It has been an unusually peaceful summer in Lebanon. Leaving aside an attempted prison break by Islamist militants, the tourists and Lebanese expatriates who flocked to Beirut over the past few months have basked in unlikely security.
Tourism has thrived and local business has been cheering. Shockingly, there was even a semblance of new-found order on the notoriously unruly streets of Beirut. Some drivers now stop at traffic lights, and quite a few passengers fasten their seat belts.
But if Lebanon’s fame as the playground of the Middle East was fully restored this summer, a glimpse at the headlines in the local newspapers delivered an instant reminder that there was something fundamental missing. Three months after the June parliamentary elections, Lebanon is still without a government.
The ministries are running, or at least trying to, under their old bosses but there has not been a single cabinet meeting since June, and therefore no important decisions have been made.
It is true that Lebanon has a way of functioning in spite of a dysfunctional political order – that is how it survived the collapse of the state during its long civil war in the 1970s and 1980s. But tensions beneath the surface also have a habit of eventually exploding in violent outbursts.
So as the summer draws to a close, the Lebanese will be forced to face the rot in their sectarian political system.
It is one in which winners and losers of elections sometimes confuse their roles, and political leaders are never quite sure whether their priority should be to protect their own religious communities or serve all of Lebanese society.
As odd as it may seem, the present political crisis results from the intransigence of those who lost the June vote but have been invited as partners into a national unity government. Even more absurd is the position of former General Michel Aoun, the head of a leading Christian party in the opposition bloc. He has been delaying the formation of a government in part because he wants his son-in-law to be minister of telecommunications.
True, Lebanon needs a government of consensus so that none of the main religious groups feels deprived. In any case, Hizbollah, the Shia group that leads the opposition, is too militarily powerful to be ignored, and it likes to be included in the government.
But the search for consensus can also make the job of a prime minister impossible, as is becoming apparent to Saad Hariri, the head of the Future Movement, the Sunni party that led a coalition to victory in the June elections.
His negotiations with the opposition began well. Hizbollah and its partners dropped their demand for a share of cabinet seats that would give them veto rights over decision-making, and a more acceptable power-sharing formula was agreed. The compromise was helped by the thaw in relations between outside backers of the two sides – Saudi Arabia supports Future’s bloc and Syria supports the opposition.
Sadly, however, General Aoun’s positions soon became more entrenched. Also disquieting was that the March 14 coalition that won the elections was dealt a blow from within: one of its leading members, Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader, announced he was going his own way, having apparently decided that his small community could not afford to be part of a bloc that is politically opposed to Hizbollah.
Some politicians in Beirut are wondering whether the Syria-Saudi rapprochement has faltered; others surmise that Iran, which also backs Hizbollah and is a close ally of Syria, is using its influence in Lebanon and blocking a new government to disrupt Damascus’s attempts to get closer to Riyadh.
Perhaps regional tensions are to blame for the paralysis. Perhaps this is no more than a case of petty Lebanese politics. Either way, the summer is almost over and those who have enjoyed the brinkmanship should give it up.
Get alerts on Middle East protests when a new story is published