One aspect of any form of capitalist culture — a culture of openness, cosmopolitanism, free minds and free markets — is the rule of law. With September 25 set as the date for parliament to meet and elect a new president, the rule of law, as embodied in Lebanon’s supreme legal document, the Constitution, is again under pressure.
The Lebanese never learn, it seems. Remember that the political crisis that Lebanon is still going through today, and which led to the assassination of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, in February 2004, began as a constitutional crisis. Syria decided that Emile Lahoud should have his presidential mandate extended by three years, and an amendment to this effect was forced through parliament. The episode prompted action at the United Nations, where the Security Council passed Resolution 1559 demanding that Syrian withdraw from Lebanon. The rest, as they say, is history — history that may soon repeat itself.
The reason is that many prominent Lebanese are now discussing amending Article 49 of the constitution yet again, this time to allow senior state employees such as the army commander, General Michel Suleiman, or the Central Bank governor, Riad Salameh, to stand for office. In an interview with Al-Safir in mid-August, the Maronite patriarch, Nasrallah Sfeir, acknowledged, albeit conditionally, that he would not oppose an amendment if it could help save Lebanon. He added, for good measure, “If the army commander can save the country, then welcome to him.”
Regardless of the merits of Suleiman or Salameh; regardless, too, of the intentions of the patriarch, who was a beacon of respect for the rule of law and the constitution during the years of Syrian hegemony, the fact is that amending the constitution to adapt to political circumstances is in an of itself a terrible mistake. Apparently, the lesson of 2004 has been lost.
First, when the document becomes a utensil to be transformed at will to satisfy parochial political objectives, it loses its inviolability. The repeated amendments applied to the constitution and to civil service regulations until 2005 discredited national institutions to no end. This may have been part of the Syrian strategy, in order to make clear who was in charge, but the practical result of this was that the state lost all credibility.
A second reason to avoid an amendment now specifically in the case of senior state employees is that there was a reason for imposing a condition that demanded a two-year hiatus between working for the state in a senior position and applying for the presidency. It was, quite simply, to ensure that high-level civil servants would not, while in office, use their positions to promote an electoral agenda. One might criticize this as not being inclusive enough, since government ministers are allowed to be presidential candidates. Still, Article 49 is a worthy step forward in the constitution, and merits being strengthened, not watered down.
Absence of the rule of law
In many respects the rule of law is at the very heart of most of Lebanon’s woes, and yet the Lebanese don’t seem to realize it — or rather they realize it, but are so overwhelmed by its absence that the problem is almost invisible by its omnipresence. Corruption, a dilapidated judiciary, the suffocating hand of political patronage, the picking and choosing of state authority, the existence of armed groups even more powerful than the army, are all examples of the things that the Lebanese cannot stomach, at least when they pay the price for such behavior. All are related in one way or another to the unwillingness of certain groups, all political affiliations included, to let the law constrain their actions.
That much is well known. However, the question that will be posed starting this month, as Lebanon enters the presidential election period ending in late November, is whether the country can gradually reimpose a liberal order based on the rule of law after a 32-year interval characterized by war and foreign intervention and domination. Lebanon may have gotten rid of Syrian soldiers two years ago, but the Lebanese are nowhere near building a state that can stand on its own. This is due in part to the continuation of Syrian efforts to return, but the majority, too, has been slow in introducing the kind of reforms that would encourage the Lebanese to have faith in a new political order.
Any amendment of the constitution should be rejected, not mainly for political reasons, but for existential ones. Lebanon will not survive as a liberal beacon in the Middle East if its constitution and system of governance continue to victims of political circumstance. A new president may come or not come, but what must be ingrained is a sense that things will no longer be as they were before. The constitution, like the law, is there to protect and be protected. It’s time to confirm that message once and for all as Lebanon prepares to take what is perhaps its most important step in the last three decades.