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Case Analysis 20 January, 2014

Lebanon: No Government in Sight and Fears of an Imminent Presidential Vacuum


The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 

The rapprochement between the US, Iran, and Russia on the nuclear deal, and the increased likelihood of the Geneva 2 Conference on Syria taking place have spurred heightened political and security tensions in Lebanon. The crushing of Sheikh Ahmad al-Asir’s group in Sidon, the escalation of fighting in Syria’s Qalamoun region, and the suicide attack on the Iranian Embassy in Beirut on November 19, 2013 are clear reflections of the country’s deteriorating security situation. The identity of the two suicide bombers involved in the embassy attack—a Lebanese from Sidon and a Palestinian from al-Bissariye—suggests that a new stage has begun in response to Lebanese Sunni Muslims’ growing sense of oppression, marginalization, and humiliation, a result of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri’s assassination on February 14, 2005; Hezbollah’s occupation of Beirut on May 7, 2008; the recent incursion into the Abra neighborhood; and the eradication of the al-Asir group.[1]

The above events have also coincided with the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces’ announcement that it will not agree to Iranian participation at the anticipated Geneva 2 Conference “unless it withdraws its forces and militias, such as Hezbollah and the Abul Fadl al-Abbas Brigade, from Syria and announces its acceptance of the Geneva 1 conference’s six points in their entirety, as well as the London agreement.” Iran’s Foreign Ministry has previously stated that Tehran is willing to help solve the crisis in Syria, but rejects any pre-conditions on its participation at Geneva 2, claiming that attempts to exclude it from the conference are intended to make the negotiations fail. Although it is not clear how rigid the National Coalition’s position is, it is certain that alignments in Syria have taken on the dimensions of a regional conflict, a conflict in which Iran leads the only organized camp, including the Syrian Army, forces from the al-Quds Brigades, Hezbollah, and Iraqi-Shia sectarian armed brigades. The opposing camp, comprised of the Syrian revolutionary forces and external groups of various kinds, is unorganized and barely warrants the designation as a camp.

Lebanon at the Mercy of Regional and International Polarizations

Hezbollah views rapprochement between Iran and the US as a reflection of the US’s abandonment of its allies in Lebanon and the region, and as a victory for it and its allies, which justifies increasing its demands and its threats against its enemies. In contrast, the Future Movement and the March 14 Alliance believe that if the deal goes ahead, Tehran will be forced to pay a certain price in Lebanon through restraining its “proxy” Hezbollah. 

Beyond those two groups, the Lebanese are fearful that their country will once again fall victim to Iranian-Saudi tensions. On the ground, this will be translated into heightened security tensions, particularly in Tripoli and Arsal; heightened political tensions, with more threats being made by the conflicting parties; and the continuation of the crisis around forming a new government, to such an extent that it threatens a presidential vacuum. Such a prognosis has become a real prospect for all Lebanese sources.

Prime Minister Tammam Salam has broken the Lebanese record for the longest period spent trying to form a government—seven months on November 6. Similarly, Najib Mikati, who resigned on March 22, 2013, holds the record for the longest period in the history of Lebanon spent as caretaker prime minister, having completed his eighth month as caretaker PM in November. The previous record holder in both respects—forming the government and acting as caretaker—was Rachid Karami in 1969.[2] There appears little hope of a breakthrough in the crisis of government while it coincides with increasing talk of the need to reach a new agreement on the lines of the Doha Agreement.[3] This makes the issue of the presidency a topic of serious discussion.[4]

Political Stalemate and Sharp Polarization

The political deadlock has been compounded, on the one hand, by the polarization between the Future Movement and the March 14 Alliance, who have stipulated that they “will only participate in the government on the basis of adherence to the Baabda declaration and the withdrawal of Hezbollah fighters from Syria, and, on the other, Hezbollah, which sees no government without its participation and that of its allies”. Despite the internal Sunna-Shia and external Iran-Saudi Arabia divides, the two sides are in agreement that Lebanon will not have a government in the foreseeable future. President Michel Suleiman’s visit to Saudi Arabia at the beginning of November 2013, further dividing the parties in the domestic political crisis, strengthened this belief. The Baabda Palace sources stated that the president “sensed a willingness on the part of Saudi officials to back Lebanon and assist with the Syrian refugees without discussing the presidential elections and the formation of the government.” The Future Movement and the March 14 Alliance hoped that “the events, results and signals of the visit constitute an important step on the road to building the state, applying the law, and supporting official security and political institutions.” 

