A contest for power has taken hold in Lebanon after President Michel Suleiman’s six-year term ended on 24 May amid disagreement over the appointment of a successor. Without a president to pass laws, political and economic progress in the country has stalled once again.

While parliament is still authorised to form decrees, a lack of consensus has left it unable to make any meaningful decisions for more than a year. Parliament sessions have become infrequent and the fear is that soon it may not convene meetings at all.

Lebanon’s vulnerability to regional conflicts will likely prolong the stalemate. The power vacuum is set to extend further into 2014 as security concerns in the region, which reverberate across Lebanon as well, have heightened.

External approval

With the country’s two major factions – 8 March, led by Shia Islamist militant group and political party Hezbollah and linked to Iran and Syria, and the Western-backed, Saudi-linked 14 March – closely tied to regional and international players, any political resolution requires the green light from external allies.

The Doha Accord of 2008, led by Qatar, shows that a push from outside forces is an absolute necessity to help forge an uneasy compromise between the 8 March and 14 March camps.

But as foreign powers find themselves preoccupied with the threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) and the escalating Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Lebanon is unlikely to be one of their top priorities during the coming months.

The rise of Isis, which seeks to break down regional borders and establish a caliphate in the Middle East, poses a threat to Lebanon itself. The group has a presence in several major cities and warned at the end of June it is planning dozens of terror attacks. The message came after a month of suicide bombings and rocket attacks, raising fears that after several months of calm, Lebanon is once again turning into a playground for regional forces.

[Once the political will is there], we will likely see some kind of package solution

Mario Abou Zeid, Carnegie Middle East Center

In response, the authorities are cracking down on extremists. On 7 July, a court charged 28 Isis members of planning to detonate suicide bombs, and the army also arrested suspects in Tripoli. Lebanon’s second-largest city, located in the north near the Syrian border, has become a major base for Isis supporters in recent years and clashes with other militant groups are frequent.

“So far, there are no signs of political progress as the international community is preoccupied… elsewhere,” says Mario Abou Zeid, a research analyst at the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center.

“There is a focus on maintaining security and stability, but no advancement in other areas. [Once the political will is there], we will likely see some kind of package solution, with general consensus on a presidential candidate, an electoral law [that better reflects the current power balance, as the law has not been updated since the 1960s], and on parliamentary elections.”

Growing animosity

It appears that Lebanon is not anywhere close to such a scenario yet. Growing violence among sectarian and Islamist groups has caused the attitudes of parties to harden. While in February there were signs the country was embarking on a path towards greater cohesion with the creation of a coalition cabinet (which is in charge of electing the president) there has been no progress since then.

In May, the deadline to select a president passed as parliament remained divided. The election is scheduled to be followed by a parliamentary poll in November, which must lead to the formation of another cabinet. That deadline is now also likely to slip.

The presidential candidates who have stepped forward so far have failed to garner much enthusiasm. Samir Geagea, who leads the Lebanese Forces party, was bound to draw heavy criticism as the former warlord played a major role in the country’s 1975-90 civil war, while the little-known Henri Helou, an MP of the Progressive Socialist Party, did not receive many votes.

The impasse is not so much the result of a lack of suitable candidates – in the past, parties have been able to agree on more neutral candidates, most recently former army commander Michel Suleiman – but rather an unwillingness to compromise.

In April and May, Future Movement head Saad Hariri, who leads the 14 March bloc, and Michel Aoun, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement and part of the 8 March camp, negotiated a possible power-sharing deal. The pair’s alliance had appeared unlikely from the start, however, and analysts say it came as no surprise that the talks failed.

Divide widens

“The regional conundrum has polarised the Lebanese scene,” says Joseph Bahout, professor of Middle Eastern studies at Paris-based public research and higher education institution Sciences Po. “A few months ago, the lines had blurred, but I think these talks were no more than political manoeuvres. Now, everyone is coming back to their own camp.”

Bahout points to the recent restoration of ties between Hariri and Walid Jumblatt, the leader of the Druze Progressive Socialist Party, who played a major supporting role as Hariri took the reins after his father, former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, was killed by a car bomb in 2005. With each faction digging in their heels, the stalemate may last until a major incident forces some kind of consensus agreement, according to Bahout.

