I visited the Presidential Palace Saturday to thank President Michel Sleiman for his leadership. Throughout his mandate he has led Lebanon with great dignity and wisdom, and worked tirelessly for unity and consensus. He has now left the building.
In theory, a new president should have been arriving, making the last adjustments to his or her inauguration speech, setting out a vision for the future of the country, deciding how to implement his or her manifesto. This should have been be a moment of democratic renewal, hope and unity.
Instead the chair is empty.
I’d like to make an apology. We built our support for the election on the idea that if we helped to remove external obstacles Lebanese leaders could pick a president made in Lebanon, on time. Yet sadly the campaign has been “No, You Can’t,” not “Yes, We Can.” We were wrong.
Lebanon needs a president to take this country forward. To provide the balance its institutions require. To confront massive humanitarian, economic and political challenges. To lead much needed dialogue, as President Sleiman has worked so hard to do. Lebanon needs a president chosen because of what he or she can offer the country, not what they offer regional or local allies.
The international community needs a president too, as a partner for the support we want to give for stability. We need someone on the other side of the table.
In recent weeks, we’ve been asking Lebanese citizens what they want from their next president. It’s not a scientific poll, but we have spoken to people from different parts of the country, Tripoli to Tyre, Shoueifat to Chtaura. Now that the chair in Baabda is empty, here – in their words – is what they have told us is their manifesto.
“We want security. We need continued action to prevent car bombs and sectarian clashes. We need a strong Army and police service. We want to have confidence that the government and international community have a strong plan to handle the pressures created by hosting so many Syrian refugees.
We want neutrality. We have had enough of other people’s wars.
We want justice. We are fed up with lack of equality under the rule of law. We deserve to have reliable courts and an end to protection of the corrupt. Our politicians should be accountable to the citizens of Lebanon, not to unelected leaders. We want a constitutional settlement that protects our right to be different, but does not define us by it.
We want opportunity. Our kids need the right education to build this country. We need reliable 24/7 power to run our homes and businesses. We want to have confidence that future oil and gas revenue will be invested for the benefit of future generations, not a few. We think more power should be decentralized to local levels, so we can take greater control of our own lives. We need our youth and our diaspora to feel that Lebanon is their project too. We want our country back.”
I don’t know who’ll be the next president. That is a question for Lebanon. There is no magic international fix – it is a dangerous illusion to wait for one rather than taking the tough decisions necessary.
For now, it is vital that Lebanon’s leaders let the state institutions keep functioning. An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind. Lebanon has come through tough times before, and – with the right spirit of responsibility and compromise – can come through this.
The failure to elect a Lebanese president is not a failure of the Lebanese people themselves. It is not the fault of the millions of Lebanese working so hard every day against the odds. We must ensure that they do not pay the price for it.
So the U.K. will continue our effort to get textbooks to every child in Lebanon, to give the Army the ability to keep the war outside Lebanon’s borders, to build a professional and trusted police service, to ensure that Lebanon is not left alone to deal with the refugee crisis, and to do the business that our two economies badly need. And we will continue to hope for a leader who can promise, and deliver, the security, justice and opportunity that the Lebanese people want.
Tom Fletcher is the British Ambassador to Lebanon. Read his posts on Lebanon and the Mideast on http://blogs.fco.gov.uk/tomfletcher/ and follow him on Twitter @HMATomFletcher.