Michel Sleiman, 2008-2014: The Legacy (Part I)

Michel Sleiman

Mr. Speaker, esteemed members of the parliament,

I would have been extremely delighted to begin this mandate with moments of joy; nevertheless, I am confident that our silence will be praised by the souls of our martyrs who are close to God Almighty, since this mandate will be laying the foundations for a new promising phase, for the citizens of our beloved country which is rising from this stumble, thanks to the Lebanese people’s awareness, their refusal to fall the victims of fratricide, and the efforts our loyal friends and brethren have undertaken to mitigate the effects of these unfortunate events and to eliminate their consequences.

Today, by taking the oath, I am calling upon you all, political parties and citizens, to start a new phase which title is Lebanon and the Lebanese people, where we commit ourselves to a national project agreed upon with a futuristic mentality in order to serve the interests of our homeland and prioritize them over our sectarian and confessional interests, and over all the others’ interests.

On the 25th of May 2008, when Michel Sleiman assumed his responsibilities as Lebanon’s new president, he gave an inaugural speech in front of the parliament.  The speech (This is the official English version) includes the president’s plan for the next six years, and the goals he plans on achieving before leaving office on the 25th of May 2014.

Today, the 25th of May 2014, is judgment day. You’ll find the whole speech below, in italics, with comments on what was achieved in order to fulfill the promises of 2008. Since the blog post was very big, I’ve decided to split it in two.

1. Activating the role of constitutional institutions

The desired political stability makes incumbent upon us to activate the role of the constitutional institutions where the political ideas and dissimilarities will be dealt with, in order to reach common denominators which secure the interests of the homeland and the people.

The political disagreement and the resulting constitutional problematic we have encountered should motivate us, not only to find the solutions to the problems that we might face in the future, but also to achieve the proper balance required between the competences and responsibilities in a way to enable the institutions and the Presidency of the Republic included to assume the role they are entrusted with.

Between the 25th Of May 2008 and the 25th of May 2014, the Lebanese president had 2191 days to rule. His first cabinet (Siniora) took a total of 79 days (25 May 2008 - 12 August 2008) to be formed and receive the vote of confidence. The second cabinet (Hariri) took a total of 187 days (7 June 2009 – election day, 10 December 2009) to be formed and receive the vote of confidence. The third cabinet (Mikati) took a total of 177 days (12 January 2011 – resignation of the M8 ministers, 7 July 2011) to be formed and receive the vote of confidence. The fourth cabinet (Salam) took a total of 364 days (22 March 2013 – Mikati’s resignation, 20 March 2014) to be formed and receive the vote of confidence. 79+187+177+364=807 days. 807/2191= 36%.

So to sum things up, 36% of Michel Sleiman’s time in power lacked a functioning executive power. Needless to say that the Lebanese parliament cannot legislate with no government in power, and cannot meet in summer, which means that during Sleiman’s 6 years, the parliament had a  maximum of 3 years to pass laws and amendments (around 50% of the time).

In his inaugural speech, Sleiman spoke of two things regarding the deadlock: 1) Activating the role of constitutional institutions, and 2) Finding solutions to the time-consuming deadlocks. Never in its whole history has Lebanon seen such time-consuming government formations. Tammam Salam and Najib Mikati both broke Rachid Karami’s 1969 record (7 months) in 2014 when they became the new record holders for tardiness in forming cabinet and acting as caretaker PM. The Lebanese parliament had been previously shut down by Berri for 17 Months (2007-2008) during the rule of the first Siniora cabinet, but relatively speaking, the parliament only stopped legislating at the very end of Lahoud’s mandate. The paralysis in the legislative branch was by far more pronounced during Sleiman’s tenure. The low productivity of the parliament is frightening: between June 2009 and March 2013, the parliament convened 21 times only, and voted laws 13 times out of 21. (The numbers are from the official parliamentary gazette, Al Hayat Al Niyabiya). Only 183 laws were voted (a very low number), and the vast majority of these laws are either useless or minor. And if you think that productivity increased after 2013, don’t. The parliament actually didn’t even meet to legislate for more than a year after the last session of 2013. Aslan min elo jlede.

And how was the president concerned with the demise of the constitutional institutions? The president has failed twice here. True, the president has little or no power concerning Lebanese politics. But he – unlike the popular hearsay- still has a lot of powers that he is not using. (1) The president had the power – according to article 33 of the constitution –  to “summon the Chamber to extraordinary sessions by a decree that specifies the dates of the opening and closing of the extraordinary sessions as well as the agenda.” In other words, the Lebanese president could have forced the parliament to meet in Summer – hence compensating  for wasted time. The deputies would’ve probably stayed home, but at least the president would have managed to expose them as lazy greedy elected officials. (2) The president could have pushed for a constitutional amendment setting a maximum of 60 days for a designated prime minister to form a cabinet. The Lebanese president is also one of the two individuals concerned with forming the government. Instead of wasting hundreds of days to form them, the president could have easily issued a deadline for the politicians to agree. Such maneuvers would have accelerated the process of policy making while making it easier. But no, it had to be 807 days.

