Lebanon slipping down Western agendas

President Michel Sleiman, center, meets with German’s Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen along with a German and Lebanese delegations at Baabda Palace on Thursday, April 24, 2014. (The Daily Star/DalatiNohra,HO)

A Lebanese politician recently conducted a tour of a number of capitals with interests in the situation in Lebanon, in order to scope out their positions on the presidential elections.

He was told that Lebanon is currently not on the agenda of Western interests, which are focusing on other Arab elections, including the Egyptian and Syrian presidential polls and the legislative elections in Iraq that will decide the fate of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is close to Iran.

The politician sought to gather reactions from diplomats in those states to the first parliamentary session to elect a president, and they expressed pessimism over future sessions and the possibility of a vacuum in the only Christian presidency in the Arab world.

The diplomats expressed surprise that such a crucial post was being dealt with through “unbelievable carelessness.”

They predicted that Lebanon would reach the final stage of the constitutional deadline to elect the president on May 25 with no consensus agreement for the successor of President Michel Sleiman, at a time of great regional danger and sensitivity that requires a strong president who can balance the various political factions and dissociate Lebanon from regional tensions.

The diplomats expressed great surprise at what they witnessed in the first session, such as the void ballots that included the names of individuals allegedly killed at the orders of presidential candidate Samir Geagea. The diplomats asked what the relationship was between the names and the elections, given that the Lebanese signed the Taif peace agreement ending the Civil War.

The diplomats said that several nations, particularly France, would prepare for the fallout from the session and were likely to increase international involvement in the presidential election amid fears of a vacuum that could spark a crisis similar to the 1989 presidential vacuum during the war.

Observers are also worry that Lebanon is being dragged into the Syrian war in order to strengthen the position of regional powers during negotiations over the region’s fate.

Some diplomats said Western countries would not ignore the Lebanese “farce” of failing to choose a consensus figure for the presidency, and that discussions have begun to ensure the election of a president within the constitutional deadline and Lebanon’s isolation from regional crises.

The diplomats expect a visit by an American official to Paris to discuss the various ways a consensus agreement might be reached, followed by France approaching Saudi Arabia and Iran for the same goal, amid a belief that a U.S.-French-Saudi-Iranian agreement is necessary in the absence of Lebanese consensus between bickering factions.

The diplomats were undecided on whether the talks would proceed before or after the constitutional deadline, pending regional developments, and whether the new president’s role would be primarily political, security-related or economic.

U.S. ambassador to Lebanon David Hale is expected to visit Saudi Arabia in the coming days.

Meanwhile, the positions of the various Lebanese political factions have drawn an incredibly complicated map of the coming presidential election session. Michel Aoun’s Change and Reform bloc has asked its allies for patience as they take the pulse of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement and the likelihood that it might support Aoun’s bloc in the election.

Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who belongs to Aoun’s bloc, discussed with Russian officials during his recent visit to Moscow the role that Aoun could play if he reaches the presidency.

Iran also appointed a new ambassador to Lebanon to succeed Ghazanfar Roknabadi, potentially signaling a shift in Iranian foreign policy.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 28, 2014, on page 2.




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