Monday, December 3, 2007

Looks like we’ve got ourselves a president

After much delay, it finally seems the political powers in Lebanon are coming to an agreement over the new president: army commander Michel Suleiman. Yesterday, the March 14 movement confirmed that they, too, are in favor of amending the Constitution to allow Suleiman’s career move. Most Lebanese are quite happy with the prospect of having the general to be the next president. Are they right?

There is much to say in favor of Suleiman as well as against him and by both sides, see also my previous post. That fact alone confirms that he would be a good compromise candidate. He is also a general-cum-politician who has hardly made any gaffe. One only needs to look at the two others, Lahoud and Aoun, to appreciate the strategic insight and diplomatic gifts Suleiman clearly has.

Still, there are those who argue that Suleiman is too much of a compromise, that he is not the strong Maronite leader who will pull Lebanon out of its miserable state. Instead, they argue, now would have been a good time to push through March 14’s reform agenda with full force. That’s a good idea were Lebanon a democratic country, but with the Lebanese appetite for conflict avoidance, the high road would lead to nowhere.

Let me illustrate this avoidance behavior with a typical example most Lebanese can relate to: the lack of electricity and the resulting lack of ‘mazoot’ (gasoline) to fire up the building’s generator. Our building, e.g., has a generator to provide all apartments with electricity in case of power cuts. Obviously, it needs gasoline to work, which in turn needs the people living in the building to pay their share.

Somehow, there are always people who are not willing to pay. “OK, let’s cut them off. From now on, anyone who doesn’t pay for electricity will not receive any. Simple as that”, I remarked to a few neighbors who had gathered around to discuss the problem a few weeks ago. Shocked, they looked at me. “No, we cannot do that, they will sue us!”, was their immediate response. “Sue us for what? For them not getting something they didn’t pay for?”, I responded. But that argument was lost on my otherwise very friendly and intelligent neighbors.

The careful observer of Lebanese mores will note many more of such occasions where the people in this country never push through, always back off, afraid of conflict. The mere thought of anyone suing them, or more generally, think negatively of them, is enough to give in. Push never comes to shove in this part of the world. As a result, our non-paying neighbor is enjoying free usage of the generator.

You can see similar patterns in Lebanese history, especially during the Civil War. There were quite a few moments where one party could have made a decisive move against the enemy, but then backed off. The Lebanese even have an expression for it: “No winners and no losers”. It was partly this behavior that made the Civil War drag on for so long.

It is the same behavior that is making Michel Suleiman the best candidate possible right now. All others are simply too confrontational. What Lebanon needs most of all is a president who can hold things together, it doesn’t need a president who will make bold moves. Never before, a Lebanese president has been very strong and influential and the Opposition is smart enough to not allow for such a candidate now.

Interestingly enough, March 14 agrees with them, even after all that has happened the last two years and despite all their tough stances. Is this a sell-out or a realistic appraisal of the situation? In a fully democratic country, it would be the first. Then again, each patient needs its own medicine and right now the only thing that could make Lebanon better would be the consensus embodied in a person like Suleiman.


Walid said...

It makes me sad to hear the truth about ourselves from a foreigner like you, but we are too blind to see itfor ourselfes. Good article, but very sad also.

Ace said...

Most Lebanese think this is a "good idea" because of electricity and gasoline?

OK ... the Lebanese like to think they have a democratic country, and fail to understand that with elections come "winners" and "losers". When "consensus" has come to mean that the "loser" gets to tell the "winner" what to do, and that fear is the motivating factor in all of it ..... Why not just go to a Theocracy like Iran or a Dictatorship like Syria? They show the purest form of "consensus".

It might at least cut down on the terrible economy - giving everyone plenty of "gasoline & electricity" - not to mention all the assassinations.

Congratulations to the "winner". I wonder what they will "demand" next as the price for all this lovely "stability".

tarr0011 said...

Hi there.

I am a student at the University of Minnesota in the USA. I am a journalism student and am required to write a story on Beirut. I am just trying to get a hold of anyone I can from Beirut so I can talk to them about how the war with Israel effects you on a daily basis, or if it effects you at all? I would be very greatful for any response you could give me. Thanks so much for your time. Please e-mail me at

Thanks again!


Riemer Brouwer said...


Please read more careful: I never said the Lebanese want a new president, any president, for reasons of electricity and gasoline. This was an example meant to illustrate the conflict avoidance attitude most Lebanese (or Arabs, in general) have.