The clock is ticking in the search for a Lebanese president, Lucy Fielder reports from Beirut
Leaders from Lebanon's two sparring factions again laid out their opposing positions this week, and in apposite circumstances: 14 March parliamentary majority leader Saad Al-Hariri in Washington and Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah at a rally to celebrate Jerusalem Day.
Lebanon's parliament is due to meet 23 October to elect a president for six years. An attempted session on 25 September failed to meet the necessary two- thirds quorum after the two sides failed to agree on a consensus candidate, leading to an opposition boycott.
Parliamentarians have until 23 November to elect a successor to Emile Lahoud whose term was extended by constitutional amendment under Syrian pressure three years ago. The "golden date" is 10 November, after which the parliamentary speaker cannot refuse to convene parliament. The opposition fears that the US and Saudi-backed ruling majority led by Al-Hariri may carry out threats to elect a president by simple majority, for the first time in Lebanon's history, if no president is agreed upon by then.
Lebanon's fragile political system traditionally balances on sectarian consensus as much as majority voting. Government loyalists say the opposition is using that argument as a smokescreen for restoring vanquished Syria's role in Lebanon through its ally Hizbullah. Their opponents in a more than two- year-old rift say the 14 March current would replace Syrian hegemony with that of the West.
Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Middle East centre in Beirut, said despite a recent flurry of exchanges, chances of a compromise had sunk to "below 50 per cent". "The mood has turned very tense. Al-Hariri's visit to Washington doesn't seem to have come up with anything and Nasrallah's speech was somewhat escalatory." Al-Hariri's channel of dialogue with opposition speaker of parliament Nabih Berri -- the two leaders have met twice in the past couple of weeks -- remains open, Salem said, "but the question is whether they have anything to sit and agree on."
Al-Hariri's visit to Washington this week has given little indication of whether the US has plumped for a compromise candidate or will take the more dangerous route of insisting on having an ally in the Baabda presidential palace. Although Washington has been vociferous in its support for Al-Hariri and Prime Minister Fouad Al-Siniora's government, one Western diplomat said US allies were trying to persuade it of the need for compromise.
"Everyone is pressuring the United States quite heavily to go for a consensus president," the diplomat said. Particularly since Israel's failure to crush Hizbullah last summer, the US has had the movement's weapons in its sights and increased calls for implementing UN Security Council Resolution 1559 on disarming Lebanon's militias. But a 14 March president would place Lebanon squarely in the Western orbit and likely prompt the opposition to set up a rival government.
Another possible option is that Syrian ally Lahoud will refuse to hand power to the government if no consensus is found by the end of his term and instead devolve power to a transitional government, perhaps military-based.
Another diplomat said the international community was persuaded of the need for consensus, but its main priority was preventing a void or two governments. "The UN is trying to coalesce support around the idea that the election should be on time, by consensus and with the broadest level of support. But under no circumstances should there be two governments, because then there's no going back," the source said.
Should 14 March unilaterally elect a president by simple majority, "basically the P3 [permanent three; France, Britain and the United States] have decided that they're not going to stop them or say 'you're not going to elect your president'. They're aware of the sacrifices they've made," the diplomat said, in an apparent reference to the assassination of Rafik Al-Hariri in February 2005 and four other government-loyal MPs since. The 14 March group blames Syria for the assassinations.
For his part, in his speech Friday night Hassan Nasrallah had another theory, telling a Jerusalem Day rally: "the hand that kills is an Israeli hand". "Israel considers every day of calm in Lebanon an opportunity for the resistance [Hizbullah] to grow stronger, and every day of sedition and fighting there an opportunity to drag the resistance into internal issues to make [Israel] feel at ease," Nasrallah said. His speech drew fierce domestic fire.
Nasrallah further pointed out that several assassinations coincided with the passage of measures to establish the international tribunal to try suspects in Al-Hariri's assassination. He focused on the killing of Phalangist MP Antoine Ghanem last month, which coincided with widespread reports that the 14 March group were about to accept an initiative tabled by Berri aimed at breaking the presidential deadlock and achieving consensus.
"The one who has no interest in a consensual president in Lebanon is Israel. because a consensual president means a national unity government," Nasrallah said. "The Israelis can see but only the arms of the resistance in Lebanon."
Nicholas Noe, Beirut-based editor of a new book of Nasrallah's translated speeches and the Mideastwire.com translation service, said the Hizbullah leader was careful to avoid the "conspiracy theory route". "But he seems very convinced. His reasoning is that the only way Hizbullah is going to be defeated, short of a regional shake-up, is by making the Lebanese fight each other, and he thinks the Israelis and the US are prepared to do that," Noe said.
Nasrallah reiterated calls for a consensus president and suggested direct election by the people if that failed. The 14 March group condemned his speech on many counts. Prime Minister Al-Siniora criticised "those who would exonerate Al-Hariri's assassins". Many lashed out at the direct election proposal. "This is not the time for suggestions that take the country into the unknown," Al-Hariri told the pro-government daily An- Nahar from Washington.
Noe believes Nasrallah aimed to show that the opposition was going out of its way to reach conciliation, partly for future defence if Lebanon descends into civil strife. "He's showing that Hizbullah is reasonable and saying, 'if it all goes wrong, don't say we didn't come up with ideas. You guys gave nothing'," Noe said.