For the twelfth time since President Michel Aoun’s term ended in October 2022, Lebanese parliamentarians have failed to elect his successor. Lebanon is no stranger to presidential vacuums, but the election of a new president is especially critical today. The country is experiencing a historic economic crisis, with the Lebanese pound losing 98% of its value and 80% of the population living below the poverty line.
While the US has sent strong messages denouncing the continued paralysis, it is time for the administration to be more proactive in pushing for a competent and reform-oriented president who is able to push for the reforms necessary to begin Lebanon’s recovery.
Lebanon’s two major, rival Christian parties recently made headlines by joining forces with reform-oriented parliamentarians to support International Monetary Fund official Jihad Azour for the presidency against Suleiman Frangieh, candidate of the pro-Hezbollah camp. However, cynicism quickly prevailed as Speaker Nabih Berri adjourned the legislative body immediately after Azour failed to secure a two-thirds majority of votes on the first ballot. This forced a loss of quorum before a second vote—which would require a simple majority of votes and which Azour could conceivably prevail—could take place.
Lebanon’s confessional political system imposes a power-sharing arrangement that requires the president and army commander to be Maronite Christians, the prime minister to be a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament to be a Shi’a Muslim; seats in parliament are split between Christians and Muslims and proportionally distributed amongst the various sects. This means that presidential candidates must possess wide electoral appeal in a parliament that is sharply fragmented along political and sectarian lines. The absence of consensus inevitably leads to deadlock, with quorum-busting a commonplace tactic.
The US needs to send a stronger message to Lebanon’s leaders
Members of the US Congress and the Biden Administration have urged Lebanon’s political class to take steps to end the gridlock that is hampering economic recovery. Bipartisan leadership in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and the US-Lebanon Friendship Caucus have called for the administration to use all of its authority, including sanctions, against corrupt officials in Lebanon who are impeding the election process.
Though on point, US messaging has not translated into strong leadership on the Lebanon issue. Quite the opposite. The US is conspicuously absent from a reported upcoming summit in Riyadh, which is an effort to bring all Lebanese parties into dialogue to address the way out of the political impasse.
While many in Washington believe the US should follow France’s lead when it comes to Lebanon, the US and France have increasingly diverging interests. In fact, while a top priority of the US is to weaken Iranian influence in Lebanon, France’s most recent attempt to resolve the crisis was to push for the election of Hezbollah’s top candidate.
This shows that a backseat US approach would likely result in not only a loss of US influence in the region but also a significant setback for those Lebanese who massively protested against the political establishment in 2019 and then mobilized around the 2022 parliamentary election to shift the balance of power in parliament towards reform.
The revitalized mobilization of pro-reform MPs was on full display during the last presidential voting session. This can be an opportunity to help the country turn the tide away from corruption and Iranian influence towards stability and reform. Here, the US can lead the international community in supporting the election of a pro-reform president and the formation of a reform-oriented government. This would support US regional interests while introducing improved governance.
Targeted sanctions, not empty statements, are the solution
Plainly put, “what [the US is] doing so far doesn’t seem to be working very well.” This is the assessment offered by Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, to Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf in a recent hearing. Shaheen’s broader argument is that the US needs to increase pressure on Lebanon’s leaders to take needed actions to form a government and respond to the country’s historic economic crisis.
Senator Shaheen is right. Lebanon is at a crossroads. A new president, possessing the right qualities, can partner with the US and its allies to improve regional security and support local actors fighting for democracy. Engagement between senior US officials and political leaders in Lebanon led to the formation of a coalition of parties and groups that rallied behind Azour’s candidacy, but the effort fell short of obtaining the needed threshold of votes. The US must ramp up the pressure and, in coordination with its European allies, move to coercive action against obstructionist members of Lebanon’s elite. This would take the form of targeted sanctions.
Despite alluding to sanctions, the administration has yet to put any penalties in place for those leaders who have obstructed needed reforms and steps towards recovery. While sanctions can indeed be a useful tool to pressure politicians, they need to be carefully targeted to those who have the power to effect change and who are also exposed enough. For example, the sanctions imposed in 2020 against then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Gebran Bassil for corruption have arguably been impactful enough to block his path to the presidency today.
The US can pave a positive path forward
In recent weeks, the US has clarified its expectations for Lebanon’s next president to be independent and committed to reform. Non-coercive methods have seemed promising but proven ultimately unsuccessful. Lebanon remains without a president, and France has stepped in to facilitate a resolution that would conflict with US interests and reverse the momentum towards reform made since the 2022 parliamentary elections.
The US here has the opportunity to stand and act more vigorously in support of the Lebanese people, who have been calling for systemic change in their political leadership. At this crucial juncture, the US must reassert itself, and its values, in Lebanon’s presidential vacuum.
[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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