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Lebanon Gets a President

Tent City, Beirut.

“The agreement was not ideal for either party and I hope that it will serve as a launch pad for decent relations between the majority and the opposition. We will tackle the other issues in Beirut and there is no need to fear anything”.

— MP Michel Aoun, Hezbollah ally and leader of the Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) following this morning’s Doha agreement

Lebanon will have General Michel Suleiman as its new President, possibly within hours. But no later than Sunday May 25, in order to allow time for the international community to send representatives.

Suleiman had appeared to be closer to the government coalition when he was first nominated but he was recently criticized as being too close to the opposition when his troops did not intervene when gun battles broke out between the warring sides this month.

Some say events make the man. Others the obverse. Suleiman could be a much needed, honest, strong, independent leader that will endear him to Lebanon and the Arab cause and Nation. This ‘unity president’ was finally confirmed after rival Lebanese political factions agreed, after talks in Doha, Qatar, in a deal to resolve the 18-month crisis that has kept the country without a president since November.

Under the country’s sectarian democracy, the position of President is filled by a Christian Maronite. Suleiman will be Lebanon’s 12th president since the country’s independence in 1943 and the third after the Saudi-brokered Taif Accord that ended Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war. General Suleiman, 59, has held his post as Army commander since 1998.

As of this afternoon, hundreds of people and shop-owners of downtown Beirut took to the streets of the city in jubilation over the agreement. Foreigners living in Lebanon cannot help but share their joy and being filled with a sense of ‘These gifted and long-suffering people deserve some peace’ — enshallah it will last.

Some of the residents of Beirut’s Tent City are posing for photos this morning; others are packing up their belongings and taking down their tents following the Doha Agreement that was reached in the early hours of May 21. It buys some time for Lebanon to sort out its politics. One young Swiss couple is haggling with a fellow from Lebanon’s Communist Party (what’s left of it) trying to buy a tent for their trek around Lebanon.

Hezbollah has informed the head of Beirut’s municipality and its Mayor that it will help rehabilitate downtown Beirut and will pay for any damage incurred to stores that happened during the nearly 18 months stay of the Tent City.

The Accord has been well received internationally so far, with Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran and France expressing satisfaction, even though each side gave a qualified endorsement of the Doha results depending on their party’s stance. The Bush administration is reported to believe that what was agreed upon at Doha was probably the best they could get at the last minute when delegates were packing to leave Doha without any agreement. Time will tell.

The dismantling of the Hezbollah-erected ‘tent city’ in posh Rafiq Hariri-built downtown Beirut cannot happen fast enough for those whose businesses have suffered, been forced to move, or have been lost due to the 18-month pro-opposition civil disobedience occupation. There is hope that some of the millions of dollars lost during the 18 month occupation can be recouped if the coming tourist season brings in around one million visitors.

Relief is in the air.

The mental and physical fatigue of many Lebanese from the constant tension, political bickering and occasional deadly violence in their country has been summed up by demonstrations held along the road leading to Beirut’s international airport by non-governmental organizations. “Agree, or shame on you,” read another message to Lebanon’s representatives, while another said, “We want to raise our children in Lebanon!”

Across Lebanon a collective sigh of relief is palpable and almost audible as the civic organization Khalass! (Enough!) removes their signs from the airport road. Yesterday, several dozen citizens whom were injured and left handicapped from the 1975-90 Civil War held up signs telling their leaders to end the political paralysis in Lebanon or not to return. “If you don’t reach agreement, don’t come back!”, some of the signs read.

During the last hours of May 20 there was gloom at the Doha Conference Center where Lebanon’s political parties were gathered and the usual political bickering continued. Opposition Member Michel Aoun accused pro-Siniora government March14 leader Saad Hariri of seeking to establish Beirut as a ‘Hariri’ city, not a capital for all Lebanon. “This is the main point we disagree on,” he said.

“The agreement was not ideal for either party and I hope that it will serve as a launch pad for decent relations between the majority and the opposition. We will tackle the other issues in Beirut and there is no need to fear anything”, Aoun has said today.

