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Could Lebanon’s Vatican ambassador be the next president?

File - The president 's chair is seen empty in Baabda, Tuesday, March 11, 2014. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

With no breakthrough on the horizon in the struggle over the Lebanese presidency, some corners have begun circulating the name of General George Khoury, Lebanon’s ambassador to the Vatican, as a possible consensus candidate.

Parliament has failed to elect a new president of the republic eight times since former President Michel Sleiman’s term expired on May 25. The March 24 coalition continues to stand behind Lebanese Forces Leader Samir Geagea, while MP Michel Aoun remains the undeclared March 8 candidate. Meanwhile, March 8 continues its boycott, denying Parliament the quorum needed to vote until a single candidate can be agreed upon.

Other potential candidates circulated in the media have included Army commander General Jean Kahwagi and Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh, as well as MP Walid Jumblatt’s pick, Henry Helou. The Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai has refused to back Geagea or Aoun, while Paris appears to be following up on the issue closely, judging by recent activity at the Elysee Palace and media leaks.

Sources in the French capital fingered Khoury as a potential consensus figure, pointing out that he enjoys good ties with both March 8 and March 14 and has proved a skilled diplomat in Rome.

The sources added, however, that the Holy See would not get involved in what it perceives to be a Lebanese internal issue. The sources denied that the Vatican was conducting political or diplomatic activities secretly, adding that it would not interfere in the Lebanese presidential elections.

Khoury held various military positions, including head of intelligence from 2005 to 2008, before he was appointed ambassador to the Vatican at the start of former President Michel Sleiman’s term. His name was originally put forward as a potential successor to Sleiman when the latter was voted into office, but he failed to gain as much support as Kahwagi, who would go on to become Army commander.

Khoury enjoys good relations with most politicians, especially the heads of several blocs, and Christians from both the March 8 and March 14 blocs.

Notably, he restored communication with Aoun after the latter’s return to Lebanon in 2005, and the two men continue to keep in touch, with Aoun eager to receive Khoury whenever he visits Lebanon.

His dealings with Geagea remain professional and positive, as the two had occasion to coordinate when Khoury was head of intelligence in Mount Lebanon.

It was Khoury’s position as head of intelligence that also allowed him to build a trusting relationship with Hezbollah, as well as Jumblatt, Speaker Nabih Berri and former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, despite the suspicion that tails most Lebanese military veterans of his generation of inappropriate closeness to Damascus.

During his tenure as ambassador to the Vatican, Khoury has built solid relations with the Holy See and strengthened its relationship with Bkirki, especially during the era of Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, who put great trust in Khoury.

Khoury is also known for being close with the Vatican’s head of foreign affairs, Monsignor Dominique Mamberti, and senior cardinals were a common sight at the Lebanese Embassy to the Vatican.

In light of the current stalemate, the major Christian party leaders all share a small chance of reaching Baabda Palace. This deadlock among the leading parties could open the door to alternative choices like Khoury. However, his name is perhaps being put forth as a means to break the stalemate, as he was also talked about as a potential candidate in 2005.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 07, 2014, on page 3.

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Summary

With no breakthrough on the horizon in the struggle over the Lebanese presidency, some corners have begun circulating the name of General George Khoury, Lebanon's ambassador to the Vatican, as a possible consensus candidate.

Khoury held various military positions, including head of intelligence from 2005 to 2008, before he was appointed ambassador to the Vatican at the start of former President Michel Sleiman's term.

Khoury enjoys good relations with most politicians, especially the heads of several blocs, and Christians from both the March 8 and March 14 blocs.

Notably, he restored communication with Aoun after the latter's return to Lebanon in 2005, and the two men continue to keep in touch, with Aoun eager to receive Khoury whenever he visits Lebanon.


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