by Tahir Mustafa (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 45, No. 10, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1438)
Lebanon finally has a president in 29 months. Saad Hariri, a former prime minister, had to submit to ground realities by accepting the choice of Hizbullah, his political rivals, for president.
In terms of population (4.4 million) in the Muslim East (aka Middle East), Lebanon is admittedly a small country. Yet it packs a mighty punch. How come, one might ask? The straight answer in one word is: Hizbullah. The country has gained fame and pride only and only because of the sacrifices of Hizbullah, which courageously took on the Zionist invaders and drove them out of most of Lebanon in May 2000. True, Hizbullah has paid a huge price in life, limb, and infrastructure but it has demonstrated that with courageous leadership and a dedicated cadre, it can surmount huge odds.
If Hizbullah has held sway against a ruthless external enemy, internally it still continues to suffer the ravages bequeathed by the colonialist masters. The resistance movement has not actively sought to destabilize this unsatisfactory arrangement even though the ground realities demand it. Instead, it has tried to work within the existing system because of the broader external threat and challenge that the Lebanese army or government are unable to address.
The fractured internal situation has allowed external players, notably the US, France, Israel, and Saudi Arabia to fish in Lebanon’s troubled waters. This was evident in the manner in which the election of the president was delayed for more than two years because Lebanese political factions backed by the Saudi regime sabotaged the appointment of Michel Aoun to the post of president.
This impasse was broken when the external situation, in particular that of Saudi Arabia, changed and led to the realization among its agents in Lebanon that continued obstruction of the political process would prove costly for them. This is what happened on October 31 when the political faction led by Sa‘d Hariri withdrew its opposition to Aoun’s candidacy as president. The former army chief, a Maronite Christian, secured the presidency by winning the support of 83 MPs, well above the absolute majority of 65 needed to win.
Another contributory factor in Hariri’s change of position was the financial misfortunes that have befallen his Saudi-based construction firm, Saudi Oger. While serving as Lebanon’s prime minister from 2009 to 2011, Hariri also held Saudi citizenship as did his father, Rafik Hariri, who was killed in a bomb explosion in February 2004. Over the last two years, the Bani-Saud-ruled kingdom has run into huge financial problems as a result of plunging oil prices. Tens of thousands of poor workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, etc. have been laid off. Many have not been paid for nearly a year bringing these poor workers to the verge of starvation.
Hariri’s company did not escape this downturn either. His financial fortunes are closely tied to those of Bani Saud. Realizing that the Saudis are losing whatever little financial or political clout they had globally, Hariri decided to cut his losses and strike a deal internally. He has the largest bloc of “Sunni” MPs in the 128-member Lebanese parliament. A candidate for president must secure the support of a majority of MPs to be elected.
In the tortuous political system imposed by the departing French colonialists, the aim was to divide the distribution of power among various confessional groups. The 128 parliamentary seats are thus divided equally between Muslims (Sunni and Shi‘i) and Christians (Maronite and Catholic). The post of president is reserved for a Maronite Christian; the prime minister must be a Sunni, and the parliamentary speaker a Shi‘i.
Aoun currently heads the Christian Maronite Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). He had the backing of the Hizbullah-backed bloc, the March 8 Movement, but since the Hariri-led faction refused to support it, Aoun could not achieve the requisite number of MPs to have a quorum (86 members) in parliament and thus no vote could be held to elect the president.
In the shifting sands of Lebanese politics, there are constantly changing alliances. The only constant has been Hizbullah’s principled position in politics and its courageous stand against Zionist aggression and occupation. Aoun has not always played it straight. For instance, soon after the 1989 Taif Accord that ended Lebanon’s 15-year-long civil war, he made a failed attempt to expel Syrian troops from Lebanon. He was forced into exile and spent 15 years in Paris, Lebanon’s colonial mother. The senior Hariri’s assassination and internal realignments in Lebanese politics as well as international pressure led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country. Aoun returned to Lebanon and in 2006, struck a deal with Hizbullah. He also changed his position on Syria.
The impasse over the election of president since May 2014 when the last president Michel Suleiman stepped down at the end of his term was the result of both internal and external factors. Internally, the Hariri faction was in a power struggle with the Hizbullah-led bloc. Externally, Syria was engulfed in a foreign-instigated war. Hizbullah decided to support the government of President Bashar al-Asad when the movement’s Secretary General Shaykh Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah announced that Hizbullah was waging the war for Lebanon’s independence in Syria. His words proved prescient.
Hariri and his external backers thought Hizbullah had committed a huge blunder. It would suffer militarily and this in turn would diminish its political clout in Lebanon. Far from suffering militarily and despite offering huge sacrifices, Hizbullah has gained immense military experience. The Zionist regime that was given a bloody nose in the Summer of 2006, also understood the significance of Hizbullah’s military experience. This in turn has strengthened its political position in Lebanon.
It was these factors and the decline in Saudi fortunes that forced Hariri to come to his senses. There is another factor as well: Hariri is positioning himself to become the prime minister again. By throwing his lot with Aoun, he hopes to get the nod from the president. The Lebanese constitution requires the president to nominate that person as prime minister who enjoys the support of the largest number of MPs. Hariri hopes that person will be him.
The former prime minister also hopes to cash in on this deal in next year’s parliamentary elections. Whether this will materialize is difficult to predict but what can be said with certainty is that Hizbullah’s strengthened position as a result of its support for al-Asad’s government in Syria and decline in Saudi fortunes has forced Hariri to bend his sails to the prevailing wind. This is typical of politicians with no fixed commitment; their greatest ambition in life is to be in power.
While Aoun’s presidency is a welcome development since it ends years of uncertainty in Lebanese politics, what needs to be addressed in the long-term is the abolition of the confessional system of representation. There are several problems with it starting with its divisive nature as the two-and-a-half year impasse has shown. Further, the present setup works to the detriment of the vast majority of Lebanese people who happen to be Muslims. At present, they are divided along sectarian lines. Such divisions are irrelevant and elections should be held on the basis of adult franchise so that people can choose their representatives freely, whether they are Muslims or Christians. True, those who will lose in this rearrangement will protest but they cannot be allowed to hold the entire country hostage merely because their colonial-granted privileges will be curtailed.