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Sleiman: consensus candidate who filled the power vacuum with a fragile peace

File - Michel Suleiman, left, being sworn in as the new President near Parliament, with Speaker Nabih Berri at the Parliament in Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, May 25, 2008. (AP Photo/Nabil Mounzer, Pool)

Editor’s note: Ahead of the 2014 presidential election, this is the 12th and last article in a series that has examined the circumstances and conditions that shaped the elections of Lebanon’s presidents since 1943.

BEIRUT: The election of Michel Sleiman to the presidency came as a result of the Qatari-brokered Doha Accord that ended days of civil strife and months of a presidential vacuum, yet it was during his term that Lebanon would face an even graver crisis: the Syrian civil war.

In a bid to protect Lebanon from the fallout, Sleiman brokered the Baabda Declaration, a pact that called for Lebanon to be distanced from regional conflicts, particularly the war in neighboring Syria.

Appointed Army Commander in 1998 to replace President Emile Lahoud when he was elected president, Sleiman rose to prominence in summer 2007 when the Army fought and eventually crushed militant group Fatah al-Islam in the northern Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared.

Under Sleiman, the Army also played a major role in preserving civil peace amid the enormous political and social turmoil that hit Lebanon in the wake of Former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination.

Tellingly, Sleiman’s tenure began under tumultuous conditions in a sharply divided Lebanon.

Despite the looming constitutional deadline to elect a successor for Lahoud – whose his term was extended by three years at the behest of Syria – the country was suffering from a political crisis that had lasted almost a year.

In November 2006, ministers from the Syria-backed March 8 coalition withdrew from the March 14-dominated government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. They were protesting a letter filed to the U.N. that demanded the formation of an international-backed court to try the assassins of Hariri, who was murdered on Feb. 14, 2005.

Following the mass resignation, the Hezbollah-led March 8 group described Siniora’s government as “illegitimate” because it no longer represented Lebanon’s Shiite sect.

The alliance held a massive sit-in in Downtown Beirut in December 2006 to call for the premier’s resignation and the formation of a national unity government in which March 8 would be granted a veto power. Undeterred, Siniora remained in his post.

By the time the two-month constitutional period to elect a new president came around on Sept. 25, 2007, the sit-in was still in full swing and tensions were at all-time high. The debate now was what sort of parliamentary quorum would be needed to elect a president.

The March 8 coalition was adamant that the presence of 86 MPs – two-thirds of Parliament’s 128 members – was necessary. In effect, this meant that Parliament would be unable to convene if March 8 MPs decided to boycott the session.

March 14, on the other hand, argued that only 65 MPs were needed – an absolute majority. The alliance had 68 MPs.

At every session during the two-month constitutional period to elect a new president, March 14 MPs attended and their March 8 rivals boycotted, a process that was repeated around 20 times in total. As a result, no vote ever took place.

At midnight on Nov. 24, Lahoud stepped down, leaving the presidential palace empty.

A ray of hope emerged days later when rival groups voiced their collective support for Sleiman as president. But the atmosphere of optimism soon subsided again when the March 8 coalition demanded a package deal under which an agreement would be reached on not just the president but also the makeup of the new government, something solidly opposed by March 14.

Following months of wrangling, the confrontation between March 14 and March 8 came to a head.

After a marathon session on May 5, Siniora’s government decided to dismantle Hezbollah’s private telecommunications network and sack Brig. Wafiq Shuqeir, the head of the Beirut’s airport security and a close Hezbollah confidante, after some March 14 officials complained that they were being monitored by cameras in and around the airport premises.

Hezbollah considered the move a “declaration of war,” and deployed gunmen in large swathes of west Beirut and the Chouf. Violence also broke out in the northern city of Tripoli, pitting March 8 fighters and gunmen loyal to the government against each other.

With the country on tenterhooks, Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah said in a news conference on May 8 that opposition gunmen would only withdraw from the streets if Siniora’s government went back on its decision and March 14 agreed to a call by Speaker Nabih Berri for National Dialogue.

Nasrallah got his wish. Just days later, the government canceled both of its previous decisions.

To address the growing split in the country, and with violence still ongoing in some parts of the country, Lebanese leaders flew to Doha, Qatar, at the request of an Arab League delegation that had visited Lebanon during the crisis.

After six days of negotiations, rival politicians inked a deal to end the violence that had claimed the lives of around 80 people.

Under the Doha Accord, Sleiman was made president, a national unity government granting the March 8 group veto power was formed and Parliament passed an electoral law based on the voting system adopted in 1960.

Voted in on May 25, 2008, in a poll with no other contenders, Sleiman won the votes of 118 MPs – an overwhelming majority.

Sleiman was elected without amending Article 49 of the Constitution, which bans Grade I employees – including Army commanders – from running in presidential elections within two years of leaving their post.

Parliament instead relied on Article 74 of the Constitution, which states that Parliament should immediately convene and elect a president in the event of a presidential vacuum.

A consensus president, Sleiman maintained good ties with various groups in the early years of his term, including Hezbollah. However, relations with Nasrallah’s party would significantly deteriorate as his term neared its end.

The president consistently opposed Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria’s war, arguing that all political groups should adhere to the Baabda Declaration that they had agreed on during a National Dialogue session he chaired in June 2012.

Sleiman has always said that respecting the Baabda Declaration was the only means to protect Lebanon from attacks and violence fueled by the Syrian crisis.

Since the start of the Syrian civil war in March 2011, sporadic clashes have plagued the northern city of Tripoli, pitting supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad against each other. Hard-line Syrian rebel groups have also claimed responsibility for a wave of car bombs in Lebanese neighborhoods associated with Hezbollah in recent months, saying they came in retaliation to the party’s military support for Assad.

In a number of speeches, Sleiman has also stressed the need to restrict the possession of arms to legitimate state institutions, an indirect but clear reference to Hezbollah’s arsenal. During a Dialogue session in September 2012, he proposed a national defense strategy under which the resistance’s arms would come under the control of the Lebanese Army.

Antagonized by Sleiman’s “offensive and harmful speech,” Hezbollah boycotted a Dialogue session called by the president on March 31.

Sleiman’s term expires on May 25, prompting yet more fears that history will repeat itself and the country will be plunged into another presidential vacuum, or worse. Sleiman was adamant that his term should not be extended or renewed.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 29, 2014, on page 3.

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Summary

Ahead of the 2014 presidential election, this is the 12th and last article in a series that has examined the circumstances and conditions that shaped the elections of Lebanon's presidents since 1943 .

BEIRUT: The election of Michel Sleiman to the presidency came as a result of the Qatari-brokered Doha Accord that ended days of civil strife and months of a presidential vacuum, yet it was during his term that Lebanon would face an even graver crisis: the Syrian civil war.

Appointed Army Commander in 1998 to replace President Emile Lahoud when he was elected president, Sleiman rose to prominence in summer 2007 when the Army fought and eventually crushed militant group Fatah al-Islam in the northern Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared.

Under the Doha Accord, Sleiman was made president, a national unity government granting the March 8 group veto power was formed and Parliament passed an electoral law based on the voting system adopted in 1960 .

Parliament instead relied on Article 74 of the Constitution, which states that Parliament should immediately convene and elect a president in the event of a presidential vacuum.

Antagonized by Sleiman's "offensive and harmful speech," Hezbollah boycotted a Dialogue session called by the president on March 31 .

Sleiman was adamant that his term should not be extended or renewed.


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