Posted by: sean | June 10, 2009

Should Berri go?

nabih-berri-1Last night I was thinking about how ridiculous it is that the speaker of the parliament should be from the parliamentary minority. Only in Lebanon’s wacky sectarian system does this make sense, because despite some comments a few months ago by Hariri asking why Amal should hold the spot instead of Hezbollah, there is little to no chance that the latter would challenge Berri and take over the job that he’s held since 1992. This being the case, Nabih Berri seems likely to remain the speaker of the parliament, because since the post is reserved for a Shi’a and since Amal and Hezbollah are the main representatives of the Shi’a in Lebanon, any  move to appoint someone from Future, or even an independent, would likely be seen as an attempt to “rob” the Shi’a of their political representation.

This is an interesting point for several reasons. Since the Christians are split, it seems logical that Suleiman, a consensus pick, would fill the head Christian post, president of the republic. However, had March 8 won last weekend, I don’t think it would have been such a controversial choice to have appointed Miqati as a consensus prime minister who would have been acceptable to both March 8 and March 14. Some creative maneuvering notwithstanding, had March 8 picked a PM who wasn’t from Future, by and large the primary representative of Sunnis in Lebanon, I don’t think anyone would have been that shocked or outraged. (I say primary, because the party is relatively new, and it’s difficult to talk of Sunnis without talking about Saida, Beirut and Tripoli separately.)

So maybe you see, dear readers, where I’m going with this. If it’s not shocking for the top Sunni post to be contingent on who has a parliamentary majority, why shouldn’t it be the same thing for the speaker of the parliament? Why should Nabih Berri get the post instead of a consensus appointment being made? But as it is, and is likely so stay for the foreseeable future, Lebanon is in the strange position of having a parliament that is run by the parliamentary minority.

These questions, of course, speak to larger issues (not to say problems) in the Lebanese system. These include having and both executive heads (PM and president) being appointed by the legislative branch (instead of having the president being directly elected), and more largely, this means that of Lebanon’s three presidents — in Arabic, the troika is called President of the Republic (Maronite), President of the Government (Sunni) and President of the Parliament (Shi’a) — none is actually directly elected by the people. What this means is that all three are agreed upon in smoke-filled back rooms in the tradition of Chicago politics.

And as is the case with any political system, or bureaucracy in general, the Lebanese system has an instinct for self preservation, which means that there’s only so much to be achieved with limited tinkering. This is a serious problem for Lebanese democracy, because even if everyone is behind the president now, we can all remember how what started out as a consensus pick (Emile Lahoud) ended up being a very divisive figure who was detested by what came to be March 14.

The question of reforming the political system in Lebanon is a huge one that includes many different facets, one of which is the call for bicameralism, and  the case of the speaker is but one of the symptoms of a largely dysfunctional system based on the problematic idea of sectarian representation.

UPDATE: The pro-March 14 Now Lebanon has a roundup of the Lebanese press on different attitudes on the question. Predictably, Fatfat seems against keeping Berri as speaker of the parliament, but Jumblatt and Hariri seem to be supporting the idea. Berri, for his part, tells al-Akhbar (probably with a wink and a grin) that he’s “a natural candidate.” Indeed. Plus ça change…



  1. simply put…because Berry IS the consensus pick

  2. So the head of a M8 party is a consensus pick when it comes to Shi’a representation, but for Sunni or Christian representation, it would have to be an independent? How does that work?

  3. look i am not arguing with you if Berri should or shouldnt go. i think he should, but because he is a corrupt prick not for the reasons you mentioned.

    And lets be realistic here. Berri’s power is very limited and is only practically a figure, the real power is with Hizb. I am pretty sure everyone would prefer Berri over a member of HA. Not to mention the fact that Berri is “close’ to everyone including many of the M14 politicians. Can you think of a better consensus Shia’ candidate? i cant

  4. sean…Because HA has guns

  5. to be fair, M8 would probably have offered the premiership to hariri before settling on miqati or safadi or whoever — albeit for different reasons.

    that said, yes, it’s absurd — the speaker of parliament should obviously come from the majority or at least be appointed through a meaningful consensus.

    but aside from the inherent wrongness of having anyone’s name permanently branded on that back of that chair, the re-appointment of berri is offensive given his brazen abuse of the office since ’06.

    it was NOT within his remit to keep parliament locked up for a year and a half, and almost anywhere else he would’ve been summarily impeached for the attempt.


