23 September 2007

Lebanon - The wait for a leader

Eleven men have held the post of elected president since Lebanon gained its independence from France on November 22, 1943.

Bisharah Al Khoury was followed by Camille Chamoun, Fuad Chehab, Charles Helou, Sulaiman Franjieh, Elias Sarkis, Bashir Gemayel, Amine Gemayel, Rene Moawad, Elias Hrawi and Emile Lahoud.

Both Bashir Gemayel and Rene Moawad were assassinated before they could serve, and three candidates acceded to power following constitutional emendations (Al Khoury, Hrawi and Lahoud), which permitted them to extend their constitutionally mandated terms. One man refused an extension (Chehab), another left politics for philanthropy and writing (Helou) while one supervised (some say, accelerated) the 1975 civil war (Franjieh). Another was powerless vis-à-vis both Syria and Israel (Sarkis).

Amine Gemayel replaced his brother — who had been murdered — but left the office vacant after General Michel Aoun assumed prime ministerial functions when the country operated under two competing governments.

Gemayel's term witnessed an Israeli invasion and occupation and an ill-advised, US-drafted and imposed peace treaty with Israel, which was never ratified. Hrawi, the most unpretentious president, acted as a powerbroker after he secured the critical Taif Accord to reformulate the 1943 National Pact. He was more than a caretaker leader as Lebanon emerged from two decades of internecine wars.

Failed by the leader

The present officeholder assumed the presidency in 1998 amid overall optimism. He managed to accomplish little during his regular six-year term, and though he took credit for the Israeli withdrawal in 2000, Lahoud embroiled the country in a major crisis in 2004 when he consented, perhaps under Syrian duress, to a three-year constitutional extension of his mandate.

Lebanon elects its president in Parliament, which, since the 1989 Taif Accord, is composed of 128 deputies divided equally between Muslims and Christians. The president normally serves a six-year term although three men served for longer. Between 1998 and 2000, when Israel was literally emasculated by Hezbollah in South Lebanon, Lahoud appeared as a competent leader. Still, it was Hezbollah that was responsible for the withdrawal, which ended an 18-year occupation and which significantly strengthened the Party of God on the domestic scene.

Goaded by both Damascus and Tehran, Hezbollah enhanced its presence throughout the South while denying the regular armed forces the right to deploy on the international borders.

Amid a raucous call for change, the Parliament extended Lahoud's term in 2004, after Rafik Hariri, then a member of parliament, sought and received international assistance to end Syrian interference in the country's internal affairs. Beirut was then put on a full-scale reconstruction programme that reopened the war-torn country to the rest of the world. Needless to say, Hariri and many other Lebanese concluded that Damascus, which had maintained a large military presence in Lebanon since 1975, hindered this progress.

Hariri managed to internationalise the country's plight with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559, which was quickly opposed by Syria, perceiving it as a Western ploy to weaken and isolate it from the larger Arab-Israeli arena.

The Franco-American Resolution 1559 was adopted on September 2, 2004 and called upon Beirut to establish its sovereignty over its territories. It also invited "foreign forces" (interpreted as referring to, but not limited to Syria) to withdraw troops, end sophisticated intelligence-gathering deployments and stop the economic strangulation that chiefly benefited corrupt high-ranking officials.

The resolution admonished the Lebanese to disband all militias (targeting Hezbollah, which was the last such major actor that maintained weapons independent of the legal armed forces). It further declared its support for a "free and fair electoral process" that, presumably, referred to the presidency. This key resolution remains at the heart of all disputes between Hezbollah and everyone else. While the Lebanese agree on most issues, they strongly disagree on Resolution 1559, which takes a new direction.

Few of Lahoud's accomplishments during his regular term stand out other than his rejection of Resolution 1559. When Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated on February 14, 2005, Lebanon entered a new phase in its political life — a virtual roller coaster. Hundreds of thousands participated in his funeral precession, Muslims reading Al Fatihah and Christians making the cross over his burial tomb.

The Hariri national memorial service turned into an anti-government rally that mobilised the reluctant and warned the blasé. Around one million Lebanese (mostly Shia supporters of Hezbollah) gathered at Martyrs Square on March 8, 2005 to support Damascus. Hariri supporters perceived this demonstration as being in poor taste — given its proximity to the slain leader's tomb — as well as a challenge. A counter-demonstration on March 14 drew more than 1.5 million at the same venue — renamed Freedom Square — to demand a Syrian withdrawal.

Poll debut

As the Cedar Revolution garnered support and the tide turned against occupation forces, Syria started a rapid pullback in April 2005 as Beirut scheduled parliamentary elections — executed in four rounds between May 29 and June 19 — to elect a new chamber. This was the first election in three decades that occurred without the presence of foreign military forces.

