07/18/2014, 00.00
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With its independence and very existence at stake, Lebanon needs a new president

by Fady Noun
Michel Aoun and Samir Geagea should agree on sharing power so that Lebanon can be protected from the raging regional conflict whose effects are particularly felt at this time in Iraq and Syria.

Beirut (AsiaNews) - Lebanon's Independence and even its very existence are at stake, said a Western diplomatic source in Beirut. He is surprised that Lebanon's Maronites have not tried to shield their country from a regional storm that could still hit it, and they are taking risks by letting the presidential seat that is rightful theirs remain vacant in order to fulfil the ambition of filling it themselves.

The post has been vacant since 25 May, when Michel Sleiman's presidential mandate ended. To be elected, a new president must win a two-third vote in the 128-seat House in the first round, and an absolute majority, or 65 votes, in a second round. However, neither "leading" candidate in this presidential election, Michel Aoun and Samir Geagea, have enough votes to get elected, and neither is willing to compromise with the other.

Thus, only a compromise candidate has a chance of being elected. Geagea is resigned to this solution, but Aoun, believing that only he is entitled to the presidency because of his popularity and the size of the parliamentary bloc he leads, is systematically preventing a quorum in the Chamber of Deputies hoping to wear down his opponents and win them over to his side.

In exchange for his election, Mr. Aoun promises to ensure that Saad Hariri, in exile for fear of being murdered, would enjoy the necessary security for his return. The latter, however, has made his agreement his conditional on that of his Christian ally, Samir Geagea, who has rejected the bargain, and that of his Saudi sponsor, whose attention is elsewhere. There is no sign that this power struggle, which has lasted for two months, will end any time soon.

The diplomatic source does not directly mention Michel Aoun and Samir Geagea, but they are clearly indicated by the following lucid comment. "Are they really free?" Freedom here means the leeway that Michel Aoun and Samir Geagea have vis-à-vis their allies, the Shias in the former case, the Sunnis in the second, in terms of reaching out to their political adversaries in order to protect Lebanon from regional axes, respectively the Syrian-Iranian axis for the former, and the US-Saudi axis for the latter.

"Bringing Lebanon back to the centre, isolating it from the raging regional conflict, whose effects are felt particularly at this time, in Iraq and Syria, that is the objective the Lebanese should be striving for, especially Christians," the Lebanon observer noted.

This is a clear reference to the Baabda Declaration, made during President Sleiman's mandate, an arrangement to which all of Lebanon's political forces, including Hizbollah, had agreed at the time, and under which they were committed to keeping the Lebanon "at a distance" from the region's main regional axes.

Hizbollah's military involvement in Syria, denounced by President Sleiman before he left office, dealt a serious blow to this policy and exposed the country to terrorist actions by Sunni terrorist groups that belong to the same camp as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (EIIL). That risk has not yet been eliminated, especially since fighting currently rages between Syrian rebels and Hizbollah in Qalamoun, the Syrian region along Lebanon's eastern borders.

For the diplomatic source, the fact that Lebanon, its government institutions and security have not already broken down is largely due to "to its smallness and strategic insignificance," as well as, he notes intelligently, because of "Israel's existence on its southern border." Otherwise, it would have been swept away by the blowing storm, which can still get worse, if the logic of confrontation outweighs the logic of negotiation, especially if the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear programme fail.

The current fighting in Iraq and the Islamic State that is carving a space for itself out of Iraq and Syria are but part "of a pre-bargaining escalation," the diplomat said, but there is not a reason to tempt fate. It is, he said, about weakening Iran to contain its influence in the Middle East and establish a better balance of power between regional axes and, ultimately, Washington and Moscow, which are waging a fight for influence with the whole world as the battleground, especially since it extends to a European country like the Ukraine, parts of which have been seized by a separatist fever fuelled by the great Russian neighbour.

For our observer, this escalation should not be confused with an actual all-out clash. The region, he says, is moving towards negotiations and the boundaries laid down by the Sykes-Picot Agreement are not going to be called into question. Indeed, it is difficult for him to see, for example, an independent Kurdistan negotiating over its territory with four countries: Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran. What is more, he said, new borders would undermine not only the regional order, but the world order as well.

"As was the case in Lebanon, this would lead to more population displacements and the creation of ethnically homogeneous areas, zones of influence, and autonomous areas," he said.

Regarding the Islamic State (EIIL), he sees in it a temporary structure intended to redefine areas of influence, without popular or historical depth or future. He notes in this regard that even the allies of these Islamic groups dare not declare themselves officially for fear of tarnishing their own image in the eyes of the Western world. "Besides, is this the new face of Islam born from the Arab Spring?" he asks.

Coming back to Lebanon's Christians, especially the Maronites, the source hopes that Michel Aoun and Samir Geagea will agree to power sharing, despite it its idealism, so as shield Lebanon from a great shock that is always possible, given the uncertain nature of the regional situation and possible risks of a breakdown of talks on Iran's nuclear programme, especially as hawks in Israel are eager to impose a military solution to this issue.

"A comprehensive overview of the dangers facing the region, in particular Lebanon, should give the parties pause to think and act more wisely, even if it comes at the expense of their personal aspirations," the source said.

For now, "The security agreement is holding, but it remains fragile. If the international will fails, if Lebanon is caught up in the great struggle, the security deal will not last. It is true that having a president or not may not be really very important in this situation, but his presence would certainly have a stabilising force. Otherwise, the state could be held hostage and split in opposing camps. It is therefore important and useful, in view of a possible worse-case scenario whilst hoping it does not happen, to have a new head of state elected and institutions of government that work."

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