In contrast, the March 8 Alliance focused on what they termed “the negative side” of the visit. Al-Manar TV, for example, considered “Former prime minister Saad al-Hariri’s presence at the meeting a slight toward President Michel Suleiman,” and the Saudis’ implicit message to the Lebanese to be that they recognize Saad al-Hariri as the government. The March 14 Alliance saw this as a sign that Hariri “has regained the initiative by getting Saudi backing for the sovereign political line supported by a large section of Lebanese.” To Hezbollah and its allies, the Saudi message appears to mean that it will be more difficult to disregard Hariri after his participation and that the possibility of forming a government with a single ideological base along the lines of the present resigned government, be it March 8 or March 14, is more or less nil. This possibility is confirmed by US Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement that “he had agreed with Saudi officials over the need to avoid enabling Hezbollah to decree the form of government and governance in Lebanon.”

Al-Hariri’s presence at the Saudi meeting was countered by Hassan Nasrallah’s public appearances at the Ashoura commemorations on November 13 and 14. Nasrallah was sending a signal to his supporters, as well as his opponents, that Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria has made its position more comfortable, and that it has reduced, rather than increased, the risks it faces in Lebanon. His presence before the public also served to express satisfaction with the course of fighting in Syria since the summer. It was also intended to boost his supporters’ morale at a time of growing talk of Hezbollah’s domestic, regional, and international isolation, and the likelihood it will pay a price for Iranian-US rapprochement. Nasrallah responded to these fears in two speeches, addressing the domestic context and the government crisis, and noted his position on both, emerging from the reiteration of Hezbollah’s conditions and his position on the negotiations between the West and Iran. He strongly supported Western-Iranian understanding, going so far as to warn that war would be the alternative. He also heralded the likelihood of an agreement being reached in the nuclear talks, and expressed that Hezbollah and its allied camp would suffer a lower level of losses in a war, if the group were to break the agreement. Should an understanding be reached, Hezbollah’s position would be strengthened, and it would keep its gains— “We will be stronger after the agreement”.

Neutrality or Hands-Off?

In the face of this sharp polarization, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman has maintained a middle-ground policy of “hands-off,” and has tried to spare Lebanon the price of the conflict raging in Syria or the likely “deal” over it. Details of Suleiman’s visit to Saudi Arabia, leaked in the Lebanese and Saudi press, revealed that King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz questioned the president about Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, and asked how Hezbollah could be permitted to go to Syria. He suggested that it be invited to return to Lebanon as such involvement was damaging to Lebanon, and stressed the need to follow a hands-off policy. In his response, President Suleiman highlighted the importance of the Baabda declaration that was negotiated and accepted by all parties, and expressly stipulates a hands-off approach. Suleiman also affirmed his persistent efforts to bring about a resumption of dialogue. He reiterated this position in an address to a roundtable, during which he drew a comparison between the declaration and the National Charter instituting Lebanese independence in 1943. It seems that the president, and those closest to him, have no intention of breaking the commitments of the domestic parties who signed the agreement, despite some within Hezbollah’s leadership repudiating their agreement and its consequences, particularly given that the president’s attention now appears focused in part on a direct invitation to Hezbollah to withdraw from the fighting in Qalamoun, where sparks threaten to extend to the already fragile interior of Lebanon.

The Dangers of Arsal and Tripoli’s Violence

Security concerns have once again come to dominate Lebanon. These concerns are split between the situation in the Central and Northern Beqaa, with the influx of new waves of Syrian refugees, and the situation in Tripoli, which is on the brink of a new security crackdown. The possibility of a successful crackdown in Tripoli is doubtful, especially after the clashes that occurred on November 16, 2013 between internal security forces and armed men in the town’s markets. These clashes ended only after the intervention of civic leaders. Tensions further increased following the killing of Sheikh Saadeddine Ghaya, a member of the “Islamic Labor Front” and close ally to Hezbollah. Hassan Nasrallah eulogized him personally, describing him as “a mujahid resistance fighter,” and condemned the the Future Movement’s silence over the assassination. 

