Lebanon: Another President in the Country’s Never-ending Crisis?

After a political deadlock that has lasted for over two years, the recent election of Michel Aoun as the new president of Lebanon on October 31st 2016 has generated more questions than answers. The dramatic consequences of the Syrian conflict make for a delicate balance in this small country, where the cultures of mountain and sea are intertwined. To understand what made this new governing alliance possible, and what is at stake in the coming months, we have interviewed Ghassan Saliba, president of the Information Centre for foreign workers of the CCOO trade union of Catalonia, who is also responsible for social cohesion and Arab world politics.

Alex Anfruns: Lebanon has been steeped in a long lasting political crisis for more then two years.  In your view, what dysfunctions has this crisis brought to light?

Ghassan Saliba: The crisis in Lebanon is not limited to these past two years with no president. It is a generalized crisis of the regime. The system divided along confessional lines, the hegemony of a political class that also represents the oligarchy, feudalism, and the use of religion by this political class to defend its interests. This class has no scruples and is willing to resort to any means to defend its interests and its power. It makes use of religion and appeals to foreign powers, both regional and international.

Since the so-called “national pact” of 1943 that established the confessional division, through the civil wars, foreign interventions, until this day, Lebanon has had very little time of peace. The problem does not simply lie in the election of a new president, but in the confessional political system itself, which has prevented the emergence of a real state, with functioning institutions, and the strengthening of a concept of citizenship to combat political clientelism and corruption.

Not only have two and a half years passed without a president, but we also have a parliament that has extended its own mandate twice in recent years, and we have all public services and infrastructure paralysed. The most striking example is the crisis of garbage collection. It has been two years with no garbage collection service, all because of quarrels between different confessional political leaders, who dominate the country, over their profit percentages from the garbage collection. The fact that we have reached this level of decadence illustrates the absence, or the disappearance, of the notion of a state.

AA: One could reply that Lebanon’s recent history has been marked by a series of upheavals of great geopolitical magnitude…

GS: Absolutely. Let’s recall that the Taif Agreement of 1989, sponsored by the United States, Saudi Arabia and Syria was useful in stopping the civil war but not to find a lasting solution or to consolidate the state. It produced a redistribution of power among different confessions and solidified foreign influence in Lebanon, which was enough to pacify the country in a few years. The peace lasted for as long as the honeymoon between Syria and Saudi Arabia did, similarly for Syria and the United States. In fact, it lasted until the second gulf war and the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Since then, Lebanon has returned to a period of political tensions, standing on the edge of new armed confrontations.

The assassination of Rafic Hariri in 2005 was the peak of the regional confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Syria (also between the U.S. and Syria) and has divided Lebanon in two major blocks: the pro-Saudi “March 14” block and the pro-Syrian “March 8” block, also known as the “axis of resistance” (Syria-Iran-Hezbollah). The war in Syria has further deepened divisions in Lebanon and has paralysed all institutions in the country. Politicians have split between those, sponsored by the Saudis, who opposed the Syrian regime, and those who are allied to it, under the “axis of resistance” umbrella (Syria-Iran-Hezbollah). Since then, parliament has auto-extended its mandate twice, and since March 2014 there have been no new elections for President of the Republic.

AA: How are these tensions reflected in everyday political life?

GS: We should stress that the president is not elected by general suffrage.  He is selected by parliament, currently split along the middle between the March 14 and March 8 groups. Each group had its own candidate. The March 14 one backed Samir Geagea, from the Lebanese Phalangists, known for his crimes during the civil war, and the March 8 one backed general Michel Aoun, an ally of Hezbollah. The political class that “runs” the country – with hardly any moral issues – used to say that there would be no presidential elections in Lebanon until there was a deal between the U.S. and Iran on the nuclear issue, or between Iran and Saudi Arabia, or until there was a solution to the Syrian conflict. This is the political reasoning that has reigned for the past two and a half years.

AA: Finally, on October 31, Michel Aoun was elected as the new president. What made Saad Hariri, head of the March 14 alliance and of the Future Movement, throw his weight behind Michel Aoun?

