Lebanon is at a historic crossroad. It can choose to lead the Middle East into vibrant multi-sectarian democracy or slump back into corrupt local politics under foreign tutelage. The latter path could easily lead to civil strife and, perhaps, another civil war.
At this very moment, Lebanon’s political leaders are meeting jointly for the first time in the country’s modern history without the interference of Syria, France, or the United States. Everyone from Saad Hariri, the son of our murdered Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, to Hizbullah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, is present to discuss openly the issues that divide the country, as are the leaders of Lebanon’s Shiia, Sunni, Greek Orthodox, Maronite Christian, and Druze communities.
This national dialogue, held under security measures that have basically shut down central Beirut, began March 2 and is expected to last up to ten days. But one player is missing: Emile Lahoud, who claims Lebanon’s presidency as his by right of Syrian power. Lahoud’s absence is not surprising, as the discussions deal with the fate of his illegal presidency and how to break the deadlock that his continuance in office has imposed on the country.
Indeed, just as Lahoud’s chair at the talks is vacant, so – in the eyes of the world and under the country’s 150-year old constitution – is Lebanon’s presidency. It has been vacant since September 2004 when Lahoud, backed by Syria, forced an extension of his six-year term on the Lebanese parliament, which elects the president.