“Since Hezbollah has become one of the main supporters of Bashar al-Assad’s regime [in Syria], you can very easily detect a change in its tone, which has become more bold, arrogant, and upbeat,” he says.

“Isis has become a factor in the Lebanese equation and political discourse. Aoun and Hezbollah are now saying ‘we were right, the real danger is jihadist Islamism’. On the other side, you have 14 March saying Isis is the result of Al-Assad’s Syria policy, the entanglement of Hezbollah and Iran’s meddling.”

Each camp supports a different side of the Syrian conflict: while Hezbollah has sent fighters to support Al-Assad, several Sunni groups are reportedly giving funds to various rebel groups that want to get rid of him.

In a sign of the increasingly sectarian nature of Lebanese politics, Hezbollah has dramatically changed its rhetoric over the past couple of years. It now proclaims to be the defender of Shia shrines in Syria, rather than holding onto its portrayal as only being the national resistance against Israel.

With the camps as polarised as they are, it is impossible to determine when the process might pick up again. History shows that a major security breach often forces through a decision, although it is hoped the groups will eventually tire of the stand-off and agree on something before such a point is reached.

A decision by Iran and Saudi Arabia to exclude Lebanon from the regional conflicts could push the talks in the right direction, and may lead to an understanding where parties at least create a functioning political system while agreeing to disagree on all else.

The hardened stances have also led to speculation among analysts that Hezbollah could
propose alternative procedures. A scenario could be to look into the selection of a president through a direct vote by the people. However, this would still require an agreement among all the major camps.

What is clear is that it could take a long time to get the ball rolling again. Optimists say the empty presidential seat is not necessarily a cause for worry; in 2009, Emile Lahoud’s departure led to a power vacuum for more than a year and the country survived. But this time the environment is different, with regional turbulence forming a dangerous backdrop.

Without progress on a political solution, things could get much worse before becoming better. In 1988-89, the final years of Lebanon’s civil war, the absence of foreign intervention ultimately caused the stability of the country to deteriorate to such a degree that it led to a crisis of the political system.

This eventually led to the Taif agreement in 1990, which outlined the political representation of Lebanon’s various religious groups and sects and ratified the creation of a ‘mutual coexistence’ division of power. The agreement states that the president must always be a Christian, the prime minister a Sunni and the speaker of parliament a Shia. It also allocates the seats of parliament among the various confessions.

Outdated law

Over the past two decades, the details of the power-sharing agreement have been subject to debate, amid claims that it no longer reflects the actual make-up of the population and that the electoral districts are divided up unfairly. Since parliamentary elections in 2009, the camps have discussed options to upgrade the current electoral law, although none have managed to lead to a consensus proposal. The debate is likely to resume once a new president has been elected.

For parliamentary elections, which would require citizens to go to voting stations across Lebanon, it is important that the country does not descend into heavier violence. The situation already appears volatile, with uncertainty in Tripoli, the Bekaa Valley in the west of the country and sporadic suicide bombings in Beirut.

Lebanon has survived crises before, and there is a chance the delays may prove to be part of the usual process. But amid the regional turmoil, it is hoped that the political will to elect a compromise candidate will emerge before security deteriorates further.

Political alliances

Lebanon’s two major camps – 8 March and 14 March – were named after demonstrations for and against Syria’s military presence in the country in 2005, a month after former prime minister Rafiq Hariri was killed by car bomb.

8 March

The main players of the 8 March alliance are Hezbollah (a Shia group led by Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah); the Free Patriotic Movement (Maronite Christians led by Michel Aoun); and the Amal Movement (Shias led by Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri). The coalition has close ties with Iran and Syria.

14 March

The main players of the 14 March alliance are the Future Movement (headed by Saad Hariri and predominantly consisting of Sunnis); the Progressive Socialist Party (headed by Walid Jumblatt, leader of Lebanon’s Druze community); and the Lebanese Forces (led by Samir Geagea and mainly consisting of Maronite Christians). The coalition has close ties with Western countries as well as Saudi Arabia.

Key fact

The Taif agreement, signed in 1990, states that Lebanon’s president must always be a Christian

Source: MEED