Beirut struggles to find a leader

30 November 2007

Lebanon is without a president after Emile Lahoud’s extended nine-year term in office came to an end on 24 November. The country has been here before. From 1988 to 1990, at the tail-end of the 15-year civil war, Lebanon suffered the indignity of parallel administrations, neither of which enjoyed authority or legitimacy.

The danger now is that Beirut is set for a repeat of that period, wrecking the gains made during 17 years of relative peace.

Although calm prevails for the moment, and the nightmare scenario of parallel governments looks remote, the question of who will replace Lahoud still has the potential to propel Lebanon into a new period of conflict.

The situation is highly fluid as the parliamentary majority of the anti-Syrian March 14 bloc attempts to find consensus with the broadly pro-Syrian opposition on a replacement for Lahoud. MPs have agreed to reconvene on 30 November to debate the tricky issue of the presidency. But no one is under any illusion that the majority and opposition blocs are close to agreeing to a candidate, or a common platform.

While the leading politicians from both camps seek to find a way out of the deadlock, external factors are coming into play. Both sides are anxiously awaiting the outcome of the Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland, on 27 November, which is only tangentially looking at the Lebanese issue.

Syria’s belated decision to participate in the meeting adds a new dimension to the Lebanese stand-off. Observers note that Damascus has recently adopted a more conciliatory approach towards its neighbour’s affairs, and the Syrian-allied opposition has so far abstained from any moves that would trigger the formation of rival administrations.

“This has been orchestrated by Syria,” says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a Beirut-based political analyst. “They wanted to calm the situation before Annapolis and not antagonise the Americans unnecessarily.”

A tacit agreement between rival camps not to do anything to escalate the crisis holds for now. The majority bloc has refrained from the politically sensitive move of pushing for the election of a president by absolute majority.

Interim administration

Without a president, the government of Fouad Siniora has taken executive power, but it is the army that is really holding the state together. “The situation is still stable and the military is in charge,” says one Beirut banker.

If the fragile sense of stability prevails in the aftermath of Annapolis, some Lebanese expect a president to be chosen before the end of the year. However, the identity of the likely president is still unknown.

General Michel Aoun, once the candidate of the opposition bloc, appeared to be ready to pull out of the running on 20 November, in recognition that he might prove too divisive a figure. Instead, he offered a compromise that would involve him cherry-picking a president and allowing Saad Hariri, one of the leaders of the March 14 bloc, to nominate a prime minister. This would allow for an interim administration with a two-year shelf-life.

Once the March 14 camp rejected the proposal, Aoun swiftly re-entered the race. Yet few anticipate the old general settling into the presidential suite at Baabda Palace any time soon.

The names more frequently cited are those candidates seen as capable of providing a semblance of unity. These are Robert Ghanem, a Bekaa-based MP who was allied to the March 14 camp but has steadily disassociated himself from it; General Michel Suleiman, the respected army chief, who would need a consti-tutional amendment to take the presidency; and, in a late run, Riad Salameh, governor of the Central Bank.

None of these figures would seriously antagonise Syria. Hezbollah, meanwhile, has made clear its red line for the president: he has to support the resistance.

Unresolved issues

Major questions about Lebanon’s future look set to remain unanswered. “It is really difficult to find middle ground between polar opposites,” says Saad-Ghorayeb. “How can a president be both pro-American and pro-Syrian?”

Another increasingly fraught issue is the Christian community’s deep divisions - given that the presidency is reserved for a Maronite. Lebanon’s Christians are split between supporters of Aoun and the March 14 group. Observers say Aoun may have the upper hand, given the Christians’ growing fears that the Sunni-led cabinet appears to be appropriating more power for itself.

This underlines how toxic the sectarian issue remains in Lebanese politics. While the Sunni versus Shia division has dominated headlines, Christians are becoming wary of allowing the presidency to become subservient to the prime minister, a post traditionally reserved for Sunnis.

“Christians are worried about rule by one sect and sectarian imbalances re-emerging,” says Saad-Ghorayeb.
The Lebanese, no doubt, will shrug their shoulders and get on with things while their politicians bicker. Traditional fatalism prevails in Beirut.

“The question of the prerogative of the presidency has been debated for more than 15 years and it won’t die down even when we do get a president,” predicts the banker.


  1. Robert Ghane: Born in the Bekaa valley, Ghanem has been an independent MP for much of the time since 1992. He was Education, Youth & Sport Minister from 1995 to 1996 in Hariri’s government. He made a previous bid for the presidency in 2004. He was a member of the March 14 list at the last election.

  2. General Michel Suleiman: A Maronite Christian, he has been commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces since December 1998. He succeeded Emile Lahoud when he became president. Hezbollah favours him as a compromise candidate, but critics are suspicious of his links with Damascus.

  3. Riad Salameh: The governor of the Banque du Liban, Salameh has gained plaudits for his handling of the economy during the Israeli invasion of 2006 and after the assassination of prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. Opposition parties are thought to oppose him as a compromise candidate.

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