2. Reform? What reform?

Lebanon, the country of mission, crossroad of civilizations and haven of pluralism, prompts us all to endeavor and engage ourselves in political, administrative, economic and security reforms. This will enable us to restore our country’s exemplary role on the international scene.
Lebanon has chosen to conform to the “Taef” agreement, and it is called to safeguard and consolidate this choice because it stems from a united national will, which is imperative to immunize any political decision.

Between 2008 and 2014, the country was supposed to witness political, administrative, economic and security reforms. Politically speaking, only one main reform was worked upon to achieve: the electoral law of 2008. However, this law plummeted in an exceptional way and was regarded as an epic failure by all the politicians – to the extent that elections were postponed in order to avoid it in 2013, and since the 2008 electoral law lacked most of the recommendations for reform suggested by the Boutros Commission  (such as official pre-printed ballots, partial proportional representation, a 30% women’s quota, an independent electoral commission, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18, out of country voting, access for people with special needs – only holding the election on one day and campaign finance and media regulations were taken into consideration) the 2008 electoral law can barely be considered as political reform. Even the new electoral proposed in 2012 was a very biased one.

Economically speaking, the country’s economy is today in one of its worst days. The 4 Lebanese cabinets under Michel Sleiman did not even make the effort to appoint a new general assembly for the economic and social council, whose mandate had expired in December 2002. On another more depressing and alarming note, the Lebanese parliament failed to pass the state’s budget since 2005, officially making Michel Sleiman the first president in the history of the republic to rule without an up-to-date budget. Again, the Lebanese president should not be judged for the failure of the parliament, but pressure from the president – like refusing to sign decrees and laws that are crucial for the well-being of Lebanon’s politicians before the parliament had passed a new budget – would have been a welcomed gesture. After all, the public debt has never been so high, public strikes – revealing popular discontent from the situation – have never been so frequent while the main economic reform championed by the parliament was a law destined to give a pay raise for the MPs. Further, another example of Michel Sleiman’s bad economic policies also appeared at the very  end of his mandate, when he didn’t sign the new rent law (approved by parliament) that provided a breakthrough regarding the stalemate between landlords and old tenants after more than three decades of deliberation.

3. National pacts

Furthermore, it is the national pact which is analogous to the constitution that joins the Lebanese together based on their own will. It proved to be stronger and far more sublime than any other external will.

Our external relations will be most effective and adequate if they were based on this pact, and thus the interests of Lebanon will be safeguarded and its particularity will be respected; this will enable our country to regain its effective role in the Arab world and the International Community as the living example of the coexistence between the cultures.

The national pact isn’t only about power sharing between Lebanon’s sects. What matters the most in this unwritten accord is the oath Lebanon’s main politicians took to abstain from inviting foreign intervention. While the pact is mostly viewed as a Muslim-Christian deal to split the country’s top posts,  it’s far more than that. Christians gave up French protection while Muslims gave up Pan Arab Union aspirations. The biggest irony in Michel Sleiman’s inaugural speech is that he was publicly praising the national pact  – a symbol of rejecting foreign interference – after being elected due to a Qatari mediated deal in Doha between France, U.S., Syria, and Iran. Even the constitution Michel Sleiman was taking an oath to protect actually carried the name of a Saudi city were it was written, 19 years earlier: Taef. The same regional players would also massively intervene in Lebanese politics during the next 6 years. The formation of governments did not happen without regional consensus and in the 2009 elections parties were massively funded by foreign states. No measure was taken between 2008 and 2012 to reduce foreign influence in Lebanese politics which finally resulted in the 2013 Syrian spillover.

4. Dialogue

Esteemed members of the parliament,

The people have placed their confidence in us to accomplish their ambitions, and not to confuse them with our political differences.

Probably the most dangerous threat which rose in the last years manifested itself in a political speech based on a treason language and mutual accusations, which paved the way to a state of divergence and discord especially among youth. This is the reason why it is essential to realize this fact, to work on fortifying our country and our coexistence through dialogue and to avoid transforming the country into an open arena for conflicts.

Although Sleiman was elected in a consensual deal, and although his 6 years in power were expected to be years of stability – Lebanon witnessed a revolution in 2005, an Israeli war in 2006, a political crisis in 2007 and a mini civil-war in 2008 – this stability was far from true. The problems appeared again with Syria’s civil war spillover in Lebanon since 2012, along with the 2 cabinet crisis of 2011 and 2013 and the comeback of assassinations, explosions and regular clashes. Lebanon was far from being on the path of stability.

5. Rotation of what again?

The main characteristic of democracy resides in the rotation of power through free elections. It is certainly essential to adopt an electoral law which ensures the sound representation, consolidates the relation between the citizens and their representatives, and guarantees the mirroring of the choices and ambitions of the people, however, it is also important to accept the results of these elections and to respect the popular will.

