Lebanon’s Governing Crisis Deepens

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Edited by Medlir Mema
Fellow, Middle East Policy Council


Nine months since the resignation of Hassan Diab as prime minister, Lebanon continues to teeter from crisis to crisis. Its once-vibrant economy is now a shadow of itself as the country’s currency continues to lose value at a worrying pace. Investigations by French and UK authorities into the finances of the long-serving Central Bank governor may now lead to charges of “money laundering and corrupt practices.” Meanwhile, the political deadlock between President Michel Aoun—a Maronite Christian—and designated Prime Minister Saad Hariri—a Sunni Muslim—shows no sign of abating.

Lebanon’s constitution and the subsequent Taif Agreement are based on a sectarian power-sharing system, in which the president must be a Maronite Christian and the prime minister a Sunni Muslim. Critics of the system have expressed concern that the arrangement “guarantees the representation of certain groups while also contributing to decision-making paralysis.” These concerns came to a head last week when President Aoun seemed to step over the line by trying to push aside PM-designate Hariri. To make matters worse, last week saw the resignation of the foreign minister following comments “that appeared to suggest the Gulf [countries] w[ere] responsible for ISIS.”

Frustration with the worsening economic, political, and security situation has been simmering under the surface for some time, leading to occasional violent public outbursts. Former government officials are beginning to speak out. In an op-ed for the 961 website, Tracy Chamoun, a former ambassador to Jordan concludes that “[i]t is time for the PM Designate to recuse himself in order to make room for someone else after [9] wasted months of attempting to form a government, a period which has only seen a catastrophic deterioration in the lives of the Lebanese.  Under similar conditions in any decent country in the world, the president would be impeached on the grounds of gross misconduct and the continued failure to do his duty or he would resign.”

What has been the reaction to President Aoun’s attempted “soft” coup?

President Aoun turned heads last week when he hinted that, given Saad Hariri’s inability to create a new government, the PM-designate should resign. Arab News’ Naija Houssari, points out that the letter from the Lebanese president has been seen by many as setting a dangerous precedent, adding, “Aoun’s verdict was contained in a letter read out to parliament on Friday….  In the letter, Aoun said he would not be responsible for the consequences of obstructing the formation of the government and held Hariri responsible for the delays in an attempt to have him dismissed…. The letter sets a precedent in the history of Lebanese politics, and, according to a number of parliamentarians and jurists, it is ‘an attempt to amend the Taif Agreement and the constitution’.”

The National’s Elias Sakr writes that, among those who criticized the contents of the letter, which was meant to be discussed in parliament the following day but was shelved until last Saturday, were “former prime ministers Najib Mikati, Fouad Siniora, and Tamam Salam, [who] denounced the president’s letter as an attempt to shift blame and to infringe on the constitutional powers of the prime minister designate, a post reserved for Sunnis under Lebanon’s confessional power-sharing system. The president, a Christian, has accused Mr. Hariri of seeking to dictate the Cabinet line-up in breach of the constitution, which requires both officials to sign off on the formation decree before the proposed government can seek a vote of confidence in Parliament.”

How did Mr. Aoun’s camp respond to charges of constitutional breaches?

The immediate backlash appears to have caught the president’s inner circle by surprise. This may also explain why Mr. Aoun’s son-in-law, Gebran Bassil—who is the “head of the largest Maronite Christian party, the Free Patriotic Movement,” and harbors presidential ambitions of his own, an aspiration that may have the tacit support of Hezbollah, according to an Arab Weekly report—softened the tone of the letter.  He clarified that “Lebanese President Michel Aoun did not intend to revoke prime-minister-designate Saad al-Hariri’s mandate when he wrote to parliament last week declaring that Hariri could not form a government…. “The purpose is not to take back the designation from the prime minister-designate,” Bassil told a session of parliament convened to discuss the letter. PM-designate Hariri said on Saturday he will not form a cabinet that simply caters to President Aoun’s wishes. ‘I will only form the kind of government needed to stop collapse and prevent the big crash that is threatening the Lebanese,’ Hariri told a parliament session.”

Bassil and his allies, however, have continued their campaign of maximum pressure on the PM designate by demanding the creation of the government in line with their political bloc’s preferences. As seen in this Naharnet Newsdesk report, these remain “unresolved; Baabda and the Center House continue to lock horns over the way the new government should be formed…. [W]hat Free Patriotic Movement chief MP Gebran Bassil said in parliament reflects ‘what the bloc wants, which is the formation of a government according to unified standards’…. ‘Hariri is still linking the government’s formation to regional developments and to the negotiations that are happening on several fronts,’ the sources went on to say, calling on the PM-designate to ‘make an initiative towards President Aoun and hold a frankness meeting’.”

How are Lebanon’s former FM’s comments related to the stand-off?

Amid this constitutional crisis, and not wholly unrelated to it, in a widely circulated interview published by Press TV, the now former foreign minister, Charbel Wahbe, was reported to have blamed the Gulf countries for the 2014 capture of several Syrian and Iraqi cities by the Islamic State (Daesh), and for praising Hizballah for coming to Syria’s defense: “Those countries of love, friendship and fraternity — they brought us Daesh and planted it in the plains of Nineveh and Anbar and Palmyra,’ he told Al Hurra television during an interview late on Monday, without naming any country…. They were all captured by Daesh in 2014, before the terrorist group was crushed in the two countries in 2017…. Wehbe said the Lebanese Hezbollah resistance group defended Lebanon’s sovereignty against Israeli war and occupation.”

Mr. Wahbe’s comments were swiftly condemned by some Lebanese politicians as well as Gulf officials, who demanded his immediate resignation. Writing for Asharq Alawsat, Zuhair Al-Harthi characterized the statements of Lebanon’s top diplomat as “an attempt to demean the people of the Gulf, and they expose a chauvinistic view of the origins, legacy and history of Arabism. They were preceded by an advisor to the president of the republic attacking Saudi Arabia, which indicates that the Kingdom is being singled out by an effort to harm Lebanon’s ties to it…. The resigned minister’s rhetoric is evidence of his subordination to foreign dictates and the defense of Iran’s interests at the expense of Lebanon’s Arabism. It also shows his indifference to his country’s ties with others, as he behaves as though he is unaware of the tens of thousands of Lebanese working in the Gulf.”

Lebanese columnist Khairallah Khairallah noted in a recent Arab Weekly op-ed that the former foreign minister’s views are especially worrying. They reflect the views of a large segment of Lebanon’s political establishment who, as Mr. Khairallah puts it, are walking to the tune of the “Iranian agenda that is being implemented by Hezbollah. The words of Charbel Wahbe…are not a minor matter. The problem simply lies in the fact that Charbel Wahbe…is part of a school that has been instrumental in the process of controlling Lebanon and placing it under Iran’s will…. In the end, what can be expected from the country of the President of the Republic, Michel Aoun, while Hezbollah is controlling all its sinews? The statements of Charbel Wahbe are only a small detail in a major tragedy. This tragedy is represented by the repositioning of Lebanon outside the Arab system.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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