By Tom Perry
BEIRUT, Nov 28 (Reuters) - Lebanon’s Christians fear a prolonged political vacuum while the post of president is filled will weaken their position in a sectarian system that reserves the job for them.
The presidency has been empty since Nov. 23 when Emile Lahoud’s term ended. The post, reserved for a Maronite, has fallen victim to a power struggle between rival camps led by Sunni and Shi’ite Muslim groups, but also among Christians themselves.
Split between the sides, Maronite leaders’ deep rivalries have hindered efforts to reach an agreement on a new president. Parliament was due to convene on Friday in a sixth attempt at electing a new head of state.
But with no deal, political sources said on Wednesday the vote was likely to be delayed again, raising the spectre of a long vacuum that would further undermine Maronite influence in the only Middle Eastern country with a Christian head of state.
"When there is a vacuum in the presidency of the republic, it directly translates into the absence of Christians from the constitutional structure and the increased marginalisation of their role," former President Amin Gemayel told Reuters.
The end of Gemayel’s term in 1988 ushered in Lebanon’s last presidential vacuum. Divisions over his successor triggered one of the bloodiest chapters of the 1975-1990 civil war, during which rival Maronites took up arms against each other.
Those rivals — Michel Aoun and Samir Geagea — are still at loggerheads. An ally of Shi’ite group Hezbollah, Aoun insists he should be president because he heads the largest Christian bloc in parliament.
But the idea of an Aoun presidency is anathema to the governing alliance, which is led by Sunni politician Saad al-Hariri and includes Geagea’s Lebanese Forces group.
NO FOREIGN BACKER
Geagea and his allies had hoped to elect a president who shared their agenda of fighting the influence of Syria, which controlled Lebanon until 2005. Christians feel they were the main political victims of Syrian dominance, their influence curbed by the Taif Accord that ended the civil war.
An outspoken critic of Damascus, Geagea backs his coalition’s right to elect a president unilaterally if there is no agreement with the Syria-backed opposition. Such a move would escalate the conflict and likely trigger violence.
Gemayel, part of the governing alliance and himself an undeclared candidate, called for a president who "embodies the feelings of the Christians and is capable of building bridges with all partners in the nation".
Echoing the fears of other leaders, Gemayel said the presidential vacuum was an imbalance that could endanger stability and undermine the sectarian diversity of a country whose Christian community has been reduced by emigration.
Lebanon would become like other countries in a region where Islam is the dominant religion and most leaders are Muslim. "Lebanon will become like the rest of the states, lacking this variety", he said.
The United States has called for the election to happen immediately for the sake of Lebanon and its Christians.
Although Christians are split on who should be the next head of state, they agree that leaving the post empty for a long time will have serious consequences for their community. "Today, in the prevailing vacuum, the Christian’s have no say," said Yacoub Sarraf, a former minister who supports Aoun’s candidacy.
Reflecting on the privileged position of Maronites under the French mandate in the early 20th century, he said the Christians now lacked a foreign backer while the Sunnis enjoyed the support of Saudi Arabia and the Shi’ites had Iranian sponsorship.
Many Christians fear a prolonged vacuum in the presidency could endanger its very existence as a Christian position.
"The Christian leaders have not measured up," wrote Rosana Bou Monsef in the al-Nahar daily. "Can the Christian leaders guarantee that the presidency will remain for the Christians?"