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Bahout: "Chances of a compromise are slim"

Text by Clea CAULCUTT

Latest update : 2008-12-01

Joseph Bahout, expert on Middle East politics, explains why chances of reaching a compromise over a possible candidate are slim.

Lebanese lawmakers must elect their president before November 24. Today, many believe the elections will be postponed. Why?
The mandate of the present president, Emile Lahoud, expires on November 24. It seems more and more unlikely that elections will take place given that lawmakers have not agreed on the candidate who will be elected. Tradition in Lebanon says that the different parties and communities must choose the candidate who will then be elected. The new president is therefore clearly chosen in advance. The election session is therefore, no irony intended, a performance that consecrates communitarian distribution of the regime’s top political posts.
The anti-Syrian coalition and the pro-Syrian coalition do not seem able to agree on a consensual candidate. Why?
The present crisis hinges on article 49 of the Constitution which describes the election of the president. This article states that a two-thirds majority of the votes is needed to elect the president during the first round of the election. If a two-thirds majority is not obtained during the first round of the election, a simple majority is needed during the second round.
The pro-Syria opposition therefore says the majority needs their backing to elect a candidate during the first round and says they are for negotiations over a neutral candidate. In the best of cases, this consensual candidate will not belong to the 14 March coalition (anti-Syria) nor to the 8 March camp (pro-Syria) – and will offer concessions and guarantees to the opposition, the Hezbollah and Syria.
Will the majority, which led the “Cedar revolution” against the presence of Syrian troops in Lebanon, accept such a bargain?
The majority refuses any type of consensus which would, in their eyes, lead to the election of a weak politician who would torpedo the “Cedar Revolution”, the independence movement which kicked off three years ago. The anti-Syria coalition maintains that its reading of article 49 allows them to elect one of its own candidates - without the support of the minority - with a simple majority during the first round. But history tells us that lawmakers have always settled for a two-thirds majority to elect a president, even at the height of the civil war.
What are the different possible scenarios today?
First scenario, there is no consensus on November 24, and the anti-Syria majority elects its own candidate without the support of the opposition. In my opinion, this scenario is fatal. We would sliding down a very slippery slope which could be disastrous for the country. The opposition would not recognize the new president and would elect their own, most probably the Christian General Michel Aoun, choosing civil disobedience to express its dissatisfaction. The country would once more be torn apart like in 1988 – 1989 and could spiral into a civil war that would be difficult to quell given the present tensions in Iraq and in the Palestinian territories.  
Second scenario, both camps agree to elect an anti-Syria candidate. Chances of this happening are slim.
Third scenario, a miracle occurs; the two sides agree to elect a consensual, neutral candidate, who is helpless, paralyzed by the deal struck between the pro- and anti-Syria coalitions. This president would create a national union government and the Lebanese political crisis would not be resolved but would be contained thanks to a minimum of consensus.
Last scenario, the two parties don’t reach a consensus on November 24 and anti-Syria lawmakers do not cast their ballots either because many of them defect or because they do not want to push the country over the edge. We enter an unclear and volatile phase for which the constitution has no answer, during which the present government temporarily runs the country – a situation which is deemed illegitimate by the opposition. President Emile Lahoud creates a second government before stepping down.
The country would be divided but the crisis could be resolved thanks to intervention of the international community.
How likely is a compromise before the deadline in November? 

The chances of reaching a compromise are slim. It would be possible if Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, the US agree to break a deal on Lebanon and dissociate it from their greater conflicts in the region. But this does not seem to be the case, the US is hardening its stance on Iran and Syria, and the Europeans are toughening their position on Syria, and Syria and Saudi Arabia have broken diplomatic relations.

Date created : 2007-10-17