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Lebanon awaits foreign push out of political impasse

June 22, 2023 at 4:15 pm

Lebanese parliament members stand up before the Lebanese parliament holds the 12th session to elect the 14th president in Beirut, Lebanon on June 14, 2023. [Hussam Shbaro – Anadolu Agency]

At loggerheads over who should fill a vacant presidency, Lebanon’s fractious politicians are waiting for foreign powers to resolve their crisis, leaving the country adrift as its failing state teeters on the brink of collapse.

After parliament failed for the 12th time to elect a new president, many believe what happens next will depend on how a thaw in ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran plays out across the Middle East, with Lebanon historically an arena of rivalry between the leading Sunni Arab and Shia powers.

The logjam comes as no surprise in a country with a sectarian political system that has lurched from crisis to crisis since independence, often prompting intervention by foreign powers with influence over rival groups.

It fell to foreign powers to end Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war through the Taif peace agreement backed by Saudi Arabia and, again in 2008, when a deal mediated in Qatar halted a slide to conflict.

Even by the standards of those crises, the current situation is bad. The state has been hollowed out by a financial meltdown since 2019. Qatari and US aid is propping up the army.

READ: Lebanon is without a president or government

The tussle over who should fill the Maronite Christian presidency pits the Iran-backed Shia group, Hezbollah, and its allies against rivals including the main Christian groups, giving it a clear sectarian edge.

The heavily armed Hezbollah thwarted a bid by rivals to elect Jihad Azour, a top IMF official and an ex-finance minister, last week. Hezbollah is sticking by its candidate, Suleiman Frangieh, sensing regional developments are moving in its favour, especially after Riyadh’s embrace of Syrian President, Bashar Al-Assad, sources familiar with Hezbollah’s view say.

But neither Hezbollah nor its opponents have enough lawmakers to impose their choice.

“Everyone is now waiting to see if someone will bring a ladder from abroad so we can all climb down the tree,” Druze lawmaker, Wael Abu Faour, told Reuters. “The atmosphere in the region is positive … We should benefit from this.”

‘Briefly discussed’

Christian lawmaker, Alain Aoun, was more cautious. “Eyes are now on anything that might eventually come from international contacts,” he told Reuters. “What I am afraid of is that nothing comes out of the regional dynamic.”

While it sponsored the Taif accord, Saudi Arabia has other concerns these days, notably halting the Yemen war. Lebanon has, in any case, long been seen as a secondary concern for Riyadh, which spent billions in the country only to see Hezbollah dominate.

A senior Iranian official said Lebanon was discussed briefly at a recent meeting of Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers.

“It is too early to believe that an Iran-Saudi deal will resolve all the regional issues, but steps are being taken,” the official said.

Noting that Tehran had welcomed Assad’s return to the Arab fold, the Iranian official added: “God willing, other issues will be resolved too, and Lebanon is one of them.”

“However, Tehran believes that this is an internal matter and all Lebanese sides involved should overcome this stalemate by negotiating with each other.”

READ: Saudi’s MBS, France’s Macron call for end to Lebanon political vacuum

In a new bid to break the deadlock, French President, Emmanuel Macron, has spoken to Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi, and Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, about Lebanon.

French diplomats say the Saudi-Iranian detente may be helpful, and Macron is hoping to convince Riyadh to back any potential compromises. French envoy, Jean-Yves Le Drian, is in Beirut to consult the parties. “I don’t come with any options. I will listen to everyone,” he said.

Macron’s efforts have repeatedly failed to address Lebanon’s crises since the port explosion of 2020. Ruling politicians have been widely blamed for blocking reforms to shield vested interests.

New cabinet

Saudi commentator, Ali Shihabi, said Riyadh supported France’s initiative.

“I think they will go with whomever the French support,” he said. But Lebanon was not a top priority for Riyadh, he said.

The Saudi and Iranian governments did not respond to emailed questions.

Frangieh met French officials in Paris in March, a trip many in Lebanon saw as endorsement, though France has not publicly backed a candidate and other Maronites are in the frame.

US Ambassador Dorothy Shea said it was up to Parliament to reach consensus to elect a president who can work with a government to implement reforms.

“There has been a lot of attention focused on the rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the possible implications for Lebanon,” she said in a speech.

“We, too, are hopeful about a de-escalation of regional tensions. But we also know that real change in Lebanon will not come from outside your country’s borders – the future is in the hands of you, the Lebanese.”

READ: Candidates in the frame to fill Lebanon vacant presidency

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