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Regional powers’ stance on presidency not yet known

Prime Minister Tammam Salam (R) and Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk arrive at the Parliament in Beirut, Thursday, April 10, 2014. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

Although the current political breakthrough in the monthslong Lebanese crisis has led to the formation of a coalition government, it has not yet resulted in an agreement among the rival factions on the upcoming presidential election.

Regional and international powers have not yet reached a consensus regarding the characteristics of the next Lebanese president, even though debate over the presidential election has been raging among various political and parliamentary blocs in Lebanon for some time, sources say.

But the recent thaw in regional relations has still had an effect on Lebanon, leading to the formation of a new Cabinet by Prime Minister Tammam Salam that overcame bickering between the feuding parties. The government’s formation has subsequently led to parliamentary sessions to legislate on outstanding draft laws concerning socio-economic and labor union issues.

The slow thaw in tense relations between regional powers – Saudi Arabia and Iran – has also led to the implementation of a government security plan to end chaos and sectarian fighting in the northern city of Tripoli and the Bekaa Valley.

Today, it seems that the same climate that appears to be leading to a breakthrough in Middle East relations has carried over to the Lebanese presidential election.

Tangible progress has been made in the West’s negotiations with Iran over Tehran’s nuclear program, and the talks could be crowned with a final accord between Iran and the six global powers, foreign sources said.

The progress in Iran’s nuclear talks has practically opened a parallel dialogue between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with an emphasis on a common vision of preserving Lebanon’s stability and fighting terrorism and the wave of extremism that has struck the country as fallout from extremism in Syria, the sources said.

Sources familiar with the situation said that despite the thorny issues facing Saudi Arabia and Iran and the difficulty of the two reaching a common strategy to resolve the 3-year-old crisis in Syria, the dialogue between Riyadh and Tehran opened a space through which the election of a new president in Lebanon could pass amid the complicated regional situation.

Although various parliamentary blocs are currently preoccupied with debating the public sector’s controversial salary scale bill, March 8 sources said that Hezbollah, the Amal Movement and MP Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement were meeting on a daily basis to try to agree on a single candidate, even though Hezbollah has decided to support Aoun for the country’s top Christian post.

An Amal lawmaker denied that Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri’s stance was blocking a clear March 8 consensus about supporting Aoun for president.

Berri is still assessing the opinions of all parliamentary blocs on the presidential election and is following up on Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai’s wishes in this respect, the MP said.

This comes as the two rival March 8 and March 14 parties are fully convinced that each alone will be unable to secure a two-thirds quorum to convene a Parliament session to elect a new president.

Although there is talk that April 23 has been set as a preliminary date to hold the first Parliament election session, there is nothing final yet in this respect, despite expectations of attempts to thwart a quorum or not securing two-thirds of the legislature’s 28 members needed to convene Parliament.

Meanwhile, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, who has announced he will run for the presidency, is waiting for his ally, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, to voice support for his candidacy. The Future Movement has not yet taken a final stance on Geagea’s candidacy despite a meeting between the LF leader and Hariri’s adviser Dawoud Sayegh on the circumstances that led Geagea to announce his candidacy for the presidency.

In return, Aoun, Geagea’s political rival, has a different approach to the presidential election. The FPM leader realizes that he cannot secure his victory in the presidential race without regional and international support. That’s why Aoun is monitoring the signals coming from the U.S., France and Saudi Arabia.

Sources close to Aoun voiced great satisfaction over the unprecedented harmony and coordination between Hezbollah and the Future Movement.

Hezbollah has also shown it has its own approach to the presidential election.

“Supporting Michel Aoun [for president] is final for us, but we are waiting for the right political time to announce this position,” a Hezbollah official said.

The official added that Lebanon needed “a strong president” who could stand in the face of “terrorism and extremism and tackle the dilemma of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon.”

However, sources close to Hezbollah did not rule out the possibility of electing a president who was not subject to fierce political polarization.

This matter opens the door for several options and candidates not affiliated with either the March 8 or March 14 bloc, despite the fact that one such option – potential candidate former Minister Jean Obeid – has issued a statement saying that he would not be running for president.

Yet, Obeid’s statement does not rule out his name again being put forth along with those of other centrist candidates for the position, given that he maintains good relations regional and international relations.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 15, 2014, on page 3.

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Summary

Although the current political breakthrough in the monthslong Lebanese crisis has led to the formation of a coalition government, it has not yet resulted in an agreement among the rival factions on the upcoming presidential election.

Regional and international powers have not yet reached a consensus regarding the characteristics of the next Lebanese president, even though debate over the presidential election has been raging among various political and parliamentary blocs in Lebanon for some time, sources say.

Although various parliamentary blocs are currently preoccupied with debating the public sector's controversial salary scale bill, March 8 sources said that Hezbollah, the Amal Movement and MP Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement were meeting on a daily basis to try to agree on a single candidate, even though Hezbollah has decided to support Aoun for the country's top Christian post.

An Amal lawmaker denied that Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri's stance was blocking a clear March 8 consensus about supporting Aoun for president.

In return, Aoun, Geagea's political rival, has a different approach to the presidential election.


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