Lebanon spirals into an ominous presidential void

Thursday’s Parliamentary session in Lebanon will unlikely yield to a presidential vote

Joyce Karam
Joyce Karam
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Thursday’s parliamentary session in Lebanon will unlikely yield to a presidential vote, thus making a vacuum in the highest office a fait accompli as President Michel Suleiman’s term ends on Sunday. The void sees its root cause in the regional divide as well as a deeply polarized status-quo inside Lebanon, and could open the door to security and political upheavals.

There is no doubt that drama has always found its way into Lebanese presidential politics in recent history. Bachir Gemayel, and Renae Mouawad were assassinated shortly after winning the presidency in 1982 and 1989 respectively, while Emile Lahoud’s was loathed towards the end of his term in 2007, and Amine Gemayel and Michel Aoun sought exile after a turbulent time during the civil war. Certainly, this round of presidential elections is not proving to be any different.

As Lebanese parliamentarians meet today, there is very small chance that they will get the numerical quorum needed to hold a vote (86 members), and an even slimmer chance to get a simple majority behind one of the many candidates aspiring to move to Baabda palace. Lebanon, the microcosm of politics in the Middle East, is once again reflecting the regional divide and the inability of its local actors to break the deadlock.

A Saudi-Iranian thaw would certainly help in ending the void by influencing different Lebanese factions

Joyce Karam

It is the “stark polarization between the main political forces in the Lebanon, and to a larger extent the polarized regional situation due to the Syrian conflict” that has led Lebanon to the void, says Joseph Bahout, a professor of Middle East Studies at the Institute of Politics in Paris. Bahout, author of many papers on Lebanon, tells Al Arabiya News that “regional consensus” has historically been a prerequisite in electing the Lebanese president. Such an umbrella is lacking today, with regional divisions on display between Saudi and Iran, ranging from Syria to Iraq to Bahrain and Yemen. This promises a “prolonged void” for Lebanon according to Bahout, that could “last until there is a change in the regional configuration, or a sudden break in the Syrian conflict.”

A Saudi-Iranian thaw would certainly help in ending the void by influencing different Lebanese factions with strong connections to Riyadh (March 14) and Tehran (March 8). But such a prospect of a Saudi-Iranian understanding cannot be expected in the short term, says Bahout, as the nuclear negotiations and specter of a deal with Iran and the West looms over the “regional entanglement.” While Lebanon was able to form a government last February encompassing the March 8 and 14 blocs, that breakthrough coming after 10 month of deadlock was “an easier nut to crack” than the presidency says Bahout and does not rest upon an agreement on one candidate for the next six years.

Security in the balance

The presidential void, notwithstanding the security progress that the new government and the army have cemented, could yet again rock the Lebanese boat, and magnify the Syria spillover. Bahout contends that “such a vacuum is often accompanied by a degradation in security” reminding that he last period of vacuum for nine months in 2007, saw “political assassinations” following the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. This time however, Assad is preoccupied inside Syria says Bahout, and the “Tripoli lull negotiated in parallel to the formation of the Tamam Salam government tends to show that the main forces are keen to avoid a bloody and wider confrontation.”

The security meter in Lebanon could very well turn out to be the bellwether in deciding the next president. In a sense, Bahout explains that “if security degrades and becomes a priority, precedents show that this plays into the hands of the Army commander,” in this case General Jean Kahwaji whose term ends in September. “The military institution ends up filling the interim period in an informal way, alongside the government.”

On the other hand, a prolonged vacuum that does not tip the balance for Kahwaji, can “lead political forces to let go of their maximalist positions and rally around a middle-ground, consensual figure” such as Parliamentarian Robert Ghanem or the head of the Central Bank Riad Salameh or former parliamentarian Jean Obeid. Given the regional dynamics, however, more dramatic scenarios could hold true for Lebanon. A prolonged vacuum could shake the post-Taif agreement system, prompting a debate on overhauling the pact reached in 1989 and pressuring to “modify provisions of the constitution or of the pact” according to Bahout.

Regardless how this void might play out, Lebanon’s failure to vote for a new president on time is an ominous sign for the country. Coming on the heels of unprecedented turbulence next door and a splintered Middle East, one can only hope that the actors inside Beirut will take their share of responsibility and avoid a turn for the worse.


Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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