Lebanon after Aoun

Rabha Allam , Tuesday 8 Nov 2022

Lebanon has entered a new period of constitutional stalemate following the resignation of outgoing president Michel Aoun, writes Rabha Allam

Lebanon after Aoun
Aoun waves farewell to his supporters gathered outside the presidential palace in Baabda


Many had predicted that outgoing Lebanese president Michel Aoun would not leave Beirut’s Baabda Palace easily, pointing to his time in office in 1988-1990 at the head of a military government, his opposition to the Taif Agreement that ended the Lebanese Civil War, and his attempts to expand the powers of the presidency at the expense of the prime minister during his last term in office.

The general belief was that he would refuse to leave until a successor was elected. However, instead, Aoun left the presidential Palace without handing over power to another president or a fully competent government. Najib Mikati, who has been serving as Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister, now serves as its acting president.   

Since the parliamentary elections in May 2022, Mikati has been unable to form a government, to a large extent due to Aoun’s attempts to impose rigid criteria for the selection of cabinet members. While Aoun defied accusations that he was exceeding the powers of his office, the negotiating stalemate continued and the personal antagonism between him and Mikati festered.

On the eve of the end of his term in office, Aoun signed a decree dismissing the caretaker government in order to avoid handing over power to Mikati, leaving Lebanon with a void in both the presidency and the premiership.

Aoun’s dismissal of Mikati marks a precedent even for Lebanon’s unique, complicated, and tension-riddled political system. Under Article 62 of the Lebanese Constitution, if the office of the president falls vacant for any reason, the council of ministers assumes the authority of the president.

However, the authors of the Constitution had a fully empowered government in mind. They had not anticipated a situation involving a caretaker government headed by a prime minister who had won a parliamentary vote of confidence to form a government but whose slate of ministers would not do so.

Lebanon’s lawmakers have argued that the Constitution did not stipulate the character of the government and therefore that its caretake capacity makes no difference. To complicate matters further, another legitimacy problem presents itself if, as is currently the case, a government (caretaker or not) assumes the authority of the president after it has been formally dismissed.

The same lawmakers have argued that the former president’s decree has no constitutional validity since the dismissal of a government must be accompanied by a decree to form a new one. The commentators have thus described the current situation as “constitutional anarchy.”

The current impasse was embodied in two speeches made before parliament on 30 October. The first, by Aoun, accused Mikati of being remiss in his duty to form a government and urged parliament to convene an urgent session to withdraw confidence from the prime minister and designate a new one.   

The second, by Mikati, denied the outgoing president’s claim and vowed that the council of ministers would continue to perform its duties as a caretaker government in accordance with the Constitution so as to avert institutional paralysis and the collapse of the state.

The prime minister had earlier refused to yield to the former president’s insistence on filling the key ministerial positions of defence and the judiciary with his or his movement’s political allies, which would guarantee him continued influence in government after leaving office.

Some members of the current government from Aoun’s camp have since intimated that they will boycott forthcoming sessions of the council of ministers or even resign, causing the government to collapse.

The controversy surrounding the executive makes it difficult to assess what lies in store for Lebanon in future, what with an already existing economic and fiscal crisis and the governmental and political crisis aggravated by the latest constitutional crisis presented by a caretaker government assuming the authority of the vacated presidency.

The way out will depend on the relative strength of the existing political alliances. In the light of the current stalemate, a shift needs to happen through realignments or new alliances in order to break the political paralysis.

One of the weakest links is that between the Amal Movement and the Free Patriotic Movement, both key allies of the Shia group Hizbullah. This alliance has lasted since 2006, largely due to Hizbullah’s ability to persuade the two incompatible allies to stick together in the interest of sustaining the “resistance front.”

Now, however, the Free Patriotic Movement wants to nominate its leader, Gibril Bassel, as president, while Nabih Berri of Amal favours Suleiman Franjieh, which puts the two movements on a collision course.

Hizbullah will have to work hard to avert a rupture. It needs Amal in order to keep the largest Shia groups behind it, and it needs a strong Christian ally in order to counter pressures to disarm. These are expected to increase following Lebanon’s recent maritime border agreement with Israel, which nullifies the excuse of maintaining a militia outside the framework of the state.

On the other end of the political spectrum, there is a likelihood that Lebanon’s pro-change and moderate blocs will broaden their alliance in order to promote a candidate of their own for president or prime minister. This could change the balance of political forces in parliament and open the way to deals. They might agree to support Franjieh as president in exchange for support for a pro-change candidate as prime minister, such as Nawaf Salam, for example.

Some have floated the idea of nominating an army commander as the country’s president. This would require a constitutional amendment, but it might be viewed as a last resort in order to prevent the collapse of the state and Civil War. Many of the country’s political forces might prefer a general as president if it means keeping Bassel out of office, as there are few that he has not alienated during the Aoun presidency.

The regional and international dimension is a second factor that will determine the way out of Lebanon’s predicament. The war in Ukraine, rising energy prices, the protest movement in Iran, and the Congressional elections in the US have all diverted attention away from Lebanon’s plight.

Proposals have been aired calling for a conference sponsored by France, Saudi Arabia, or both to get the Lebanese parliamentary blocs to agree on a president, prime minister, and central bank governor, as well as on a number of economic and structural reforms in order for Lebanon to receive loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and pledges of financial aid from the Gulf countries.

One view, supported by Riyadh, supports such a conference on the condition that it reaffirms the principles and confessional power-sharing formulas of the Taif Agreement. Another view, espoused mainly by the Free Patriotic Movement, favours a French-sponsored process that would revise the Taif Agreement to provide for a stronger presidency and reduced powers for the council of ministers, as was the case before the Civil War.

It is unlikely that this option will gain support among Lebanon’s regional and international backers.

A third trend would like to minimise the confessional arrangements in the Lebanese system in order to steer the country closer to being a secular and civil state. This trend is advocated primarily by the pro-change camp, but it could receive support among moderates and Saudi Arabia if it paved the way to activating points of the Taif Agreement, such as the provision calling for the creation of a commission to abolish political sectarianism.

It appears that the idea of a kind of constituent assembly has also gained traction. Last week, the Saudi Embassy in Beirut hosted a conference to mark the 33rd anniversary of the signing of the Taif Agreement and signalling Riyadh’s return as a guarantor of the agreement and the motivator of action on previously unimplemented provisions such as those calling for the abolition of political sectarianism and the decentralisation of the government.   

The third factor is stability. The Banque du Liban, the Lebanese Central Bank, is expected to introduce a unified exchange rate to end the current anarchy in the Lebanese money market. As this would compel the average Lebanese to bear the brunt of the losses sustained by the banking system, it could trigger another wave of the mass protests that Lebanon has experienced since 2019.   

In such a scenario, the pro-change MPs, who control around 10 per cent of the seats in parliament, could acquire enough leverage to persuade the other parliamentary blocs to introduce amendments to the system of government.

On the other hand, if the protests degenerate into violence and skirmishes of a sectarian nature, the traditional elites will gain the upper hand because of their ability to ramp down tensions.  They would then be in a position to impose their conditions for a solution to the crisis.

Meanwhile, any deterioration in border security or any threat on the part of the new Israeli government to the recently concluded maritime border agreement would play into the hands of Hizbullah. In addition to having a greater say in any solution to the crisis, the Lebanese resistance movement would then be better able to strengthen its domestic position, satisfy its allies, and eliminate its adversaries.   

In such a scenario, Hizbullah’s main ally, the Free Patriotic Party, would have a greater shot at the presidency.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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