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Pity the Nation? Lebanon’s Presidential Impasse

There is a passage in the History of Florence where, after the city’s umpteenth descent into factional strife, a number of citizens “out of love for their country” present themselves before the Signori. One among them, Machiavelli tells us, begins lamenting the particular faults to which his city is prone, and seeks to identify the cause. According to this citizen, Florence’s problem is that its laws were made not “for the benefit of men in a state of freedom”, but rather “according to the wish of the faction that has been uppermost at the time.”

“Hence it follows,” the citizen continues, “that when one party is expelled, or faction extinguished, another immediately arises; for, in a city that is governed by parties rather than by laws, as soon as one becomes dominant and unopposed, it must of necessity soon divide against itself[…]” (Bk. III Ch.1)

I often think of Machiavelli, and this passage in particular, when trying to make sense of Lebanese politics. Lebanon, for the uninitiated, is a very small country in the eastern Mediterranean, measuring around 10,000 square kilometres and with a population of 4.5m. It is – to extend the Florentine comparison – roughly half the size of Tuscany, and with around the same population. In contrast to Tuscany though, it has 18 officially recognised religious sects, and, since May 25 2014, no president.

Political vacuums are not unusual in small, deeply divided countries (just ask the Belgians), yet Lebanese politics is especially Byzantine in its complexity. The country has a unicameral parliament comprising 128 seats. These seats are allocated on a confessional basis through a system of multi-seat constituencies. While voters of any sect may vote for each seat in their constituency, only candidates from a particular sect are eligible to stand for each seat.

This produces some interesting results. The current parliament (whose term expired in 2013, but which evidently feels it still has more to give) is comprised of around 20 different parties, alongside a dozen or so independent members. Yes, you have read that correctly, 20 parties. These parties are clustered (or perhaps “clumped” is the more apposite word) into two, or perhaps three, or even four (depending on how you count) blocs.

The two major blocs are March 8 and March 14, so called after the respective days on which their supporters gathered in Martyrs’ Square following the assassination of former PM Rafiq Hariri in 2005. The former is typically described as pro-Syrian regime, and is dominated by the Shi’a parties of Hizbullah and Amal. The latter – in keeping with Machiavelli’s observation that factions only remain united when their enemies keep them in check – is against the Syrian regime, and is dominated by the Sunni-backed Future Movement (led by Hariri’s son, Saad) and the revanchist Maronite parties of the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb.

Following the Machiavellian train of thought, of particular interest in the Lebanese context are the smaller blocs, which act as kingmakers for the larger ones. The first of these is the Change and Reform bloc, which is actually the same size as the March 8 bloc (with 29 MPs), and which in some respects is indistinguishable from it, but which has the important distinction of being dominated by the Free Patriotic Movement, led by Michel Aoun.

Aoun is something of a loose cannon within the Maronite community. He holds the dubious honour of being the only Christian to serve as prime minister in the Lebanese Republic (a position he assumed in the dog days of the civil war), and his somewhat capricious decision to declare a war of liberation against Syria in 1989 (by which point he was acting President and head of what remained of Lebanon’s armed forces) eventually led to his complete defeat and flight into exile in a French helicopter. Since his return in 2005 (following the assassination of Hariri), Aoun has essentially split the Christian vote in two, by (ironically) allying himself with the pro-Syrian March 8.

It is this intra-Christian split which has, ostensibly, left Baabda Palace empty since former President Michel Sleiman vacated it in May 2014 when his tenure expired. According to Lebanon’s National Pact of 1943 (not in fact a legally-binding document, or even really a document), the role of the “three presidents” is divided among the three largest sects: the President of the Republic is always a Maronite Christian, the President of the Council (or prime minister) is always a Sunni Muslim, and the President of Parliament (or speaker) is always a Shi’a Muslim.

The President of the Republic is elected by Parliament. In theory, given that the March 8-backed government has a working majority, it should have been possible for the March 8-backed candidate, Michel Aoun, to secure the presidency. The only reason, however, that the March 8-backed government has a working majority is because of a fourth bloc. Enter the Druze.

