In 1989, sixty-two Lebanese parliamentarians shuffled into a packed conference hall in the Saudi city of Taif, on the slopes of Mount Hejaz, to hammer out an end to their country’s civil war. The conference was brainchild of the late King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, with Rafik Al Hariri serving as intermediary between warring Lebanese factions.
A deal was finally reached that September and signed off by Lebanese lawmakers on 5 November 1989. It empowered the office of prime minister, held traditionally since 1943 by a Sunni Muslim. Premiers were no longer hired and fired by the president, and were now responsible to an elected chamber of deputies, whose number of seats were raised to 128 and became equally divided between Muslims and Christians.
The Taif Agreement stressed mutual coexistence between the Lebanese people, calling for the abolishment of political sectarianism, without specifying a deadline for achieving that.
More importantly, it identified Lebanon as “Arab in belonging and identity,” underlined the country’s special relationship with Syria. The arms of all warring militias, with the exception of Hezbollah, were to be confiscated by the Lebanese state.
Hezbollah was left out because the original Taif Accords considered it a “resistance movement.” Fast forward 33-years … On 5 November 2022, the Saudi Embassy in Beirut held a celebration at the UNESCO Palace in Beirut, commemorating the 33rd anniversary of the Taif Accords.
A diverse gathering
Saad Al Hariri’s withdrawal from politics left behind a giant hole in Lebanese Sunni politics, which eleven months down the road, nobody has been able to fill. Yet it was clear from the diversity of guests at the UNESCO Palace that the Saudis are keeping their options open.
Among those present included an assortment of Shiite delegates, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, and Maronite politicians from across the political spectrum, including Hezbollah’s candidate for the presidency Suleiman Frangieh, and his rival Michel Mouawwad, who was nominated for the post by the Lebanese Forces last October.
Mouawwad is the son of ex-president Rene Mouawwad, who assumed office the day the Taif Accords were ratified in Lebanon, only to be assassinated just eighteen days later.
The Saudis were making it clear that they were open to dealing with the full political spectrum. Present in the room were two delegates representing ex-President Michel Aoun, who had famously rejected the original Taif Accords back in 1989, saying that they weakened the Lebanese Presidency.
At the time, Aoun had just been appointed prime minister by outgoing president Amin Gemayel, presiding over a military cabinet at Baabda Palace that was subsequently toppled in 1990.
Aoun, now at 89, did not personally attend the 33rd anniversary of Taif, but by sending two representatives, seemed to have finally given it his blessing (although Aoun had actually given it de facto recognition by accepting office under the Taif Agreement in 2016-2022).
Pulling Lebanon back together
That said: what is the objective from celebrating Taif 33 years on? For one, Riyadh’s role in ending the Lebanese civil war was big.
The Kingdom is capable even now — thirty-three years later — of pulling Lebanon back together? The original agreement was hammered out through joint Saudi, Syrian, and French efforts but this time, its Saudi Arabia acting without too many interlocutors.
Or is it a rehearsal for a possible Taif II; some sort of modified agreement that regulates power-sharing between pro-West and pro-Iran camps of Lebanon? When the original accords were signed, none of today’s fault lines were present, and the objective was to manage the relationship between Muslims and Christians.
Today’s agreement — if it materialises — would be to balance out the competition between various sects as well, at a micro-level. Time and again, Lebanon’s political elite has failed to achieve any understanding between its sects and warring factions, without regional and international mediation.
In May 2008, Qatar played the role of go-between, facilitating a famous agreement that ended a presidential vacuum ad led to the election of then-president, Michel Suleiman, ending a six-months presidential vacuum.
Then in September 2020, just days after the Beirut port explosion, President Emanual Macron tried to flex his muscle in Lebanese domestics, delivering a French initiative for reform and the rotation of power among different sects and political parties. It was debunked by the Lebanese themselves, and never saw the light.
Are efforts being made to pick up from where Macron failed two years ago? Watch this space.
— Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.