The ghosts of Lebanon’s past, present and yet to come

83-year-old Christian Maronite and former General Michel Aoun was finally elected President of Lebanon this month, a country which chooses its leaders based on their religious sect
83-year-old Christian Maronite and former General Michel Aoun was finally elected President of Lebanon this month, a country which chooses its leaders based on their religious sect

It has been over a week since Lebanon finally gained a President, Michel Aoun, for the first time in over two years and the results are obvious – electricity runs all day, the wifi is almost too fast, and the streets smell like daisies. Or not. There is a strong sense in the capital Beirut, especially amongst young people, that the election will change nothing, compounded by their lack of involvement in his election. The latter seems a recurring theme in recent global politics.

The Lebanese Parliament elects the President, and the last parliamentary election was in 2009, meaning that nobody under the age of 28 has had a say in the President for the next six years. Aoun, on the other hand, is 83 years young, which is a source of comfort in that, as put eloquently by my flatmate, ‘He’ll probably die soon.’ Indeed, the broadcast of the vote was a Benjamin Button classroom – a room full of old people joking, cheating and being told off by the teacher. One of the votes in the first round counted was for Myriam Klink, a Lebanese-Serbian singer described to me as ‘the Lebanese Kim Kardashian’, a result that was met with laughter from MPs. I’m sure the vote for a female President was inspirational to the four female MPs, but indeed laughable in light of recent events. The ‘teacher’, also known as the Speaker of the Parliament, Nabih Berri, had to step in at this point and declare the vote invalid. If we needed a reminder of Lebanon’s sectarianism, the reason for this was her Greek Orthodox faith, as the constitution dictates that the President must be a Christian Maronite.

Berri (right), Speaker of the Parliament and preventer of Lebanon's very-own Kim Kardashian from ascending to the Presidency
Berri (right), Speaker of the Parliament and preventer of Lebanon’s very-own Kim Kardashian from ascending to the Presidency

A second round of voting was necessary as Aoun did not gain the 86 votes he needed to win outright. This round resulted in 128 votes being cast from the 127 MPs present, meaning that someone voted twice. Unluckily for some MPs, we have these things called televisions now. The third round also had a mysterious extra vote. Finally, after two hours, four rounds and a lot of Berri-ating later, a President was elected – a war criminal, no less.

This, however, is unsurprising considering the elections brimmed with familiar civil war names – Aoun, Geagea, Gemayel, Frangieh. The elections were inextricable from the war, meaning that most groups are associated with war criminals. Perhaps the stranger part is that these Maronite groups ever managed to create alliances in order to elect a President. Although Lebanon’s sectarianism might make it seem like the country is divided along religious lines, between 18 different sects in a country of 4 million, the divides are also within religious communities, as the major ones each constitutionally have a place in the government – the Speaker must be a Shi’a Muslim, the President a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim and the Deputy Prime Minister and Deputy Speaker an Eastern Orthodox Christian. This means that there are multiple groups within a sect vying for that position. The confessional system also means that Christians are overrepresented in a country that was roughly equally divided between Christians and Muslims at its foundation, but by the 1970s had Christians only making up about a third of the population. Of course, this played a big part in the war, but so did divides within religious communities. Geagea personally, for example, headed the team that murdered Frangieh’s father, mother and sister, along with two members of staff, about 35 militiamen and the family dog.

Lebanon's Parliament in Beirut, seat of power and many, many disagreements over the past six years
Lebanon’s Parliament in Beirut, seat of power and many, many disagreements over the past six years

Considering such historical tensions, it is no wonder that the election took so long to occur. It is time for Lebanon to move away from its past and focus on its future. It is time for real change for ordinary citizens to occur, particularly in terms of its infrastructure. In June, the first Parliamentary elections since 2009 will finally be held. It is time for young people to have a say, if only they will take the opportunity.

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