After weeks of fruitless bargaining, the March 14th majority in Lebanon may have finally conceded that expediency is the better part of compromise.
After rejecting a proposal weeks ago to amend the constitution to allow an active duty officer in the military to serve as president, thus clearing the way for the election of General Michel Suleiman, the current commander of the Lebanese army, the March 14th bloc in parliament now says it is ready to take that deal:
Houry, a legislator with the Future Movement of Saad Hariri, said the bloc had reversed its previous stand against amending the constitution to elect a sitting army commander.
“We declare our acceptance to amend the constitution in order to reach consensus on the name of the army commander, Gen. Michel Suleiman,” he said.
Hariri is effectively the leader of Lebanon’s parliamentary majority, and his support is tantamount to the majority’s acceptance.
Houry’s statement described Suleiman as “symbol of the unity of the military establishment which has given martyrs and blood in defense of the nation against the enemy and against those who threatened civil peace.”
Suleiman is also respected by Hizbullah, which is leading the opposition, suggesting that after months of being unable to elect a new leader, the republic may once more have a president.
Suleiman’s stock rose considerably following the army’s painfully slow but successful operation against Fatah al-Islam, the al-Qaeda inspired terrorist group who had barricaded themselves in the Palestinian refugee camp at Nahr al-Abed. He proved himself acceptable to March 14th in 2005 when the Lebanese army sat on the sidelines during the massive demonstrations that eventually led to the ousting of Syrian troops from the country. He has also steadfastly stood by the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, going so far as to protect the Grand Serail from Hizbullah mobs last December when it appeared that they may have been preparing for a coup d’etat.
But Suleiman, like all Lebanese leaders, is full of contradictions. His brother in law was a spokesman for former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, the current Syrian president’s father. He also owes his job as army commander to the Syrians who installed his patron, former President Emil Lahoud into office.
Then there was the Lebanese army’s move into the south of the country when UNIFIL expanded following the Hizbullah-Israeli war. Suleiman made a point of announcing that the army would not be involved in taking away Hizbullah’s weapons, earning him the gratitude of Hassan Nassrallah and the opposition bloc.
The fact that Suleiman is now a leading candidate for president shows that in Lebanon, you don’t get anywhere politically until you’ve played both sides against the middle several times and emerged alive with your reputation relatively unscathed.
The key will be opposition acceptance of both the idea to amend the constitution and Suleiman’s candidacy itself. Even among the ruling coalition, doubts are being expressed about mucking with the constitution:
I am personally opposed to Suleiman’s nomination as it would be against democratic principles,” said Butros Harb, a member of the ruling coalition and a declared presidential candidate now apparently out of the running.
“I have nothing against him personally … but his appointment would amount to prostituting the constitution once again.”
He was referring to a Syrian-inspired constitutional amendment in 2004 that extended Lanoud’s six-year term in office for another three years.
Indeed, opposition to that amendment by former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri cost him his life when he was assassinated by a car bomb on Valentines Day, 2005. The resulting demonstrations kicked Syria out of the country and established the current governing majority.
But the real key to Suleiman’s acceptance will be the reaction by Christian Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun whose own presidential aspirations drove him to abandon other Christian groups who allied themselves with the majority and throw his lot in with Hizbullah and the opposition.
Just a few days ago, Aoun grandiosely offered to settle the crisis by dropping out of the presidential race – as long as he could name the candidate to succeed President Lahoud. No one really took him seriously which shows how far Aoun’s stock has fallen with the majority although he still commands plenty of respect in the Christian community and enjoys the qualified support of Nasrallah’s Hizbullah.
At the moment, Aoun seems to have been taken by surprise. Naharnet is reporting that “Aoun said he will consult legal authorities regarding amending the constitution to elect Gen. Suleiman president and “we’ll comment after that.”
This must be hugely disappointing to the old man. Is he big enough to swallow his ambitions and work to solve this intractable crisis for the good of the country? Once upon a time, Aoun refused to turn the Lebanese government over to Syrian toadies and had the army fight in the streets against vastly superior numbers to prevent that from happening. He lost that battle and went into exile to France, a hero to many Christians.
From there, he organized a resistance to the Syrian occupation earning him the respect of many Lebanese. He returned expecting the presidency as a reward for his services. But Lebanon had changed in his absence and spurned by the forces of democracy, he joined the opposition led by the extremists of Hizbullah – a strange marriage of convenience that now appears to have done him no good whatsoever.
Suleiman on the other hand, seems to have played his cards just about right. He would be an acceptable candidate to both Syria and the United States, obviously for different reasons. Michael Young predicted Suleiman’s ascension back in August:
Suleiman’s presidential ambitions are no longer a secret. On Monday, the former minister Albert Mansour made a statement to this newspaper that the army commander had told him he would accept heading a transitional government if Lebanon’s politicians didn’t agree over a candidate, provided all sides accepted Suleiman’s nomination. More intriguing, Mansour added that if the army commander presided over such a government, this would mean he could dispense with a constitutional amendment necessary for active senior state officials to stand for office.
This is worrying, because if Albert Mansour said what he did, then he almost certainly had a Syrian green light to do so. Far from desiring a vacuum, Syria apparently is seeking to use the threat of a vacuum to push its favorite through. Suleiman is not necessarily the only nominee, but he does seem to be the most likely one, because it’s the army that Syria wants to see win out. Michel Murr’s recent assertion that only the army can maintain security in Lebanon today, combined with Fatah al-Islam’s threats, means the security situation might have to deteriorate first for Suleiman to become more palatable to the parliamentary majority.
That’s not to suggest the army commander would be part of such a ploy. Nor is it to suggest that Suleiman would be rejected outright by the majority. The fact that on Saturday Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem backed France’s initiative in Lebanon was revealing. It indicated that Damascus is focused on bringing European pressure to bear on the majority to accept its candidate of choice. The tactic may well work. France, Spain and Italy, pillars of UNIFIL all, are determined not to allow a void at the top of the state, and if Suleiman is their way to avert that outcome, the March 14 coalition will find it hard to say no.
Suleiman is also on good terms with US Ambassador David Feltman and is seen by some as Washington’s favorite compromise candidate all along. This may be true if only because a Suleiman led government would be preferable to a vacuum.
Despite the fact that one of his biggest boosters in Lebanon is former Defense Minister and Syrian mouthpiece Albert Mansour, filling the position of president as quickly as possible – along with the prospect of negotiations that would give certain guarantees to keep the current makeup of the government, including Siniora as Prime Minister – has apparently swayed the March 14th forces into acquiescing to this less than favorable arrangement.
It is doubtful that a deal can be reached by Friday, the day of the next scheduled vote for president. But almost certainly by the end of the weekend, we will know whether a deal is possible and a vote should follow shortly thereafter.
In a perfect world, Suleiman is a terrible choice for the majority. But with pressure coming from both France and the United States to compromise, March 14th has reluctantly bitten the bullet and, if Hizbullah goes along, will have a president that is at least not totally under the blankets with Syria although he may be sleeping in the same bedroom.