Politics & Policy

Death by a Thousand Cuts

Lebanon's constitution is falling apart.

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.

The controversy over the tribunal has become central to the political impasse in Lebanon. Siniora has concluded that the parliamentary speaker will not permit the formation of an impartial tribunal under domestic law, and has formally requested that the Security Council create and impose the needed tribunal under Chapter VII. President Lahoud wrote a letter to the U.N. secretary-general on Tuesday imploring him to block Chapter VII action, because it would imply “a full of bypass of the constitutional mechanism in Lebanon.” That is right. The constitutional mechanism in Lebanon is broken, and it must be bypassed. Another opposition member argued that accepting the Chapter VII tribunal would be a concession of Lebanese sovereignty. But the key problem is precisely Lebanon’s lack of sovereignty. Lebanon ceded its sovereignty to armed militias in 1969, and to Syria in the following decades — and never got it back.

The government there is too weak even to claim a monopoly of legitimate force, much less exercise one. Several leading Lebanese, including a senior Christian army general and a Sunni cabinet minister, suggested to me that the weakness of Lebanon’s institutions is indeed necessary for political stability there. Such thinking, incredible as it may seem, is common in Lebanon. The Lebanese army maintains its power and prestige chiefly by never acting to defend any institution in Lebanon except itself.

As long as both the Lebanese army and the U.N. forces under UNIFIL stay out of the political conflict, Hezbollah will remain the only force in Lebanon able and willing to impose its will. The international community needs to wake up to the fact that neither the tribunal it has called for, nor the government of Lebanon generally, can long survive without outside protection. It is vital to expand the mandate of UNIFIL into one that protects Lebanon’s key institutions — its parliament as well as the tribunal — from its internal as well as external enemies.

Opponents of intervention will invoke Article 2(7) of the U.N. Charter, and argue the U.N. should stay away because the current constitutional crisis is “essentially a matter within the domestic jurisdiction” of Lebanon. But it isn’t. The forces currently preying on Lebanon are very definitely coming from the outside — chiefly Iran and Syria — and have now assumed decisive influence over both the investigation into Hariri’s death and the coming presidential election. This is of critical importance, because all the evidence thus far adduced in the investigation suggests that responsibility for the murder of Hariri rests at the highest levels of the Syrian government and that it was carried out by the instruments of an illegal Syrian occupation.

President Emile Lahoud argues that the government of the prime minister is illegitimate — but he was himself “elected” by a parliament installed under Syrian occupation, and his term was illegally extended by this same rubber stamp for an illegal occupation. Now both he and the speaker of parliament, who is increasingly under Hezbollah’s thumb, argue that the current parliament won’t be able to select a president with a simple majority vote unless it first achieves a supermajority quorum — which it can’t do without the presence of the opposition. So another defeat for majority rule and for Lebanon is looming.In default of any general agreement on a constitutional means to elect future governments, the international community must intervene, just as it did in the former Yugoslavia. The vacuum of sovereignty that exists in Lebanon needs to be filled, and only the Security Council has the perceived legitimacy to fill it.

If we don’t move to save Lebanon now, we will be handing America’s enemies an enormous victory, and the spread of democracy in the Middle East will suffer a deadly blow. After all, if democracy cannot be saved in the one Arab country where it has existed for a long time, what hope is there of democracy surviving among Iraqis and Palestinians who have never had it?

– Mario Loyola is a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He recently returned from a trip to Lebanon.

Mario Loyola — Mr. Loyola is a research associate professor and the director of the Environmental Finance and Risk Management Program at Florida International University and a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. From 2017 to 2019 he was the associate director for regulatory reform at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.


The Latest