Lebanese politics often resembles a game of FreeCell to me. Or, for the millennials among us: 2048, which I often catch my students playing on their phones before class begins. For long stretches, the board is locked down. There is an occasional opening, a small shift in the grid, but it comes to nothing. Hardly anything moves for several rounds as the prospect of a game-ending rigor mortis looms. Then, a fortuitous tile appears and suddenly the whole board becomes a slurry of synergies.
We commentators dignify such moments with terms like “grand bargain” but I often feel that coincidence has more to do with it than anything else. Is the vacancy of Lebanon’s presidential palace a story of irreconcilable ideological differences and fragile political coalitions, or is it a function of the fact that there are no compelling reasons for any stakeholder to abide by any precedent, deadline, or authority?
I was discussing this question with a friend of mine over lunch in Beirut a few months ago. At the time, it was the Prime Minister’s office that was vacant rather than the President’s. Lebanon, I observed to my lunch companion, is like an out-of-work, out-of-shape, depressed, recently divorced, middle-aged man who stays home all day watching the World Cup and can’t find his phone charger. (Obviously, the FreeCell analogy had not yet occurred to me…)
The missing phone charger would appear to be the least of his worries, but in fact it’s the psychological key to his predicament. Not being able to find the charger means that he cannot charge his cell phone, which means he cannot take calls from his friends or his family or his creditors, which means, finally, that he can’t face up to his situation. Lebanon’s inability to hold an election — parliamentary, prime ministerial, or presidential — without several months of fruitless “negotiations” tells a similar story. Outside the door, there is a refugee crisis, a burgeoning jihadi movement, a simmering conflict in neighboring Syria, and the fourth-highest public debt-to-GDP ratio in the world. Is it any wonder that Lebanon’s political elites can’t find the phone charger?
The latest “solution” to the crisis being touted by the FPM is a popularly elected president, to replace the Ta’if-based system of electing a president in Parliament. Michel Aoun believes that the same majorities that gave the March 8 alliance a 55% popular vote victory in 2009 (despite losing the electoral math) would carry him into office as well. Naturally, no one is biting on the M14 side. Another unhelpful three of clubs, when what we really need is that two of hearts… yeah right.
A few weeks ago, it seemed that we were nearing one of those synergistic moments on the presidential FreeCell board, as Saad Hariri and Michel Aoun reported several “positive meetings”. What scuttled the initiative is anyone’s guess.
Then again, even if a Hariri-Aoun deal brings either GMA himself or one of his relatives to Baabda, the election would trigger the dissolution of the cabinet, at which point another prime minister and cabinet would have to be nominated and elected, followed by the November parliamentary elections (which will trigger the dissolution of the infant cabinet and the election of yet another one, at which point we should be ready for a new president again…)
Clever Lebanon. Just as it finds its missing charger, it discovers that it’s an old Nokia one that doesn’t work with its new iPhone. May as well go back to watching the World Cup.