As might be expected because of the significance of the family with its strong father figure and the influential role of the zaim, Lebanese have come to accept a powerful national leader. Indeed, the Constitution consigns to the president vast authority. He is commander in chief of the army and security forces; he can appoint and dismiss his prime minister and cabinet; he promulgates laws passed by the Chamber of Deputies and may also propose laws, enact "urgent" legislation by decree, and veto bills; he can dissolve the Chamber of Deputies; and he exercises considerable influence throughout the bureaucracy.
His constitutional powers notwithstanding, the president is constrained by the necessity of obtaining cooperation from at least a majority of the zuama of the various confessional communities. In addition, he must accommodate an array of other competing interests, including those of religious, business, and labor leaders. Moreover, the president, who by custom is a Maronite, must try to work in harmony with the prime minister, who by custom is a Sunni Muslim. Together, they are the most eminent members of the executive and wield a direct and personal influence over the deputies and other political leaders.
The president is elected, by the Chamber of Deputies, not by the general public. He is selected for a six-year term and may not succeed himself; he may serve any number of nonsuccessive terms, however. A sitting president steps down on September 23 of his sixth year in office. Thirty to sixty days before this, the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies calls for a special session to elect a new president. A quorum of two-thirds of the deputies is required to hold a special session. A two-thirds majority of deputies attending is needed to be elected on the first ballot; failing that, a simple majority is required on subsequent ballots.
In theory, anyone who meets the eligibility requirements for election to the Chamber of Deputies can be elected president; in reality, before the 1975 Civil War powerful Maronite zuama usually were elected. Exceptions were Fuad Shihab (also seen as Chehab) and Charles Hilu (also spelled Helou), leaders who unsuccessfully sought to diminish the power of the zuama. At times, political maneuvering and interconfessional wrangling have been intense; nonetheless, the reality has usually been that no one could be elected president without the support of a wide spectrum of confessional blocs.
Although the Constitution grants the president wide latitude in conducting the affairs of state, it is questionable whether the Lebanese leaders who negotiated the National Pact envisioned the growth in power that occupants of the office assumed in later years. For many Lebanese, especially Muslims, the presidency came to symbolize political tyranny and sectarian hegemony. In domestic matters involving regional interests, the powers of the local zuama always held sway. But on broader, national-level issues, the Maronite presidents tended to safeguard Maronite interests. This was certainly true with regard to the pan-Arab question and the events that led to the 1958 Civil War, with respect to the Palestinian controversy, and in response to any call for fundamental political reform, especially musharaka, i.e., a more equitable distribution of power between the president and prime minister.
Some presidents have viewed the office as a means for aggrandizement. Sulayman Franjiyah (also cited as Franjieh), for instance, a zaim from Zgharta who was elected through the efforts of traditional zuama by the margin of a single vote, is commonly regarded as having used his office to reward his family and constituency. Many observers believe that nepotism and corruption--routine features of Lebanese politics--reached an intolerable level under Franjiyah's tenure.
The 1975 Civil War has left an indelible mark on the institution of the presidency. In the 1980s, the office no longer was viewed as a product of intersectarian consensus. The rise in sectarian consciousness has forced each president (and prime minister, for that matter) to be more accountable to the demands of his narrow community. At the same time, as external actors such as Syria and Israel have influenced elections, and as the power of the militias has increased, the status of the presidency has declined at home and abroad. In 1987 the authority of the president did not extend much farther than the confines of the Presidential Palace at Babda.
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