Lebanon at risk, but consensus gradually building

Cheikh explains the situation

Cheikh Malek el-Khazen with President Michel Suleiman
Cheikh Malek el-Khazen with President Michel Suleiman

FORT SMITH, Ark., January 4, 2015 – Lebanon, where Christians have concrete power in government, is America’s greatest friend in the Middle East. Under the Lebanese system, Maronite Catholic Christians control the presidency and the armed forces, while the Prime Minister is Sunni and leadership of the parliament belongs to Shi’a.

However, there is risk to this delicate relationship, due to current events. Cheikh Malek el-Khazen, heir to the Ghosta branch of that noble family, discussed some serious problems plaguing the area.

What do you think of the Parliament deciding, unilaterally, to extend its rule until late 2017?

Citizens should have been involved in the decision. This is almost a kind of “joke,” though, a disaster which creates a dangerous vacuum, and it should have never been allowed to happen. Members should have overcome their disagreements.

Are you concerned about the continued presidential vacancy? Why is it that a candidate still has not been elected?

The presidency is, firstly, always held by a Maronite. Our constitution requires that citizens elect MPs, and then those members elect the president. Prior to the Lebanese Civil War, it was more powerful: he could dissolve Parliament and call for elections. Though now weakened somewhat, the position is still highly prestigious, and any minister would be thrilled to fill it. It is important. The last two presidents – Emile Lahoud and Michel Suleiman – were Army commanders. Consensus was easier there, but the constitution had to be modified twice in order to allow them. Christians want someone strong.

The two main candidates today are Samir Geagea (Phalange Party) and Michel Aoun (Free Patriotic Movement). Both, unfortunately, are polarizing figures. Aoun represents the largest Christian bloc. Geagea, however, has stronger support among Muslims. The two are only divided by a few votes, and this has caused enough tension so that some are pushing compromise candidates. For example, Walid Jumblatt, of the Druze, supports Henri Helou.

What makes this all more interesting is the role of Saudi Arabia here. That country is losing support in the Middle East, and so it needs to have a stable Lebanon. Otherwise, Sunni could split along sectarian lines, between fundamentalists and moderates. Geagea recently visited with the Saudis, and he has since opened private dialogue with Aoun. Saad Hariri, the Sunni leader of the Future Party, also supports this ambition. If Hezbollah and Future were to unite and support Saudi Arabia against ISIS, their combined influence would be overwhelming enough to force an election. They are working on that now, with support from Iran. Further Iranian support could come, depending on the outcome of nuclear talks with the U.S.

I am confident that a decision will be reached soon.

How does the refugee crisis affect things? Also, how do you think the Lebanese government should respond to it? There are serious concerns about sanitation, harsh weather, costs, and so on.

We not only have the Syrian refugees, but also many Palestinians. They live in very bad conditions, and this is sad, but it is not our fault. The other countries in the region need to step up; other, larger nations can better integrate them into their systems. The United Nations must continue to act, too, if necessary. We have millions of refugees, while we only have a citizenry of a few million. An equivalent would be if all of Latin America were to merge into the United States! That is unsustainable.

What are France, a historic ally, and the U.S. doing in response?

Saudi Arabia gave $3 billion to the Lebanese Army, to buy French arms, to fight the jihadists. The French are sensitive to our problems, and they have been careful. They could even end up leading dialogue, if necessary, as with the Doha Agreement made in Qatar in 2008 (which allowed Suleiman’s election). That was done by a round-table group with the French President, who was then Nicolas Sarkozy, at the top. Secretary of State John Kerry has voiced support for a quick election.

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  • Matthew Olson

    Correction: In parentheses, I listed Geagea as a member of the modern Phalange Party. This is incorrect. He is the head of the Lebanese Forces Party. While both parties are in the March 14 Alliance, and they are closely affiliated, they are distinct.