Lebanon President leaves without replacement, crisis deepens

BEIRUT — President Michel Aoun exited Lebanon’s presidential palace on Sunday, marking the end of his six-year term without a replacement. He left the small nation in a political vacuum that is likely to compound its historic economic collapse.

At the end of Aoun’s term, the country will be ruled by an interim government after Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati failed to form a new cabinet after the May 15 general election. Aoun and his supporters warn that such a government will not have full powers to rule the country, saying weeks of “constitutional chaos” lie ahead.

In a speech at the palace, Aoun told thousands of supporters that he accepted the resignation of Mikati’s government. The move is likely to further deprive the transitional government of legitimacy and exacerbate existing political tensions in the country.

Mikati responded shortly thereafter with a statement from his office that his government would continue to carry out its duties in accordance with the constitution.

Many fear an extended power vacuum could further delay attempts to finalize a deal with the International Monetary Fund that would provide around $3 billion in aid to Lebanon, widely seen as an important step in helping the country Getting out of a three-year financial crisis has left three quarters of the population in poverty.

While it is not the first time that the Lebanese parliament has failed to nominate a successor by the end of the president’s term, it will be the first time that there is both no president and an executive cabinet with limited powers .

Lebanon’s constitution allows the cabinet to run the government under normal circumstances, but it is unclear if this applies to an interim government.

Wissam Lahham, a professor of constitutional law at St Joseph University in Beirut, told The Associated Press that he believes the governance issues the country will face are more political than legal.

Although the constitution “does not explicitly say that the interim government can act when there is no president, logically one should constitutionally accept that because … the state and institutions should continue to function on the principle of continuity of public services,” he said.

Lebanese are deeply divided over Aoun, an 87-year-old Maronite Christian and former army commander. Some see him as a defender of the country’s Christian community and a leader who has tried seriously to tackle corruption in Lebanon. His opponents have criticized him for his role in the 1975-90 civil war and for his shifting alliances, particularly with Iran-backed Hezbollah, the country’s most powerful military and political force. He has also come under fire for getting his son-in-law to replace him, and many blame him for the economic crisis stemming from decades of corruption and mismanagement.

Aoun, the 13th President of Lebanon since the country’s independence from France in 1943, saw Beirut’s historic ties with the oil-rich Gulf states sour due to the power of Hezbollah and one of the world’s largest non-nuclear explosions at Beirut’s port in August 2020 , which killed more than 200 people .

Aoun has criticized his political opponents, saying they prevented him from trying central bank governor Riad Salameh, who is under investigation in several European countries including Switzerland, France, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein on alleged money laundering and embezzlement.

“I am leaving a country that is being robbed,” Aoun said, adding that all Lebanese were injured for losing their life savings in local banks. He added that some politicians prevented the investigation into the port blast.

Aoun, who blamed the crisis on his political rivals and others besides members of his political party, later left the palace and made his way to his residence in Rabieh, a northern suburb of Beirut.

Aoun’s biggest success came last week. He signed a US-brokered maritime border deal with Israel that Beirut hopes will lead to gas exploration in the Mediterranean. That will likely help Lebanon emerge from its economic crisis, which the World Bank has described as one of the worst since the 1850s.

Parliament has held four sessions since late September to elect a president, but no candidate has been able to secure the required two-thirds majority of votes. As with previous votes, parliamentary blocs must agree on a consensus candidate for the country’s top post, as no alliance within the legislature controls a majority of seats.

Aoun himself was elected in 2016 after a vacuum of more than two years. Despite Hezbollah’s support at the time, Aoun was only elected after winning the support of the bloc of his main rivals, the Christian Lebanese Armed Forces Party, as well as that of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

According to the power-sharing agreement in Lebanon, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the speaker of the parliament must be a Shia, and the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim. Cabinet and government seats are divided equally between Muslims and Christians. Christians, Sunnis and Shias each make up about a third of Lebanon’s 5 million population.

Since the economic meltdown that began with nationwide protests in October 2019, Lebanon’s political class – which has ruled since the end of the civil war – has fought back reforms called for by the international community that could help block billions of dollars in loans and investments to secure.

Talks between the Lebanese government and the IMF, which began in May 2020 and resulted in a staff-level agreement in April, have made very little progress.

The Lebanese government has implemented some of the IMF’s demands from the deal, which are mandatory before the completion of any bailout program. These include restructuring Lebanon’s struggling financial sector, implementing tax reforms, restructuring external public debt, and introducing strong anti-corruption and anti-money laundering measures.

“The prospects of an IMF deal were already slim before the looming power vacuum and Aoun’s departure,” said Nasser Saidi, an economist and former economy minister. “There is no political will or appetite for reform.”

“Aoun’s departure is just another nail in the coffin,” he said. “It doesn’t change the fundamentals of a dysfunctional failed state and a utterly ineffective polity.”

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