Lebanon News

Presidential deadlock now longest in Lebanese history

The identity of the next president remains unknown. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s presidential deadlock breaks a record Tuesday, surpassing the length of the two similar crises that have plagued the country since independence.

With its 409th day, the current presidential deadlock exceeds the 408-day interregnum which occurred at the end of President Amine Gemayel’s term in September 1988.

While the previous two episodes, which involved many of the same Christian leaders, ended with regional settlements, there is no sign that the current deadlock will come to a similar conclusion soon.

The presidency fell vacant on May 25 of last year, with Parliament unable to elect a successor to Michel Sleiman.

The legislature has now failed to do so 25 times, as the majority of March 8 MPs have deprived the election sessions of a quorum, saying they would only attend when an agreement is reached to elect their preferred candidate, Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun.

But Aoun’s candidacy is opposed by the March 14 alliance, which supports Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea for the top Christian post.

The last time Lebanon entered presidential crisis was in 2007, with a six-month deadlock beginning at midnight on Nov. 24 when President Emile Lahoud left Baabda Palace without a successor.

As now, the March 8 and March 14 coalitions had failed to agree on a new president. The crisis took a violent turn in May 2008, when pro-Hezbollah fighters took over large swaths of west Beirut and clashed with Progressive Socialist Party gunmen in the Chouf. Fighting broke out in Tripoli between pro-government and opposition groups.

The fighting followed a decision by the March 14-backed government of Fouad Siniora to dismantle Hezbollah’s telecommunications network and sack Brig. Wafiq Shuqeir, the head of Beirut’s airport security and a close Hezbollah confidante. March 14 officials had complained that they were being videotaped and monitored in and around the airport.

The fighting, which claimed the lives of some 80 people, ended with the Qatari-brokered Doha Accord.

Under the agreement, Sleiman was made president, and a national unity government was formed which granted the March 8 group veto power. Parliament passed an electoral law based on the voting system adopted in 1960.

But the six-month interregnum and the violence that characterized its final days were minor compared to the long and bloody crisis that occurred at the end of Gemayel’s presidency, during the final years of the Civil War.

With Parliament unable to elect a successor, Gemayel replaced Sunni Prime Minister Salim al-Hoss with Aoun, then the Maronite Army commander, and tasked him with heading a transitional military government to hold presidential polls. The move was made just 15 minutes before Gemayel’s term expired on Sept. 22, 1988.

Many Christians rallied behind Aoun’s Cabinet, but Muslims overwhelmingly supported Hoss, who also received backing from Syria. Both sides claimed executive power. Aoun ensconced himself in Baabda Palace, while Hoss issued orders from his offices in West Beirut.

In March 1989, Aoun launched a “War of Liberation” against Syrian forces in the country, but the operation proved destructive, ineffective, and ultimately served to undermine his authority.

The deadlock only ended when Lebanese MPs signed an accord in the Saudi city of Taif on Oct. 22, 1989, bringing an end to the Civil War.

The agreement, brokered by Saudi Arabia, Syria and the U.S., introduced major amendments to the Lebanese Constitution, increasing the number of MPs from 99 to 128, with the seats to be divided equally between Christians and Muslims. It also called for an immediate presidential election.

On Nov. 5, 1989, Rene Mouawad was elected to the presidency, bringing an end to the country’s first presidential vacuum since independence.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 07, 2015, on page 3.

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