Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rahi is tireless and unwavering in his calls for the election of a “strong” Lebanese president, who under Lebanon’s constitution must be a Maronite.
The term “strong president” has many different possible connotations. The most prominent is that the president should enjoy widespread popularity within his own sect. However, the Lebanese know that traditionally, the Maronite leadership is not held by one person alone. Even the charismatic Camille Chamoun, a former president whose influence lasted from the 1950s to the 1970s, was unable to cancel out the heritage of the Eddé clan or the power of the Lebanese Phalange (Kataeb) Party in the street - not to mention others such as the Frangieh clan in northern Lebanon and Jean Aziz in Jezzine, in the south.
Even more, Bachir Gemayel achieved his near-absolute leadership during the Lebanese Civil War by eliminating the competition through bloody confrontations. Afterwards, Gemayel’s organization, the Lebanese Forces, experienced a period of exhausting leadership disputes and confrontations, prompting it to accept the Taif Agreement. Michel Aoun - the army commander at the time - put himself forward as the “sole leader and savior” of Lebanon’s Christians, outgunning even the Lebanese Forces - then the foremost Christian militia - in his Christian and Maronite rhetoric. He then tried to subjugate them militarily and reject what he considered to be their “concessions” in the Taif Agreement.
A ‘strong’ president
Today, the patriarch recognizes four Maronite leaders whom he consistently invites to decisive discussions - especially discussions about the presidency - to the exclusion of others. These leaders are Michel Aoun, Samir Geagea, former president and current leader of the Phalange (Kata’eb) Party Amine Gemayel, and former minister Suleiman Frangieh Jr, the grandson of former President Suleiman Frangieh Sr. Therefore, the logical conclusion is that a “strong” president would be one of these men.
The real solution for Lebanon lies in the election of a wise and fair-minded president who is equidistant from all the local players and who can truly just ‘manage’ the deep-seated crisisEyad Abu Shakra
But the word “strong” could also be related to the size of representation in parliament. Frangieh does not enjoy any significant influence across Lebanon as a whole, despite his strong local power base. Some may even say that a President Gemayel must also be out of the equation, in the light of the fact that he lost a by-election in the Christian Northern Metn area in 2007 to a relatively unknown pro-Aoun candidate after the Armenian vote turned against him. This leaves two candidates in the ring: Aoun, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, and Geagea, the current leader of the Lebanese Forces.
Aoun’s people claim Geagea’s strong presence is due to the support of Sunni Muslims, to which the Lebanese Forces reply that Aoun is indebted to Shi’ite and Armenian voters for most of his bloc’s parliamentary seats.
Neither accusation is far from the truth, especially with regards to Aoun’s bloc, which would not have won a parliamentary representation in either North or South Metn, in Baalbak-Hermel, or in other areas of Lebanon were it not for the support of Hezbollah, the Amal Movement and the “Dashnak” Armenian Party that supports Iran, and inevitably fears any Turkish (Sunni) regional influence.
This reality in itself reveals the fragility of the “strength” claimed of any Maronite president who hopes to be elected before the deadline bet under the constitution expires on May 25.
Practically an occupied land
However, if we must be explicit, let us recognize that Lebanon is currently being de facto ruled by an Iranian security and military power represented by Hezbollah, and now - more than any other time since its independence in 1943 - it is practically an occupied land. Lebanon today, together with Syria and Iraq, forms an area of Iranian influence, with tacit Israeli and public U.S. acceptance. In a country under occupation, a “strong” president cannot exist, because the real “strong” party is the occupier.
On the other hand, and after accepting this fact - that there is no one who could be described as a “strong” president - the qualities of the next president remain subject to a host of considerations. First is the regional powers’ perspective on the Lebanese arena.
Second is whether there is consensus among the regional powers on the complicated and fragile Lebanese arena far from the region’s crises.
Third is the effect of the American–Iranian “understanding” on the Lebanese arena, especially given that Hezbollah has already announced that it has a candidate, in the same way that the president of the Syrian regime has called for a “resistance president” in Lebanon.
Fourth are the stances of the other regional players, particularly if Washington and Israel’s interests are in line with Iran’s interests in Lebanon.
The regional balance of power, it seems, is in Tehran’s favor, in the absence of any obvious objections from Washington and Tel Aviv under the pretext of eliminating extremism, Al-Qaeda and terrorism. This is what tips the balance in favor of the March 8 Alliance, which is strongly linked to the Iranian axis.
Then, with active and continuing Hezbollah participation in the fighting inside Syria, it becomes clear that it is now a waste of time to try to keep the Lebanese arena away from the crises of a region, which is now under the serious threat of a new Sykes-Picot Agreement.
Here, we come to Washington’s position.
In 1982, Washington did not object to the ascendency of a hardline partisan - namely, Bachir Gemayel - to the presidency while the country was still under Israeli occupation. This ultimately proved catastrophic for the president-elect and Lebanon within just a few months. Later, near the end of 2006 when Iraq was also under occupation, Washington did not hesitate to hand in a deposed president to be executed following a trial which is still seen by many as an act of sectarian retribution.
The two examples above indicate that the American position does not hold undue concern for civil peace or national unity. Some observers today even suspect that Washington is exerting both direct and indirect pressure on Lebanon’ Sunnis to accept the “Iranian axis” candidate after he is re-packaged as a consensus candidate. Indeed, this is the explanation many give to the sudden and unusual meetings between the Future Movement and Aoun’s bloc.
In my humble opinion, polishing the image of Aoun - or whoever represents him - will not solve the problem. What it will do is push the Sunni street into feeling more alienated and more indignant, and quickly create an environment of persecution that could easily become an incubator for extremism.
The real solution for Lebanon lies in the election of a wise and fair-minded president who is equidistant from all the local players and who can truly just “manage” the deep-seated crisis.
The four aforementioned main players, unfortunately, are not qualified to manage any crisis. General Jean Kahwaji, the army commander, is according to many no longer seen as an impartial candidate, either. This means that Lebanon’s presidency must go to independent personalities who are known for their skill, such as central bank governor Riyad Salameh, whose nomination deserves the ratification of a procedural amendment to the constitution related to his current post.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on April 10, 2014
Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances.