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Copyright (c) 2007 The Daily Star

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Lebanon's presidency battered by shifting international interests
By May Akl

First person by May Akl In an off-the-record encounter between MP Michel Aoun and a prominent researcher at a Washington-based think tank a few months ago, Aoun said "my internal strength is my external weakness." It was not some kind of conspiracy theory he had but a conclusion drawn from historical lessons and a careful reading of the international scene. Never has a country received so much international attention, and never has Lebanon, even when it was under Syrian occupation. For consecutive US administrations, Syria was considered a "factor of stability" and for former French President Jacques Chirac, a personal friend of the Hariri family, the withdrawal of the Syrians was linked to a "comprehensive peace deal in the Middle East." Meanwhile Lebanese freedom fighters had to wait. Yet Lebanon has been the center of attention and "concern" of shuttle diplomacy over the last few months as France, Italy, Spain, the US - to name a few - sent their envoys to mediate efforts for the election of a new Lebanese president. These efforts were crowned with the visit of Assistant Secretary of State David Welch and Deputy National Security Adviser Elliot Abrams, sent from the heart of the neoconservative stronghold to make sure that the highest position representing the Christians be filled as soon as possible. Over two weeks ago, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner - the most active envoy who visited all parties to the conflict - left Beirut apparently with no turning back. His seventh visit in two months of mediation efforts proved yet again a failure, despite shuttle trips and marathon talks. The French diplomacy chief is no stranger to the dynamics of Lebanese politics. Yet, he left Lebanon dismayed and disappointed, ruling out allegations that France, entrusted with the Lebanese file by Washington, has failed to carry out its intended goal, arguing that the role of French diplomacy was just "to assist" the Lebanese people and nothing more. Nevertheless, French diplomacy has changed its tone as French President Nicolas Sarkozy himself got involved in the crisis and had actually warned the Lebanese of their "last chance to elect a president," an unusual rhetoric that looks more like a dictate than an attempt to solve the problem. To top it all, Welch, sent as an envoy from the US, arrived in Beirut accompanied by Abrams, a prominent figure that Newsweek, exactly a year ago in December 2006, described as the "last neocon standing." But American diplomacy, which expressed how keen it was on "bolstering the Christian community" in Lebanon, refrained from making a visit to Aoun, the democratically elected representative of the Christians. In the consecutive rounds of talks held earlier by international diplomats and various Lebanese factions, envoys came out with the conclusion that the solution to Lebanon's presidential crisis lies in Aoun's relinquishing his candidacy, yet without giving any rationale for it. In the meantime, Emile Lahoud left the presidential palace the last day of his mandate as a winner and a loser at the same time. He left as a winner because he managed to remain in office until the end of his term despite all the campaigns by the former pro-Syrians who claim they were coerced into extending his mandate in Parliament by their then Syrian friends. He left as a loser because his mandate ended with humiliation and isolation, a lesson for all those willing to learn and to witness with their own eyes the fate of a president with no popular support and of a powerless presidency stripped of all its prerogatives as a result of the 1990 Saudi-US-Syria-brokered Taif Accord. In the meantime, the ranks of the March 14 Forces seemed undermined by the inability of their Christian members to impose any of their wishes on their allies. Very quickly, Boutros Harb and Nassib Lahoud were dumped by their allies, who started promoting Robert Ghanem, a deputy with very good relations with the Syrians. In a sign of goodwill and upon the wishes of the international community including the US, Aoun renounced his candidacy and proposed an initiative that was very quickly discarded by the other parties. His initiative, which includes conditions to be met, asks for the return of the constitutionally granted rights of the Christians. But the initiative was bluntly rejected half an hour after it was proposed.

