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Heading towards an institutional void

Latest update : 2008-02-14

The Lebanese are holding their breath. The country is anticipating with dread the crucial date of November 21 - the date of the upcoming elections.

Emile Lahoud’s presidential term expires on November 24 and many wonder, with some apprehension, about the Lebanese government beyond that date.
 
A majority of Lebanese people fear a political and institutional void if political leaders do not agree on a common consensual candidate. This situation would be all too familiar and could lead to a collapse. It may, once again, push the country into an institutional crisis, about which the Lebanese know so much about.
 
In Beirut, pessimism battles with uncertainty. Memories of the past can occasionally unite political leaders, journalists, militants and simple citizens. They all remember the unfortunate experience of 1988, when Lebanon was torn in two and led by the separate governments of Salim El-Hos and General Michel Aoun.
 
Will Lebanon be exposed once again to the collateral damage of an institutional void?  Naoum Sarkis, renowned expert on Lebanese history and political analyst at Al-Nahar daily, a newspaper close to Fuad Siniora’s anti-Syrian March 14 movement, does not veil his fears. A common candidate must be decided upon before November; otherwise Lebanon will be heading towards institutional chaos.  “Lebanon might be facing a new two-government situation or worse, it could be reduced to a two-headed presidency.”
 
Lebanon, which has often had difficulties with the electoral process and institutional management, is confronted with the results of its frequent political quarrels. The current crisis, which became apparent in September 2004 when Lahoud’s mandate was stretched out under Syrian pressure, is the latest episode in this endless rhapsody. The assassination of former PM Rafik Hariri in February 2005 drowned the country even further in its demons of violence and political assassinations.
 
The political crisis went one step further when Shia ministers decided to leave the cabinet and strikes and demonstrations paralysed the country. Furthermore, the Israeli offensive in the summer of 2006 and the bloody episode of Nahr El Bared worsened the situation. Pro and anti-Syrians battle endlessly and tear political leadership apart. On top of this, majority and opposition have a different understanding of the electoral process.
 
In the current situation, election prospects do not appear in the most favourable light. This view is strongly expressed in articles by Nicolas Nassif, of the Al-Akhbar newspaper, which is ideologically close to the pro-Syrian minority movement close to Hezbollah. The journalist does not believe that the election will go forward without a preliminary agreement on Lahoud’s possible successor.
 
Unique in its complex confessional identity and neighboured by two interventionist countries, Israel and Syria, Lebanon is used to foreign intervention in its own presidential elections. Both journalists, Naoum Sarkis and Nicolas Nassif agree on that analysis. No less than five different foreign actors are trying to influence Lebanon’s unsettled race to the Baabda presidential Palace. These countries try, for various reasons, to weigh-in on the presidential race.  “These countries have conflicting ideas of what should be done regarding the crisis in Lebanon,” speculates Nicolas Nassif. “When Lebanese parties fail to agree on their new president, options come from abroad.”
 
Other than the United States, France and Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are tempted to gain some profit from the situation. Lebanon’s history is packed with examples of foreign intervention in its political life: At his political peak, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser had a say, in collusion with Washington, in the designation of General Fuad Chehab as president (1958 – 64). Elias Sarkis (1976 – 82) inherited the presidential seat through an agreement sealed by Damascus and Washington. Bechir Gemayel moved through the same path in 1982 with American and Israeli endorsements, before his journey was cut short a few weeks later, when he was assassinated. His brother Amine Gemayel followed, reaching the top under similar circumstances according to pro-Hezbollah daily journalist Nicolas Nassif. Saudi Arabia intervened with Washington in the election of René Moawad a few weeks before his assassination in the explosion of a car-bomb. Damascus used its own influence for the election of Elias Hrawi (1989 – 98) and later of Emile Lahoud.
 
As the election approaches, the Lebanese are left guessing. Everyone approaches the situation according to his own views and personal situation. Naoum Sarkis believes that even a compromise over the identity of the new president would not necessarily mean that Lebanon is out of the crisis. However, if the Lebanese parties do achieve such a deal, a grand opportunity would arise to focus the country’s major priorities, among them basic reconstruction and economic development.
 
Although he believes in the drawbacks of violence, the same journalist predicts new political assassinations. In order to put an end to insecurity, Lebanon depends entirely on a genuine settlement of the conflict between the pro-Syrian and Iranian forces and the forces under American influence.
 
In the current exacerbated conflict, it seems as though resolving the crisis is an impossible mission. The only shred of hope lies in the Lebanese parties themselves. Every group involved would have to accept certain concessions and mutual efforts.
 
“Whether discussing an agreement on the identity of the new president, Hezbollah’s military dimension, or the Hariri case, conflicting points of view are numerous and the latitude of action is narrow,” concludes Nassif.

Date created : 2007-11-14

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