At last, and after more than a two year wait, the Lebanese parliament has elected former Army General and disputed Prime Minister, Michel Aoun, as the country’s next President.
Lebanon has been largely spared the fires engulfing the Middle East, from Syria to Yemen; nonetheless, there are no guarantees the status quo will remain unchanged. It is not altogether fanciful to expect the defeat of the so-called Islamic State to spawn yet more dangerous brands that will further undermine stability in the region. This does not bode well for an already fragile Lebanese state.
Aoun’s election can be seen as potentially empowering Maronite and other Christian communities in Lebanon. The Christians, especially the Maronites, lost significant political leverage after the signing of the Taef Accords in 1989. The election of a Maronite President is raising hope in the community that its interests will be better represented, or at least not entirely neglected.
The new President is faced with a number of significant challenges. First, the more than 1 million displaced Syrian camped in Lebanon. Second, the presence of terrorist groups that have infiltrated Syrian and Palestinian refugee camps. Third, Hezbollah’s direct military involvement in the Syrian war. Fourth, a weakening economy, as exemplified by Lebanon’s high indebtedness. Fifth, Iranian and Saudi competition that has too often been played out on Lebanese soil; and last, but not least, the sectarian nature of the Lebanese body politic.
Since the war began in Syria in 2004, Lebanon has accepted a large number of Syrian refugees. They now represent twenty percent of the country’s entire population of 5 million. The percentage swells with the addition of approximately 450,000 Palestinian exiles. No other country in the world faces such an enormous humanitarian and security challenge. The fear in some Lebanese circles is that the Syrian refugees will be permanently settled in Lebanon given the intractable nature of the conflict they fled. There is talk too of a possible partition of Syria along sectarian lines (Alawi, Sunni, Kurdish), which would have unsettling reverberations throughout Lebanon.
Terrorism is another challenge facing President Aoun. He will have to confront a slew of salafi and takfiri groups that have already infiltrated parts of the country. These extremist groups are vying for influence, especially in the Lebanese Sunni community. This explains, in large part, the Saudi decision to support the return of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri to Lebanon to stabilize that community. In light of this, there is no little irony in the fact that the Lebanese parliament has elected a Christian president who is very close to Hezbollah, a militia cum political party considered a terrorist organization by the US and other western powers.
Further complicating matters is the current proxy war between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran. This has been ongoing since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the execution of Saddam Hussein in 2006. Iraq under Hussein was supposed to be a bulwark against fundamentalist Iran. With Hussein gone, the Saudis decided to assume the mantle of Salafi Islam and confront Teheran’s hegemonic aims. The Islamic Republic has extended its influence in Yemen, supporting the Houthis, and in Iraq where the government is under Teheran’s influence. In Damascus, Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah is fighting to save the Assad regime. Add to this Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon, and the election of General Michel Aoun comes to represent another at least short term gain for Teheran.
Since the end of the civil war, the Lebanese government has accumulated substantial financial obligations. Public debt in 2015 was estimated at close to 70 billion US dollars, or 132% of GDP, against a little over 12 billion (USD) in revenue, a gross disparity for a small country whose principal sources of income are tourism and banking. The real estate market is soft, with wealthy investors from the Gulf liquidating property in part due to hostile pronouncements by Iranian leaders and their proxies in Lebanon. The main salvation for the economy is the large holdings in gold by the Lebanese Central Bank, and more than 7 billion dollars in remittances by Lebanese abroad. The latter is bound to shrink in light of a looming economic crisis in African countries such as Nigeria, which has a large and prosperous Lebanese diaspora community.
Perhaps the major task for Lebanon’s new president is trying to affect a wholesale change in the country’s political culture and governing structures from a mosaic of tribes to a modern nation state. This is a tall order indeed, given the failure of Lebanese elites to set aside their financial interests for the sake of building a modern nation state. The concept of national citizenship in Lebanon is still elusive. Continuing factionalism leads all too many to regard the state as a cash cow from which to profit.
Lebanon continues to lack an enlightened leadership. Those who govern the country today are the same warlords who were bent on violence during the Civil War (1975-1990). None of these warlords was brought to justice. The only one to have paid a price is Dr. Samir Ja’ja’ head of the Lebanese Forces. Ja’ja’ spent more than 11 years in jail, a price he paid largely at the insistence of the Syrians whom he had battled in northern Lebanon and other forces he fought against in the Mount Lebanon region.
Even now, Lebanon has no process of policing the past, no commission of truth and reconciliation to heal the wounds of extreme social strife as has been the practice of countries such as South Africa, Chile, and Argentina. The fate of more than 17,000 Lebanese that disappeared during the war is still unknown, despite the valiant efforts of affected families and human rights organizations. The ruling elites in Lebanon have reached a point where they either drown in the anarchic mayhem they have seen the country fall into or settle on an old war horse who was forced out of the presidential palace some twenty-six years ago. One can only wonder what the aging leader can achieve in the face of the daunting challenges that continue to plague the country.
George Emile Irani is Associate Professor of International Relations at the American University of Kuwait and an IWA Middle East Program Associate.