by Sami Atallah
This article was originally posted on the LCPS website on Thursday 28 January 2016.
Samir Geagea actually did it. On 18 January 2016, he mended what many thought were irreparably severed ties and nominated Michel Aoun—his arch rival from March 8—for the presidency. This is ostensibly no small feat for two people who have been at war—hot and cold—with each other over the last thirty years. Pundits were quickly mobilised to put a spin on the agreement and portray their recent meeting as reconciliation among a divided Lebanese Christian community, hoping to give the much-touted event a sense of meaning that goes beyond the scope of politics. But the reality is much different. This is a political deal between two men who deeply despise one another but are nevertheless willing to put their mutual animosity aside to prevent a third rival, Suleiman Frangieh, from becoming president.
The agreement between Aoun and Geagea was made in response to a separate seemingly awkward political deal which saw Saad Hariri support the candidacy of March 8 rival Frangieh for president in November 2015. According to some sources, the deal would put Frangieh in Baabda and Hariri in the Serail, with an electoral law that guarantees the entrenchment of the current political establishment. Despite their political differences, these two men are able to do business together, as they are part of the same political fabric. Nominating each other would have amounted to business as usual, with money and favours being distributed while no reforms are instituted.
Following this latest round of horse trading, all four of these men shattered much of what remains of the March 8 and March 14 divide and attention has now turned to how other parties will choose between the two main candidates. For one, Hariri’s support of Frangieh’s nomination seems to have been a miscalculation, as he lost his March 14 Christian colleagues along the way. Additionally, the spotlight is on Hezbollah to finally reveal its true intentions and show whether they really want Aoun to be president. In other words, is Hassan Nasrallah’s support for Aoun genuine or was the party betting on the fact that the conditions would never materialise for Aoun to be elected president? In response to Geagea’s support for Aoun, both Nabih Berri and Walid Jumblatt came out against the deal, hoping to place barriers in Aoun’s way as he inches closer to Baabda.
Whether all these political moves and countermoves since Hariri supported Frangieh and Geagea backed Aoun culminate in filling the presidential vacuum, two things remain important: First, political divisions that politicians have sown, the red lines they have drawn, and the polarisation of society they have groomed over the last ten years are constructions which allow them to remain entrenched in power rather than serve their own constituencies or Lebanon as a whole. When it comes to their own interests, Lebanese political leaders of all stripes are ready to cross red lines and change their rhetoric as they see fit to remain politically relevant and financially prosperous. This is by no means a new phenomenon but one which ought to remind voters how irrelevant they are to the political elite, who make decisions that are inconsistent with their long professed narratives, leaving their constituents at best baffled, and at worst parroting the new script.
Second, having a president will not resolve Lebanon’s political and economic woes. Lebanon’s governance problems are essentially structural and much too deeply rooted for a presidential election to enable meaningful and substantive change. Thus, filling the presidential vacuum amounts to replacing a part in a malfunctioning machine. In Lebanon, the chief purpose of the three key political posts—the president, the speaker of the parliament, and the prime minister—is to distribute resources to different community leaders rather than serve people’s needs and the public interest. Hence, the intense fighting over the presidency is about who takes the lion’s share of rents in the name of the Christian community.
Having Christian leaders nominate their own candidate for one of the state’s most important institutions, rather than being selected by non-Christian leaders, may boost the morale of the Christians but will hardly make them better off. Christian parties are as clientelistic and as sectarian as their counterparts, meaning party leaders will serve a small group of their cronies with appointments and contracts in return for their political loyalty and employ sectarian discourse to mobilise the rest of their constituency during elections. Instead of hailing this so-called reconciliation as a landmark agreement that will strengthen Christian unity and prevent non-Christian political leaders from deciding who should ascend to the presidency, one must question the extent to which this will help Christians—and Lebanese—as a whole. Whether the prospect of Geagea taking a share of Free Patriotic Movement support down the road, or both parties agreeing on dividing up state resources under the parameters of muhasasa were behind this latest deal, it seems clear that the Lebanese Forces and FPM agreement is not a favourable deal for everyday Christians.
While over the last 26 years the political system has been operating by sharing rents among the political elite, and has been a source of relative political stability, this system has failed miserably in securing public services for citizens and improving their livelihoods. A key explanation for this outcome is the lack of incentives for politicians to do so. In other words, as long as constituents are unable to hold politicians accountable for failing to ensure and deliver better services—through effective electoral and regulatory mechanisms—the system will only serve the political class’s interests. Indeed, voters end up internalising the elite’s new alliances and rhetoric, leaving citizens polarised over constructed and manufactured sectarian differences.
Looking at the broader picture, it is important to stress, again, that it is not the confessional system which is the source of our problems. Rather, it is the oligarchic system that hides behind the veil of a confessional system and institutionalises it for the political and financial ends of the elite. Behind all the rhetoric, the relationships between politicians remain relatively amicable while the structures insuring that politicians should fairly and adequately represent their constituents are by and large paralysed or absent. The election of a president may offer a sense of normalcy but at the end of the day, all of us will be worse off, as our livelihoods and problems become aggravated, while those in power feel neither obligated nor responsible to address them, let alone accountable to us.
Sami Atallah is Executive Director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies.Prior to joining LCPS, he served as a consultant for the World Bank, the EU and the UN Development Program in Lebanon and Syria. Atallah also served as an advisor for the Lebanese Ministries of Finance, Industry, and Interior and Municipalities, as well as in the Prime Minister’s Office. He tweets at @samiatallah1.