Lebanon’s president Michel Aoun’s six-year term ended on Monday with the country’s fractious political class unable to agree on a successor, creating a vacuum that risks plunging the failing state into more chaos.
Aoun’s exit means Lebanon, which is enduring its worst economic crisis in decades, is in the unprecedented situation of being run by a caretaker government and having no head of state. This has raised fears of a constitutional crisis amid a lack of clarity over the powers of the interim administration.
The void in the presidency came after lawmakers failed to agree on a new president four times this year. A candidate must secure the support of at least two-thirds of MPs to be successful. Under Lebanon’s confessional political system, the presidency is reserved for a Maronite Christian.
Lebanon has also been without a functioning government since parliamentary elections in May as rival political factions have been unable to agree on the composition of a cabinet.
The turmoil has delayed reforms that are necessary to finalise a deal with the IMF to unlock a $3bn loan deemed critical to easing Lebanon’s economic woes.
“Lebanon is a boat that’s sinking and no one is at the helm,” said Sami Atallah, the founding director of Beirut-based The Policy Initiative. “This is about the usual wrangling over who gets the bigger piece of the pie.” Atallah said it could take weeks or months before Aoun’s successor is agreed on.
Aoun, who is an ally of Hizbollah, the Iran-backed militant group, took office in 2016 amid another period of political turmoil during which Lebanon went 29 months without a president.
Today Lebanon is enduring what the World Bank describes as one of the world’s worst economic crises in 150 years.
Since 2019, bank depositors have been locked out of their savings, and the currency has lost more than 95 per cent of its value, impoverishing broad swaths of the population.
Many Lebanese, including civil servants, are living on salaries worth $50 a month or less. Thousands of others have fled the country.
“There’s a real concern that we’re going to end up with no IMF programme, which only benefits the political players who’ve blocked reforms,” said Diana Menhem, managing director of Kulluna Irada, an advocacy group.
She said that after Beirut struck a maritime border deal with Israel this month, “increasingly you have key political players saying we can do without the IMF because we have oil and gas revenues coming soon”.
“The only battle that remains is holding political players accountable,” Menhem said.
Among them, is Aoun, a deeply divisive figure. He served as commander of Lebanon’s army during the 1975-1900 civil war. He returned to Beirut after 15 years in exile and allied with Hizbollah, whose rise to political dominance is one of the main issues dividing lawmakers.
During his presidency, he presided over the country’s economic collapse and a huge blast at Beirut’s port in August 2020 that killed more than 200 people. The explosion was widely blamed on government negligence, but no officials were charged in connection with the incident.
Aoun blamed his political opponents for frustrating his efforts to bring justice to the blast victims and depositors who have lost their savings. But his critics, including families of blast victims, accused him of inaction, enabling rampant corruption and weakening state institutions.
He has groomed his son-in-law Gebran Bassil, another Hizbollah ally who was hit with US sanctions in 2020 over corruption, to take over the presidency. But he faces strong opposition.
Most Lebanese have lost all faith in their politicians.
“Do I think, wow, a new president is going to save us? No, I don’t,” said Atallah of The Policy Initiative. “Any president that comes will either be there because he’s supported by one group or because he’s conceded something to someone else. Whoever comes in will be handcuffed to whatever interests he has to serve.”