Lebanon: Setbacks in Selecting a President

In Lebanon political violence has developed its own deadly rhythm. Whenever there's a major political controversy involving the country's anti-Syrian faction, it's likely to be followed by a blast in a Christian neighborhood. And so it was in the days ahead of this week's kickoff of a crucial parliamentary effort to end a two-year political stalemate and begin the task of choosing the country's next president.

This time the victim was a relatively obscure Christian Maronite lawmaker named Antoine Ghanem. He and six others died in a bombing that ripped through an upscale Christian neighborhood during the evening rush hour last Wednesday. Again the script was predictable: Lebanon's parliamentary majority is blaming Syria for the killing; the Hizbullah-led opposition is blaming other "shadowy" powers.

Less predictable, however, is just who the new president will be. There is no doubt that it has to be a Christian—the country's sectarian power-sharing agreement mandates that—but the question is what kind of Christian that person will be. A cohort of Syria with no specific opposition to Hizbullah, à la current President Emile Lahoud, or one of the Western-friendly anti-Syrian/Hizbullah partisans? Some magic figure in between?

The Hizbullah-allied house speaker, Nabih Berri, has called for a parliamentary meeting on Tuesday to kick off the selection process, which grants a two-month window for some agreement to emerge before things truly begin to fall apart. But the plan has already run into a major setback, as opposition lawmakers from Hizbullah, its Christian allies and members of Berri's own party are largely boycotting tomorrow's session—thereby preventing the quorum necessary for a successful vote.

While Berri has announced his intention to sit in his office tomorrow regardless, Lebanese politics once again appears stalemated. But this time the impasse can't last forever. Parliament must choose a new president within the next two months or risk even broader chaos.

In the wake of the assassination and ahead of tomorrow's stillborn parliamentary session, NEWSWEEK spoke to some key figures inside Lebanon's Christian community and found reactions ranging from calm analysis to righteously indignant white heat.

Ghanem's death—like so many others in recent years—had all the chilling hallmarks of a professional assassination. The lawmaker had returned to Lebanon only a few days earlier after seeking refuge abroad for some time. According to fellow legislator and current candidate for president Butros Harb, the rental car that exploded and killed Ghanem on Wednesday had been driven out of the lot only 30 minutes before it went up in flames. "It was not a route he takes every day," Harb says. "They knew where he was going. I think the assassination aimed to destroy the initiative of the speaker."

Still, Harb—like Ghanem, a member of the pro-Western parliamentary majority— expresses optimism about the parliamentary effort to find a compromise candidate. "I think [the compromise initiative] will continue. The process should not stop. If we stop, the killers succeeded … And I encourage the speaker to continue."

For his part, though, former President Amine Gemayel is dismissive of the Berri-led compromise initiative. "What does it mean, 'compromise,' when the negotiations are written in the color of blood?" he asks. "Unfortunately, until now we haven't heard any strong voices in the opposition objecting to these assassinations or blaming the assassins."

While that's not strictly true—Hizbullah has denounced this and every other recent assassination—Gemayel's point is that, all sound bites aside, final accountability is rarely assigned for these killings. He should know. Gemayel himself inherited Lebanon's presidency in 1982 after his older brother was assassinated. More recently his politician son Pierre was gunned down, last winter. Another key player, former general Michel Aoun, is keeping his cards close to his vest. In a statement released by his press office, Hizbullah's chief Christian ally called for "the consolidation of our national unity" in the wake of Ghanem's assassination.

The "national unity" phrase has become a sad—and largely meaningless—cliché in Lebanon's bloody history. And certainly several recent forecasts predicting decisive change in Lebanon have not been realized. At first the Cedar Revolution—the civic mobilization following the assassination of former premier Rafik Hariri—seemed poised to run the table after forcing Syria's withdrawal in 2005. But almost as soon as that goal was achieved, the management skills of the governing majority were quickly overwhelmed by the efficient opposition of pro-Hizbullah forces, the confusion fostered by an extended campaign of bombings that continued even after Syria's pullout, as well as the political inexperience of Hariri's son, who was recruited to head up the majority bloc in parliament.

Likewise, fresh from the boost it got in last summer's war with Israel, Hizbullah seemed poised to shake the Western-friendly government from its delicate perch atop the famous Lebanese cedar tree. But 10 months later the massive tent protests and a shutdown of Beirut's central district have failed to dislodge Prime Minister Fouad Siniora—or make him repent for his open collaboration with Western powers.

The crisis surrounding the presidency, though, is slightly different. Most important, there's a firm deadline. Lahoud must step down by Nov. 24; failure to choose a new president by that date could provoke a constitutional crisis. That, however, is no guarantee that a candidate acceptable to all in Parliament will be found. (In an interview last week, Hizbullah's second in command, Sheik Naim Qassem, told the London daily Asharq al-Awsat that what Lebanon needs in a president is someone who can serve as an unbiased "referee" between the Hizbullah-led opposition and the government.)

In so polarized a political milieu, such a moderate may be hard to find. Certainly Lahoud has hardly been neutral, acting alternately as a pit bull when it comes to the current parliamentary majority and something more like a loyal lap dog when it comes to Syria. When asked about the prospects of finding someone, Harb again tries to sound positive. "Many names are being dealt with now that can be accepted by both parties," he claims. "It's a little bit early now," he admits when pressed for specifics. "When the list is shortened … we can be more precise."

Meanwhile, Lahoud has suggested naming current Lebanese Armed Forces Gen. Michel Sulaiman as an interim president, should a consensus fail to materialize. Harb, however, predicts Sulaiman would reject any such appointment. "First of all," Harb tells NEWSWEEK, "[Lahoud] doesn't have the right to appoint anyone … He doesn't have the right to stay one more second after Nov. 24 … Furthermore, the army general would never accept to be nominated by Lahoud if the parliamentarians do not agree. It's not possible."

If no compromise candidate is found, the scenarios are bleak. The pro-Hizbullah Aoun has suggested that the principle of "the strongest on the ground"—with all its civil-war undertones—could prevail. Aoun's allies may also attempt to filibuster. Speaking with NEWSWEEK on the day the boycott of Tuesday's session was announced, pro-Aoun legislator Ibrahim Kanaan hinted that the party may insist that the Constitutional Court—moribund since 2005—should be asked to step in. "While we consider that the presidential election should technically take place within the time frame set by the constitution," says Kanaan, "we also undoubtedly believe that the Constitutional Court should be enabled to look into the regularity of the electoral process."

Alternatively, that narrow parliamentary majority could simply attempt to elect one of its own members, like Harb, without the opposition's consent. There is some controversy over the requirements needed to sustain a quorum and certify an election result, but if its back is against the wall, the majority in government could simply wing it and dare Hizbullah to escalate. (In the same Asharq al-Awsat interview Qassem obliquely suggested that "no one can foresee" whether Hizbullah's weapons might be used inside Lebanon, were the government to go for a power grab.)

Bottom line: after years of needing to employ crude tactics such as comparing the size of opposing demonstrations in downtown Beirut, the eventual outcome of this presidential fight may actually provide one of the best indicators in some time as to which side is, in Aoun's words, stronger on the ground. Failure, as always, remains possible in Lebanon—but this time merely failing to act won't be an option.