‘Ground is boiling’ in Lebanon as MPs fail to choose president again

Lebanon’s parliament failed to choose a new head of state on Wednesday for the 28th time since the end of the mandate of former president Michel Suleiman in May 2014. In failing to do so, the political class has also shown itself unable to respond to a growing social movement that activists believe could be redrawing the political map of the country.

Protesters occupy the Ministry of the Environment in Beirut, demanding the resignation of cabinet minister Mohammed Mashnuq, 1 September 2015
Protesters occupy the Ministry of the Environment in Beirut, demanding the resignation of cabinet minister Mohammed Mashnuq, 1 September 2015 Reuters/Mohamed Azakir

“In the absence of a president, the whole executive power in the country is practically paralysed,” says Mario Abou Zeid, a research analyst with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, referring to partisan and sectarian divisions over who should be Suleiman’s successor that render the government nearly powerless when it comes to managing the country.

Mario Abou Zeid, research analyst with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut

“Because every political group has its own interests, it is very hard to reach a unanimous vote on any single decision.”

Exacerbating the situation now is the government’s failure to renew a garbage disposal contract, meaning trash has been piling up across the country for the past three weeks. A movement called You Stink launched in protest, and has quickly gained ground for channelling frustrations over the government’s perceived inability to meet the basic needs of citizens.

The movement drew thousands of people to a public march in Beirut on Saturday, and dozens of activists were evicted from the Ministry of the Environment on Tuesday evening after occupying it for several hours to demand the resignation of cabinet minister Mohammed Mashnuq.

“They have demands including having a new electoral law, administrative decentralisation, better management of electricity, fighting corruption,” notes Abou Zeid. “Recently, they have been demanding more and more to elect a president, because as soon as a president is elected, a new government will be appointed.”

Nizar Rammal, Lebanese political activist

Abou Zeid doesn’t believe the movement is strong enough to influence the impasse over the presidency, however.

“It’s still about the political elite, and under the current circumstances, the government cannot resign because in the absence of a president there is no one to nominate constitutionally a new head council of ministers, a new prime minister, to form a new government,” he explains. “The efficiency of such a movement could be bolstered if it is directed at the parliament, pushing them to elect a president.”

Some activists however see the You Stink movement as a boiling-over point for social and economic discontent that has been simmering for several years, as well as a sign that the political shape of the country is changing.

“It’s not the first campaign or movement of protest against the political system and political class in Lebanon, but it’s the first time it has had such momentum and outreach,” says political activist Nizar Rammal.

“It’s evidence there’s a large part of the population that is not polarised by the two main political factions of the country,” he explains, referring to the March 8 Alliance – considered to be supported by Shiite regimes in Iran and Syria – and the March 14 Alliance – thought to benefit from the support of Sunni states as well as the United States.

“The ground is boiling out here. Every day you hear about a new movement or group initiating some sort of action against the political system,” says Rammal. “We think it will contribute to the birth of a new political movement beyond confessional and sectarian divides. We hope so, at least, and we are working for this.”

The parliament has set a new date to choose a president for 30 September.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Keep up to date with international news by downloading the RFI app