BEIRUT: Lebanon plunges into a presidential vacuum Sunday, in the fourth crisis of its kind since the country won independence in 1943, with some only ending after the outbreak of violence.
Parliament has failed to elect a president during the past month’s five sessions, with March 8 MPs boycotting all but one vote because no consensus had been reached beforehand on a candidate.
“Now we are heading into a presidential vacuum again because we did not fully implement the Taif Agreement regarding the election law and other issues,” former Speaker Hussein Husseini told The Daily Star.
For Husseini, endorsing a Parliamentary election law based on proportional representation – as stipulated by the Taif Agreement that ended the Civil War – would stop Parliament from being dominated by sectarian blocs and would therefore free the country from the influence of foreign parties, a key cause of the current stalemate.
Lebanon’s first (mini) presidential void occurred on Sept. 18, 1952, when President Bechara al-Khoury resigned from office over a wave of strikes and protests. He tasked Army Commander Gen. Fouad Chehab with forming a transitional military government, which went on to oversee the election of President Camille Chamoun five days later.
But the country descended into a much longer and more violent presidential vacuum starting Sept. 22, 1988, when President Amine Gemayel’s term expired without the election of a successor.
Most Christian parties in Lebanon opposed the subsequent proposed election of MP Mikhael al-Daher, a compromise candidate agreed upon by Syria and the U.S.
In a bid to encourage Lebanese groups to support their choice, U.S. envoy Richard Murphy reportedly told Christian politicians: “Mikhael al-Daher or chaos.”
Shortly before he left Baabda Palace, Gemayel made the highly controversial decision to appoint then-Army Commander Michel Aoun as prime minister – a post traditionally held by a Sunni.
Aoun was made head of a transitional military government comprising his five fellow Army officers from the Military Council.
However, the three Muslim members of the Military Council resigned from the Cabinet immediately, leaving only three people in government. Salim Hoss, premier during the last year of Gemayel’s term, promptly withdrew his resignation and declared himself the country’s legitimate prime minister.
Suddenly, Lebanon had no president, two prime ministers and two Cabinets – Hoss’ in the predominantly Muslim west Beirut and Aoun’s in the largely Christian eastern part of the capital.
Speaking to The Daily Star, Gemayel explained that his decision to form the military government was based on former President Khoury’s move to put together Chehab’s Cabinet after he resigned.
“I had to form a government back then, it was not possible that I allow a vacuum,” Gemayel said. “Since the government was meant to replace the Christian president, its head [Aoun] had to be a Christian.”
In the event, Gemayel said, country ambassadors and the Central Bank dealt with both governments: “There was kind of a modus vivendi between the two governments to manage the affairs of the country.”
Gemayel blamed Syrian Intelligence for not allowing MPs in west Beirut – which was then under Syria’s control – to attend presidential election sessions called for by Speaker Husseini, thus resulting in a presidential vacuum.
But Husseini argued that it was down to a lack of consensus on a number of issues, particularly over the nature of the political system.
“The country was deeply divided ... we determined that the only way out was by boosting national consensus ... and this is what actually happened,” Husseini said, referring to the eventual election of President Rene Mouawad in November 1989 after the signing of the Taif Accord.
Gen. Issam Abou Jamra, who served as deputy prime minister under Aoun’s premiership, said the government’s job was not easy.
“A three-member government is not like a 28-member Cabinet. The problems it faces are multiplied by eight or nine,” he said.
“I held six ministerial portfolios besides being a deputy prime minister. I used to work for 18 hours a day and I ensured that everything remained functioning normally.”
The political instability soon transformed into violence. Aoun launched the so-called “Liberation War” against Syria’s occupation on March 14, 1989. That battle, which lasted for six months, failed to achieve any of its goals and caused massive destruction and casualties.
On Oct. 22, 1989, Lebanese MPs signed the Taif Agreement, a peace accord brokered by Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and Syria. Two weeks later, Mouawad was elected to the presidency, ending over 13 months of presidential vacuum, only to be assassinated on Nov. 22. He was succeeded by Elias Hrawi on Nov. 24, much to the displeasure of Aoun, who launched another war against Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces militia.
Lebanon spent six months in the abyss of a presidential vacuum again in November 2007, when President Emile Lahoud left Baabda Palace and the March 14 government of Fouad Siniora assumed his powers.
Much like today, March 8 MPs at the time boycotted election sessions and said they would only show up when a candidate had been chosen by consensus. March 14 backed the candidacy of Nassib Lahoud, a member of their alliance.
Once again, the country descended into violence.
On May 8, 2008, after Siniora’s government moved to dismantle Hezbollah’s private telecommunications network, the party’s gunmen took over large swathes of west Beirut and clashed with Progressive Socialist Party gunmen in the Chouf.
The crisis only ended on May 25, 2008, when Sleiman was elected president after the March 8 and March 14 camps signed the Doha accord.
Antoine Nasrallah, from Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, argued that the same factors that led to presidential vacuum in 2007 were now preventing the timely election of a president.
Nasrallah said the problem could be rectified by an electoral law based on proportional representation, so an alliance that won two-thirds of seats in Parliament could elect a president and form a government without the need for constant compromise with the opposition and thus foreign influence.
For Future Movement MP Ahmad Fatfat, it all comes down to March 8: “Unfortunately, the same political groups which prevented Parliament from convening in 2007 are now not showing up for sessions.”
Fatfat, who served in Siniora’s Cabinet during the 2007-08 vacuum, said governing under such conditions was a “very difficult and sensitive experience.”
“Every decision was mulled over several times before being made and many decisions were not made so that they wouldn’t be misinterpreted as an infringement on certain powers [of the president].”
Many fear that history is about to repeat itself and that Lebanon is in for more violence, but according to retired Gen. Elias Hanna, that won’t happen. “Circumstances are totally different. Regional factors are stabilizing Lebanon this time,” Hanna said, pointing to increased contacts between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the major backers of March 8 and March 14 respectively.
In 1988 and 2007, Hanna said, Lebanon was the arena of regional confrontations: “Now Syria is this arena.”