Death by a Thousand Cuts
Lebanon's constitution is falling apart.


Mario Loyola

Summer in the eastern Mediterranean is always hot, wet, and stormy. But in Lebanon, this summer could be bad — even by last year’s standards. The political struggle that has paralyzed Lebanon since the assassination of Rafik Hariri and the departure of the Syrian Army in 2005 must come to a head by September, when a new president must be selected. Under Lebanon’s constitution, only the parliament can select the president – and this parliament is suffocating from deadlock. Its pro-Syrian speaker supports the Hezbollah-dominated opposition — and for months has prevented parliament from meeting at all. In all likelihood, Lebanon will be divided between two competing governments by year’s end — and facing civil war again. But this time the war will add the fuel of Islamist terrorism to that of sectarian militias — a potentially cataclysmic combination. The resolution currently being debated by the Security Council may decide the future of Lebanon.

The current crisis pits two unlikely coalitions against each other. In the opposition, supported openly by Syria and quietly by Iran, are the Shiite Amal Movement and Hezbollah as well as the Free Patriotic Movement of General Michel Aoun, a Christian and formerly Syria’s nemesis in Lebanon. On the other side is the governing majority of the “March 14 Alliance,” named for the day of the Cedar Revolution, which consists of the Sunnis, Druze, and those Lebanese Christians opposed to Hezbollah. The opposition controls the presidency and the office of the speaker of parliament, while the majority controls the parliament and the government of Prime Minister Siniora.

Since pulling their six ministers out of the government in January, the opposition claims the government is no longer legitimate, on the basis of a vague constitutional provision requiring that the major confessional communities be represented in the government. Thus, even though the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora rests on a solid parliamentary majority, important power centers within the state — including the Syrian-installed President Emile Lahoud and the pro-Syrian speaker of parliament — refuse to acknowledge its legitimacy. The “constitution” of Lebanon, a constantly changing Frankenstein’s monster, is full of devices meant to protect confessional minorities. But by defeating majority rule, the only real effect of these devices is to leave the state unable to protect itself.

The March 14 majority has scored some important victories lately. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently pointed the finger directly at Hezbollah and declared that the need to disarm it was now the biggest challenge facing Lebanon. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, for her part, recently endorsed calls to form an international tribunal to investigate the assassination of Rafik Hariri under the Security Council’s Chapter VII powers. This idea, long advocated by pro-democracy groups such as the World Council for the Cedars Revolution, arose because the pro-Syrian speaker of parliament is refusing to permit enabling legislation to create the tribunal domestically, as Security Council Resolution 1559 originally contemplated.

The proposal for a Chapter VII resolution is slated to be taken up by the Security Council next week. The outcome of those deliberations is likely to be decisive for Lebanese history. The resolution must go beyond the mere creation of a tribunal. The French and Americans must look past immediate tactical hurdles to the root causes of Lebanon’s problems, otherwise the international community is destined always to help too little too late.

The investigation into Hariri’s murder is paralyzed for the same reason that Lebanon is paralyzed generally, which is that forces in the service of other masters than the state of Lebanon are strangling it to death. The sad truth is that Lebanon is a failing state — and it may soon be a failed state. To prevent that from happening, the vacuum of sovereignty in Lebanon must be filled, and only the international community can fill it.