BEIRUT

Lebanon News

Beirutis struggle with or without president

  • File - President Michel Sleiman in a train. (President Michel Sleiman Facebook page)

BEIRUT: As the constitutional deadline to elect a new president looms with no end to the political gridlock in sight, George, a humble carpenter working in Furn al-Shubbak, offers his appraisal.

“The Christians need that post to be filled,” he says. “The presidency is the only post that represents the needs of the sect.”

Should no president be elected before the end of the incumbent President Michel Sleiman’s term, however, he would not be perturbed.

“It’s not like it hasn’t happened before,” he says, referring to the tense weeks after former President Emile Lahoud’s term expired in November 2007 and Parliament failed to elect a successor until May 2008, with numerous sessions canceled in between due to lack of quorum.

A sunglasses vendor, Akif, whose shop is nestled between Hamra’s bustling streets, offers an ultimatum.

“Either there is a president of good character, or no president. ... Because no president is better than a zero quality president,” he says, in between serving customers.

As far as he is concerned, the current presidential candidates fit in the latter category.

For Akif, Lebanon is singular in the ability to function without a government. It’s been this way for 20 years, he says.

“And if there is no president, well, nothing will really change.”

Gary, the owner of a menswear store in the same neighborhood, seems to agree.

“I’m not following the election because I don’t care about it,” he says.

On the prospect of no one being elected to succeed Sleiman, Gary is just as nonchalant.

“I think the Lebanese are used to a vacuum. It’s not the first time and it won’t be the last.”

In his opinion, a presidential vacuum would benefit Lebanon “because whether there is or isn’t a president, the situation will remain the same,” while political bickering would just protract the crisis.

It is rare to find a candidate with a vision for a better Lebanon, Gary says, though if one were to come along he might be inclined to pay attention to the news.

“For the last 30 years, not a single president gave us a vision,” he adds.

Asked what this “vision” might entail, Gary ponders, asking a new customer to wait a moment.

“This president should work for the people,” he says after a long pause.

For him, there are only two possible candidates who could ever fulfill his criteria, and neither of them has announced any intention to run for the post. They are former Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud and former Labor Minister Charbel Nahhas.

“What makes them different? They were made in Lebanon.”

But they don’t stand a chance in Lebanon’s murky political landscape, Gary says.

“They are too clean.”

In the vaulted halls of the American University of Beirut, the presidential election and the risk of a vacuum seem worlds away from the environmental club meetings, study sessions, hallway clatter and endless reading assignments that fill the day of a student.

“We’ve never benefited from having a president,” said Hadi, a 23-year-old student playing video games at an Internet cafe on Bliss Street. ‘It’s some guy sitting in a high chair with a title.”

The politicians, he maintains, are the only ones who care about the potential vacuum. “It’s happened before and nothing changed, so why would we care?”

“Our parents care more than us, our generation, I think they are quite indifferent about this,” Rafik, nearby, chimes in.

Next to the AUB Library, Hadi sits near a poster to raise funds for a student trip to Havana. “I’m not interested in what happens, because I’ve given up on this country. There’s no need for us to vest interest in the political situation because we know it won’t take us anywhere,” he says.

“We are still young and we have our future ahead of us,” he adds.

In the Beirut neighborhood of al-Khandaq al-Ghamiq, the carpet seller Atwe predicts that Lebanon will see a new president after the June 3 elections in Syria.

“Because we are brothers,” he says of bilateral relations between Lebanon and Syria.

“We don’t care if there is a president, we can’t sell anything either way. Business is bad with a president or without one.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 24, 2014, on page 2.
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Summary

As the constitutional deadline to elect a new president looms with no end to the political gridlock in sight, George, a humble carpenter working in Furn al-Shubbak, offers his appraisal.

Should no president be elected before the end of the incumbent President Michel Sleiman's term, however, he would not be perturbed.

On the prospect of no one being elected to succeed Sleiman, Gary is just as nonchalant.

It is rare to find a candidate with a vision for a better Lebanon, Gary says, though if one were to come along he might be inclined to pay attention to the news.

In the vaulted halls of the American University of Beirut, the presidential election and the risk of a vacuum seem worlds away from the environmental club meetings, study sessions, hallway clatter and endless reading assignments that fill the day of a student.

In the Beirut neighborhood of al-Khandaq al-Ghamiq, the carpet seller Atwe predicts that Lebanon will see a new president after the June 3 elections in Syria.


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