The 2005 Parliament was divided into three main groups: a majority of 72 seats led by Sa'ad Hariri and his late father's Future Party, 35 seats within the Resistance Bloc, which grouped the two Shia parties Amal and Hezbollah, and the 21 Change and Reform Bloc members. Along with its 36 deputies, the Future Movement grouped 16 Progressive socialists (Jumblatt), 6 Lebanese Forces, 6 Kataeb, 5 independents and 3 Armenians. Amal alone won 14 seats as did Hezbollah (14). Two Syrian Social Nationalist Party deputies and 5 others, including a lone Armenian Tashnag deputy joined the Resistance Bloc.

Change and Reform was composed of the 14 Free Patriotic Movement members, 5 deputies beholden to Elias Skaff and 2 to Michel Murr. After the August 2007 by-election, the majority was reduced to 71, and the Aounist forces increased their count to 22.

In other words, on September 25, 2007, 71 deputies from the majority will face 57 opposition parliamentarians. It is they who will elect the next president and both sides face the challenge of maintaining discipline within their respective ranks.

Assuming that all 71 deputies from the majority will be present, a quorum will require the physical presence of an additional 15 parliamentarians (for a minimum of 86). Will there be 15 or more opposition deputies in Parliament at 10.30am on September 25? Naturally, without an understanding, or even a compromise candidate, there are no guarantees that a quorum will be met. As an alternative, deputies could be bussed to the chamber but might refuse to vote, which will automatically postpone the session. The most likely scenario is for everyone to actually enter the Parliament building without entering the chamber proper, which will be interpreted as patriotic fervour. No one can realistically force a vote even if a quorum is established.

Today, the main dispute is over the identity of the candidates. While the opposition nominally supports General Aoun (even though Hezbollah has yet to make a formal announcement), and while the majority may yet choose a single candidate from among a slew of contenders, there are excellent chances that two final candidates will simply cancel each other out.

In fact, even if a quorum is established, it is impossible for Aoun to gather either two-thirds (86) of the votes or be elected by a simple majority (65) because the majority was not ready to give up seven votes. Likewise, even if the majority candidate won in the second round with at least 65 votes — more likely 71 — that would still be shy of a clear two-thirds required to govern the country effectively.

Compromise candidate

In short, neither the March 8 nor the March 14 coalition can win with a candidate with broad support even if a president can technically be elected by a simple majority in a second round or later ballots. Under such circumstances, the majority and opposition leaders — probably goaded by both international and regional actors — will settle on a compromise candidate, who might be either Riad Salamah (Central Bank) or, more likely, Army Commander General Michel Sulaiman.

While Salameh is a competent administrator, he lacks the political backbone to muzzle Lebanon's warring factions. Moreover, his personality is subdued, something that was noticed by the Maronite Patriarch Mar Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir — the ultimate decision maker on such matters — in previous encounters. Michel Sulaiman, on the other hand, could well be the surprise choice. Born on January 21, 1948 in Amchit, Sulaiman became Commander of the Armed Forces on December 21, 1998. He recently announced that he would reluctantly accept a transitional role in the event of a deadlock. Still, he stood as the ideal compromise candidate among all political factions by virtue of his impeccable patriotic credentials, especially after the tragic events of Nahr Al Bared.

It is important to note that unless both sides agree on a compromise candidate, there will probably be no elections on September 25 or at later sessions. Both sides will enter a period of testing, which will further widen the gulf separating them, because no single candidate will achieve the comfortable margin of 86 votes.

Naturally, a candidate could garner from 65 to 71 votes, but such a president will probably be even more isolated than Emile Lahoud in his well-appointed but politically barren Baabda "Palace". Even if the majority will not be responsible for such an outcome, a president elected with a simple majority will quickly lose his cachet, well ahead of the problematic 2009 parliamentary plebiscite. He will be a lame duck even before wearing the official presidential seal.

Should Lebanon's 128 deputies agree to amend the constitution and elect Michel Sulaiman — a career officer who joined the army as a cadet officer on October 4, 1967 and who was regularly promoted until his appointment by President Lahoud — many fear that the country would distance itself from democratisation. While Sulaiman is credited for remaking the military, strengthening its nationalism and deploying it against terrorist forces, the next president — Sulaiman or another candidate — faced critical security choices that went beyond democratisation. The choice was to be either like Fuad Chehab or pursue the Hrawi model. Both addressed democratisation but from different perspectives.

Chehab and Hrawi Models

Like Chehab, Sulaiman could play the nationalism card, focus on reconstruction and restore legal authority. In fact, Sulaiman's most important contribution before this past summer occurred on March 14, 2005, when he directed the army to desist from preventing a gathering of more than 1.5 million people in Freedom Square. Added to his 2007 record, a Chehab model will most likely mean law and order, with a significant boost in the country's defensive capabilities, as well as further strenghtened international support to fend off the country's foes.

