After multiple delays and much procrastination, Lebanon’s politicos hit their constitutional deadline; they now have no choice but to vote for a president on November 21st, two days before the end of the “mandate” of the current incumbent/usurper of the position.
The smart money is not betting on anything happening any time soon. Nor is anyone expecting much for the time being. The fact remains that the current crop of leaders, many of whom are “born again” Lebanese, have been accustomed to getting marching orders from elsewhere.
We witnessed those European clowns, Italian and French foreign ministers D’Alema and Kouchner, pushing the brilliant (not) French idea of a list of Vatican-approved candidates; long on wannabes and short on viable candidates, it was dead on arrival.
Then we saw “intra-Lebanese” talks fail; Saad Hariri, representing the nationalists, with Berri, that self-appointed Damascus’ “mailbox”, failed to reach an agreement.
One wonders why…
Once upon a time, before 2005, the “secret word” would come in from Damascus as to how things should be done. The signs of Syria’s interference are all around us, with Hezbo’ upping the ante, sometimes asking for the whole enchilada in exchange for allowing the elections to proceed, other times dumping their ally Michel Aoun to push for Michel Eddeh.
But the “secret word” appears to have lost its magic. So, left with no clear guidance, Lebanese politicos appear content to procrastinate and postpone.
Theoretically, they can postpone no more. But they are a resourceful bunch, especially when it comes to decision avoidance.
In their defence, the decision is a hard one, with diverse choices ranging from Hariri’s friends, the Saudi King’s brother in-law, and Joumblat’s suggestions, with the Shehabis waiting patiently in the wings.
The first set of contenders are close Saudi interests around the late King Fahd, who may still be wielding much influence through Saad Hariri, son of the martyred Prime Minister, Rafic Hariri. But Saad has wasted much energy pushing Dr. Ghattas Khoury, and he drags him along to Washington any chance he gets. Odd that; how can Hariri square all his talk of “reform”, with the good Dr. Ghattas’ famed plundering of the coffers of the Lebanese Order of Physicians?
Few were fooled back in June 2005, Hariri had struck an electoral “quadripartite agreement” with Hezbo and Amal, that would have sidelined the Christians, and would have allowed them to come up with the majority needed to push-through such a pliable candidate.
But they had not factored in the Christian anger at such shenanigans, which resulted in Michel Aoun’s electoral upset. Much like others before him, having been elected to use his fists, Michel Aoun preferred to use his wits; from one miscalculation to the next, he greatly contributed to the current deadlock.
Were it not for the unpopularity of some of his other opponents, or for the chronic ineptitude of successive Lebanese governments, Michel Aoun would have been a long forgotten item in history’s dustbin.
Still, the Hariris have to consider that, with King Fahd gone and King Abdallah now on the throne, the Saudis may prefer to “diversify”. King Abdallah appears to favour Nassib Lahoud for the Presidency, the cousin of the current incumbent/usurper. That would not be a bad candidate; Nassib may not be charismatic, but he is smart, and has proven adept at navigating the country’s arcane politics, and has so far acted rather decently.
The second set of contenders is “in play” mostly because of its “leverage value”. In addition to the Cardinal’s supported Demianos Khattar, Joumblat is pushing quietly a couple of candidates. The “front” is fielded by Chibli Mallat, a smart jurist who should know better. The stronger candidate, however, appears to be Samir Franjieh, the smart er scion of the Franjieh clan, who actually knows better. This is not all bad; one potential advantage of a Samir Franjieh presidency is that it would re-establish some “Lebanese” equilibrium among Maronites, by eclipsing his (mentally challenged) nephew Suleiman, and moving the key Franjieh clan out of Syria’s orbit.
The third set of candidates is waiting in the wings, having waited out the Syrians and Israelis for the past 30 years. They appear to have just completed a long desert trek, with Charles Rizk, the current Minister of Justice. Thanks to his position, Minister Charles Rizk has control over the sensitive Bank al Madina file, that famous cookie jar in which most Lebanese presidential hopefuls have their hands in, and that all would rather we forget.
The fourth set of candidates is being “pushed” by the Syrians. Though still present in Lebanon thanks to their goons, they are much weakened and can only try to “upset” the Cedar cart. Via Hezbo’, they are pushing for Aoun, but intend to drop him for anything that resembles the last two presidents, Lahoud and Hrawi. Some believe that they may tolerate the Army chief Michel Suleiman, whose family they can still “pressure”, or find an “arrangement” with the nationalist Boutros Harb.
However, the fact remains that the Syrians cannot afford to have anything other than a Quisling in Baabda, and may prefer vaccum of sorts; no presidency, and two governments.
The smarter money will look elsewhere, beyond Paris and Kouchner’s histrionics, at Ryad and Washington.
Surprisingly, the Americans have been playing it smart in Lebanon; leading Syria on without directly confronting it, and calling it to task on the key issue of the International Tribunal for the trial of the assassins of Rafik Hariri.
And I fear this is where the Syrian regime may be miscalculating; the American goal may not be Lebanese democracy as much as Iraqi stability. By standing in the way of the United States, Syria has defined itself as the problem. By “shooting first” and aligning with Iran, Syria has further alienated itself from the Arab world.
If the Syrians persist in sabotaging the Lebanese presidential elections, they will only worsen their isolation.
Whatever chaos may ensue, we Lebanese will survive it as we have done so in the past. We will not emerge unscathed from chaos, but neither would the Syrian regime. Can Syria afford that?
Jeha lives in Beirut and blogs at Jeha’s Nail