Friday, May 27, 2016

Lebanon, 40 years without a president?

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Lebanon has been without a president for over two years. But has it been two year or much longer than that – forty years to be precise? Wasn’t Sleiman Frangieh, elected in 1970, the last president that actually had a true executive role as head of state? Let’s look back.

In April 1975, the so-called Lebanese civil war starts. In 1976, as the presidential term of Sleiman Frangieh – Syrian president Hafez el-Assad’s personal friend – comes to an end, the Syrian army enters Lebanon. As a successor to his friend, Hafez el-Assad imposes a consensual president, Central Bank governor Elias Sarkis. But Sarkis is just a figurehead and doesn’t have much effective authority. He barely manages to give some dignity to a crumbling and powerless State.

In 1982, as Sarkis’ term is about to end, Israel invades Lebanon and imposes its ally, Bachir Gemayel, as president. But after his election, Bachir refuses to be Israel’s proxy and to sign a peace deal with the Jewish state. He is murdered before he can take office.

Shortly after, Bachir’s brother, Amin Gemayel, is elected president. He accepts to make a peace deal with Israel and signs the infamous 17 May agreement. But Syria forces him to recount and the agreement is canceled. The country descends into chaos. During the rest of his term, Gemayel only controls a small region in Mount Lebanon, where his family’s clan is from.

Gemayel’s term ends in 1988. Syria wants to impose its ally Mikhael Daher as next president. But this diktat is opposed by the Lebanese army, headed by general Michel Aoun, and by the Christian militia, Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces. As parliament can’t elect a new president, Gemayel appoints Aoun as head of an interim military government. The country, once again, descends into chaos.

To end the war, the international community sponsors the Taif agreement that strips the president of most of his prerogatives and executive power. Syria, Lebanon’s occupying force and de facto ruler of the country, imposes René Moawad as president. The latter is not elected in parliament but in a military air base in north Lebanon. After his election, Moawad refuses to condone an invasion of the Christian regions to remove Aoun from the presidential palace by military force. He is murdered shortly after.

Elias Hraoui, a close ally to Syria, is elected president in a luxury hotel in the Beqaa Valley, close to the Syrian border. Hraoui condones the military operation against Aoun, then serves a six-year term plus three extended years. At the end of Hraoui’s extended term, Syria imposes its protégé, army chief general Emile Lahoud, as president. Like Hraoui, Lahoud is Syria’s main proxy in Lebanon. Like Hraoui, Lahoud serves a six-year term plus three extended years.

In 2005, former Prime minister, Rafic Hariri, is murdered. Syria is subsequently forced to withdraw its army and security personnel from Lebanon. Few months later, Israel launches its second war on Lebanon. When the fighting stops, the country is on the verge of civil war. After six months of presidential vacuum following the end of Lahoud’s extended term, the international community forces Lebanese leaders to sign the Doha agreement and to elect a consensual president: army chief general Michel Sleiman.

With almost no constitutional prerogatives, and without foreign occupying power to support him, Suleiman is powerless to truly influence a country torn between March 8 and March 14 opposing forces. Sleiman’s term ends in May 2014. But parliament – that lost its legitimacy when it canceled the parliamentary elections and extended twice its own term – fails to elect a new president, despite countless presidential election sessions.

Two years later, the presidential palace remains empty. But, effectively, it’s been so for forty years. And it looks like it’s going to stay that way for a long time.


© Claude El Khal, 2016