Back from the brink in Lebanon

November 07, 2016 01:15 am | Updated November 17, 2021 06:21 am IST

The election of >Michel Aoun , the 81-year-old former general, as Lebanon’s President ends a two-and-a-half-year political stalemate. It signals hope that the country’s fractious political class will come together to form a government invested in addressing the many challenges it faces, from basic civil issues to threats coming from neighbouring, civil war-stricken Syria. The length of time it took to elect a President in itself shows the complex nature of the political system. Under a long-standing arrangement, the President has to be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni, and the Speaker of Parliament a Shia. The major political parties represent these sects, and reaching a consensus on key issues is tricky. What makes matters worse is external intervention. Hezbollah, which represents the Shia community, has Iran’s backing, while the Sunni political faction led by Saad Hariri is supported by Saudi Arabia and the West. President Aoun, a Maronite politician, is a Hezbollah ally. His election is the result of an agreement among the Shia, Sunni, and Christian factions. Mr. Hariri backed Mr. Aoun’s election in Parliament, while the President, in return, named Mr. Hariri as Prime Minister. The Hezbollah chief, Hassan Nasrallah, has declared that he won’t oppose Mr. Hariri’s appointment.

However, Mr. Hariri may find it difficult to form a truly representative government that can survive in Lebanon’s confessional system. His acceptance of Mr. Aoun as President could be a tactical move given the Sunnis’ diminishing political clout in the country. He may also face pressure and resistance on foreign policy from Hezbollah, which runs a militia that is stronger than the national army. Hezbollah fighters are arrayed alongside the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, while Mr. Hariri’s regional patron, Saudi Arabia, backs the anti-Assad rebels. The animosity between Mr. Hariri and Mr. Nasrallah has a personal side as well. Mr. Hariri accuses the Hezbollah of assassinating his father, the former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. But despite these fault-lines, there are many areas of cooperation. The country saw deadly bombings, claimed by the Islamic State, over the past two years, reviving memories of the 1980s civil war atrocities. Fighting between Sunni armed groups and Hezbollah is common in certain pockets. Lebanon also faces a huge refugee crisis — a million Syrians have crossed the border since 2011. Unless these issues are addressed quickly, Lebanon could also plunge into civil strife. The leading political groups need to set aside differences and expand the scope of the understanding they have now reached.

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