GS: A number of factors might have played a role in Saad Hariri’s shift, from total opposition to general Michel Aoun, until ultimately reaching an agreement and backing him, which allowed the election to move forward and Michel Aoun to become President of Lebanon. The first one I would raise is the crisis that Saudi Arabia is going through, an economic crisis, and the failure of its war in Yemen. Secondly, the crash of Hariri’s big companies, since his holding is very dependent on the Saudi economy. Both Saudi and Lebanese versions of OGER are in trouble, with thousands of layoffs and over a year’s delay in payment of salaries. This has been reflected in divisions inside the Future Movement, since a significant part of its politics have been based in clientelism and money. Moreover, other factors may have contributed, such as internal disputes in the Saudi royal family, a more distant relation between Saudi Arabia and the United States, the Iran nuclear deal that left Saudi Arabia on the sidelines, or the correlation of regional forces that favours Russia-Syria-Iran.

In any case, leaving aside Hariri’s reasons for changing his position, and Michel Aoun’s election as president, it is hard to fix the structural crisis of the regime with the same reasoning that has dominated confessional-group politics in the country. A new balance of power, and the formula of having Aoun as president and Hariri as prime minister, will not fix anything. The main challenge for the president is to bring about meaningful changes and reforms that must start with a new, and modern, electoral law, eliminating the confessional distribution, so that Lebanon can have a single electoral circumscription and a proportional system, and other reforms to recover state institutions and public services, putting them again at the service of the people, etc. If not, general Aoun will be just another president in Lebanon’s never-ending crisis.

AA: As a neighbouring country, Lebanon has been particularly affected by the Syrian conflict. How has the unstable political situation been affected by the influx of one and a half million refugees?

GS: Lebanon has always been a country whose fate is closely tied to the situation in Syria. Even the creation of Lebanon is the result of an artificial border erected between both countries, imposed by colonialism. Therefore there are historical, political, economical, cultural and even family ties between Syria and Lebanon. In practice the border between Syria and Lebanon does not exist, since the movement of people is not subject to any control. One should also recall the presence, for a period of over 35 years, of Syrian troops in Lebanese territory and the dominance of Syria over Lebanese politics. The alliances under the “axis of resistance” are very important these days, with direct influence on Lebanese politics in resistance to Israel, as well as the presence of Lebanese fighters on all sides of the conflict in Syria.

The Syrian conflict has intensified the Lebanese regime crisis and the political deadlock, the withering away of the state and infrastructure. Lebanon is a country with no infrastructure, no public service in terms of health and education, and with a fragile economy. The productive sectors are at a bare minimum, and only the financial and banking sectors has been functioning. On one hand, the traces of over 35 years of Syrian control over Lebanese politics have remained in one form or another, even in spite of the conflict in Syria. And on the other hand, the arrival of almost 2 million Syrians, refugees and workers, has deepened the crisis and the absence of public services and infrastructure. Can you imagine a country of 4 million people, and that’s including half a million Palestinian refugees, which all of a sudden gets 2 million more? It’s almost a 50% increase in the population.

AA: How have the Lebanese people lived through all this? And what is the current situation of the Syrian refugees?

GS: In the beginning, the different political groups in Lebanon wanted to take advantage politically of the arrival of Syrian refugees, especially the groups connected to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. This has been possible through the conditioned and disorganized aid distribution, as well as attempts to introduce groups linked to Daesh and Jabhat al Nusra in refugee camps, in order to use them to destabilize the country by taking armed control of neighbourhoods in Beirut, Tripoli, Sidon or in villages near the border, or in attacks and kidnappings directed at the Lebanese army. Only after realising that the majority of Syrian refugees rejected being manipulated in this fashion did political groups, like Hariri’s “Future Movement”, start to apply measures to restrict the entry of refugees. We have to highlight the role of the Lebanese army which, in spite of their modest means, managed to weaken and dismantle groups that were taking advantage of refugees.

The other side to the Syrian conflict consequences is the arrival of working-age refugees, a massive influx of labour with hardly any control, people that are willing to work under any conditions and for any pay in order to support their families, and this has negatively affected the Lebanese workforce. Lebanese businessmen and farmers suddenly had the option of exploiting these Syrian workers for low salaries, and firing Lebanese workers. This takes place not only in precarious, blue-collar jobs, but also in qualified, white-collar and services jobs. NGOs, trade unions and the Lebanese left have tried through all possible means to raise awareness against racism and to make efforts to address the peoples’ needs, both Lebanese and Syrian, in terms of health and education.

