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Quick Thoughts: Maya Mikdashi on the Current Situation in Lebanon

[The Corniche of Beirut. Image by Roba Al-Assi] [The Corniche of Beirut. Image by Roba Al-Assi]

[Amidst growing political polarization in Lebanon the term of President Michel Suleiman expired on 24 May with no successor in sight. Jadaliyya asked Co-Editor Maya Mikdashi to comment on the reasons for the vacuum, its ramifications and broader context]:

Jadaliyya (J): Why has a new Lebanese president not yet been selected? 

Maya Mikdashi (MM): I think everybody believed that Michel Suleiman, the outgoing president, would accept an extra-constitutional extension of his term, as has each of his predecessors since the 1989 Ta’if Agreement that ended the Lebanese Civil War. That somehow a deal between rival Lebanese factions would be reached to this effect. 

The problem is that a credible consensus candidate has yet to emerge. Thus far the two most prominent contenders are Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and Michel Aoun of the Free Patriotic Movement, yet neither is able to gather sufficient support across the political divide separating the 8 March and 14 March coalitions. Extreme polarization between these rival groupings has defined Lebanese politics since 2005, and Aoun and Geagea are considered leaders of their respective camps. It also does not help that both these men are notorious for their involvement in Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war. 

Historically, the commander of the armed forces is always considered a front-runner for the presidency since both posts are reserved for Maronite Christians pursuant to the system of political sectarianism. It is however not yet clear if current commander Jean Kahwaji will emerge as a compromise candidate and we will have to see how his prospects develop.

Political will is lacking in Lebanon, and this extends well beyond the current presidential vacuum. Last year, for example, parliamentary elections were postponed for the first time in Lebanese history (with the exception of the civil war). Instead of setting a date, parliament voted to extend its own term until conditions were favorable for an election—and it is parliament that elects the president. In fact parliament is the only national institution that is directly elected by citizens. Today, Lebanon has no legitimate parliament, no president, a speaker of parliament who has occupied his post for almost twenty-five years, and a completely ineffectual prime minister (who is additionally acting president).

A final reason why presidential elections have not been held is that the country is in real crisis. There are currently about two million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, many of who live in squalid and dangerous conditions. There are also several hundred thousand Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon. Keep in mind that less than four million Lebanese permanently reside in the country, with over thirty percent of them below the poverty line.  There are additionally violent clashes every week in the north between mirrored sides of the war in Syria; Lebanese are involved on all sides of the war in Syria, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) recently declared its intention to fight Hezbollah in its home turf (Lebanon). These are only the immediate challenges to the formation of a legitimate and stable government. More salient challenges, such as resolving the question of Hezbollah’s role, remain and are intensified by these crises.

J: Does it actually matter if the stalemate continues?

MM: The amazing thing about the present situation is that despite the absence of a legitimate government, the state and its institutions continue to function. This is different than saying that politics continues to function, which also does. For example, important labor union strikes are taking place. In fact two of the most interesting current political developments are the ongoing debates and political actions around inflation, wages, and economic polarization, and a reinvigorated campaign around violence against women and gender discrimination.

This past week the state and its entire security apparatus were on public display, and the country is basically on security lockdown following reports that ISIS elements are planning widespread attacks in Lebanon. As long as internal security, a refugee crisis of huge proportions, and economic development and prosperity are the priorities in Lebanon, the election or non-election of a president (or for that matter parliament) is mainly cosmetic in that it will project “stability."

One reason the presidential elections are important is that it is the highest political office reserved for Lebanese Christians, and thus its vacancy plays on fears of Christian political decline in Lebanon. So even if the president’s executive powers were greatly circumscribed by the 1989 Ta’if Accord and largely redistributed between the prime minister and speaker of parliament, the post is important to the ideological structure of Lebanon as a multi-confessional and secular state.

Beyond these factors, I don’t think the election of a new president will impact the current situation in Lebanon much either way—which is in many ways a state of constant crisis. The priorities of the Lebanese state and frankly of the majority of its residents are safety, stability, and the ability to feed their loved ones and ensure their health. People are living with the fear that any day a car bomb may go off or armed clashes erupt. In such times, and in a state with limited resources, the priority is security. Elections? Not so much.

That said, I am a strong advocate for parliamentary elections, particularly because it is citizens who elect the parliament and parliament elects the president. The results of parliamentary elections also determine who the prime minister is.  Calling for presidential elections without first ensuring a legitimate parliament only further disenfranchises citizens and further depoliticizes the fact that the current parliament is illegitimate according to Lebanese law. Instead of fixating on presidential elections, a term that is anyways misleading, I think we should realize that the only way for citizens to have any say in the political direction of the country is to hold immediate parliamentary elections.

J: What are your expectations?

MM: My expectations are not exactly positive—I don’t think that Lebanon can be stable as long as Syria (and now Iraq) is experiencing civil war. While events in Syria have a much more direct impact on Lebanon, those in Iraq are now tied to the war in Syria and thus to Lebanon as well. Remember that Lebanon only has two land borders, one with Syria and another with Israel—a state that has invaded and occupied Lebanon three times in its short history. The border is with Syria is much longer, porous and nearly impossible to control.

There is a popular view that all that is happening in Lebanon today can be explained through the metaphor of “spillover” from Syria and now Iraq.  Perhaps it is comforting to relive the popular but false fantasy of “other people’s wars on Lebanese lands.” Yet Lebanon was broken politically and economically, and polarized socially—toxically so—before 2011. Sunni-Shi'i sectarianism and violence has been on the rise in the region since the 2003 US invasion and occupation of Iraq, both by design and on account of the occupation forces’ incompetence. Lebanon has been in crisis, and dancing on the edge of civil war, since the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri and the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war.

The Lebanese state has actually managed to function quite well despite what is happening in Syria, Iraq, and across the Middle East. Lebanon’s relative stability, and the continued functioning of the state, can in part be attributed to an investment in the status quo by elites as well as powerful regional actors, and in part to the relative autonomy of particular state institutions and bureaucracies—regardless of how “well” they function. While events could still spiral out of control, the political and economic threshold for state failure and all-out war is much higher than most people would think.

Two important factors contribute to these realities. The first is that Lebanese are truly war weary, and the horrifying spectacle of Syria has reminded many of the costs of civil war. Remember that those who are of fighting age have parents who grew up fleeing (or fighting) a different civil war and paying its price.

The second is that the balance of power within Lebanon is heavily tipped to one side; that of Hezbollah and the country’s military, who hold similar positions on Syria and are working closely together to maintain internal security. There is no armed Lebanese group or faction that would stand a chance against this alliance, which is precisely why we see an increase in tactics like suicide bombings and car bombs. With the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and its increased interest in Lebanon and Hezbollah, this might change. But ISIS has limited support within Lebanon and the majority of this support is rhetorical and sectarian in nature, rather than consisting of actual military capacity.

Barring dramatic developments (such as ISIS or its affiliates entering into urban warfare against Hezbollah in Lebanon) I think we are going to be in for a long period of political, economic, and military/security instability. A low-intensity conflict and terror campaign that will last as long as the war in Syria does, and perhaps for a period of time after that. Just this past week there have been two suicide bombings. I suspect we will see an increase in the frequency and barbarity of such attacks.

The question therefore becomes how long political leaders can continue to impose their collective will, which is against open conflict between the rival camps, over the general population.  In large part, this will come down to how well the state-Hezbollah integrated security apparatus continues to function.

If you prefer, email your comments to info@jadaliyya.com.

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