01 November 2007

Aoun and Hariri try to break Beirut logjam with Paris talks

'If we were not serious, we would not have come'
The much-awaited meeting between parliamentary majority leader MP Saad Hariri and Change and Reform Bloc leader MP Michel Aoun was held in Paris Wednesday at a hotel away from the media spotlight. Reports indicated a positive mood after the first of two scheduled meetings, which went on for three hours.

Aoun, speaking to OTV after the first meeting, said "there is a will to move in the direction of resolving the deadlock" on the presidency and the shape of the next government. "We are not here to waste our time, we both have work to do, if we were not serious we would not have come," he added.

As for the November 12 parliamentary electoral session proceeding as planned, Aoun said: "We still have time until that date, till then we need to work seriously to reach a positive result."

Aoun earlier met French Envoy Jean-Claude Cousseran, who left around noon without speaking to reporters.

Before meeting with Aoun, Hariri met US Undersecretary of State for Near East Affairs David Welch, who also left without comment.

Wednesday's issue of Al-Akhbar newspaper quoted sources close to Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, as saying that he had formed a new three-member committee to name a consensus candidate. The panel would include Michel Aoun and two of his rivals for the presidency from the March 14 coalition, former MP Nassib Lahoud and MP Butros Harb.

According to Al-Akhbar, the committee would select a candidate from a list of five names: former Ambassador Simon Karam, former Minister Dimianous Qattar, former Bar Association president Shakib Qortbawi, Maronite League chief Joseph Torbay, and MP Farid Elias al-Khazen.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki postponed his Lebanon visit to head to Iraq instead to deal with pressing matters on the Turkish/Kurdish front. No new date has been set for Mottaki to comevisit, Iranian Embassy Information officer Ibrahim Hurshi told The Daily Star Wednesday.

Mottaki had been expected to arrive in Beirut on Thursday on a mission to help break the impasse over the choice for a new president.

Speaker Nabih Berri met in Ain al-Tineh Wednesday UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Geir Pedersen, who left without making any comment to the press. Berri also received a delegation from the Tripoli Bloc headed by Minister of Public Works and Transport Mohammed Safadi.

"We emphasized the bloc's concern for reaching consensus as a basic step to exit the current crisis," Safadi said. "We hope the meetings between the speaker and Saad Hariri continue and expand to arrive at a consensus."

Responding to reporters' questions on the Tripoli Bloc's stance on electing a president by a simple majority, Safadi said the bloc opposes anyone who hinders elections in the last 10 days of incumbent Emile Lahoud's term and will meet to take "appropriate action" if anyone does.

Tripoli Bloc MP Mohammed Kabbara, who attended the meeting with Berri, told reporters that, "God willing," the country will have a president by November 24 and there won't be a constitutional vacuum.

"Speaker Berri, as you know, is always optimistic and he is right to be optimistic as he is better informed," Kabbara said.

Sferi held a 40-minute meeting in Bkirki with MP Wael Bou Faour, an emissary from Democratic Gathering leader MP Walid Jumblatt. Bou Faour reiterated Jumblatt's stance that the path to choosing the next president starts with Bkirki and ends with Parliament, without passing through any other station.

"There will be elections and we are on the threshold of an Arab and international 'snowball' that is growing larger with every day to force the Syrian regime to comply with Lebanon's independence ... and allow the election to proceed," Bou Faour said, adding that he believes the next president will not be a consensus candidtae but a memner of March 14.

"I hope we do not get to the point of proceeding with a simple majority, but if we do it would be the solution of last resort, and a decision that March 14 will not go back on," he said. "It is not a pleasant choice nor is it meant to stir internal conflict, but it is a rejection of a constitutional vacuum."

Hizbullah official Nawwaf Musawi, addressing a rally in Beirut, said the ruling coalition should not bet on "usurping" the presidency via what he termed a "swindle" of half plus one of MPs' votes.

"The opposition will not accept, in any shape or form, to have any thief or pirate sit in Baabda Palace," Musawi said.

He added that the opposition supports Aoun for the presidency because he cannot be bought with money "like others can" and because foreign pressure does not work with him.

Both Jordan and Germany called Wednesday for "national reconciliation" in Lebanon.

"The two sides stressed that achieving national reconciliation in Lebanon is a must under these critical circumstances," Jordanian Prime Minister and Defense Minister Maarouf Bakhit said after holding talks in Amman with visiting German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung.

Jung arrived in Jordan Wednesday as part of a Middle East tour, which "underlines the ongoing interest and the stake the German government has in this region," according to the German Embassy.

During a visit to Lebanon earlier in the week, Jung met with German troops who are leading the naval component of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon. - With agencies

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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.