Lebanon without a President: Can Lebanon Weather the Neighborhood Storm?
Basem Shabb, a Member of the Lebanese Parliament, gave a talk discussing the current state of affairs in Lebanon as the parliament struggles to elect a new president.
On June 11, 2014 the Middle East Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a talk, “Lebanon without a President: Can Lebanon Weather the Neighborhood Storm?” with Shabb. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated the event.
Shabb provided some background information on Lebanon, calling it an area of stability in an otherwise turbulent Middle East. He went on to describe the president’s role in the Lebanese government. Despite the fact that the president currently holds less power than in the past, Shabb said it is still an important position. The Lebanese president is the only Christian president in the Middle East, which makes the president a significant moral power in the region. Shabb also described how the void caused by the lack of a president has created a crisis of paralysis in the Lebanese government, because it is now forced to act as a caretaker government and unable to be as active as it should be. Furthermore, various proposed projects may have to be delayed, such as the $3 billion deal with France and Saudi Arabia to support the Lebanese Armed Forces, or the ability to pass decrees on oil and gas despite the rapidly closing window to do so.
In the next part of his talk, Shabb discussed the mechanics of the presidential election process, explaining that there are 128 members of parliament and 84 must be present in order for there to be a quorum. For a president to be elected, he or she must win the first round with a two-thirds majority and the second round with a simple majority. Shabb then talked about the reasons for the failure of the Lebanese parliament to elect a new president, citing among them the use of boycotts by Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement, which meant that a quorum could not be reached and no voting could take place.
Shabb spoke about why he thought Lebanon would be able to weather this storm, citing examples of the many times that Lebanon survived invasions or occupations by other countries, as well as its own civil war. He believes this current struggle will be no different. Shabb listed other reasons why Lebanon is uniquely capable of surviving a sectarian conflict, citing Lebanon’s borders, democratic tradition, inclusive political parties, lack of religious radicalization, financial stability, low inflation, stable exchange rate, busy Mediterranean ports, and even its geography with the Christian population located in the center of the country separating the Sunnis in the North and the Shi’as in the South. Furthermore, many other countries in the Middle East are keen to preserve Lebanon’s stability and therefore are unwilling to push their own agendas too aggressively out of fear that they might disrupt this stability.
Shabb concluded his talk by discussing the ramifications of the weakening of Christian power in Lebanon as a key reason why the presidential elections are failing. He also stressed the importance of electing a new president not only for internal stability but also for the progression of the government and a country as a whole. He finished by noting the current Iranian ascendancy, weakening Western influence in the region, and potential ramifications of the U.S.-Iran nuclear talks. Shabb finished his talk by reiterating the importance of the Lebanese presidency for internal dialogue and stability.
By Meg Kaiser, Middle East Program