Sulaiman could opt for the Chehab model by focusing on domestic matters and encourage reconciliation and prosperity. Like Chehab, he will rely on the military to muzzle the opposition (with Syrian approval), to restore the country's privileged relations with Damascus in exchange for certain compromises on the United Nations Hariri Tribunal and aim at restoring what the people clamour for most — security.

The other available model is that of former president Hrawi, who worked hard to end conflict, encourage tolerance and open a new page in intra-communal life. Should Sulaiman opt for this model, he is likely to significantly reduce internal tensions, although this option required both Saudi and Iranian approval to coerce and buttress beholden local actors.

Lebanon is at the dawn of a new age and only a strong leader can restore legal authority. Only the military can command unquestioned respect throughout the country and — this must be stated as clearly as possible — only the army can persuade Hezbollah to turn over its weapons to Lebanon's legal authorities.

While reconciliation is a necessity, the next president of Lebanon must opt for a combination of the Chehab and Hrawi models. Such an outcome will allow the prime minister (who, under the unapplied Taif Accords enjoys far greater privileges than the president) the freedom to govern and meet internal demands, while the president helps restore glory to the country's blemished image.

Presidential hopefuls

According to the unwritten 1943 National Pact brokered between Lebanon's established Maronite, Sunni and Shia leaders, the office of president was "reserved" for a member of the Maronite community. Today, several Maronite contenders have either declared their candidacies or are considering it. Mostly, contenders are existing or former parliamentarians, with the exceptions of Army Commander General Michel Sulaiman and Governor of the Central Bank Riad Salamah. However, by virtue of their high-ranking posts, both are not eligible unless a constitutional amendment adjusts their ranks.

Given alphabetically are brief introductions of these and other likely contenders:

General Michel Aoun was born on February 19, 1935 in Beirut (Haret Hreik) and is the nominal head of the Free Patriotic Movement. Aoun was elected a deputy from Kesrouan in 2005 and served as commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces from 1984 to 1990. From September 1988 to 1990, he was empowered by outgoing President Amine Gemayel to lead one of Lebanon's two opposing governments but was defeated by Syrian forces in October 1990. He took refuge at the French embassy in Beirut and was forced into exile to France for 15 years. Aoun returned to Beirut in 2005, after the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. While expected to side with the majority, which would press for a Syrian military withdrawal, Aoun signed a controversial memorandum of understanding with Hezbollah in February 2006. He has won several tactical victories both in the 2005 parliamentary elections as well as the August 2007 Metn by-election, which transformed him into a controversial and colourful contender.

Still, Aoun frequently wonders why he is rejected by those affiliated with the majority, who do not trust him and refuse to acknowledge his record is less than stellar. His supporters say that no personal ambitions motivate their "General", whereas the majority perceives him as an opportunist who places his glory ahead of the state's interests. More importantly, many of his early supporters have deserted him and his two-year long record in Parliament is also considered weak. Should he be elected, some wonder whether he will continue to rely on colourful language, which is certainly entertaining but seldom presidential.

Fares Boueiz was born on January 15, 1955 and served as a deputy from Kesrouan until 2005, when he withdrew from the race. A son-in-law of former president Elias Hrawi, Boueiz was minister of foreign affairs from 1990 to 1998 except for a few months in 1992 when he was temporarily replaced by Nasri Maalouf.

Amin Gemayel was born on January 22, 1942 in Bikfaya (Metn) and is the head of the Kataeb (Phalange) party. Gemayel entered the political arena in 1972 by winning a by-election in the Metn. He was elected president of Lebanon (1982-1988) after his brother was assassinated. In August 2007, he narrowly lost to Camille Khoury in another by-election, called to fill the post left vacant by his slain son, Pierre, who was both a member of parliament as well as minister of industry.

Robert Ghanem was born on June 18, 1942 in the Bekaa valley and is a member of parliament. Interestingly, Ghanem won his 2005 seat on the "National Resolve List", a rare phenomenon backed by Hariri's Mustaqbal (Future) Movement, Nabih Berri's Amal Movement and Walid Jumblatt's Progressive Socialist Party. He is the son of former Army Commander Iskandar Ghanem and considered a constitutional authority.

Boutros Harb was born on August 3, 1944 in Tannourine (Metn) and has served as a member of parliament. Best known for his repeated attempts to run for president, Harb issued a detailed programme during a well-attended news conference on August 31, 2007, in which he outlined a six-year plan to unite various factions under the authority of the head of state.

