Hanna Saleh

2022 Presidential Elections: Perpetuating Chaos and Isolation

Lebanese presidents were never made in Lebanon. Foreign powers have always been involved in choosing them. The degree of Lebanese influence in this matter is always dwarfed during crises and “exaggerated” during good times. In the end, it is never a domestic decision as much as it reflects external balances and interests!

In the mid-twenties, before Lebanon obtained its independence, the French High Commissioner summoned Lebanon’s notables to discuss who should be president. The day following this consultation, Charles Debbas, who had been not invited to the meeting, was appointed! Independent Lebanon’s first president, Bechara El Khoury, won because of a conflict between the French and the English, while the second president of the republic, Camille Chamoun, the Socialist National Front’s candidate, won because of an Anglo-Syrian intersection of interest. Even President Fouad Chehab, whose term we owe for the development of a state of institutions, justice and social welfare in which the constitution and laws are adhered to, was not elected as a result of the 1958 “revolution” in as much as his presidency emerged because of an agreement between Abdel Nasser and the Americans.

In 1964, following Chehab’s refusal to amend the constitution and extend his time in office with a second term, the parliamentary majority, Al-Nahij (The Approach), decided to elect Deputy Prince Abdul Aziz Chehab as president. The prince slept a president and woke up to the majority electing Charles Helou to the presidency after a night of calls with the Egyptians, Syrians, and Americans. Parliament then decided in favor of Suleiman Franjieh in 1970. He famously defeated his rival Elias Sarkis by a single vote. However, the facts of the matter are different, as he would not have won if it had not been for the “Mirage” crisis, when the Second Bureau exposed Russia’s attempt to hijack the “Mirage” plane, pushing the Russian ambassador to intervene and demand that Deputy Kamal Jumblatt not elect Sarkis. Jumblatt divided the votes of his bloc, which caused a surprising upset.

Between 1975 and 2005, the occupying Syrian regime forces imposed the country’s presidents. The only exception came in 1982 when the Israeli occupying forces decided the question as Bashir Gemayel was elected during a parliamentary session guarded by Israeli tanks. After the Syrian army left the country, Michel Suleiman was named president during the Lebanese National Dialogue Conference in Doha under Arab-international auspices. This remarkable precedent left Parliament with nothing to do but sign the agreement!

The protected vacuum in the Presidency of the Republic began in 2014 and went on for 30 months. Hezbollah suspended Parliament by boycotting the sessions and preventing the quorum from being reached until its only candidate, Michel Aoun, was imposed president on October 31, 2016. On that day, Representative Strida Geagea said that the president had been made in Lebanon. However, it was apparent from the beginning that he was chosen because the US had been keen on the “Iranian option” as it was signing the nuclear agreement with Iran. The 2016 presidency was a turning point for US engagement with the region. Its 2016 decision is similar to that of US Iraq Envoy Paul Bremer announcing the dissolution of the Iraqi army, thereby handing Iraq over to the loyalists of the mullah regime in Iran!

What happened in 2016 warrants some contemplation. Although the nuclear agreement undermined Arab interests and destabilized Arab countries, the parliamentary majority opposed to Hezbollah saw it as the fate of Lebanon and the region. They made it easy to “pass the rifle” from shoulder to shoulder, so people witnessed the “Merab moment” as the alliance between Geagea and Aoun that would lead to the latter’s election was announced. Later on, Saad Hariri would vote for Aoun, despite his team’s broad opposition and the decision’s unpopularity, in return for the premiership. On the ground, agreements were reached with Hezbollah, and the faction enforcing Iran’s hegemony got the keys to the country. The state and its decision were kidnapped, with the Presidency of the Republic falling under Iranian occupation after the actual president became the Secretary-General of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah. This dangerous development prompted the Maronite Patriarch to demand the liberation of the presidency as the country continued to be isolated from its allies and made into a country hostile to the region from which Captagon is exported and the internal affairs of Arab countries are interfered with!

Before going to the 2022 elections, many questions can be raised. They can be summed up in one core question about the lack of influence of Lebanese political forces in deciding who occupies the country’s most prominent office, the presidency? Is it the result of the sectarian political system, which links sectarian parties with external power, and sectarian identification is more powerful than patriotic sentiments? Historians might have to be called in to answer this question.

One thing we can be sure of is that the context in which this year’s election is being fought differs from that of 2016. Domestically, it comes after the country’s great collapse, Hezbollah has complete control, and Aoun’s presidency was shown to be a failure. This state of affairs ignited the October 17 revolution, which exposed the political class and its corruption, pushing the political elites out of public spaces and turning them into pariahs, but it neither toppled this political class nor held it accountable, despite the sectarian-quota-based spoil-sharing system showing cracks. Nonetheless, October 17 forced Hezbollah to become the spearhead of defending this corrupt political system, enabling it to overpower the state and monopolize decision-making and making it impossible for Hezbollah to avoid taking responsibility for what it has done to Lebanon and its people.

The Party lost its parliamentary majority after many of its allies lost out, and others were weakening. It is thus unable to dictate and impose its will. Meanwhile, the arrival of 13 deputies associated with October 17 shook things up. These are representatives of the revolution, figures who make up part of the fabric of this country, its regions, and communities. Despite the brevity of the time they have so far spent in the office, they imposed an unfamiliar approach to politics in terms of their commitment to respecting the constitution and the country’s laws. They are now faced with the challenge of putting forward a dignified and impartial candidate for the presidency whom the public is convinced of and who is committed to the constitution, who can represent the nation and be a role model.

Doing so would allow these deputies to thwart the authoritarians’ attempts to reach a “deal” that satisfies some of the external forces and allows the coalition led by Hezbollah to continue to dominate the country, replacing Aoun with Suleiman Franjieh or even Gibran Bassil. The latter scenario would mean disregarding the people’s suffering and the steps needed to allow the country to rise again... What is happening today in the presidential tug-of-war between the Presidential Palace and the Governmental Palace comes against the backdrop of the struggle for shares in the government; it is deeply reflective of the political class’s schizophrenia and political decadence!

In parallel, the regional context has also changed, despite the incursions of the mullah regime. However, the “Iranian option” is not in full swing with the failure of “Vienna;” nor is the Arab world in the same position, as demonstrated by the summits in Jeddah that included US President Joe Biden, and what these summits reflected in terms of concern for Lebanon, support for its sovereignty, stability and security, and determination to help its people. There can be no doubt that both externally and domestically, things have changed. Though relative, these domestic changes saw people mobilize and take politics into their own hands, which, if it continues, will lead to the development of a “historic bloc.” If this course is stopped in its tracks and no popular movement is capable of influencing change emerges, the vacancy in the presidency will be protracted, and our hopes for change will remain on hold!