From another perspective, the conflict on the ground in Syria has spilled over into Lebanon’s border areas and those adjacent to these areas, particularly Arsal and Baalbek. The sudden military escalation that reached the Central and Northern Beqaa on November 14 conforms to the domestic escalation. More than 11 rockets were fired from the eastern hills on the border with Syria onto the outskirts of al-Nabi Cheeth and Sarein. Shortly after, Syrian military helicopters carried out two raids, the first on a neighborhood in Arsal and the second on Khirbet Younine in Jaroud Arsal. On November 18, a Syrian helicopter attacked Jaroud Arsal, killing Youssef and Khaled al-Hujeiri, cousins of Arsal’s mayor, Ali al-Hujeiri, whom Hezbollah and the Syrian regime accuse of sheltering Syrian opposition groups. The following evening, Syrian fighter jets attacked the populated Aqaba al-Mubayyada area in Arsal. In this instance, the town mayor requested the Lebanese Army and the president to “put a stop to Syrian violations against the town, especially in view of the recent attacks, and to lodge a complaint with the Security Council and urge the Syrian regime to stop its aggression.” 

Ali al-Hujeiri clarified that the number of Syrian refugees who had made their way to Arsal in the course of just two days stood at 10,000-12,000. Abdel Hamid Ezzeldine, Arsal’s mukhtar, confirmed that the number of Syrian refugees who had arrived in recent days from Syria’s Qalamoun region, the towns of al-Qarra and al-Nabk in particular, numbered around 22,000, making the total number of refugees in the town some 80,000. The town’s resident population, according to him, is less than 35,000.

The risks of this escalation on the ground are severe in light of the growing intensity of fighting underway in Qalamoun as signaled by the movement of Syrian refugees, and the violent fighting on the eastern range of Mount Lebanon above Qalamoun. Events in Qalamoun suggest that the expected major battle has indeed begun in reaction to the growing preparations for the Geneva 2 Conference. Lebanese fears of a battle spreading into Lebanon as a result of this battle are mounting. All signs point to an unbalanced civil war and that the only side strong enough to become involved militarily is unable to do so at this stage for political reasons.

Where are Things Heading?

Given Lebanon’s internal situation and the heated regional context, there are a number of scenarios for how the political and security crisis in Lebanon will develop: 

First, there is a distinct possibility of friction and perhaps clashes between Syrian refugees, for whom Arsal appears to have been the exclusive destination, and Hezbollah, which is now well known to be heavily involved in the battle for Qalamoun, just as it was previously in the battle for Quseir. This is made more likely by the fact that Hezbollah is mobilizing large forces in the area, and has succeeded in bringing most of its Supporters on board, convincing them to take part in the fateful battle against the Salafists and takfiri terrorists. 

Should fighting extend to the area adjacent to the border where Hezbollah fighters are deployed, the second scenario would see the possibility of clashes between the Lebanese themselves—the people of Arsal and their supporters and Hezbollah and their supporters. Arsal is the main communication route for the Syrian opposition; developments in the Qalamoun region and the increase in Syrian attacks on Arsal make it seem that this extension in the fighting is a certainty. 

In a third scenario, the military situation in Tripoli could potentially erupt along with any explosion in Qalamoun, causing a significant shift in favor of one of the two sides. These fears may have prompted the internal security forces’ deployment of reinforcements to Tripoli and its surrounding areas known to be traditional conflict zones. Since the start of the conflict in Syria in mid-March 2011, Tripoli has witnessed a number of rounds of violent clashes between the Jabal Muhsin and Bab al-Tabaneh districts which have resulted in dozens of killed and injured. On August 23, 2013, the city also witnessed two bloody car-bombings that killed 45 people. Criminal charges have been brought against 11 people involved in the attack, among whose victims were a Syrian security official and Alawite leaders from Jabal Muhsin. 