  6. Sure, you’re right — it’s hard to pin down the exact reason why it’s so horrible to pass over Berri when M14 wins, but probably okay to pass over Hariri when M 8 wins. But remember that the rule specifying that the Speaker should be Shia and the PM should be Sunni is also unwritten — and that there are a bunch of other unwritten rules that inform why the two cases are dissimilar. If I had to guess, some of these other “unwritten rules” include:

    1. While the non-Hariri aligned Sunni don’t have much support, the M14 Shia _really_ have no support. Miqati was PM just a few years ago, and Karami comes from the same stock. Okab Saqr, God bless him, can’t claim those credentials. The difference between Hariri’s ~80% of the Sunni vote and Hezbollah/Amal’s ~90% of the Shia vote matters.

    2. Hezbollah has guns. Lots of very big guns. This isn’t the most complicated point in the world. If you don’t give people with guns what they want, they tend to use those guns.

    3. Given current Lebanese demographics, the Shia are already getting a raw deal from Lebanon’s institutions. They’re probably Lebanon’s largest sect, and they get 27 seats in Parliament these days, and arguably the weakest of the three “Troika” members. Of course, all the sects complain that they are underrepresented in the halls of power — that’s Lebanon for you. But it’s probably most unfair to the Shia — and, for that reason, it’s more frowned upon to elect a speaker with Sunni and Christian votes than it is to elect a PM with Shia and Christian votes.

    OK, so none of these are particularly good reasons. But once again — that’s Lebanon for you.

  7. In Lebanon – consensus is only found when Hizbullah agrees to it – the guy with the most guns gets to set the rules of consensus.

    The Parliament Presidency may sound like the weakest but Berri singlehandedly kept the Parliaments doors locked for over a year. He did this even in opposition to the Constitutional mandate to meet to choose a new President. Nothing “weak” about that. Also nothing legal about that. I certainly agree with others – the Shia are the most marginalized in Lebanon – not because of their possible numbers, but because they are totally dominated by Hizbullah. Resistance to Hizbullah can be quite deadly. Pun intended.

  8. I think you’re right DBK. I think that that ten percent between Hizb/Amal’s Shi’a support and Future’s Sunni support matters. And I also think you’re right on the money about there being viable Sunni candidates (thanks mostly to Tripoli), whereas I don’t see too many other options for a Shi’a speaker.

    I’m not sure, however, about the weapons, charge. Maybe Hezbollah would go to the mat for Berri’s job, but I’m not so sure. I think it has a lot more to do with a lack of a viable alternative who actually has a following. Maybe if Hezbollah hadn’t done its best to get rid of the Southern Communists all those years, there’d be some more choices.

    At the end of the day, though, these contradictions that no one seems to like are going to continue to arise as long as the sectarian system is in place.

  9. One other point to make regarding Berri’s speakership…He was humiliated by HA/Iran in these elections…So I think HA will insist on Berri’s continued thuggary for one more term…

  10. I doubt there’s any great love or respect binding Hezbollah to Berri, but Hezbollah would surely play hardball if the majority threatened to cut their allies out entirely of the national government by appointing someone like Saqr. It’s not so much about Berri as it is Hezbollah’s desire to have at least one of the Troika beholden to its interests. After May ’08, I don’t think anyone should doubt how far they’re willing to go to make sure that their interests are represented in the Cabinet and the Presidency.

    That said, one “compromise” (if anyone’s in the mood to compromise) might be to appoint another M8 figure as Speaker. This would fulfill Hezbollah’s desire to keep one of the Troika under its thumb, and also give many in M14 the pleasure of knocking Berri from the Speaker’s chair. It would also be nice to make the point that the Speaker isn’t the private fiefdom of any single party.

    There are of course plenty of reasons this wouldn’t work: Hezbollah wouldn’t want to claim the position directly, and it would be pretty fruitless to reject Berri and then appoint one of his Amal underlings. Perhaps a technically independent, but opposition-aligned Shia could work, in the vein of Salloukh’s stint as FM. But I don’t know if such a figure exists, and my guess is that if the opposition thinks they can return Berri to the post there is no reason for them to give M14 a perceived victory by going with someone else.

  11. well, there’s always jamil al sayyed… :P

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