militias. Supported by its allies, Hezbollah adamantly refuses to disarm. One of its conditions for agreement on a future president is the “burial”, to use the phrase of Nabih Berri, of Resolution 1559.
Another unimplemented provision of Resolution 1559 relates to the election of a president without foreign interference. This was not the case in 2004, when Emile Lahoud was reelected to a three-year term upon the instructions of Syria. The 14 March Coalition insists that Syria continues to interfere politically inside Lebanon through its Lebanese friends and by ordering its hit-men to track down and kill Lebanese MPs (four have been assassinated in a little more than a year) for the purpose of installing a figure whom it would control to the Presidency.
This is why the special tribunal on the Hariri assassination is so important. The Majority insists that the trial will usher in a new age by demonstrating that the responsible party for the assassination of Rafik Hariri and 15 others is none other than Syria or its clandestine services…
The success of this legal proceeding relies on the cooperation of the future Lebanese executive. A future president and administration hostile to the tribunal could hinder its operations in different ways: by adopting an obstructive interpretation of Lebanese law that would limit its powers, by refusing to contribute its share of the costs of the proceeding or by standing in the way of the team of investigators. The Opposition has already been successful in, sometimes quietly, sometimes loudly, preventing the adoption by the Government of the rules governing the proceeding and the associated covenant with the United Nations. The UN then dispensed with going through the Lebanese government and imposed both by itself.
Although unable to dissipate the crisis, which had progressively worsened over the last 10 months, the mutual good will, at least apparent, demonstrated since September 25th by the Majority and the Opposition has preventing things from spiraling out of control. The specter of assassinations continues to stalk 14 March politicians, who have requested Arab and international protection. After having been forced into exile for more than 3 months for security reasons, some politicians returned, then departed again on September 25th. Others never leave their homes except under heavy escort. Still others have moved into a high security hotel in downtown Beirut.
October 23rd is not a deadline for the election of a President. The Lebanese Constitution grants Parliament an extra month. But given the complexity of the issues, the outlook is not encouraging. The repercussions on regional turbulence, especially US-Iranian tensions and US-Israeli-Syrian tensions do not bode well for Lebanon.
Update: The Lebanese Presidential election is postponed until the the end of the 3-month deadline, November 23rd, after meetings between 3 EU foreign ministers (France, Italy and Spain) and Nabih Berri.