Are old recipes the only way forward for Lebanon? This is what French President Emmanuel Macron and his Middle East team at the Palais de l’Elysee believe. It is mainly why they chose to endorse and support Sleiman Frangieh as the next president of Lebanon. Frangieh is also the candidate chosen by Hezbollah. The presidency vacancy is now entering its sixth month. And so has the paralysis of the country’s institutional processes, whatever that really means in Lebanon.
The objective for Macron is to be able to bring about a solution that would also be interpreted as a diplomatic win for French foreign policy. Indeed, Paris has put its promise and weight behind finding a solution to Lebanon’s problems and to supporting its people. Unfortunately, Lebanese or Levant politics have a habit of humbling global leaders. When foreigners ask me about the involvement of foreigners in local Lebanese politics, I answer that he or she can come in as a global leader but become straight away a simple mukhtar getting lost in meaningless, often artificial details.
The fact is that the current solution, even if Frangieh is voted in by the parliament, will only be a band-aid. There is nothing that will change in the country’s affairs; only more debt and digging the hole deeper. They usually say that if you are digging a hole the first thing is to stop digging, and if your enemy is digging a hole do not stop him. The Frangieh presidency is, in the long-term, Lebanon continuing to dig its own hole.
France is pushing for this solution as it is the only possible fix and to give back representation to the presidency. From the French point of view, this vacancy is also creating a worry within the Lebanese Christian community of losing its political voice. And so, by allowing this election, these worries are being addressed. The choice of Frangieh is also about his friendship with the Syrian President Bashar Assad, as a way of rebalancing the political order. And so, it is to move from Aoun, who was fully under the control of Hezbollah, to Frangieh, who is a balance between Syria and Iran. Talk about a political win for Christians and the Lebanese people.
France should not focus on finding an easy fix for the Lebanese presidency. Instead, it should support the birth of a new Lebanon.
Khaled Abou Zahr
Hezbollah is also keen to see this rebalancing act, as despite its military control of the country it still needs a certain level of order, and it is no longer capable of achieving this. It is a new fuse to support its continued objectives. Yet is there an alternative who could be voted for? France knows that Hezbollah is the ultimate decision maker and would never accept a candidate it cannot control from any political block. And Gebran Basil until recently was a no-go for all. Some now mention the army chief, a reminiscence of the Syrian occupation days with the same background as Emile Lahoud and Michel Suleiman. This rhymes with the return of Assad on the regional scene.
And so perhaps the best palliative solution is Frangieh. Yet, one thing that should be known and understood is that all the promises made by Hezbollah and its allies for this to happen are completely worthless. And they will reverse everything if they feel the need or it serves their interest. Therefore, shouldn’t we discuss a new political system instead of making old recipes?
Indeed, the current system is broken. Why continue? Why not build something new now? Why not create a new Lebanon? There is no doubt that the discussion on federalism brings shivers to many but what is the protection they are getting today? With all due respect, do Christians feel safe? Do Sunnis? Or even Shiites under the oppression of Hezbollah? The answer is no and no again.
This is why France should not focus on finding an easy fix for the Lebanese presidency. Instead, it should support the birth of a new Lebanon. Even if Macron fails in such a mission, he will at least bring forward new hope. Unfortunately, a Frangieh presidency will not. Lebanon does not need to fill a position; it needs to be reinvented through federalism.
If the critics fear secession, then work to make federalism work. I look at it simply; today the political system is built on the fear of the other and this allows for militias to trade with a protection currency. It is nothing short of an institutionalized racketeering political system. Also, it allows them to trade between each other for gains. It is dirty transactional politics. The only way to change this is to make all the communities feel safe and shift toward local representation and decision-making. Then, trades between militias disappear. And this is what federalism delivers. Even Hezbollah will find it suitable.
Others will argue that the consequence of this transformation would be a new civil war. They preach the “better the devil you know” mentality. My conviction is that in fact the palliative solution is the path to civil war. A profound change is the only way to avoid it. It is highly likely Lebanon will apply an old palliative recipe — one that just treats symptoms but not the true disease. Whether or not Frangieh makes it to the Baabda Palace, it will make no difference. Lebanon will continue to die slowly and we will soon have to worry not just about a presidential vacancy but about much worse.