BEIRUT: If it comes down to a choice between renewing the term of President Michel Sleiman and confronting a presidential vacuum, then the former is preferable, contends Mohammad Shatah, adviser to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
Speaking during an interview with The Daily Star, Shatah said: “If the choice is between no elections of a [new] president and President Sleiman, then of course renewing the president’s term after amending the Constitution will be better.”
Sleiman’s six-year term as president expires in May next year. The Lebanese Constitution stipulates that a president may only serve a single, nonrenewable term in office.
However, constitutional amendments voted for by a majority in Parliament have twice previously enabled presidents to remain in office beyond the expiration of their six-year mandate.
A parliamentary majority agreed to a three-year extension for then-Presidint Elias Hrawi in 1995 and again for Emile Lahoud in 2004.
Yet although Shatah described the possibility of a presidential vacuum as “very bad,” he also pointed out that at present the presidency is “frankly the only element of the state left standing.”
“Of course, the Army is an institution that has done a great job, but in terms of the constitutional system, with an extended Parliament and no sitting Cabinet, the president is the only ... constitutional authority still standing, and not having that will be very dangerous,” he said.
Lebanon’s Cabinet acquired caretaker status after the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Mikati last March. In the absence of a new Cabinet and in the face of disagreement over a new electoral law, parliamentary polls scheduled for June were suspended as the Parliament voted in favor of a 14-month extension of its term.
Despite the prompt naming of Tamman Salam as prime minister-designate, lack of consensus among the country’s rival political parties means Lebanon remains without a fully functional Cabinet, something Shatah believes Salam and Sleiman should move independently to rectify.
“If Hezbollah is not going to move at all, the other option would be, in my opinion, that the prime minister-designate and the president having consulted with everyone for several months, should form the best government they think should be there, and hope that they can convince the Lebanese people and the majority in Parliament [of the need for such a government].”
Hezbollah opposes any Cabinet in which political parties are not represented in proportion to their size in Parliament, effectively meaning they oppose any Cabinet in which they don’t have veto power.
“You want to have a sitting government in case a president is not elected,” Shatah went on to say, noting that even with a government in place there remained the possibility that no presidential candidate would secure the two-thirds majority needed to secure the office.
Shatah also expressed a preference for a Cabinet that is “not partisan.” He described the present caretaker Cabinet as “partisan.”
Looking to Lebanon’s conflict-wracked neighbor, Shatah made two assertions. The regime of President Bashar Assad will not be restored “either in the Syria we know today or the Syria we used to know before two-and-a-half-years,” he said.
Equally, however, the adviser believes that the prospect of a “democratic regime” in the country is “more distant today than it was two years ago.”
On the basis of these two assertions, Shatah argued that Syria is not set to be “a strategic ally of Iran.”
“What is the second best [outcome] for Iran is to continue the war in Syria,” he said.
Ongoing violence will enable Iran to retain some influence over Syria while using the conflict to reconcile its long-term hostile relationship with the United States, Shatah argued.
“ Iran wants Syria to be the same way that Lebanon was to Syria in the past. And with the extremists being part of the war in Syria, then Iran and the U.S. will soon not be enemies regarding the war in Syria because it is being labeled a war on terrorism.”
Lebanon was under Syrian tutelage from the end of its Civil War in 1990 until Syria’s withdrawal from the country following popular protests in 2005.
“The scenario I see is a continued war in Syria for a protracted period until other variables emerge,” Shatah said.
Meanwhile, he added that Hezbollah’s involvement on the side of the regime in Syria was making reconciliation with the Shiite party even more difficult at home.
“ Hezbollah is involved in the fighting in Syria, and it is also involved in the assassination of Lebanese figures. This is making it even harder to reconcile with Hezbollah,” he said, adding that the party was also “protecting indicted persons in these assassinations.”
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon investigating the 2005 assassination of Saad Hariri’s father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hairi, and 22 others has indicted four men, all of them known members of Hezbollah. The accused, due to be tried in absentia next year, remain at large.
“It is not easy to imagine normal relations with Hezbollah,” Shatah continued. “I say this with regret. I don’t like to see no government here, but [for] the last seven months ... that [has been] the case ... It would be miraculous for Lebanon to manage to have a normal running of government [with things being the way they are].”
“Even if a government is formed, it is likely to be paralyzed or to implode as the previous government [did],” Shatah added.
Imperative to finding “broader solutions” to this problem is the country’s abandonment of the Syria conflict, he said.
“The first thing we can do, and the Lebanese should do, is to abandon the conflict in Syria,” he said, adding: “ Hezbollah is involved directly in Syria, so is Hezbollah now a critical part of the war? I don’t believe so. If I were Hezbollah I would do this now; coming back from Syria will not eliminate the problem but at least it will show that it’s ready to respond.”