Electing a President for Lebanon – Like in 2008?

Lebanon has not had a president – who must be a Maronite Christian under a power-sharing agreement – since President Michel Sleiman’s term expired on May 24, 2014. In the meantime, the council of ministers – which assumes presidential powers during a vacancy – has been paralyzed, because most decrees need the signatures of all 24 ministers, a nigh impossible task.

Lebanon’s Prime Minister Tammam Salam has thrown up his hands and conceded in various meetings with heads of state and foreign ministers in New York last week that his country’s political factions can’t elect a president.

The prime minister advocates a quadripartite consensus on a presidential candidate. He believes that only the intervention of the four major external players in the region can unblock the current impasse. There would be a first-stage US-Russia agreement and a second-stage Saudi Arabia-Iran agreement on one candidate. It is then assumed that the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran would influence Lebanon’s parliamentary blocs to elect the pre-selected candidate. The prime minister asserted that of Lebanon’s 11 presidential elections, only one – the 1970 election – was not decided without the influence of external parties.

Let’s examine the Prime Minister’s proposal.

One could argue that the 1952 and 1964 elections were also Lebanese affairs, but there is no question that every presidential election since 1976 was midwifed by foreign intervention. This is not ideal – and many Lebanese are disturbed by the implications – but it appears the reality. In 1988, the US and Syria agreed among themselves on Mikhail Daher as the presidential candidate, only to have powerful Lebanese factions reject him. So there has to be Lebanese buy-in.

Lebanon’s 2008 presidential election provides the model for a diplomatic solution. In 2008, Lebanon was suffering a 6-month presidential vacancy. During times of profound discord, Lebanon holds a “national dialogue,” to which all political factions are invited. In 2008, the national dialogue was moved from Beirut to Doha, Qatar and under the supervision of Arab League and Arab diplomats, the Doha agreement was signed, specifying a “consensus president,” a formula for a national unity government, and a parliamentary election law. Similarly in 1989, the Arab League tripartite committee of Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Algeria invited the Lebanese parliament to Taif, Saudi Arabia. The resulting Taif accord, with behind-the-scenes US mediation, established a framework for ending the civil war, enacting constitutional reforms, and electing a president.

Can a modified Doha or Taif model work again?

Parliament has tried 28 times to convene a session to elect a president. Deputies from the Free Patriot Movement, Hezbollah, and some allied parties have boycotted the sessions to prevent a quorum. Iran would need to participate in any diplomatic effort, to bring Hezbollah along. Despite US-Russia animus over Syria, the American and Russian positions on Lebanon are quite similar, including the need to elect a president. Saudi Arabia would ensure that the views of Lebanon’s March 14 parliamentary bloc were considered.

Where could such a “national reconciliation conference” be held? Arab countries such as Oman and Morocco would be seen as neutral and are experienced facilitators of dialogue on contentious issues. Back-channel discussions by the host country with the four essential countries would need to determine if dialogue is even possible, given the frosty relations of the US and Russia and Saudi Arabia and Iran.

As in 2008, buy-in from most Lebanese political factions would be essential. The “national dialogue” already started meeting in Beirut this September. It can be moved to wherever a new consensus site is selected. This “national reconciliation conference” could officially approve any agreement, with strong inducements from American, Russian, Saudi, and Iranian diplomats.

And while they’re at it, the national reconciliation conference could choose a new election law for parliament, which has twice deferred elections. Just as in 2008. I’m not minimizing the diplomatic heavy lifting, but given the fragile nature of Lebanon, with ISIL threatening its border and 1.2 million Syrian refugees having crossed its border, we need to be concerned about Lebanon’s governance and not only its military.

Edward M. Gabriel
is a former US Ambassador to Morocco and currently serves as President and CEO of the American Task Force for Lebanon.