Minutes before leaving office on Sunday, President Michel Aoun of Lebanon signed a controversial decree dissolving the caretaker cabinet of Prime Minister Najib Mikati.
He also demanded that Mikati is no longer considered prime minister-designate, having failed to form a new government since tasked last May. This leaves Lebanon with two vacancies at its most important posts, creating an unprecedent vacuum in the history of the country.
This is not the first time, however, that Lebanon stands with no president. It happened before in November 2007 with the departure of Emille Lahhoud, lasting until the election of his successor Michel Suleiman in May 2008.
It happened again at the end of Suleiman’s tenure in May 2014, this time lasting for more than two years, until Aoun was elected in October 2016. But it is the first time that both the presidency and premiership are left empty, at one of the worst moments in Lebanon’s history.
A ‘stolen’ country
The past six years have been marred with tremendous upheaval, starting with an anti-Aoun revolt in October 2019, followed by a collapse in banking sector ahead of Covid-19 and its painful lockdown. Then came the August 2020 mega-blast at the port of Beirut, which tore down half the city and killed over 200 people.
More than two years later, nobody has been held accountable although a handful of officials have been charged with “criminal negligence,” including former prime minister Hassan Diab, a protégé of Aoun and his son-in-law, Gibran Bassil. Some of them were re-elected to parliament last May.
In his farewell speech, Aoun said that he leaves behind a country “stolen” by the oligarchy, failing to mention that it is also a bankrupt one, which defaulted on its foreign debt during his presidency, and has since locked the dollar deposits of its citizens, amid massive devaluation on its local currency that crossed the 35,000 LP benchmark to the US dollar in May 2022.
The banking crisis has sent thousands of Lebanese citizens into bankruptcy, eroding their already razor-thin reserves while triggering a series of back-to-back bank robberies during the last six months of Aoun’s terms.
As if all of that was not enough, cholera is spreading rapidly throughout the country due to contamination of water and food. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), there have been 381 confirmed cases since early October, topped with 17 deaths.
To deal with these monumental challenges, Lebanon needs a strong president. Aoun’s supporters in the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) have persistently blocked the election of any candidate, insisting on the nomination of Gibran Bassil to succeed his father-in-law.
They even made sure that no government is formed between May and October, unless Mikati pledged to support Bassil’s bid for president. Presidential elections were blocked, invoking a constitutional clause that says no president can be sworn-in unless there is a full-fledge government in power (which didn’t apply to that of Najib Mikati).
A series of impossible conditions were put forth that Mikati could not meet — like demanding to take 11 out of 24 portfolios, including strategic posts like the ministries of defence, interior, foreign affairs and energy.
The Ministry of Energy carries added value now that the maritime borders agreement with Israel is signed and Lebanon is about to start drilling for natural gas in its territorial waters. When Mikati refused to comply, he was accused of hampering the cabinet formation process.
Mikati claims that Aoun’s forced dissolution of the cabinet is unconstitutional, a view seconded by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. Berri will convene parliament today to discuss Aoun’s final decree, hoping to overrule it despite pressure from the Aounist bloc of 21 MPs.
It was Berri after all who had suggested that presidential powers ought to be transferred to the Muslim prime minister if no Christian president is elected before 31 October 2022.
That raised the ire of Aoun and his team, given that it would have meant violating the National Pact of 1943, a gentlemen’s agreement which says that presidential office is reserved exclusively for a Maronite Christian.
But given that the National Pact is an unwritten agreement, it has been violated before — famously by Aoun himself, when he assumed the premiership in 1988.
Earlier, the Maronite Army Commander Fouad Shihab (later president of Lebanon) had been appointed prime minister in 1952, presiding over a military cabinet for two weeks. Meaning that if Mikati assumes presidential powers for an interim period, it would not be the end of the world for Lebanon.
In fact, many see it as far better than two empty seats at the premiership and presidency.
— 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.