The recent formation of Lebanon’s government provoked a minor revolution in how the Taif agreement of 1989, which served as a basis for amending the Lebanese constitution in 1990, will be interpreted from now on. The agent of change is President Michel Aoun. Even as he has held Lebanon hostage to his personal ambitions and those of his son in law Gebran Bassil, he may also have caused a major transformation in the way his Maronite community perceives Taif.
For the past three decades many Maronites have regarded Taif as the death knell of their community’s power. The agreement mandated a change in Lebanon’s political system, in which executive authority was taken away from the Maronite president and vested in the council of ministers, led by a Sunni prime minister. The president lost his right to select prime ministers and form governments—the first task being transferred to parliament and the second to the prime minister.
Aoun greatly resents Taif. That’s because the process that led to the agreement, namely the summoning of Lebanese parliamentarians to Taif, Saudi Arabia, to agree on a new political order for their country, did not anoint him president. But in the last eleven months, as Saad al-Hariri and Najib Mikati sought to form a cabinet, Aoun managed to alter constitutional conventions fundamentally.
By refusing to sign the decree formally establishing the government until his conditions were accepted, the president redefined the presidency’s role in choosing ministers. Until now, presidents had appointed a handful of ministers at most. But Aoun demanded more than a third of portfolios for himself and for Bassil. None of his successors will, henceforth, willingly sign off on cabinets in which they do not control a sizable ministerial share.
Aoun’s blocking of Saad Hariri will doubtless mean that the president’s successors will also try to choose the prime minister with whom they want to work. This will erode the role of parliament in selecting prime ministers, but without a constitutional court to define prerogatives such contradictions are inevitable. And the fact that Aoun has a significant bloc of ministers and presides over the council of ministers on most days means that we are hearing the echoes of a presidential system, albeit disguised. Which president after Aoun will not use precedent to demand the same powers as his?
It’s difficult to approve of a head of state who advances his interests through the suffering of his people, yet nothing in what Aoun has done is constitutionally illegitimate. By granting the president signature power over the decree forming the government, the constitution handed the presidency immense leverage. That Aoun chose to use it should come as no surprise, given the almost insulting role reserved for his predecessors, who were mostly potted plants when governments were being devised.
Why did they accept this? For two reasons, principally. Before 2005, Syrian intelligence officers fashioned governments, which left little margin for presidents to hold up the formation process to secure their demands. In 2008, in the immediate aftermath of the Doha agreement, Michel Suleiman had no latitude to impose his will by obstructing the regional package deal that had brought him to office.
Aoun is the first president since Taif to enjoy the objective conditions allowing him to contest the usual cabinet formation routine. But his behavior has also shown something else about Taif, namely that regardless of constitutional strictures the amendments it brought still leave much room for personalities and political context. Taif has been different things at different times, a norm among constitutional systems. The term “a living constitution” is there for a reason.
The assumption, for instance, that Taif has represented a victory for the Sunni prime minister is simply inadequate. In 1998, parliament elected Emile Lahoud president, and he had the support both of the Syrian regime and the branches of the Lebanese army. The prime minister at the time was the upright but anemic Salim al-Hoss, so that it was Lahoud who retained the upper hand in the state and in their relationship. Much the same can be said of Saad al-Hariri when became prime minister in 2016. Aoun and Bassil neutralized him at every turn, and Hezbollah’s backing for the president and his son in law gave them both ample space to push their agenda.
Why should this matter? Because Aoun, the sworn enemy of Taif, may have created the foundation for a Maronite reconciliation with Taif. As the president’s coreligionists begin realizing that the post-August 1990 constitution is not the cataclysm they imagined and that the Maronite presidency was given significant discretionary power, they may come to understand that Taif is the best thing to happen to the community after the unavoidable move away from the First Republic.
Taif reserves half of the seats in parliament and the public administration for Christians, when Lebanon’s demographics tilt heavily in favor of the Muslim communities. It also introduces administrative decentralization—long a pivotal Christian demand—which is more sensible than the federalism that many Christians seem to favor these days. And it creates a process to end political confessionalism, while reintroducing the idea of a Senate divided along sectarian lines to ease the anxieties of minorities.
Aoun has made much of the fact that he is a “strong president.” What he won’t admit, however, is that it is Taif that allowed him to claim such a status. Rather than knock the constitution in a crude effort to curry Christian favor, Aoun should demand that Taif be implemented in its entirety. He should insist that moves begin now toward implementing administrative decentralization. He should support the abolition of political confessionalism, since it is better for Christians to negotiate their new status from a position of strength today than in a context in which Sunnis and Shia might join to alter the system to the Christians’ disadvantage. And he should ask that a senate be formed to preserve minority rights in deciding on major national issues (qadaya masiriyya), as per Article 22 of the constitution.
Give Aoun or his advisers credit for finding loopholes in Taif that help ensure that Lebanese presidents are not destined to remain nonentities. The problem is that Aoun himself has to acknowledge that it is the constitution that gave him the leeway to reinterpret the president’s role. As Christians leave Lebanon in droves, one factor that might help to retain them is a realization that their future in the country is guaranteed by the very document that so many of them presently refuse to endorse. Taif is not the end of the Maronites. If anything, potentially it can be a road to their revival.