Thursday, December 27, 2007

Lebanon : Is President-to-be Suleiman up to the Challenge?

Palm Beach Gardens, Florida


In Lebanon, over the last three months ten parliamentary sessions to elect a new president have been postponed. By tradition the president has to be a Maronite Christian; this tradition is a problem that has never been addressed adequately. The eleventh parliament election session, scheduled for December 29, is expected to be ignored since the opposition continues to refuse to participate in the election unconditionally.

The divide between the ruling regime and its opposition is too deep to close without one side being humiliated. With a vacant presidential post since late November, an inactive parliament and an incomplete and discredited government, Lebanon qualifies as a failing state.

An undeclared “coup d’etat” has been in effect since early December 2006 when the politicians of the (Shiite) Hezbollah and the (Christian) General Aoun’s Reform and Change Movement withdrew from the cabinet and the parliament. The opposition has been flexing its political muscle by referring to its demographic weight and its “virtuosity”; the civic rebellion is comfortably backed up by an idle militia, Hezbollah. However, Hezbollah’s militarization was declared illegal by the UN Security Council
(UNSC Resolution 1701) at the end of the devastating 2006 summer war with Israel.

At the center of this political stalemate are the militia of the opposition and the expiration of legitimacy of the current government. Each side legitimizes itself by pointing to illegitimacy of the other.

The government’s power has been eroding at a slow pace but the ruling regime has been propped up by the US and the European Community. The West is not ready to see Lebanon break up along side Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan, not to mention Pakistan. The Syrian and Iranian backed opposition is getting bolder and it does not have much to loose by prolonging the paralysis of the status quo; since a continuation of current inaction would further destabilize the existing regime.

The situation is worse than it appears. In the past year alone, two pro-government MPs and one senior army general have been assassinated. An insurrection by a fundamentalist group was quieted at a high human cost by the army last summer, but the insurgents remain active covertly. The Palestinian refugee camps- population 400 000- are agitated and armed. The economy is unraveling and national debt is out of control. The young and the educated are leaving. The people are sick of politicians and they would accept almost any figure for a president in order to keep the lid on a potentially explosive sectarian political system.

After eleven months of quarreling about the required profile of the next president, the two sides have settled on a neutral figure, the chief of the national armed forces, General Michel Suleiman. But strangely, the parliament has failed to vote Suleiman in, as the constitution requires. The politicians are bickering on how the new president should govern, how many ministers the opposition would have in the new cabinet, should the existing government approve the transition in leadership, and finally, who the next prime minister would be?

Suleiman is in a precarious position and he must be wondering what to do next. Should Suleiman resign from his military post and explicitly declare himself as a candidate for the presidency? Should he come up with new and bold policy ideas that would accelerate and bolster his transition to the presidency? Is the General up to the challenge?

In addition to strong leadership the country needs a revised constitution that would take away the artificial political, albeit symbolic, privileges of the Christian community. Such irrational privileges expose the Christians – a minority of 35 %- to displaced anger from the larger society. Rotating the presidency among religious communities and the chief of the army may relieve the Christians from having to pretend to lead the country. In fact, Christians have been marginalized since the Taif Peace Accord that ended the civil war in 1990.

The political demands of the Shiite community need to be addressed with honesty in exchange for ideas of integrating its militia in the national army. It would help if Lebanon’s defense policy is re-examined to allow the state the monopoly for use of force within and across borders.

Suleiman has the loyalty of the army and the respect of the people. No other leader in the country enjoys such significant support and respect across the religious divide. Only Suleiman can deviate from the norm and speak to the entire nation with new ideas. The country has become so divided; the politicians are a product of the civil war and the sectarian political system is outdated.

The country lacks a unity government that would disqualify all leading politicians from holding new leadership posts. The future government is expected to prepare for a new round of parliamentary elections within a year. The new political system must reduce sectarian competition over executive positions and enhance respect for minorities.

Will Suleiman take on the challenge in a region that is used to tribal politics? Will Washington and regional powers allow Suleiman to rule with equidistance from their spheres of influence?

The Lebanese are under the illusion that a solution is reachable without a major change in political leadership and in power sharing. The government is bound to yield further to the opposition at some point in the near future, hopefully before the country falls apart.

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