Lebanon is a relatively small, but extremely specific country, therefore universal criteria cannot be commonly applied to it. For this reason the Arab Spring that has swept across the Middle East and virtually destroyed four states: Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen, failed in Lebanon.
The reasons behind this fact are plenty, but prime among them – the constitutional structure of Lebanon along with the geopolitical interests of major powers, which despite numerous contradictions in their policies, agree on one thing – Lebanon must be preserved as a state.
The fundamental structure of government bodies in Lebanon was laid down in the days when this country was a part of Syria, but then according to the Anglo-American Sykes–Picot agreement, that was latter on validated in San Remo, Lebanon became a country ran by France, due to the mandate provided by the League of Nations. French politicians at the time were certainly no fools, they created a system of rigid distribution of government positions between the main religious movements of Lebanon. Therefore, since the day of Lebanon’s independence in 1943 a Maronite Christian occupied the position of President, the Prime Minister was a Sunni representative while the head of parliament was a Shiite.
This layout proved to be quite effective, if we are to forget about a brief civil war back in 1958, that was stopped by US military intervention. Therefore until 1975 Lebanon was called the Middle Eastern Switzerland, since it had become a veritable Mecca for bankers and journalists, a true kitchen of Middle Eastern politics that housed offices of all the major security agencies around the world. However, this bucolic picture was torn apart by a shift in the confessional balance in 1967. At this time Palestinian refugees started to come to Lebanon in droves, so it was only logical that in 1971 a Palestinian resistance movement emerged in this country, led by Yasser Arafat. This charismatic new leader created an inner state within Lebanon, which had its own government structures that were unaccountable to the Lebanese government, it was called the Fatah.
From that moment on troubles accompanied Lebanon. The country found itself torn apart by a civil war when Maronite Christians faced the multi-religious bloc of 15 parties led by the Druze, which was later joined by the Palestinians. This fact became a pretext for military interventions by major regional powers – in 1976 Syrian troops crossed the Lebanese border and joined the fighting on the side of the Maronites, then Israel decided to take advantage of the civil war in Lebanon to eliminate the Palestinian threat on its southern border. In 1982 they launched a powerful military strike against Lebanon which resulted in the withdrawal of the major Palestinian factions from Lebanese territory.
In 1982 Iran started to play an active role in the Lebanese affairs in the Bekaa Valley. Iran was assisted by Syria in the creation of an armed Shiite movement Hezbollah, which has now become the main political and military force in Lebanon.
The civil war, which in fact didn’t lead to victory for either side, ended in 1989 with the signing of the Taif Agreement, signed under the supervision of Saudi Arabia. This agreement constituted a confessional peace in Lebanon and today it is still defining the configuration of the political landscape in this country. According to this agreement, a certain number of presidential powers were surrendered in favor of the Sunni Prime minister and the Shia Speaker of Parliament. From that moment on the Parliament was formed on an equal basis between Christians and Sunnis.
But the Palestinian involvement that destabilized Lebanon in 1975, saved it after 1989. Against the background of the Taif Agreement, the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon became possible in 2000, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 425, which was followed with the withdrawal of Syrian troops in 2005, after the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1559. The civil war carried on, especially after the assassination of the Sunni Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, but the country refused to collapse, even when the new Israeli military campaign against Hezbollah started in 2006 and against the backdrop of growing influence from Tehran.
Beirut kept away from the hype of Arab revolutions that broke out in 2011, it took the same position in relation to events in Syria by proclaiming its neutrality.
At the same time the Syrian conflict has severely scorched Lebanon. A total of around one million refugees fled from Syria to Lebanon. In the north of the country, in Tripoli, clashes have broken out between the Sunnis, which decided to take the side of the Syrian opposition, and the Alawites that naturally showed support for the authorities in Damascus. Meanwhile the Syrian opposition created a camp at Arsal City and in its surroundings in the Bekaa Valley to enable a transit route to Syria for its supporters. This camp is now occupied by the Salafi fighters from terrorist groups including Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State.
The situation was aggravated even further when members of the Hezbollah movement decided to enter the civil war in Syria on the side of Bashar al-Assad back in 2012. They are still carrying on their struggle in Syria, primarily in the area of Kalamuna.
Today Lebanese society is deeply divided, but the government bodies refuse to yield, especially the army, that have endured amid the ongoing struggle for survival of the country.
But recently Lebanon has been presented with a new challenge – the presidential crisis. On May 25 former President Michel Suleiman left the office, since his term elapsed. But then the Parliament failed to choose a successor that would suit all parties. This constituted the beginning of an ongoing political struggle in Lebanon, that is affected by external players - Saudi Arabia, France, Syria and Iran. The situation was aggravated when the parliament‘s term elapsed as well, which led to the controversial decision of extending it for two more years in order to pass comprehensive legislation on elections. Thus, the country found itself with no legitimate leader and a half-legitimate parliament, which is mired in controversy.
A new attempt to elect a president will be made on November 19, which will define the country’s ability to hold its ground against regional challenges. The international community is calling on Lebanese parliamentary members, urging them to choose a new successor as soon as possible. On November 12 the UN Security Council called on the Lebanese parliament, and previously it was addressed by the Vatican.
The elections are influenced by several outside players — there’s Saudi Arabia and France and Syria along with Iran that are trying to put “their follower“ at the head of Lebanon , but both parties are tying to achieve this in a way that will not lead to the split of the country. The Saudis are promoting their candidate through French influence, relying on the leader of the Sunni bloc Al-Mustaqbal Saad Hariri, who was entrusted with 4 billion dollars. Out of this sum he had spent three billions to purchase French weapons to strengthen the Lebanese army. It is clear that this candidate can take Lebanon away from Iran and Syria, by “pulling the plug” on Hezbollah.
Likewise, Iran is using the Lebanese card to strengthen its own regional positions, that is why it intends to rely on Hezbollah‘s influence, to get approval of a candidate, who would at least retain neutrality of Lebanon towards Syria, by allowing Hezbollah to support the regime of Bashar Assad. This, of course, coincides with the aspirations of Damascus.
It is clear that neither party will be completely satisfied with what it can achieve. At the moment there’s five presidential candidates, however their chances are not equal. Head of the Free Patriotic Movement Michel Naim Aoun that could be supported by France won’t satisfy Saudi Arabia and a number of influential figures in Lebanon, the leader of the Lebanese Forces Samir Farid Geagea will face strong internal opposition as well. In turn the Lebanese army commander Jean Kahwajiwho is supported by Riyadh and the former Foreign Minister Jean Obeid both have a fighting chance. It is also possible that an underdog – like the Lebanese ambassador to the Vatican Georges El Khoury will be the safest bet of all the parties involved, including Syria and Iran. It is obvious that a compromise is to be reached. There’s a reason to believe that Hezbollah is also ready for it.
Should the new president be elected on November 19, it can be a first step towards a new deal between US and Iran that is to be made on November 24. It won’t be a long wait now.
Maxim Egorov, a political commentator on the Middle East and contributes regularly for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.