On 24 May 2014, the term of the then Lebanese President Michel Suleiman came to an end without the parliament electing a new president in his place, resulting in a vacuum after the president’s departure from Baabda Presidential Palace. Since 2005, the country has been divided between two main political camps. The first is the ‘14 March’ forces, consisting mainly of the Sunni Future Movement, Christian Lebanese Forces, the Christian Phalange Party, some independent politicians, and the Druze Progressive Socialist Party headed by MP Walid Jumblatt. The latter abandoned the March 14 movement later, however. The second camp is the ‘8 March’ forces, consisting of the Shiite Hezbollah Movement, the Shiite Amal Movement, the Christian Free Patriotic Movement, and other political parties.
Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces Executive Commission, emerged as a strong presidential candidate representing the 14 March forces. General Michel Aoun, head of the Free Patriotic Movement and leader of the largest Christian bloc in parliament, was a similarly strong candidate representing the 8 March forces. At the outset, the two political camps stood behind their candidates and their political platforms. The 8 March camp soon distanced itself from the parliamentary sessions devoted to the election of the new president, using its democratic right to employ the lack of quorum – specified by the Lebanese constitution – to disrupt parliamentary sessions if this would prevent a rival candidate from becoming president.
Over the course of two years, 36 parliamentary sessions were held at the request of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, yet the parliament failed to elect a president. A few months after the presidential vacuum developed, the parliamentary mandate was extended for a second time by a majority of 95 votes since November 2014, on the grounds that the security situation in the country did not permit new parliamentary elections. Consequently, prime minister designate Tamam Salam ran the country, announcing the makeup of his government on 15 February 2014, approximately 11 months after he was named. Salam’s government included 24 ministers representing all Lebanese political groups, except for the Lebanese Forces, which at the time refused to sit at the table with Hezbollah because of the latter’s involvement in the Syrian war. The Lebanese government thus became functional and was supposed to perform its duties for two months only, until a new president was elected. However, because of the ongoing conflicts among Lebanese politicians the interim government stayed in place longer than it should have.
For two years, the government, which consists of quarreling political parties, failed to make firm decisions that accomplish change in the current political deadlock. One manifestation of this failure was the government’s handling of the rubbish-removal crisis. In July 2015, Lebanese authorities closed down al-Naima landfill without making provisions for a replacement. This coincided with the expiry of a contract between the government and Sukleen waste-management company. The government did not to put out new tenders for contracts to enable other companies to carry out the removal work, and failed to extend the existing contract. As a result, the rubbish began to pile up on the streets of Beirut.
Lebanese citizens who couldn’t tolerate the stink in their neighbourhoods, took to the streets and demanded prime minister designate Tamam Saam and Environment Minister Muhammad al-Mashnuq step down, holding the disputatious and heterogeneous government responsible for the poor conditions in the country. The government, however, did not acquiesce to public pressure, under the pretext of there being no president to whom the government could submit its resignation. The government also argued that its resignation would cause a complete political vacuum in Lebanon, given the absence of an effective parliament.
As a result, the anti-rubbish protest movement failed to achieve its goals. Also being the result of Lebanese youth lacking experience in politics and being disorganized. Moreover, they did not have a coherent plan that might have allowed the activists to form a strong oppositional force. The protest movement, while vigorous at the beginning, gradually faded away. Nevertheless, on several occasions the movement prevented the government from striking suspicious rubbish-removal deals at the expense of the Lebanese people.
Despite all this, the government remained incapable of finding a solution to the crisis, and the trash continued to pile up in the streets. After seven months, first steps were taken. Shortly after Russia’s involvement in the war in Syria in September 2015, Sad al-Hariri, head of the strongest Sunni trend in Lebanon, reached a political breakthrough by nominating MP Sulayman Franjieh – a key Christian politician, allied with the 8 March forces and the most prominent friend and ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Al-Hariri’s move presumably aimed to relieve the presidential vacuum. In return, Samir Geagea, the most prominent Christian ally of Sad al-Hariri and the strong presidential candidate of the 14 March forces, hurried to support the nomination of his political rival, General Michel Aoun. At that time, the two Lebanese camps embarked on talks that led to the signing of a goodwill declaration on 2 June 2015, purportedly ending a long-running political conflict between the two camps. Geagea’s nomination of Aoun came as a culmination of this Christian reconciliation.
Both nominees are key members of the 8 March forces, but the parliament remained incapable of electing a president because the 8 March forces refusing to participate in the parliamentary sessions intended to do so. The Free Patriotic Movement remained committed to its earlier decision not to participate in these sessions unless it could be sure of the victory of its candidate. More so after Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and his bloc failed to confirm their support for the candidacy of General Michel Aoun against Berri’s strategic ally Sulayman Franjiyah. At the same time, the 14 March forces claimed that Hezbollah was the real party obstructing the presidential elections, arguing they could have unified the stances of its political team so as to nominate one of the two Christian allies.
The political stalemate in Lebanon began to signal a governmental collapse, especially after Minister of Justice Major General Ashraf Rifi, allied with the Future Movement, submitted his resignation 21 February 2016. This was in protest of the government’s failure to refer the case of former Lebanese minister Michel Samahah— accused of transporting explosives from Syria to Lebanon and plotting terrorist attacks —to the Council of Justice after Samahah was cleared by court martial. Rifi protested that he was no longer capable of standing by the actions of his party in the government. Observers of Lebanese politics believe that the crisis will reach a pinnacle sooner or later, particularly because it coincides with Arab pressures on Lebanon. For example, Saudi Arabia decided to freeze its three billion US dollars of financial assistance aimed at providing the Lebanese army with weapons. It also urged its nationals not to travel to Lebanon and terminated businesses of many Lebanese nationals in the Gulf.
The Saudi decisions have had a serious impact on the Lebanese economy. According to Saudi sources, the move came in response to certain actions by the Future Movement, which the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) wanted to be designated as a terrorist organization. On the other hand, the Lebanese government failed to make any decision, issue an explanatory statement, or offer an apology to Saudi Arabia because it did not want to harm civil peace in Lebanon, the government claimed. This Lebanese fear was evident in the position of Interior Minister Nihad al-Mashnuq at the Arab Interior Ministers’ meeting on March 2nd, 2016 in Tunis. Minister al-Mashnuq steered clear of designating Hezbollah as a terrorist group. Some Lebanese political analysts urged GCC countries to backtrack on their designation of Hezbollah’s political wing and asked them to limit the designation to the movement’s military wing, as the European Union has done.