Furthermore, the independence of the judicial authority consolidates justice which constitutes a safe haven to all people whose rights are violated, and secures a public order to all the public utilities. Hence, the effects of this independence will not be restricted to judgments rendering, since justice is safe hands, it is the pillar of all powers.

The main characteristic of democracy resides in the rotation of power through free elections. Furthermore, the independence of the judicial authority consolidates justice and secures a public order to all the public utilities.” The fun part? Exactly 5 years later, the Lebanese parliament decided that there was no need for free elections and rotation of power was too mainstream for a country such as Lebanon. The Lebanese president tried to stop the parliament by calling on Lebanon’s most prestigious judicial authority – the constitutional council – to convene and study the constitutionality of the 17-months extension. However, and since five of council judges are voted by the parliament and the other five are designated by the cabinet – because, as the president said, independence of  the judicial authority secures a public order to all the public utilities – the politically dependent council refused to convene and the extension of the parliament’s mandate became a de-facto decision to deal with.

The Lebanese president did what was expected of him, but there was more he could have done. The parliament voted the law extending its mandate on the 31st of May 2013. Elections were due in June. According to the Lebanese constitution, article 59 “The President of the Republic may adjourn the Chamber for a period not exceeding one month. He may not do so twice during the same session.” If the president had used this power the constitution gave him, the parliament wouldn’t have convened to vote the extension law, and the June elections would have happened anyway. Even if the parliament did manage to pass the law somehow, the president still could have refused to sign it and publish it into the official gazette for a certain period of time. And even if the president was eventually entitled by the constitution to sign it, he could have considered it unconstitutional – since the constitutional council was too coward to discuss it and since the constitution names the president as the “protector of the constitution” – which means that there was no possible way for the parliament’s extension law to pass if the president wanted to block it. Perhaps the president thought that an extension of the parliament’s mandate also meant an extension to his mandate or making his weak power look as surpassing a weaker parliament… Anyway, three things to remember from all this: no justice, no elections, no democracy. And with generals assuming more and more political responsibilities, Lebanon was starting to look like a military state. Perhaps the president should be admired for his decision to refuse any extension of his mandate – his two predecessors stayed 9 years in office – but then again, it was his constitutional duty to leave after 6 years.

The president’s idea of justice was also the appointment of Ashraf Rifi as justice minister – He was ironically being sued by the Lebanese government for refusing to abide to his superior’s orders.

6. “You are asking questions I am not really aware of, about details that are not really important.” (Gebran Bassil)

Moreover, national responsibility imposes upon us to encourage the youth generation capacities to accede to the public sector institutions in a way to prevent its decline and enables us to establish a younger and more competent administration. This responsibility also makes it inevitable to rely on the good choices and decisions, to consolidate the surveillance organisms and thus to reward the meritorious, set right the negligent, and remove the corrupted from office.

Michel Sleiman’s idea of removing the corrupted from office was accepting the appointment of  controversial figures in top posts. Fouad Siniora headed his first cabinet in 2008, and Gebran Bassil – infamous for answering the question of what happened with 34 Million dollars of public money with “You are asking questions I am not really aware of, about details that are not really important  remained a minister in all four cabinets. And that’s only the beginning of a long (very long) list of names. True, the ministers probably never represented Sleiman in the government, but he still had the upper hand in the cabinet formation, and vetoing the names of controversial politicians or even freezing the formation because of their nomination would have sent a big message. By the end of his term even the president himself was accused with several corruption scandals.

7. “The youth generation is our promising future

Gentlemen,

We will achieve the objective of dissipating the suspicions of the youth by building a country they will be proud to belong to; a country to rise by their capacities, expertise and participation in finding the solutions. Let us all allow them to guide us where we have failed, on the grounds that the youth generation resisted the occupation and terrorism and fought for the independence. The youth generation is our promising future, the wounds thickened them but made them stronger and some of them became handicapped and thus their rights should be guaranteed according to the laws and regulations.

The idea of encouraging the youth to accede to the public sector eventually ended up in the failure to pass a constitutional amendment giving the right to vote to Lebanese citizens between 18 and 21 and a Lebanese average age in the cabinet of…60 years old. Apparently 60 years and Sheikh El Chabeb are the same thing.

8. “Reformative educational policy in our schools

It is noteworthy to bear in mind the importance of a reformative educational policy in our schools and universities, a policy which will restore their significant role in this region.

Just to make things clear here, in 2008, the Lebanese history school books stopped in 1946 because there is no consensus on what happened next.  In 2014, the Lebanese history school books still stop in 1946 because there is no consensus on what happened next. But yeah, it is noteworthy to bear in mind the importance of a reformative educational policy in our schools. El mhemm el niyye.

Part II for tomorrow.

[Update: Link for Part II]

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