AA: In Europe, especially in the beginning of the so-called “Arab Spring”, there has been a tendency to underestimate the regional weight of the “oil monarchies”, at least at the level of official discourse… What are your views on this?

GS: In the popular uprisings, wrongly named “Arab Spring”, in Tunisia and Egypt, I think both Europe and the U.S. used the Gulf Monarchies, and Turkey at the head, as a way to finance counter-revolution. The U.S. and the west in general were fearful of truly radical changes in the Arab world, changes along the lines of what the masses demanded on the streets, “freedom, dignity, social justice”, and so they resorted to counter-revolutionary elements to thwart these efforts. These groups included the Muslim Brotherhood, backed by Qatar and Turkey, and violent salafist groups, murderers such as the different Al Qaeda offshoots (Daesh, Jabhat al Nusra), backed by Saudi Arabia.

In truth, I don’t believe western powers underestimated the influence of the oil monarchies. Quite the opposite, they were counting on them, especially on their ability to use their riches to finance U.S. and western political operations in the region. To such an extent that they managed to stop any real change and destroy countries such as Libya, Syria and Yemen, and they managed to make astronomical weapons sales deals with Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait. They are well aware, and they have maintained their close relations with Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are countries that finance terrorism.

AA: Five years on, what is the outlook among Lebanese progressive forces about the coming future of the region?

GS: I think we are facing a long and treacherous process of change. Like all revolutionary processes, it will have progress and setbacks, but in the Middle East it will be especially complex and painful. The local oligarchies will do everything to stop change. And given the region’s strategic, economic and cultural importance, the U.S. and Europe will also do everything in their means to stop the Middle Eastern peoples from controlling their resources and their development models.

But progressive forces, the Arab left, has to organize, unite, and present a national and democratic alternative to the monarchies and the dictatorship. The left and the secular progressive forces are the ones that can push the process of democratic and social change, towards a national dignity in general, and in their compromise with the struggle of the Palestinian people to get back their national rights. The Palestinian cause has been, and should remain, the main cause and goal for the Arab peoples. The commitment to the Palestinian cause is the crucial barometer to distinguish friends from foes, and to separate revolutionaries from counter-revolutionaries.

AA: In the current crossroads, what could be the role of the youth in the Arab world?

GS: The Arab youth has been driving the revolts, the youth out on the streets has voiced its demand for freedom, dignity and social justice, because young people in general, and women in particular, have been the victims of the dictatorships, of the absolute monarchies and of Wahhabi doctrine, this extremely backward version of religion. There have been positive examples of young people coming out, time and again, against the dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt, against the reactionary islamization of society and against the structure of the state. In Lebanon, the youth has been out on the streets against the confessional regime, fighting for a secular state. It has been protesting corruption and the absence of the state in providing public services for the people.

The most important thing is sustaining this, being patient and knowing which goals to prioritize at each time, and especially articulating a powerful, democratic alternative, which is able to step up, when the conditions are right, as a real alternative to the repressive regimes and the obscurantist groups. The progressive youth can articulate around a program that will prioritize: a democratic change, social and economic development, sovereignty and national dignity, control over resources, a fight against obscurantism and fascism, peace, unity and integrity of their countries, and against foreign interference in their country’s affairs.

The main priority these days is to build a movement for peace, against all wars, against the world war that is being fostered in our land. The Middle East currently has the biggest concentration of regional and foreign military armies since the second world war. The Arab youth, with the solidarity of the youth from around the world, has to back and prioritize the fight for peace, against the arms race, and for a fair and multipolar world.

• First published at Investig’Action

Alex Anfruns is a lecturer, journalist and editor-in-chief of independent media outlet Investig’Action in Brussels. In 2007 he helped direct the documentary “Palestina, la verdad asediada. Voces por la paz” (available with Catalan, Spanish, English and Arabic subtitles). Between 2009 and 2014 he made several trips to Egypt and the occupied Palestinian territories. He has edited the monthly Journal de Notre Amérique since 2015. Read other articles by Alex.