Already mired in political and economic crises, Lebanon is now also without a president after Michel Aoun’s mandate expired without a successor.
Cheered on by thousands of supporters, Aoun left the presidential palace on Sunday, a day before his term officially ended.
His six years at the helm were marred by mass protests, a painful economic downturn and an August 2020 mega-explosion of ammonium nitrate that killed more than 200 people and laid waste to swathes of the capital Beirut.
Now, headed by a caretaker government, Lebanon is unable to enact the major reforms needed to access billions of dollars from international lenders to help save an economy in free fall since late 2019.
In Lebanon, power is divided among the country’s main sects.
Why is there no president?
Lebanese lawmakers vote in parliament for the president.
Parliament has held four rounds of voting since September, with no candidate garnering enough support to succeed Aoun.
Some lawmakers accuse the Iran-backed Shiite Hezbollah movement and its allies of obstructing the ballot to negotiate with other blocs.
They adopted a similar tactic in the last election by boycotting the parliamentary vote — a move that left Lebanon without a president for more than two years, until Aoun’s 2016 win.
Without a dominant party in parliament, decisions like electing a president, naming a prime minister or forming a government can take months or even years of political horse-trading, sometimes even leading to violence.
Who runs the country?
The president’s powers fall to the council of ministers if he leaves office without a successor.
Aoun on Sunday signed a decree formalizing the resignation of premier Najib Mikati’s government, which has been in a caretaker role since legislative elections in May.
The move exacerbates a months-long power struggle that has paralyzed the government.
Mikati retorted that his government would continue its work in caretaker capacity, but that cabinet will only meet “for urgent matters”.
Experts said it was part of ongoing political arm-wrestling between Aoun and the premier.
A cabinet in a caretaker role cannot take major decisions.
“This greatly affects the government’s work, because it cannot issue decrees or take any decisions that require collective consensus,” a source close to Mikati said.
This includes decisions needed to kickstart offshore gas exploration and extraction, after Lebanon demarcated its sea border with Israel last week.
What happens next?
Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri might invite political parties for a national dialogue so they can agree on a new president, a lawmaker close to him said on condition of anonymity.
“No party can impose a candidate,” the lawmaker added. “Therefore the only solution is to reach a consensus, otherwise the presidential vacancy is likely to last.”
But such initiatives have failed in the past.
So far, lawmaker Michel Moawad, 50, has garnered the most support in parliament, mostly from those opposed to Hezbollah.
Without the backing of the Shiite movement, however, Moawad’s chances of becoming president are slim.
Hezbollah has not officially endorsed a candidate, but Suleiman Frangieh, 57, a personal friend of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was always considered one of the group’s preferred choices.
But Hezbollah’s Christian ally, Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), will not back Frangieh.
Gebran Bassil, 52, the FPM’s leader and Aoun’s son-in-law, is also vying for the presidency.
Others have also floated Lebanon’s army chief Joseph Aoun, 58, as a potential candidate, in a country where army commanders have snatched the presidency several times.