Events elsewhere in the Middle East have garnered more headlines but Lebanon is in a precarious state after parliament failed to appoint a new head of state. With more than one million Syrian refugees, recent suicide bomb attacks and an economy in tatters, this should be a time for national unity – but Lebanon’s MPs think otherwise. Since spring they have been unable to choose a presidential candidate who, according to Lebanon’s unwritten National Pact, should be a Maronite Christian.
The men touted by the two antagonistic political forces are former enemies in the long Lebanese war: General Michel Aoun – supported by the Shiite Hezbollah and the March 8 political camp – and Samir Geagea, favoured by Saad Hariri and the Sunni-leaning March 14 force. A third figure could appear as a wild card though Aoun has made it clear that he will not back down.
Historically, political breakthroughs have come through regional powers exerting pressure. However, with Syria and Iraq dominating proceedings, Lebanon’s fate has been left hanging. “This is a reflection of Lebanon’s failing institutions,” says Andrew Arsan, lecturer in modern Middle Eastern history at Cambridge University. “Its political culture is characterised by increasingly vitriolic language and contempt for ‘the other side’, which makes any attempt to negotiate tantamount to capitulation in the eyes of politicians and their followers.”
Still, as Nadim Shehadi, an associate fellow at Chatham House, points out, “The alternative to paralysis would be resorting to violence” – and Lebanon has already had far too much of that.
Lebanon’s key challenges:
Containment Keeping a lid on the Sunni-Shiite rivalry spilling over from Syria.
Rethinking Lebanon’s institutions to thwart these power vacuums (parliamentary elections are due in November, which could lead to yet another delay).
Fixing infrastructure on the verge of collapse to revive an economy under pressure from the refugee crisis.
Friend or foe?
Equatorial Guinea [REGIONAL POLICY]
The Community of Portuguese Language Countries has a new – if slightly incongruous – member: Spanish-speaking Equatorial Guinea. The decision to include the West African state was unanimous despite the fact that hardly any of its 757,000 citizens speak any Portuguese.
“Equatorial Guinea has a strong historic connection with Portugal, having been its colony until 1777,” says Paulo Agostinho, a journalist for Portugal’s main news agency Agência Lusa. However, there have been some concerns in Portugal regarding the recent addition due to the dire human-rights situation in Equatorial Guinea. The country’s leader, Teodoro Obiang, has ruled with an iron fist since 1979. In that time his family has become enormously rich; there is also no free press and opponents of the regime are jailed on a regular basis.