|Lebanon can't risk an extended void at Baabda Palace
Lebanon woke up without a president on Saturday, and yet the sky did not fall. There was no technical reason why it should, and as most of the last three years of Emile Lahoud's tenure showed, the presidency has become a largely symbolic office whose relevance for day-to-day governance is almost non-existent. If the status quo were to remain in place, therefore, the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora could almost certainly be expected to keep doing what it (and previous cabinets led by previous prime ministers) have always done: provide substandard services, squander public money, and/or condemn future generations to perennial indebtedness.
The status quo, though, is not tenable. Like nature itself, political players of various stripes abhor a vacuum - and any headlong rush to fill this one would carry a series of perils. Understandably, the most predictable pressures will come from Lebanese Maronites, for whom the presidency is reserved. Throughout the saga that prevented Parliament from selecting a successor to Lahoud, some Maronites expressed concern that their community faced a further erosion of its stature. There are very good reasons for this trepidation: Think what one may about the idea of entrenching special political privileges for a minority, the practice is central to both modern Lebanese tradition and the collective and individual identities of the country's Maronite community.
Apart from promoting the interests of a particular sect, the confessional distribution of powers in favor of Maronites is also a large part of what defines Lebanon as a nation-state and sets it apart from all other countries in the Arab world. The arrangement is due more to French strategy for the post-colonial era than to Lebanese progressivism, but the example of protecting minority rights nonetheless has potential to serve as a marker for the region. Some even suggest that without its Maronite community and the special status accorded thereto, Lebanon would have no reason to exist as an entity separate from Syria.
As anyone who knows Lebanon (no one really understands it) can grasp, however, the sectarian system has also wrought tremendous damage. It has consistently prevented the construction of a national identity, the maintenance of national cohesion, and the crafting of a functioning central government. All of these, in turn, have made the country an easy target for foreign interference in a neighborhood where neither local nor outside actors have any qualms about meddling.
Put all of this together and you have the very real prospect of renewed pressure for an oft-forgotten term of the Taif Accord that ended Lebanon's 1975-1990 Civil War: the abolition of sectarianism. This, in itself, would not be something to oppose, opening as it would the door to modern political discourse and institutions that this country has never enjoyed. But the absence of a president (or even the presence of a weak one) would make any such process fraught with danger. The mere possibility that the Lebanese model could be substantively altered without significant Maronite input stokes some very real -and in some cases very justifiable - fears about marginalization.
For one thing, there is considerable animosity just now between a large section of the Maronite population and an even larger slice of Lebanon's Shiite community. These tensions could not help but to make any effort at constitutional reform a bruising battle. More importantly, even if those feelings could be dissipated by the advent of more accommodating leadership from one or both sects, any effort to do away with sectarianism would be doomed to fail if it did not also ensure alternative protections for all religious communities, but especially the one with the most to lose - the Maronites. As the historical experiences of dozens of other countries demonstrate, these can only be reliably provided by another reform called for in Taif: the creation of an independent judiciary.
The beauty of Taif is that it did so much more than "simply" end a war that killed something like a quarter of a million people, committing as it did all of the signatories to a series of sweeping changes aimed at correcting flaws that helped ignite the conflict in the first place. The unfortunate part of the story is that as soon as Lebanon regained a semblance of stability, most of the parties developed selective amnesia about what they had signed, preferring instead to harp only about the failure to implement those elements that suited their perceived (and in any event narrow) interests. Maronite leaders, for instance, forgot all about getting rid of sectarianism, and their Shiite counterparts' resistance against Israel allowed them to sidestep the disbanding of militias. In short, everyone preached Taif, but no one practiced it.
For all these reason and myriad others, the void at Baabda Palace is a loaded gun waiting for an errant - or arrogant - trigger finger. The legitimate Maronite fears described above (and wider Christian ones) make fertile ground for both well-meaning populists and quasi-fascist demagogues. Some of these tried mightily to hold a parliamentary vote for president under patently unconstitutional conditions by denying the requirement of a two-thirds quorum, only to be reined in by voices of reason led by the Maronite patriarch, Cardinal Nasrallah Butros Sfeir. Now, though, the majority in Parliament would almost certainly be within its rights to convene a presidential election, at a time and place of its choosing, with a simple majority. Each day that goes by can therefore only strengthen the hand of those for whom Sfeir's wisdom was weakness.
The pressures applied by this state of affairs are intensified, too, by the outside influences acting on Lebanon and on individual parties. These have been instrumental in fomenting and maintaining the crisis, and now they threaten to help it explode. The proxy battle pits countries like the United States, France and Saudi Arabia on one side, with Iran and Syria on the other. Too many chickens have laid too many eggs to sort out which side "started" the contest, but there is no doubting that both have exhibited poor judgment and even callousness in perpetuating it at Lebanon's expense.
There is little doubt, for instance, that Damascus pushed then-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri too far in the period leading up to his resignation in October 2004 - or that this led directly to a successful Franco-American push for the United Nations Security Council to pass Resolution 1559, warning Syria against using its influence to extend Lahoud's term for another three years (which Damascus proceeded to do anyway). There is also little doubt, though, that Paris and Washington have been just as capricious in demanding the implementation of such resolutions as various Lebanese parties have been in calling for obeisance to Taif. Having them serve as arbitrators in any dispute - foreign or domestic - involving Lebanon smacks therefore of naked hypocrisy.
This kind of back-and-forth could go on forever, but it won't. The Americans have, thankfully, backed off a little, presumably because they realized that their earlier championing of some extreme positions taken by pro-government figures, and their refusal to have any truck with key opposition members, were pushing Lebanon toward a bout of violence in which their favorites would lose. The step backward also allows the Bush administration to look the other way as France takes the lead in an effort that has included close contacts with the Syrian regime.
The danger is that this belated recognition (relatively open by France, sullen and covert by America) of conditions on the ground will not be enough because Washington, especially, refuses to countenance so many others realities. One of these is that "what Syria wants" is not entirely - or even mostly - in Lebanon. Quite the contrary, Syria's obsession with having a cooperative Lebanon is merely a symptom of its long struggle to regain the Golan Heights occupied by Israel in 1967. Far from going away, this phenomenon has only been strengthened by each of the separate peaces the Jewish state has signed with other front-line Arab states. Just as creeping isolation has radicalized large parts of the Palestinian spectrum, so has it increased determination in Damascus that Lebanon must not be allowed to leave the fold.
Back in Beirut and Batroun and Jounieh and Zahle, none of this is lost on Lebanese Maronites. They remember 1990, when another President Bush used them as bargaining chips in his bid to obtain Syrian backing for the liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. They have no intention of having this happen again, so instead of waiting for a compromise and risking a sellout instead, many of them are increasingly intent on eschewing a presidential consensus and launching a pre-emptive strike that puts them in the driver's seat. That, of course, promises a furious reaction from the opposition in general and Shiites in particular.
Sound complicated? It is, which is why Lebanon's feuding political parties had best make use of this week so that Friday's electoral session becomes a catalyst for reconciliation instead of a spark for further tensions and possibly war.
Marc J. Sirois is managing editor of THE DAILY STAR.
The Daily Star