With Lebanon’s Christian community split roughly down the middle, and the Sunni and Shi’a Muslims lined up roughly against each other, Lebanon’s current balance of power is held by the Druze – or, rather, by Walid Jumblatt and his Progressive Socialist Party (which, as Voltaire might observe, is neither progressive, nor socialist, nor indeed a party). The Druze, who represent less than 6 percent of Lebanon’s population, are classed as Muslim, though in political terms they stand entirely apart from any other sect.

Jumblatt, whose family has vied for leadership of the Druze for centuries, is currently the most significant political force in the Druze community. He is also the son of Kamal Jumblatt, who was assassinated in 1977, with suspicion falling on the Syrian regime. This makes his decision to switch from March 14 to March 8 in 2011 (which led to the collapse of Saad Hariri’s government) as confusing to outside observers as that of Aoun before him.

Although he sits with the government, Jumblatt has not (thus far) backed the March 8 candidate for president. Equally, the initial March 14 candidate, Samir Geagea, was doomed from the start in his quest to obtain the sufficient number of votes. What is interesting about the ongoing farce however is the way in which Lebanon’s political factions continuously obey the same principle outlined by Machiavelli’s citizen: as soon as one faction becomes dominant and unopposed, it must of necessity soon divide against itself.

For instance, in its eagerness to avoid Aoun becoming president, the Hariri-backed Future Movement eventually dumped its own candidate, Geagea, and pushed forward a compromise candidate from within the Change and Reform bloc – the Marada MP Sleiman Frangieh.

This was an interesting decision on the part of Future, as Sleiman Frangieh is the son of Tony Frangieh, and grandson of former president Suleiman Frangieh. Tony Frangieh was assassinated during the Lebanese Civil War in a notorious episode of intra-Christian violence known as the Ehden Massacre. Samir Geagea, then a fighter with the Lebanese Front, led the attack against the Frangieh mansion which resulted in the death of Tony Frangieh, his wife, and their 3-year old daughter Jihane (though Geagea has always maintained he was injured and lost consciousness early on in the assault).

Future’s bold gambit initially seemed to have broken the presidential deadlock, by producing a candidate that both the Sunni-backed Future and Shi’a-backed Hizbullah (plus their fellow Shi’a party Amal) could agree on. In keeping with Machiavelli’s iron law however, this sudden reshuffling of chairs merely provoked another previously unlikely outcome: a détente between Aoun and Geagea (who also, it goes without saying, have deep civil war-era enmity). In order to block Frangieh, and by extension the implicit crowning of a Maronite president by the Muslim community over the heads of the Christian parties, Hariri’s gamble has seemingly done the unthinkable: uniting the two big beasts of Christian politics behind a single Maronite candidate, Michel Aoun.

Naturally, this has left Hizbullah with its own reshuffling to do, as its own supposed candidate – Aoun – would theoretically now have sufficient votes to win the nomination. Indeed, in the past few days Frangieh has even announced he would be prepared to step aside for Aoun if the Christian community unites around him. However, Nabih Berri – the leader of Amal and speaker of the house – has already indicated that he does not favour Aoun for president, which suggests that Hizbullah (of whom Amal is effectively little more than a proxy) are also lukewarm on the General once more entering Baabda, and had been backing Aoun (rather like Future backed Geagea) only on the condition that he would not, in fact, become president.

Whether or not Lebanon’s epic presidential saga is soon resolved, the truth is that neither Aoun, nor Geagea, nor even Frangieh can give Lebanon what it really needs. Because Lebanon doesn’t need a new president: it needs a new system. Political sectarianism has served only to create a fragmented polity riven by factionalism, where the laws – such as they are – benefit those who write them, and where the best that can be hoped for is a temporary stalemate, in which each side cancels the other out. Lebanon’s tragedy, however, isn’t that the Lebanese themselves don’t see this – quite the contrary, it’s obvious to everyone. The real tragedy is that, like in medieval Florence, no-one quite knows what to do about it.

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