BEIRUT: Sitting in his spacious office, former Speaker Hussein Husseini reads a copy of Lebanon’s Constitution, extensively amended during the 1989 Taif Agreement that ended the country’s Civil War.
In an interview with The Daily Star, the 77-year-old, known as the “Father of the Taif Agreement,” argued that the current Parliament was unauthorized elect a new president, because its term was not extended for valid reasons.
Last May, Parliament extended its term for 17 months due to the inability of rival political factions to agree on an electoral law that would provide fair representation. The move was also believed to have been motivated by the deteriorating security situation.
“During the Civil War, the government said it could not hold elections because of the war and requested that Parliament’s term be extended in order to avoid a vacuum, and this is what actually happened,” Husseini said.
But he claimed that neither the interior minister nor the government had explicitly said last year that security considerations had hindered holding parliamentary polls on time.
“The current Parliament did not cite exceptional circumstances. Instead, the president, prime minister and interior minister issued a decree calling on voters to cast their polls and set a date for elections,” Husseini noted.
He added that Parliament did not take this decree into consideration and extended its term without a legitimate reason. “Thus, it cannot elect a president,” he said.
Elected an MP in 1972, Husseini served as speaker from 1984-92. He played an active role in the three weeks of talks between Lebanese MPs in the Saudi city of Taif, which led to the birth of the eponymous peace agreement.
Brokered by Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and Syria, the deal ended Lebanon’s 1975-90 Civil War. To this day, Husseini has rejected pleas to publish the minutes from the deliberations that preceded the agreement, saying it might stir old tensions.
Husseini believes that Parliament must immediately pass an electoral law based on proportional representation, after which the government could hold parliamentary elections followed by a presidential election.
The two-month constitutional period for Parliament to elect a new president begins Tuesday.
Husseini, who laments that the Taif Accord was only partially realized, says the full implementation of the agreement would begin with passing an election law that was reflective of a clause in the Constitution that states: “the people are the source of all political authority.”
The Constitution stipulates that the election law should secure fair representation for all Lebanese and divide the country into governorates.
“We can only get out of this vicious circle by imposing an election law as stipulated by the Constitution based on proportional representation,” Husseini said.
He added that the Lebanese people should pressure the authorities to implement the proposed system.
Husseini claims the electoral law that was applied in the 2009 polls – in which the qada was adopted as the basic electoral district under a winner-takes-all system – represents a flagrant violation of the Constitution, as it does not guarantee fair representation and also enhances sectarian sentiments.
He says that the 2009 law, which was agreed upon by rival political factions during the Doha talks a year earlier, was feeble because it retained only one or two groups as the sole representatives of each sect.
He contrasted this with a proportional representation system, which he said would “allow competition within every region and sect.”
Husseini resigned as an MP in 2008, in protest over delays in the implementation of the Taif Agreement. He blames the delays on “warlords,” whom he says comprise the majority of the country’s political leaders.
Husseini details around 12 executive laws that are stipulated in the Taif Agreement but have yet to be issued. These include a defense law, which would regulate the work of the Higher Defense Council; a plan to achieve balanced development across Lebanon, in order to strengthen loyalty to the state; a media law; and a law to regulate the work of ministries.
Husseini strongly dismisses the widespread belief that the Taif Agreement stripped the president of major powers in favor of the prime minister.
An example that is often used to support this theory is the fact that the Constitution sets specific periods during which the president can exercise his powers, unlike the prime minister.
According to the Constitution, if the president does not sign a Cabinet decision within 15 days, it will automatically go into effect and will be published in the Official Gazette.
But Husseini says the Taif Agreement also stipulates that an executive law to regulate the relationship between the prime minister and the Cabinet should be drafted. This law would impose certain deadlines on the prime minister and achieve a balance between his powers and those of the president. The law has yet to be drafted.
Husseini says that the law would set a deadline for the prime minister to form a government.
It took over 10 months for Prime Minister Tammam Salam to put together his government, which was formed in February.
“If the president has certain deadlines, how can the prime minister have no deadlines?” Husseini asked.
He claimed that the delay in drafting the law organizing the Cabinet’s work has given rise to erroneous impressions that the Taif Agreement shifted the powers of the president to the prime minister.
Husseini added that, in line with the Taif amendments, the Constitution gives the president the absolute power to issue the decree to form the government. “In other words, he is responsible for appointing every minister,” he said.
Commenting on calls for a new accord, Husseini said he would back any agreement that was better than the one reached in Taif.
“Since 1989, I have been saying that I will approve any better agreement. But since then, no one has even given me a more useful sentence,” he said.
Husseini said that replacing the current political system, which is based on an equal power sharing between Muslims and Christians, with a tripartite political system founded on equal power sharing between the Christians, Sunnis and Shiites was impossible. March 14 politicians often accuse Hezbollah and its allies of seeking such a goal.
Husseini said that, contrary to widespread belief, the Taif Agreement’s amendments to the Constitution did not mention that the posts of president, speaker and prime minister should be allocated to specific sects.
According to a gentlemen’s agreement dating back to 1943, Lebanon’s president can only be a Maronite, the speaker a Shiite and the prime minister a Sunni.
Although he has been in the political arena since the early 1970s, Husseini, who hails from the Bekaa Valley village of Shmustar, is not bored of politics.
He says the electoral law would determine whether he would run for parliamentary elections scheduled for November.
Husseini was among the founders of the Civil Center for National Initiative, established in 2007 with the aim of lobbying for the implementation of the Taif Agreement.
He complains that many Lebanese have not even read the Constitution.
“You ask a regular Lebanese: ‘Do you have the Constitution in your library?’ He says ‘no,’ but how can this be possible? All the rights of the Lebanese are mentioned in the Constitution,” Husseini said.
“That’s why we are preparing to launch a campaign called The Constitution In Every House.”