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Yet the biggest surprise came when the Future Movement, and without any consultation with their Christian allies, endorsed the candidacy of Army commander General Michel Suleiman. And all of a sudden, the parliamentary majority, i.e. Hariri and his allies went back on their previous stances opposing any reform of the Constitution and rejecting "the return of a military to the presidency" (an argument they used against Aoun) and now accepted it with open arms. This development came during the preparation of the Annapolis conference and after it was held with Syrian participation, thus raising eyebrows and triggering a series of justifiable questions. Israel had hailed the participation of the Syrians, and the US agreed to include the issue of the Golan Heights on the agenda of the talks. There was no doubt about the rapprochement between the US, Israel, and Syria. Knowing the close relationship between Suleiman and Syria, it was clear that the trigger of the sudden change was not Lebanese. Somebody had whispered the secret name in the ear of majority leader MP Saad Hariri. And the astounding silence of MP Walid Jumblatt, pillar of the March 14 Forces, says a lot. Long gone are the fiery speeches against Syria and the Assad regime, about Syrian interference in domestic affairs, about the Hariri international tribunal, and about the "axis of evil" and its repercussions on democracy in Lebanon. Instead, they hailed Suleiman as a man of integrity who has proven his power in the very-disputed Nahr al-Bared conflict, whereas their American friends and prominent researchers in major think tanks like the Washington Institute for Middle Eastern Studies describe Suleiman as "Syria's favorite candidate" for the presidency. And now, ironically enough, Welch and Abrams came to put pressure on the Lebanese opposition and specifically on Aoun to reform the Constitution and elect Suleiman as president. Furious rhetoric deploring Hizbullah as a threat to the nation, as a tool of Syria and Iran, and calling for help in its disarmament quickly disappeared to make way for a suspicious stance. It was no longer of utmost urgency to disarm Hizbullah, and the implementation of UN Resolution 1559 can wait, and if it is to be applied, it should be done peacefully through internal dialogue and agreement. In this political labyrinth, attempts to hold the parliamentary sessions to elect the president have been blocked by the opposition which refused to provide the necessary two-thirds quorum for the session to take place. The various components of the opposition laid the final decision in the hands of Aoun, who is insisting on a political agreement before the elections and mandated him to conduct talks with the parliamentary majority. Aoun's rationale is very simple: any candid analyst can realize that electing Suleiman can serve as a masquerade for the majority, a cover-up for any future move. As a matter of fact, according to the Taif, where the president has very limited prerogatives, the fate that awaits Suleiman could look pretty much the same as that of Lahoud, in which case, it would be a continuation of the lingering stalemate that has blocked institutions for three years now. This is the main reason why Aoun is demanding to have a pre-arranged agreement on issues that can prove thorny after the elections of the president, such as the appointment of the next prime minister and the basis for the formation of a new government. As such, a political agreement is certain to empower the next president by giving him the necessary immunity against any attempt to isolate him or to circumvent his prerogatives. Knowing that Aoun is neither Washington's favorite candidate for the presidency, nor is he Syria's favorite, radical questions remain unanswered: why is the international community pushing for elections so fiercely even without national consensus? What kind of deal has caused the Hariri camp to change its view so radically overnight? Is Suleiman a compromise candidate between the opposition and the majority or in reality among regional and international players involving Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, France, and the US? Is Syria on its way from being part of the axis of evil to a factor of stability again, as it was prior to 2005, as a prize for services in Iraq and other shifting international interests in the region? Or does the status of Syria linger on whether or not it could influence its allies in Lebanon into making the elections happen, as it is being pressured by the international community to interfere? Hoping that the answers to these questions are negative, one truth remains: MP Aoun's internal strength is indeed his international weakness in the context of greedy "neighbors" and "friends" who seek an influential and controllable presidential figure that he certainly does not represent. But sooner or later, the parliamentary majority and its international allies will have to come to terms with the fact that the key to solving the presidential crisis lies in Rabieh and actions and pressures - however big and wherever they might be coming from- to circumvent this reality will be vain. In its December 4, 2006, Newsweek wrote "the neocons are reeling, but they are not dead yet." Describing the situation in Iraq as a "mess" created by "the neocon-influenced policy," the article depicted Abrams as being the last man standing who could "pick up the pieces" of the US policy in the Middle East. And his much unexpected visit to Lebanon might be the last US attempt to keep the Siniora government afloat and maintain its political allies in power; it also indicates that the Siniora government is "reeling" and it's just a matter of time before it takes its last breath. May Akl is a foreign press coordinator for the FPM.

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Copyright (c) 2007 The Daily Star

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