Time for Lebanon to elect its President, independently
the lack of a President of Lebanon for over two years now weakens the country and the model of co-existence it represents in the region
It is now a year since I took up my appointment as UK Ambassador (designate) to Lebanon. It’s time to admit that, for all the wonderful experiences of my first year in this beautiful and welcoming country, there has been one big disappointment: Lebanon’s failure to elect a new President.
And this is fundamental, because the lack of a President of Lebanon for over two years now weakens the country and the model of co-existence it represents in the region.
It means Lebanon is increasingly vulnerable to internal or external shocks, is falling behind in economic growth and job creation, and the institutions of the state are being degraded. As I make the diplomatic rounds of party leaders, deputies, ministers and religious figures to discuss the political impasse, one refrain comes back again and again: Lebanon cannot elect a President until foreigners agree.
I am told that this has always been the case, that a detente between regional rivals, a political settlement of the Syrian war, or the green light of one or other outside power is necessary for a President to be elected.
By allowing foreign powers to decide on Lebanese domestic issues the Lebanese are allowing others’ interests to take priority over their own, inside LebanonHugo Shorter
My view is that the Lebanese people should decide that the agreement of foreigners cannot and should not be necessary for a solution to the presidential impasse. Why?
First, because however hard the UK and other responsible players work to resolve them, regional problems may not be settled for years. How much longer can Lebanon wait? Surely every Lebanese leader should be working their utmost to avoid testing Lebanon’s famed resilience to destruction by waiting for solutions to the region’s intractable problems.
Second because, however much outside powers may care about Lebanon, they will put their own national interests first. This is an iron rule of international relations. The UK has shown over and over again that we are committed to Lebanon’s stability, security and prosperity. But in the end, our Parliament will hold our ministers to account over how the British government is advancing the British national interest.
The British are not exceptionally hard-nosed about this – on the contrary, we take a broad, positive view of what is in our national interest. My point is that by allowing foreign powers to decide on Lebanese domestic issues the Lebanese are allowing others’ interests to take priority over their own, inside Lebanon.
Third, because waiting for others’ decisions is a way of absolving oneself of responsibility. But when Lebanese voters elect their deputies and their municipal councils – as was clear from the results of the May Municipal elections – they expect those representatives to represent their, the voters’, interests. Not someone else’s, living hundreds or thousands of miles away. And not the politicians’ own personal interests either.
Finally, the system is patently broken. It’s now 28 months since President Sleiman stepped down. Many Lebanese politicians have been working sincerely to reach agreement on a successor. But it’s time to admit that trying to align diverse and opposed outside interests behind a single candidate has failed. The Lebanese constitution provides a mechanism to resolve this situation: a Parliamentary vote for President.
When I express these views to Lebanese friends, they are too polite to remind me that I’m relatively new to Lebanon. But they tell me that foreign interference in Lebanese politics is just a fact of life, based on money, weapons, and religion. Remarkably, this is not particularly controversial in public debate here: is this fatalism? Or a sense that so long as everyone has their foreign backer then somehow everyone wins? If so, I disagree.
Everyone who cares about the future of the Lebanese model of co-existence, everyone who cares about jobs and economic opportunity in this country, everyone who cares about a strong state to provide security and the rule of law, loses - as the current presidential impasse shows.
The problems of foreign money, weapons and religious influences will take time to resolve. But the Presidency can be fixed, now, by the Lebanese. For more than two years now, it is Lebanese politicians who have decided to await foreign decisions. It is Lebanese members of Parliament who have a duty to vote for a President. It is the Lebanese Constitution that opens with the words: “Lebanon is a sovereign, free and independent country”.
So I say: it’s time for Lebanon to elect its President, independently. Time for Parliament to vote. Time for #IndependenceDay2!
Hugo Shorter is the UK ambassador to Lebanon. He has served as personal adviser to the Foreign Secretary on a wide range of Foreign Policy priorities as Head of External Affairs for Europe Directorate. In that role, he accompanied the Foreign Secretary on a monthly basis to the Foreign Affairs Council of the EU, helping negotiate EU foreign policy decisions in areas such as crisis management, sanctions and military operations. He has also co-ordinated the UK’s foreign policy work on G7/8, including during the UK G8 presidency in 2013 and the G8 Summit at Lough Erne.
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