Pulling at Lebanon's strings
Syria has made no friends in Lebanon or abroad by amending the Lebanese constitution to allow Emile Lahoud's term as president to be extended, reports Mohalhel Fakih from Beirut
Syria is in the grips of unprecedented Lebanese and Western criticism for its decision to extend Lebanon's pro-Damascus president's term in office for another three years. Opposition to the amendment of Lebanon's constitution, which delimited Emile Lahoud's term of office, had been swelling in Beirut and Western capitals ahead of meetings that Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad held with numerous Lebanese officials, followed by a 20- minute cabinet meeting in which Lahoud's top rival and critic, Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Al- Hariri, proposed extending the head of state's mandate.
In Lebanon, there was defiance even from Syria's traditional allies. The country's leading columnists claimed Damascus had to pre-empt a "snowball" effect that was taking shape against keeping Lahoud in office. In the US, France, the UK and Germany, the move fuelled anger with Damascus, already under American sanctions and heavy international pressure to withdraw troops it sent to Lebanon when the 1975-1990 civil war erupted.
Maronite Patriarch, Cardinal Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir said on Sunday during Mass that what happened was "plotted by night and carried out swiftly by day". He added, "Those directly involved were seized to express a view imposed on them, and obeyed submissively... I call on all to be aware... and for God to help Lebanon and the Lebanese." Sfeir had addressed another gathering saying consultations ahead of the election were taking place "outside our borders", as if Lebanese "totally lost sovereignty over our land and our independence".
Lebanon's post 1975-1990 civil war constitution and a 1943 deal preserve the 17-sect religious balance and stipulate the president must be Maronite Christian, the prime minister Sunni Muslim and house speaker Shia Muslim. The president, who is elected by Parliament, ought only to serve one term. But the constitution has been amended before: to extend Elias Hrawi's mandate, Lahoud's predecessor. It was also changed to elect the former army commander as the current president.
This time around it appeared that Syria would support timely elections and President Al-Assad promised, in an interview with a Kuwaiti daily, the affair would be "strictly Lebanese". Four legislators announced their candidacies. Newspaper reports also claimed the country's two top Sunni and Shia authorities had drafted a statement opposing an amendment to the constitution, but that it was quickly withdrawn.
Lahoud cited regional developments, including fighting in Iraq and the Arab- Israeli conflict, for staying in power. The official justification for scrapping elections also invoked a "very dangerous" regional situation and "threats, especially Israeli".
Syria said it respected the Lebanese decision. "Respecting the constitution does not mean it cannot be amended in the framework of the constitution itself," Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Sharaa told a joint news conference with his German counterpart Joschka Fischer, who had warned Beirut against the move. Fischer stressed that Lebanon's "sovereignty and independence" must be respected. It was a European Union policy, Fischer added.
The United States, following the Iraq war, shifted its attention to Syria's military presence in Lebanon, urging Damascus to withdraw, in line with the internationally backed post civil war Taif Accord. The missed election provided another opportunity for criticising Syria. The US, in declaring support for timely, fresh elections, said it noted recent statements by senior Lebanese religious, political and civil society leaders calling for respect of the constitution. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the United States "believes strongly that the best interests of Lebanon and Syria are served by a positive and constructive relationship based upon principles of mutual respect and non- intervention". He said the Lebanese should be free to choose the country's leadership "without pressure or interference from any outside party".
Damascus, under the Syria Accountability Act, faces sanctions from Washington partly for its military presence in Lebanon but also for its support of Hizbullah, designated by the White House as a terrorist organisation but viewed as a resistance group among the Lebanese and a staunch backer of Syria and President Lahoud.
Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state, warned Syria that keeping Lahoud in office would prove "harmful" for both countries. He told the US-funded Arabic broadcast Al-Hurra TV, "Syria made it very clear to the people of Lebanon that they don't care about any established constitution, and they don't care that the people of Lebanon are allowed to express their views and vote for whomever they wish." Armitage confirmed talks with France, a historic ally of Lebanon, over the election.
President Jacques Chirac, a political and economic supporter of Lebanon, was clearly on Washington's side in this matter. He told an annual meeting of ambassadors that Paris is very attached to a fully sovereign and independent Lebanon, and demanded the election be held on time. He appeared to signal that a new Lebanese leader would allow the government to proceed with development, especially a package of financial and economic reforms drafted by Al-Hariri, championed by Chirac and backed by the international community, but jolted to a halt in Beirut. Al-Hariri's team accuses Lahoud's allies of blocking so-called Paris II reforms, which had been underpinned by some $4 billion in cheap loans. Lahoud has said privatisation did not preserve the interests of Lebanon, a country that takes pride in its traditionally liberal economy.
Allies of the president focus on his pro-Syrian Middle East policies to shore up his record. They point to "regional danger", Israel's May 2000 pullout from southern Lebanese territory during his term and his backing of Hizbullah against Israel's occupation of the region as justification for his staying in power.
Cabinet Minister Karim Pakradouni, the head of the now pro-Syrian Phalange Party and a strong supporter of Lahoud, said there was an attempt to "internationalise" the election with the aim of "resettling" Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, and that the current head of state opposes keeping some 350,000 Palestinians in the country.
Lahoud has also won the support of a group of Sunni officials, including Transportation Minister Najib Mikati; a crucial factor if political heavyweight Al-Hariri decides to bow out. The so-called National Forum welcomed Lahoud's bid to remain in office and praised his efforts to cement ties with Syria and his support of Syria's military presence and the resistance in southern Lebanon.
Another ally, Labour Minister Assaad Hardan, who is close to Syria said Lahoud's announcement that he was interested in remaining in office, days before Al-Hariri proposed an extension of his mandate, "asserts his will to Lebanonise the elections".
However, Syria's other allies are in a bind. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, the head of the Progressive Socialist Party, opposes Lahoud but was careful to not publicly pressure Damascus. His meeting with President Al-Assad was reportedly cancelled due to disagreement over the presidential choice. His three allies in the government rejected an extension of Lahoud's mandate while reaffirming support for Syria at the extraordinary cabinet meeting on Saturday.
But Jumblatt, who has a 15-member parliamentary bloc and whose backing might be significant when the 128-member parliament votes to amend the constitution at its extraordinary session this month, hit out at Lahoud, claiming military rule now looms.
The reaction of presidential candidates ranged from describing the cabinet meeting as a "very sad day in Lebanon's history" to pledges of determination to oppose current political practices. Health Minister Suleiman Franjieh, who admits to aspirations for the top post and is a strong supporter of Syria, had predicted after a meeting with Al- Assad in August that an extension of Lahoud's term was the most probable outcome. "Syria is still the biggest voter in the presidential elections," he said.
Exiled former army commander and anti-Syrian opposition figure General Michel Aoun believes civil disobedience is the path to reverse that prospect. From Paris, where he went into exile after launching a 1990 "liberation war" against Syrian troops in Lebanon, Aoun urged a campaign of "escalating civil disobedience".
Syria and its allies in Lebanon are under heavy pressure to draft a political strategy that would allow President Lahoud to rule over the country in the face of significant opposition. Even the pro- Syrian As-Safir daily was critical. Its chief editor and owner, Tallal Salamn, wrote ironically that Syria, by rushing to name Lahoud, must have predicted it would "face a war launched from Lebanon" and its best defender would be the current president. He criticised the choice.
As-Safir's rival, the conservative An-Nahar, called the decision a "dirty" move. Ghassan Tueini, veteran An-Nahar editor, claimed Damascus feared unity among the various sects of Lebanon, and expected Syria to face mounting international pressure.