Lebanon's divided leaders were unusually sociable towards each other this week, but the presidential election suffered yet another delay, Lucy Fielder reports from Beirut
Lebanon postponed its long-awaited presidential vote again this week to allow more time for bitterly divided MPs to find consensus on a candidate and avert political meltdown. If MPs do not succeed in electing a president before Syrian- backed Emile Lahoud steps down 25 November, many fear Lebanon will be saddled with two rival governments, raising the spectre of another civil war.
Cautious optimism presided this week, despite yet another delay in resolving a crisis that has spiralled ever deeper since Lahoud's term was extended by constitutional amendment under pressure from Lebanon's former overlords in Damascus. A flurry of diplomacy and sworn foes meeting behind closed doors prompted media speculation that some sort of consensus, or at least a deal, was indeed close.
Speaker Nabih Berri postponed the parliamentary vote for 12 November, close to the end of Lahoud's term. The election was originally set for 25 September, but opposition MPs stayed in the corridors to prevent the necessary two- thirds quorum from being achieved because no candidate had been agreed beforehand. Some analysts already predict a constitutional amendment to allow the stalemate to drag on for months.
A surprise meeting between two rival Christian leaders Sunday stirred hopes of agreement on a candidate for the presidency, which is reserved for a Maronite Christian under Lebanon's sectarian political system. Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun, who is allied with Iranian- backed Hizbullah in opposition to the Western- backed government, met former president Amin Gemayel, leader of the Phalange, at a mutual friend's home. A positive joint statement followed. Aoun is a presidential candidate, while "14 March" anti-Syrian supporters have often speculated that Gemayel might return to Baabda Palace, the home of the presidency.
Pro-government daily An-Nahar pointed out that the meeting followed the visit of the French, Italian and Spanish foreign ministers to Beirut. "French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner alluded to the containment of the tensions between the Christian leaders," it wrote. France has centuries-old links with Lebanon's politically powerful Maronite community, and the Vatican, as well as the Maronite patriarch, have also been increasingly worried about the division of the Maronites between government and opposition.
Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir has convened meetings of the myriad Christian MPs and potential presidential candidates at his seat at Bkirki, north of Beirut over the past week. "It also acquired its importance from its political content at the Christian and Lebanese levels because it coincided with a series of signs that might be among the results of Bkirki's initiative which was not limited to consensus over the presidential issue and which addressed the ways to secure normalcy between the different Christian forces," An-Nahar wrote.
Aoun is also expected to meet the leader of the parliamentary majority, Saad Al-Hariri, in the coming days. Little of substance is being discussed in any of the knot of meetings held this week, however.
"They're engaged in a time-buying game but I don't think either side is ready for a deal or compromise," said Osama Safa, head of the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies. "It could be that the loyalists have a plan to drag it out until an international tribunal [to try suspects in Rafik Al-Hariri's assassination] is established, unless they can get their candidate." Hardliners in the 14 March anti-Syrian movement have threatened to elect a president by a simple majority of MPs, which would provoke the opposition to electing a rival. However, most on both sides of the divide now appear to accept that the constitution requires a two-thirds quorum for the vote, only becoming a simple majority if a second election is necessary.
The opposition, Safa contended, were as happy with or without a president. However, Aoun's meetings at least suggested the "undeclared truce" that has reigned over the past few weeks might continue and that escalation was off the cards for now. "Two governments would be a weakening move for the opposition and I don't think Aoun will go for it," Safa said.
The foreign ministers of Italy and Spain landed in Beirut with Kouchner at the weekend and met Prime Minister Fouad Al-Siniora and opposition leaders. The three countries are leading contributors to the UNIFIL force bolstered after last summer's war between Israel and Hizbullah. But there was little news from the meetings. "The Europeans are worried about the UNIFIL troops and want to make sure Hizbullah is in the loop," said Safa. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit is expected to visit this week.
Despite the lull, hardliners appear wary of a deal. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt told CNN last week he believed Syria and Hizbullah were behind the string of assassinations of prominent anti-Syrians, including Rafik Al-Hariri in February 2005. His accusations drew sarcastic denials from Hizbullah. "Jumblatt is excused these days because he's cornered and hallucinating as consensus among the Lebanese is looming," a Hizbullah statement said. "Jumblatt has admitted that any agreement in the country is political suicide, which brings him back to his normal size."
A weak, ineffectual president with a pre- bartered agenda looks an ever more likely option, despite the prospect that core issues that have split Lebanon for many years, and particularly the last three of Lahoud's extended term, would remain unresolved. Hizbullah's arms, the weakness of the army in a state wedged between Israel and Syria and whether Lebanon should allow itself to fall into a Western orbit, as desired by Al-Siniora and his allies, or pull closer to the east, are just a few of the issues dividing the country.