His platform rests on the premise that the Lebanese president must uphold the 1989 Taif Accord without shunning national leaders who reject particular aspects of the agreement. This articulate contender insisted on national unity, declared his opposition to contemplated naturalisation for the estimated 400,000 Palestinian refugees, as well as the transformation of Palestinian camps into security zones that have so far been outside the state's authority. Harb reiterated the importance of liberating the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms, underscored his commitment to all UN resolutions (from 1559 to 1701), the deployment of UNIFIL+ in Southern Lebanon and the empowerment of the military to defend the country from all foes. He called for dialogue with Syria based on established traditions, but wished to strengthen them further by insisting on mutual respect for sovereignty and independence.

Ghattas Khoury was born on December 27, 1952 in Ksar Nis and earned a medical degree from the University of Madrid. A practicing physician in Beirut, he entered politics on an affiliation with Rafik Hariri's parliamentary bloc. Khoury voluntarily stood down from his seat in 2005 to ensure that Solange Gemayel (the widow of slain president-elect Bashir Gemayel) was secure on her seat.

Nassib Lahoud, born on November 23, 1944 in Baabdat (Metn), is a trained engineer with a degree from the United Kingdom. He founded Lahoud Engineering and served as ambassador to the US (1990-1991) before running for Parliament. He won three consecutive four-year terms before he was narrowly defeated in 2005 by an Aounist candidate. He is the president of the Democratic Renewal Movement, which was founded in 2001, and is a reform-mandated opposition group that is widely supported among the country's intelligentsia.

A distant cousin of President Emile Lahoud, Nassib situated himself early on in the anti-Syrian camp and while he opposed former premier Hariri's economic policies, he agreed with the latter about the need to end Syrian interference in Lebanese affairs. Significantly, he was one of the few parliamentarians who voted against constitutional amendments to extend the mandates of both presidents — Hrawi in 1995 and Emile Lahoud in 2004.

Chibli Mallat was born in 1960 in Baabda and is a licensed attorney as well as a well-known scholar of contemporary Lebanese political affairs. His claim to fame was established in the prosecution of former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon in a Belgian court, most notably for the latter's role in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres. Although a brainy contender, Mallat lacked the imprimatur, as well as Cardinal Sfeir's blessing to enter the vicious intra-Maronite arena.

Nayla Mouawad was born on July 3, 1940 in Bcharré (Metn) and is both a member of parliament from Zghorta-Tripoli and minister of social affairs in the Siniora government. She is affiliated with the Democratic Forum, established after her husband Rene Mouawad was assassinated in 1989. Although she announced her candidacy for president in 2004, Mouawad withdrew when President Emile Lahoud's term was extended. More importantly, and while a pillar of the Maronite community, she is widely believed to be setting the stage for her son, Michel (born in Jbeil in 1980), a civil engineer with an MBA from the ESSEC Business School in France, to eventually run for high office.

Jean Obeid was born on May 8, 1939 and served as minister of foreign affairs in the government of former prime minister Salim Al Hoss in the 1980s. Obeid also served as a deputy from Tripoli and is considered a dark horse.

Charles Rizk was born on July 20, 1935 in Maad (Jbeil-Metn), and served as minister of justice in the Siniora government. The former head of Tele Liban, the state's official broadcasting vehicle, Rizk gained admiration for his painstaking negotiations with United Nations envoys to help establish the international tribunal that will identify and try individuals implicated in the murder of Rafik Hariri. The gregarious Rizk is well liked on both sides of the aisle, though his uncompromising stand on the Hariri tribunal may work against him.

Articles 34, 49 and 79

Constitutional experts offer various interpretations for the required quorum to elect a president according to three articles in the constitution.

Article 34 clarifies:

The chamber is not validly constituted unless the majority of the total membership is present. Decisions are to be taken by a majority vote. Should the votes be equal, the question under consideration is deemed rejected.

Article 49 identifies presidential powers and in Section 2, states that:

The president of the republic shall be elected by secret ballot and by a two-thirds majority of the Chamber of Deputies. After the first ballot, an absolute majority shall be sufficient. The president's term is for six years. He may not be re-elected until six years after the expiration of his last mandate. No one may be elected to the presidency of the republic unless he fulfils the conditions of eligibility for the Chamber of Deputies.

Article 79 declares (Part 1):

When a draft law dealing with a constitutional amendment is submitted to the chamber, it cannot discuss it or vote upon it except when a majority of two thirds of the members lawfully composing the chamber are present. Voting is by the same majority.

How does one interpret these clauses? Is a quorum required to elect a president? Yes, say opposition leaders. No, respond members of the majority since a simple majority will do after the first ballot. Still, while the necessity for a quorum may be subject for interpretation, established traditions compel politicians to opt for a consensus driven preference.-(YL)

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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.