30 August 2007

Anti-Syrian Lebanese MP joins presidential race

BEIRUT -- Anti-Syrian MP Boutros Harb Thursday announced his candidacy for Lebanon's presidency, calling for renewed national dialogue and reconciliation with powerful neighbor Syria.

Harb said he would help end Lebanon's 10-month political paralysis between the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority of Western-backed Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and the opposition, led by the Syrian and Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

"My candidacy is linked to the consensus between both parties," Harb told a news conference in parliament, where he also called for an "honorable solution" to demands for the disarmament of the Shiite movement Hezbollah.

Harb, the first person to officially announce his candidacy, said: "If I am elected president of the republic, I shall open up dialogue at the presidential palace, and I will preside over it."

Lebanon has been politically paralyzed since November, when Hezbollah and its allies pulled their six ministers out of Siniora's cabinet. They are demanding the formation of a government of national unity under which they would have greater power.

Recent efforts by both the Arab League and France to broker a political compromise have come to naught.

Lebanon's president comes from the Maronite Christian community, in line with the sectarian distribution of political powers. The new head of state is due to be elected by parliament between September 25 and November 24, when the mandate of pro-Syrian incumbent Emile Lahoud ends.

A successful vote requires the 128-seat house to muster the necessary quorum of 86 MPs, but this will require a compromise, as Siniora's ruling coalition has just 69 MPs.

The anti-Syrian majority has enough votes in parliament to propose a candidate, but not enough to secure a quorum. In any case, it also has to resolve its own internal divisions.

The Christian community is bitterly divided between those who support the anti-Syrian majority, and followers of general Michel Aoun who has made a controversial alliance with Hezbollah.

This raises the specter of Lebanon ending the year without a head of state - a dangerous vacuum that many fear could further destabilize the country.

Concerning the disarmament of Hezbollah, which is backed by both Syria and Iran, Harb stressed the need to "find an honorable solution."

"We need to consecrate the principle of the state holding a monopoly on arms," he said, "while not disavowing the sacrifices of the Resistance [Hezbollah].

"The capabilities of the Resistance should be placed at the service of the legitimate power."

Harb also called for an "historic reconciliation with Syria," the former power broker that remains influential in Lebanon.

Relations with Damascus soured after the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri. That killing and subsequent political murders have been widely blamed on Syria, which firmly denies any connection.

Harb insisted on the "principle of non-interference in domestic affairs, and the opening of embassies by the two countries." Syria has never formally recognized Lebanon.-(AFP)

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Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes, or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.