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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

Michel Aoun’s real obstacle is not Syria or Israel, but Lebanon itself

The Lebanese president will find his biggest challenges are not in Damascus or Tel Aviv, but in Beirut, writes Faisal Al Yafai
A Lebanese woman holds a picture of Lebanon's newly elected president, Michel Aoun, at the presidential palace in Baabda. Bilal Hussein / AP Photo
A Lebanese woman holds a picture of Lebanon's newly elected president, Michel Aoun, at the presidential palace in Baabda. Bilal Hussein / AP Photo

A long-awaited election comes to an end. In a fractious and divided country, a name from the past is on the ballot again. But for millions of voters, one candidate is too controversial to consider. Some suggest they should be jailed rather than become head of state.

If that sounds like the US election, it also applies to Lebanon’s equally divisive search for a president, which finally ended last week after two years when Michel Aoun was appointed president.

That Mr Aoun is a deeply controversial figure has been amply discussed over the past few days. Less considered has been what sort of president he might make – and in particular what he, and the new prime minister Saad Hariri, will do in power.

In his first speech after becoming president, Mr Aoun sought to strike a balanced tone. He knows, of course, that the economy and security are uppermost in the minds of Lebanese. The spillover from the Syrian civil war has battered the economy and placed considerable strain on public services such as schools. Other services such as electricity and rubbish collection are also irregular, for reasons other than the Syrian war.

The question is, can Mr Aoun and Mr Hariri work together, when they continue to have significant differences?

Take one issue, that of Syrian refugees. There are approximately one million refugees in the country – per capita Lebanon has more refugees than any other country.

Mr Aoun first said that the refugees needed to make “a swift return” and warned there could be no solution in Syria that did not guarantee their return – a clear sign that his government does not intend to allow them to stay into the long and perhaps not even the medium term. Some reports have spoken of deportation.

But Mr Hariri later said he would “provide mechanisms to face the burdens of the Syrian displaced people”, suggesting that the refugees would at least remain for the foreseeable future, and that government expenditure would facilitate their stay.

Such swift disagreement does not bode well. But it also points to a much more serious point. In his inauguration speech, Mr Aoun promised Lebanon would “manage our own affairs” and would “no longer be linked to any other foreign country”. That rhetoric will be much harder to translate into reality.

Lebanon’s tragedy, of course, has always been its geographical position and its neighbours. Too small to be independent, too big to be ignored, Lebanon’s prosperity is always far too dependent on what happens in the east and south.

Relations with Syria are now more complex than they have been for some time, and Mr Aoun and Mr Hariri increase the complication. Mr Aoun is known to be close to the regime and to its Lebanese ally Hizbollah. Mr Hariri, during his first term as prime minister, took a hardline stance against Hizbollah, and, naturally, against Damascus, who have been implicated in the assassination of his father. Even if he has moderated his stance in the years since, it is unlikely he will ever be fully trusted by the Assad regime.

But with Mr Aoun as president, relations with Damascus are bound to improve – something that will profoundly dismay Syrian refugees in Lebanon and those who support the rebels.

At least, though, the new president and prime minister will not have to worry about Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu would certainly love nothing better than to get rid of Hizbollah, particularly as the group is stretched thin in Syria, but Israel’s prime minister is afraid of starting a war and losing it. Hizbollah, meanwhile, needs no other distractions. As long as the politics in Tel Aviv and the Dahiyeh remain as they are now, there should be no new war.

The biggest obstacle that the new Lebanese government faces is not, however, in a foreign capital. It is in Beirut itself. The political model that allocates seats based on sect has long passed its use-by date and it is that sectarian system that is at the root of so many of Lebanon’s political tussles. The horse-trading over the presidency shows how difficult the system makes agreement – little wonder that smaller decisions on public services or energy exploration don’t get made.

The system was created to maintain the status quo, which means that it also favours those who can act outside the system. The reason that Syria wielded so much influence inside Beirut had more to do with its supporters within the security infrastructure than support in the parliament. The same with Hizbollah, which has power within the political system because its weapons give it the ability to act outside it.

The sectarian system, then, acts as a firewall – ensuring that troubles between sects cannot burn out of control (as they did during the civil war) but also ensuring that political power cannot expand beyond a certain point. It makes agreement across sectarian lines extremely difficult.

This is the most serious political obstacle that Mr Aoun and Mr Hariri face – and neither of them can resolve it. Such is the dysfunction of the system itself that it has stymied any attempt to revamp the consensus model. Mr Hariri, of course, owes his power to the model. And Mr Aoun, at 81, has spent his entire political career within it. Taking steps to change it would mean taking a bold risk for the country but with little chance of personal reward. Mr Aoun’s history suggests he is not the man for that role.

falyafai@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai