Glimmer of hope
Lebanon's government and opposition appear to agree that the army's chief should become president, but obstacles remain, Lucy Fielder reports from Beirut
Army Commander Michel Suleiman appeared poised to be Lebanon's knight in shining armour this week after both sides in an enduring power struggle endorsed him as their presidential candidate. Emile Lahoud vacated Baabda Palace without a successor selected 23 November, leaving a perilous vacuum at the top.
The Western-backed parliamentary majority previously rejected Suleiman as "pro-Syrian", while the opposition has always been amenable to him but currently endorses him only on certain conditions imposed by popular Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun.
Behind-the-scenes jockeying continued, this time for the position of prime minister and for cabinet seats, with the anti-Syrian-dominated government and the Hizbullah-led opposition each using their power to scupper a deal as leverage to vie for clout. Once the president is sworn in, the government's term ends. The opposition has for the past year waged a campaign, including an ongoing sit-in in downtown Beirut, demanding a veto-wielding third of cabinet seats. Aoun would be expected to get most of these, rather than his Hizbullah allies, whose main interest is a government that will not try to wrest its "weapons of resistance" unilaterally.
Denied the presidency despite his support base, Aoun has taken up the role of kingmaker. His stance is that if he, as the most popular Christian leader, has been denied the presidency, then Sunni Future Movement leader Saad Al-Hariri should not be prime minister, said Karim Makdisi, political analyst at the American University in Beirut. Since the powerful Sunni and Shia sects in effect led the bargaining on the Christian presidency, Aoun's view is that the Christians should have a similar say over the premiership, Makdisi said.
Aoun's pro-Western Christian rival, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, is pushing for the same number of cabinet seats, despite commanding a much smaller support base, Makdisi said. "14 March [the anti-Syrian movement] is essentially making use of this great sacrifice, insofar as it has clearly retreated from its earlier words and is moving to endorse Suleiman, to extract many concessions in the details," Makdisi said.
There is also believed to be some jockeying among the movement's Sunnis as to who should be prime minister, with Prime Minister Fouad Al-Siniora and Hariri the natural front-runners. But Aoun will veto both as long as they veto him, Makdisi said. Aoun is also trying to ensure that the next government adopts his programmes, including his Memorandum of Understanding with Hizbullah, which stipulates that the group's weapons should be dealt with internally as part of a national defence strategy.
Just as Aoun defied US and internal pressure and stood by Hizbullah during the war with Israel last summer, the powerful Shia resistance group backs him unconditionally now. "He's in a driving position where nothing can be resolved unless he gets what he wants," Makdisi said.
For Suleiman to step in, Lebanon's constitution must be amended to allow a senior public official to take the presidency, raising a further potential obstacle. Just such a change has been made a number of times -- Lahoud's term extension by amendment under Syrian pressure in 2004 sparked the crisis that endures to this day.
This time round, there seems to be consensus on the need to amend, though few expect plain sailing. Many analysts expect the vote scheduled for 7 December to be postponed for the seventh time and another week at least.
"How to do a constitutional amendment is a minor detail in my opinion if a political consensus is unanimously reached, which is not the case so far," constitutional expert Ziad Baroud said. "I don't think a solution is imminent yet, things are not going smoothly."
"The package being negotiated has gone beyond the presidency, what's at stake is how the cabinet will be composed and the chances of the opposition getting higher representation. I still have fears." One obstacle is that the president should propose the amendment, but currently Al-Siniora's cabinet has taken over the presidency's executive powers.
Another way to push an amendment is to have 10 MPs propose it and for the speaker of parliament to submit it to the government for approval. It would then be passed on to parliament for ratification. "The problematic issue here is that the opposition still claims that the government is not legitimate," Baroud said. With a political agreement, this could be overcome as purely technical, he added. Five Shia and one Christian minister who went into opposition last November in a dispute over power-sharing could rejoin the government for the amendment and then resign again, for example.
Baroud said the presidential stalemate had worked in unpredictable ways to force a solution. It has started to seem that both sides have lost some cards. The opposition appeared to have been counting on Lahoud pulling a hat trick, perhaps appointing a rival government, which could have plunged the country into strife. When he left and that threat receded, their options appeared fewer.
But although the 14 March anti-Syrians, backed by the United States, Saudi Arabia and France, had assumed the president's prerogatives for the past weeks, that power was a potential poisoned chalice. Lebanon's presidency is reserved for a Maronite Christian under the sectarian quota system. It was soon clear that many Christians felt threatened by the vacuum and the Sunni prime minister could do little without risking anger.
"It's a balance of power; both sides now feel they're as powerful as the other. They thought back in September it was possible to push harder for better gains," Baroud said. "Today it seems we are in a vacuum and it's different; after Annapolis it's different, and maybe the American position has changed. So both parties are feeling they need to reassess their positions."
Many analysts and commentators have concluded that a thaw in Syrian-US relations at or after the Annapolis conference may have pushed Washington to allow for a consensus candidate -- one previously dismissed as "pro-Syrian" at that. Suleiman's candidacy was supported, though not officially, by the opposition early in the debate, despite Aoun's claim on the Baabda Palace.
Suleiman has strong contacts with Damascus but has proven an even-handed commander, earning support from both sides in the rift of the past few years. The 14 March movement was riled when he dismissed its claims that Syria was backing Fatah Al-Islam, a militant group that battled the army for nearly four months starting 20 May, and instead blamed Al-Qaeda.
General Michel Suleiman: From army chief to president
Army Commander Michel Suleiman appears likely to fill Lebanon's presidential vacuum once last-minute haggling between the government and opposition is over.
Suleiman, 59, has walked the Lebanese tightrope with skill since becoming army commander in 1998, after Emile Lahoud left that post to become president. The Maronite Christian has been widely praised for assiduously keeping the army on the margins of a political crisis that has polarised society, thereby protecting its unity and bolstering its reputation as Lebanon's only functioning national institution as all others atrophied.
During the mass protests following former prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri's assassination, when the anti-Syrian movement and Hizbullah took turns taking to the streets, Suleiman kept the army out of the fray. His army in effect protected protesters from both sides, despite Syria's military and political dominance of Lebanon and a temporary Interior Ministry ban on demonstrations.
All sides credit Suleiman with a strong nerve, professionalism and a cool detachment. "He's never given anything personal away and I'm sure that will continue if and when he becomes president," said Timur Goksel, security analyst and former spokesman for the UN border force in southern Lebanon. "I think that's his personality, he keeps his opinions to himself and acts like a very professional and collected person."
But Suleiman's leadership of the army was not without controversy over the past year. His army won huge domestic support when it fought a nearly four-month battle with the Islamist militant group Fatah Al-Islam. The demolition of the Nahr Al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in which they were sheltered raised few national qualms, and a patriotic fever swept Lebanon. Suleiman's stern expression graced roadside billboards with the words: "At your command".
But the commander incurred the anti-Syrian ruling movement's wrath when he dismissed its claims that Fatah Al-Islam was backed by Syria. "This organisation is not linked to Syrian intelligence, nor is it backed up by official Lebanese circles. It is a branch of Al-Qaeda which had planned to use Lebanon and the Palestinian camps as a safe haven to launch its operations in Lebanon and abroad," Suleiman said. His statement drew fury even though it also implicitly rejected counter- allegations that the Sunni leadership had backed Fatah Al-Islam.
"He had the most credible intelligence service in Lebanon, the army intelligence, and when he says something like that he's not talking off the top of his head, he's saying something that his own professionals are telling him," said Goksel. "At that time, that took guts."
Suleiman was immediately accused of being "pro- Syrian". Analysts agree that he has good contacts with the Syrians, which he has preserved since Damascus pulled out its troops in 2005 after Al-Hariri's assassination. He has maintained Lebanese army training in Syria.
"General Suleiman believes in the ideology of the Lebanese army, which is that Israel is the enemy, and he believes in good relations with the other Arab states, especially Syria," retired General Amin Al-Hteit said.
The 14 March movement also sniped at Suleiman in early 2007, when the army did not intervene to prevent opposition street protests that descended into sectarian clashes.
Goksel said anyone in Suleiman's position would have to have strong relations with Damascus, particularly during Syria's dominance of post-civil war Lebanon. "Professional dealings are one thing, going to bed with Syria is another," he said.
During the Nahr Al-Bared siege, Suleiman also implied that vaunted US support for the army had consisted of "promises and best wishes", rather than the modern equipment Lebanon's weak and poorly equipped army needed to fight the group. "It's as though they are telling us, 'die first and assistance will follow'," he said, without naming Washington. After the battle ended in September, he said the army's guns could go back to pointing in the proper direction -- at Israel.
Such a stance has chimed favourably with Hizbullah, whose victory against Israel last summer he praised. Analysts say there is little doubt that like his predecessor in both jobs, Lahoud, Suleiman has thoroughly absorbed the army's doctrine. "He's not with either team, but sees Hizbullah as an essential part of Lebanon's defence," Hteit said.
Goksel agrees. "Nobody can accuse him of being pro-Hizbullah, he just maintains good relations all around," he said. Suleiman also oversaw the deployment of the Lebanese army across the south following last summer's war. His good relations with Hizbullah lessen the possibility of a damaging internal wrangle over the group's weapons if he is installed at Baabda Palace.
"This guy had a very senior public position and an exposed and touchy one," Goksel said. "If he succeeded in that for so many years, that is experience that no other candidate has."
Suleiman graduated from Lebanon's Military Academy in 1970 and also holds a degree in political and administrative sciences from the Lebanese University. A father of three, he is French-educated but also speaks English.