Meanwhile Lebanese Forces head Samir Geagea repeated his recent favorite phase that “They [Hezbollah] will not get at Doha what they did not get with their weapons”, and that the Doha talks were “staggering” due to Hezbollah demands. Geagea renewed his call yesterday for “an Arab Deterrent Force” to bring stability to Lebanon. When a journalist asked Geagea did he mean like the last Arab Deterrent Force that came in 1976 and stayed for 29 years (i.e. Syria) Geagea just glared at the impertinent young lady from Greece while others smiled and giggled.

So it is thus that after five days, at close to 3 a.m. on May 21, Lebanon’s political factions have in fact agreed to an arrangement which will allow for General Michel Suleiman to be elected Lebanon’s President, and a unity government to be formed.

The recent stumbling block was the new election law. The Hezbollah-led Opposition still wants as close to a one person-one vote system as they can get. They would also like the voting age lowered to 18 years which would benefit them among the younger, politically active Lebanese. They did not get either in Doha but with an expanded government to be set up within days discussions can begin anew.

With regard to the critical ‘deal breaker’ issue of Hezbollah’s weapons, this was kept off the table and finessed in Doha and the new government will debate and decide how Lebanon will view and deal with it. Hezbollah feels protected for now since it effectively achieved at Doha the veto over government Cabinet decisions. It had sought this since the end of the July 2006 war.

Pending the 2009 Parliamentary elections, the ‘unity government’ is to be as follows:

The US-, Israel-, Saudi-backed majority gets 16 of the 30 Cabinet seats.

The Iran- and Syria-favored Opposition led by Hezbollah and which includes the largest Christian party, the Michel Aoun-led FPM gets 13 Cabinet posts and the remaining 3 will be chosen by President Suleiman.

Some observers, including this one, thinks that next year’s election with likely double Hezbollah’s current number of Parliamentary seats of 14, which could go as high at forty or more. Michel Aoun’s FPM also stands to double the number of its Deputies. If this happens there would be ample votes for the Opposition (which could become the new Majority following the 2009 balloting) to protect the weapons of the Resistance, still a key point of contention between the US-Israel-Saudi backed Majority Government and the Iranian-Syrian favored Opposition. For now the Government will address the issue of not using weapons to achieve political gains and focus on the commitment to the decisions reached during the 2006 dialogue. This should work for the time being.
Also agreed upon at Doha is the adoption of the Qada (Lebanese administrative District)-based 1960 electoral law with Beirut divided into three constituencies:

* The first electoral district comprises Ashrafiye, Rmeil and Saifi with five seats: Two Armenians, one Maronite, one Orthodox and one Catholic;

* The second electoral district comprising Bashoura, Medawwar and Marfa’ with four seats: One Sunni, one Shiite and two Armenians;

* The third electoral district comprising Mazraa, Msaytbe, Ras Beirut, Mina el Hosn, Zaqa el Blat and Dar el Mrayseh with ten seats: Five Sunnis, one Shiite, one Druze, one Orthodox, one Evangelical and one for the minorities.

This arrangement is actually pretty fair to both sides for now given the current circumstances and the fact that there has been no census since 1932. Saad Hariri got most of what the Future Movement wanted in order to preserve his electoral base in West Beirut.

Soon all eyes will be on the coming election which may be the most important since Lebanon achieved its independent from France in 1943.
Washington, Tel Aviv, Tehran, Damascus and Riyadh will have their favorite candidates and will, no doubt, be watching closely.
FRANKLIN LAMB can be reached at fplamb@gmail.com

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Franklin Lamb volunteers with the Lebanon, France, and USA based Meals for Syrian Refugee Children Lebanon (MSRCL) which seeks to provide hot nutritional meals to Syrian and other refugee children in Lebanon. http://mealsforsyrianrefugeechildrenlebanon.com. He is reachable c/o fplamb@gmail.com.

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