Finally, there remains the possibility that Hezbollah and the Future Movement will reassess the situation and adopt a less inflammatory stance, taking into account the progress in Iranian-Western and Iranian-Saudi talks and the increased chances of Geneva 2 taking place. In this context, an important statement attributed to senior Hezbollah leaders by the al-Markazia News Agency on November 18, 2013, notes that Hezbollah was “ready for dialogue with any Lebanese party to defend Lebanon and its stability and ensure elections were held on time ... and that it was ready to meet the Future Movement in order to lessen the challenges of any changes on the Syrian track and isolate Lebanon from the fallout.” Similarly, on November 22, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hussein Amir Abdul Lahyan told the Lebanese al-Safir newspaper, “We know that King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz has a positive, fair, and balanced view regarding Iran and the region as a whole [...] we believe that there are wide prospects for cooperation between our two countries in many fields.” These words came on the eve of the suicide bombing that targeted the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, the intensification of Syrian bombing of Arsal, the escalation of the clashes in Qalamoun and the surrounding area, and the success of the Syrian opposition forces in making major breakthroughs, especially in rural Damascus and the Qalamoun region. This means that the Lebanese situation is open to all possibilities, from continued paralysis to worsening security tensions and a national public mobilization in support of the efforts of President Michel Suleiman, Speaker Nabih Berri, and MP Walid Jumblatt to convene dialogue and try to save what can still be saved.

**This Assessment was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. The original Arabic version published on November 28th, 2013 can be found here.


[1] This paper went to print prior to the assassination of Mohammad Chatah, former Lebanese finance minister, diplomat, and member of the Lebanese Sunni Community on December 27, 2013.

[2] The government of Rashid Karami resigned on April 23, 1969 during President Charles Helou’s term as a result of armed clashes against the backdrop of domestic splits over the legitimacy of the presence of armed Palestinian guerrillas and their launching operations from south Lebanon. This led, on the same day, to a major crisis of government that ended with the signing of the famous Cairo Agreement on November 3, 1969, which aimed to regulate the armed Palestinian presence in Lebanon. This came after some seven months during which Lebanon did not have a government because of disagreement over the Palestinian presence. President Charles Helou sent a delegation headed by army chief Emile Bustani to Cairo to negotiate with Yasser Arafat under the auspices of Egyptian defense minister Mohammad Fawzi. The Cairo Agreement legitimized the presence of the Palestinian resistance and its activity in Lebanon. Some saw that the agreement contradicted the basis of the sovereignty of the Lebanese state. When it was announced, the agreement was supported by the majority of the Lebanese political leadership, but after the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the same majority supported its abrogation or that it be considered void. On May 21, 1987, a law cancelling the agreement was passed by the Lebanese parliament which was subsequently ratified by Prime Minister Selim Hoss and President Amine Gemayel. 

[3] The Doha Agreement was agreed to by the Lebanese forces on May 21, 2008 in Doha bringing an end to 18 months of political crisis in Lebanon during which there had been some violence, such as Hezbollah’s occupation of Beirut on May 7 and 8. Agreement was reached under the stewardship of the former Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and with the efforts of the Arab Ministerial Committee and the Secretary General of the Arab League at the time, Amr Moussa. The agreement led to the selection of a new president (army chief Michel Suleiman) and the holding of parliamentary elections according to the 1960 law that makes the provinces one electoral district and divides the capital Beirut into three constituencies. The agreement also led to the formation of a national unity government. 

[4] The Lebanese fear a presidential vacuum because parliament’s election of the president is slated for May 2014. There is a precedent from the last moments of the term of President Amine Gemayel when on September 22, 1988, he announced the formation of a military government headed by army General Michel Aoun and six officers who made up the Military Council. This was intended to prevent the presidential office from remaining empty since parliament had failed to elect a new president within the constitutionally specified period. Those who supported Syria did not recognize the Aoun government, which exercised substantial powers of the presidency according to the constitution prior to the Taif Agreement. Following Taif, and on the basis of the new constitution, the prime minister’s powers are paramount.