A couple of years ago, shortly before the end of President Michel Sleiman’s term in office, I wrote an essay asking why Lebanon needed a President, given the relative powerlessness of the position. Here’s the payoff paragraph:
Twenty-five years after Ta’if inaugurated Lebanon’s Second Republic and nearly nine years after the Syrian departure gave us a new, mysterious set of protocols […] it is time to rethink the country’s principal institutions and symbols. The President today is responsible for safeguarding a Constitution that is consistently ignored, convening a national dialogue process that is ineffectual, and leading a Christian community that no longer thinks of itself as a single political unit. In this context, why should the identity of the President matter?
I stand by this reading, but I wonder whether it underestimates the extent to which the presidency might possess powers not codified in the Lebanese Constitution. I’m thinking here of the symbolic authority of the office, which, though it may count for little in the case of a consensus figure like Michel Sleiman, is a political weapon that cannot be dismissed when wielded by a charismatic demagogue like Michel Aoun.
All of Lebanon’s political leaders derive their power in no small part from their uncontested charismatic authority within their confessional communities. Suleiman Frangieh made this point succinctly a couple of years ago in an interview with Marcel Ghanem:
What is it that has made the Shiites strong in Lebanon today? Is it that Nabih Berri has constitutional powers? Or is it because he’s a full-blown Shiite za’im? Any President has to be strong in his community so that he can say what’s what. The Christians’ problem is that we elect a President who stands there in front of Nabih Berri with five pages from the Constitution, and says: “I’ve got these five pages.” What strengthens a President is his strength on the ground, not what is written in the Constitution.”
Aoun will not have any extra privileges granted to him by the Constitution than Sleiman enjoyed, but he will have the benefit of a majority of Lebanon’s Christians solidly behind him, at least for the time being. And if the alliance between the Free Patriotic Movement and the Lebanese Forces holds up through the next parliamentary elections (a big if), the enormous bloc that they oversee in Parliament will be able to set the agenda.
Or, at the very least, their efforts to do so will force a conversation that Lebanon desperately needs to have, if it is going to confront its structural governance problems.
This is why I am feeling cautiously optimistic about Aoun’s presidency. Unlike his predecessors, Aoun has the electoral muscle behind him to make some significant demands. Will they be the kinds of reformist demands that his party ran on during the 2009 parliamentary elections, or will he use his sojourn in Baabda to build a patronage system to rival those of his allies?
I remember asking Alain Aoun in 2009 about how the FPM’s alliance with Hizbullah could coexist with his uncle’s desire to change the system. Alain replied: “Of course we want to change the system. But why not do it from a position of strength?”
Seven years later, the FPM’s strategy has paid off; they are now in that coveted position of strength. Aoun has attained the highest office that a Maronite Christian can occupy, a post he’s lambasted as ineffectual within a system that he has promised to overhaul. Politics in Lebanon may be about to become interesting again, for better or worse.