The head of the Arab League has failed to break a deadlock between Lebanese political factions on the distribution of cabinet posts, which is holding back the election of a new president. Amr Moussa met Saad Hariri of the majority March 14 camp, his ally Amin Gemayel and Michel Aoun, from the opposition, for a second day in Beirut. "It is a given that the opposition will have 10 ministers in the new government, but the question is how to split the remaining 20 portfolios," Moussa said on Monday before leaving the Lebanese capital. The opposition wants enough seats in the new government to give it veto power over cabinet decisions, a plan rejected by the March 14 bloc. He said that both sides shared broad agreement on the need for changes to the country’s electoral law. Lebanese deputies were due to hold a session on Tuesday to elect a new president. But the parliamentary speaker announced on Monday that the vote had been postponed – for the 15th time – to March 11.

The lengthy meeting did not result in a breakthrough, but certain conditions were set between the rival parties for consideration ahead of Monday’s meeting. According to Ghattas Khoury, a close aide of Hariri, "there are still no positive signs." Khoury did not, however, rule out that the ongoing talks "are constructive in a way to remove some obstacles."  The so-called quartet talks are taking place at the Lebanese parliament in downtown Beirut, amid tight security. Mussa also held talks with Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, Hariri and Prime Minister Fouad Seniora on Sunday.  Mussa’s latest attempt at mediation in Lebanon focusses on efforts the implementation of a three-point Arab plan to solve the deepening political crisis.

So far his efforts have been unsuccessful and the political tensions have on occasion turned into street clashes in Beirut, amid ominous warnings by some of renewed civil strife.
Moussa’s talks in Lebanon came after a weekend meeting in Riyadh between the leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who both support the government of Fouad Siniora, Lebanon’s prime minister.
The pan-Arab Al Hayat daily reported on Monday that Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s president, and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia said a new Lebanese president should be chosen before an Arab League summit in Syria in late March.

Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Egypt’s foreign minister, said last month that the success of the Damascus meeting was largely dependent largely on Lebanese leaders agreeing on a new president.

The US and the March 14 bloc say that Syria has sought to block the presidential election, a charge denied by Damascus.

One way to discern the fraud at the heart of the Lebanese political system is to compare the flaws of its products – the politicians – to those of their opposite numbers in genuinely democratic countries. Even the most advanced societies, for instance, are often at the mercy of political "dynasties:" How else can explain the fact that world’s sole remaining superpower is led by George W. Bush? He has done oodles of damage to America’s interests abroad, and he has eroded some of the cherished civil liberties that Americans – rightly, in part – view as making them different from everyone else. The effects of his ineptitude have been limited, though, by institutions that have met most of their design specifications despite the often hysterical environment created by the 9/11 attacks.

In Lebanon, the only check on such families is the presence of other families competing for the same privileges. Take away that internal balance of power, and one of their scions might dominate the whole scene faster than one can say Bob Mugabe. Even those parties not built on inherited authority have adopted the same reverence for cults of personality and other tribal rituals, simultaneously making them greater threats to dilute the power of existing cliques but also diminishing the likelihood that they would bring substantive change.

More fully democratic systems also manage to let crooks gain and maintain political prominence and/or influence. The back-scratching within mainstream parties often allows such individuals to avoid being purged, and the realities of due process – and the high-priced lawyers who know how to manipulate it – guard them against the convictions that might otherwise derail their careers. Some of them are able to arrange sweetheart deals for their cronies, especially for projects carried out outside their own countries’ borders. In Lebanon, though, entire wings of the state have been handed over as personal patronage mechanisms for individual politicians and their supporters. Some of these are "untouchables" whose hijacking of public resources goes uncontested, while lesser miscreants have occasionally to stop feeding at the trough until the political winds blow in a different direction; almost never are the perpetrators punished – that is reserved for the taxpayers who foot the bill and go without the services. 

Nowhere is the fundamental difference more telling than in the prerogatives and perceptions of the judiciary. Politicians in real democracies are sometimes critical of  judges for being too liberal or too conservative on various issues, but virtually no one questions the right of the judiciary to speak independently of the executive or legislative branches because to do so would undermine a central pillar of democracy. If a judiciary is not able to freely regulate disputes between individuals, between citizens and the state, and among different branches of the state, its judges might as well be watching over a beauty contest. In Lebanon, by contrast, the judicial body nominally entrusted with constitutional rulings cannot so much as sit, let alone render impartial verdicts. Worse yet, ministers and MPs alike publicly question the primacy of the country’s judges as the ultimate interpreters of the Constitution.

The overall picture is just that: a picture of democracy with none of the depth that holds one together. All of the unintended evils associated with obtaining the consent of the governed are present, but almost none of the built-in compensators. Those that are – personal liberties, for instance – are allowed to exist by the accident of poor policing, not the plan of consistent rules consistently applied.

The evil genius of this system is that it includes a built-in self-protection device in the form of the politicians it breeds: These know that they would be culled almost to extinction if the status quo were to be abandoned, so they have no interest in questioning it. Witness the vehemence with which they have disagreed for more than year now over what are essentially circumstantial and/or peripheral issues. Imagine the nature of the "debate" if they were to actually start discussing what is really at stake.