Wanderlust…

The International Reporting (and Life) Adventures of Vivian Salama

Constitutional impasse in Lebanon

Posted by vmsalama on November 24, 2007

Over the coming days, I will be writing a lot about the upcoming Annapolis “get together” (as White House officials are calling it) as well as the escalating crisis in Lebanon.  In the meantime, BBC’s Kim Ghattas provides a great summary of the political situation in Lebanon and what it could mean for the country’s ever-fragile stability.

Constitutional impasse in Lebanon

Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Beirut

As Lebanon continues to wait for a new president and inches closer to the possibility of a constitutional vacuum, a sense of doom is settling over the country.

Issam – a 50-year-old owner of a large business – sends his wife to stock up on tinned food for their mountain house in fear of a possible war.

At a jeweller’s shop, the talk is all about the rising price of gold. “Every time the price of gold rises like that, there’s a war in the region,” says one woman.

Trying to make appointments with people is sometimes impossible – “Call me tomorrow, who knows if we’ll still be alive then” is often the answer.

And then there are those who have postponed all their plans, from going on holiday to buying new clothes, until after 24 November – the date on which the current president, pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud is meant to leave office. Parliament needs to elect a new president before then or the country will plunge deeper into a crisis that has paralysed political life for the last year.

The election has been postponed twice already because of a lack of quorum, as rival camps – the anti-Syrians and the pro-Syrians – try to hammer out an agreement outside parliament. The next attempt has been slated for 12 November but is most likely to be postponed again.

Assassinations

The 6-year-long mandate of President Emile Lahoud was extended for three years by a vote in parliament in 2004.

The extension required a constitutional amendment which legislators approved after much pressure and arm-twisting from Damascus. At the time, Syria was still the political power-broker in Lebanon, where it maintained more than 10,000 troops.

The vote extension turned out to be the start of Lebanon’s worst crisis since the end of the 15-year-long civil war in 1990.

Since 2004, there have been eight assassinations of high-profile anti-Syrian figures, including legislators and the former prime minister Rafik Hariri, massive demonstrations by both Syria’s opponents and its supporters, and a devastating war between Hezbollah and Israel.

Today, the situation is as follows:

The anti-Syrian camp has a majority in parliament for the first time in decades and wants to use it to install someone from its bloc as president, thus reclaiming one of the last vestiges of Syrian influence in Lebanon.

Four anti-Syrian legislators have already been assassinated, and to avoid being deprived of the slim majority they still have in parliament, members of the anti-Syrian bloc have checked in en masse into a highly-secured hotel until a president has been elected.

Stand-off

The pro-Syrian opposition accuses the majority of doing America’s bidding in Lebanon and insists on a compromise candidate, someone who will protect Hezbollah and its weapons.

The two sides have been in a stand-off for two years, with the opposition maintaining a sit-in in the centre of Beirut, effectively besieging the prime minister’s offices and other government buildings.

For such a small country, Lebanon commands a lot of international attention.

The country’s presidential election was on the agenda of the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when she held talks with some of her European counterparts in Turkey over the weekend, on the sidelines of a summit on Iraq and its neighbours.

Lebanon also came up in talks between US President George W Bush and French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Washington this week, and French presidential envoys have been sent to Damascus and Beirut.

The Arab League regularly sends representatives to Beirut and the Russians have also weighed in with a call on Lebanese leaders to “realise the historic responsibility and reach accord” at this “fateful” moment for Lebanon.

Regional tensions

Many of the regional issues and tensions come together here and often threaten to boil over: the Arab-Israeli conflict, Shia-Sunni tensions and more importantly the US-Iran stand-off.

The battle for influence over the Middle East is being fought not just in Iraq but also in Lebanon, and the election of a new president has in effect become a showdown between the US and Europe on one side, backing the parliamentary majority, and Iran and Syria on the other, supporting the opposition, led by the Shia militant group Hezbollah.

There are fears that if Lebanon fails to elect a new president, it could plunge into a constitutional vacuum and possibly civil strife.

 

The fate of Lebanon is in the hands of Bush and Sarkozy
Headline, Al Akhbar newspaper

This in turn could have implications for the wider region, with the possibility that a conflagration could start in Beirut and spread throughout the Middle East.

Many observers, including some members of the anti-Syrian camp, advocate a compromise solution in the form of a consensus candidate to avoid rocking the boat at a time when the region is unstable and talk of war between the US and Iran is in the air.

Staunch members of the anti-Syrian camp say a compromise candidate would mean giving in to Hezbollah, however.

Rival administrations?

The US, worried about the possibility of losing Lebanon to the Syria-Iran camp, is sending strong signals – in statements by Condoleezza Rice and the US ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad – that it believes the majority should choose the president.

If no president is elected by November 24, the Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, an ally of the West, takes over executive power under the constitution.

But the opposition has already warned it will not recognise Mr Siniora’s powers and there are fears it might form a rival cabinet.

The parliamentary majority has also threatened to elect a president by a simple majority vote in the assembly, instead of the required two thirds – a move the opposition rejects as illegal.

Such a split could also lead to the setting up of two rival administrations, a sad reminder of the last few years of Lebanon’s civil war when a similar situation arose.

“The fate of Lebanon is in the hands of Bush and Sarkozy” was the headline of the opposition al Akhbar newspaper on Wednesday – and in the hands of Syria and Iran, the anti-Syrian camp might retort.

What is clear is that as so often in its history, Lebanon finds itself – or allows itself to be – at the centre of a tug-of-war between world powers, a struggle that is probably not going to end on November 24, unless signs of a regional agreement somehow emerge.

And so holidays and clothes-buying will most likely be postponed again and more tinned food bought.

 

CONSTITUTIONAL CRISIS

  • If no president is elected by November 24, the Prime Minister Fouad Siniora takes over executive power under the constitution

  • The president must be elected by a two-thirds majority in parliament

  • The current president had his term extended by three years in 2004

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One Response to “Constitutional impasse in Lebanon”

  1. Raed Rafei said

    Every time someone writes about Lebanon they only portray the gloomy side. It is true that a lot of people have been living in fear from the political situation. But many in Lebanon are leading a normal life that sometimes is even extreme. Nobody said that DJ Van Dyke was here last week and that thousand of people danced to his beats until the early hours of the morning. Nobody said that after Lahoud announced clumsily a state of emergency LBC aired live the Friday night prime show of Mission Fashion with dancing, singing and glamor. It’s becoming too easy to talk about despair among the Lebanese. I think journalists should be more creative in describing the current state of mind of people here.

    Please visit the LA Times Middle East blog http://www.latimes.com/babylonbeyond

    Raed Rafei
    Special correspondent for the LA Times in Lebanon

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