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The Mideast

Lebanon's presidency goes unfilled as Christian infighting threatens stability

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When Lebanese President Michel Sleiman stepped down last month, it created a vacuum in Lebanon's government. (AP)

When Lebanese President Michel Sleiman’s term ended on May 25, he left a vacuum that some fear could further erode the influence of Christians in a turbulent region consumed with sectarian infighting.

Sleiman's post has traditionally been held by a Christian, in the delicate sectarian balance of a nation made up of Shiite Muslims supported by Iran, Sunni Muslims backed by Saudi Arabia and Christians, who are left to fend for themselves. Five attempts by parliament to reach a deal to fill the presidency have failed, leaving an impasse that not only exacerbates political and social polarization in the country, but also weakens the Christian community in the Middle East, where Christian presence is rapidly disappearing.

“With Lebanon you can never tell when the combination of internal struggle and external regional struggle will fuse together in a combustible way,” says New York University Middle East expert Mohamad Bazzi. “The more instability and insecurity in Lebanon, the more likely there will be violence in car bombs and potentially worse.”

“The Lebanese Christians are also watching the fate of fellow Christians in Syria, the violence against them from Sunni jihadists.”

- Mohamad Bazzi, NYU middle east expert

David Hale, the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, urged Lebanon to seize the opportunity “to elect a new president without allowing any other country to dictate the results.” The Lebanese people need leadership “made in Lebanon,” he said. “The price of a power is “simply too high. The United States supports this Lebanese process.” 

As part of the Taif Agreement, a national reconciliation accord that ended Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990), Maronite Christians, who had historically held the presidency and appointed the government, maintained the position of head of state but were forced to hand over the leadership of the government to the Sunnis.

The Christian president retains powers such as making recommendations for top military posts and the signing of international treaties, but he needs the prime minister’s cabinet approval. A Shiite always hold the position of speaker of parliament.

This power-sharing arrangement, based on demographics in 1989, forced the Christians, who had historically been in charge of appointing the country’s prime minister, to accept that they had lost their majority to the Muslims after 1 million Lebanese, mostly Christians, emigrated during Lebanon’s civil war.

“The Lebanese Christians are also watching the fate of fellow Christians in Syria, the violence against them from Sunni jihadists,” says Bazzi, explaining why many Christians in Lebanon and Syria have chosen to side with Hezbollah by fighting on the side of the Syrian government of Bashar Assad. “Christian communities like historic Maaloula have been decimated by al-Nusra and other Sunni militants. For the Christians the Assad regime is the best worst option because at least Assad won’t want to eliminate the Christians.” 

Hezbollah and its Christian political allies hold more than one-third of the cabinet seats of the Lebanese government. This consolidation of power potentially gives them the ability to overthrow the government. Lebanon has already lost core components of statehood to Hezbollah, which brazenly follows its own military and foreign policy.

Hezbollah’s political camp has boycotted parliamentary sessions to elect the president, claiming that they want a “consensus candidate” rather than the “provocative candidate” the Sunnis want.

Among a field of potential Christian leaders who seek the presidency are heavy-hitters from rival camps. Samir Geagea heads the Lebanese Forces, one of 12 parties that belong to March 14, an alliance of  Christian militia groups and the Saudi-backed Sunni Future Movement, based on the date of a massive rally that pressured Syria to end its occupation of Syria. Of the candidates, he is the most outspoken critic of Hezbollah, running on a platform of independence from Iranian and Syrian interference.  

Geagea’s main rival is Gen. Michel Aoun, who leads the Free Patriotic Movement that is part of the March 8 alliance (the date of a huge pro-Hezbollah demonstration), an Iran-Syrian-backed coalition of Hezbollah, Amal, another Shiite militia whose leader is Nabih Berri, the current speaker of parliament. March 14 accuses Aoun of being a stooge for Hezbollah.

“Difficulty at filling the post of head of state, which takes a two-thirds majority in parliament, is not new to Lebanon,” says popular Lebanese Christian politician Ziyad Baroud, who served as minister of interior and municipalities for two consecutive governments. Despite sectarian problems facing Lebanon, Baroud believes that moderate Christians, Druze and Sunni and Shiite Muslims can work together to build a democratic country.  

“Christians play a role of moderation in Lebanon,” according to Baroud, who hopes the current presidential vacuum leads to the selection of a leader who will work to unify the nation. “At a time when there are major problems in the region, it is good timing for Lebanon to offer an example of living together in peaceful coexistence. Christians, more than any other community, have historical responsibility to carry this into the future.” 

Lebanon’s presidential crisis of today comes with tremendous internal and external pressures. Over the past year, Lebanese Sunni jihadis and their rivals Hezbollah have been battling each other in Syria, and the violence has spilled over into Lebanon with at least 16 car bombs and a spate of assassinations. Compounding this unrest are the more than 1 million refugees, mostly Sunni, from the civil war in Syria.  

The refugees have increased Lebanon’s population by close to 25 percent, creating social pressures and altering the sectarian balance in the small nation. “Try to imagine the United States or France suddenly ending up with an additional 25 percent of their population to cope with, “ says Baroud. “When you add it to the Palestinian refugees, you can imagine what is the impact on this country.”

Staying out of the Syrian civil war is arguably the most critical challenge for Lebanon. “The proxy war that the Saudis and Iranians are playing in Syria has unleashed forces that they cannot completely control, both in Syria and the broader region,” says Mohamad Bazzi, who points out that the rival Muslim powers are deeply involved in promoting their agendas in Lebanon. “The Saudis and Iranians are crafty and can instigate things, but they cannot always control it. When the genie is out of the bottle, you might not be able to put it back in,” Bazzi warns. “That is the case of Syria and the potential danger for Lebanon.”

It may be weeks, even months, until a president takes office in one of the most challenging political environments on Earth and dangerous, too. There is a long list of assassinated Lebanese political figures -- from mayors to prime ministers to presidents. “I don’t have fear,” says Baroud. “The fact that we are still in Lebanon and feel something can be done is what matters. It is not about rational thinking, it is about feelings.”