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Rai considering ‘all options’ to break presidential deadlock

Patriarch Beshara Rai, left, conducts a mass in the Qannoubine Valley, Thursday, July 17, 2014. (The Daily Star/Maronite Patriarchate Bkerke, HO)

BEIRUT: Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai is fed up with Parliament’s inability to elect a new president and is exploring “all options” to help break the two-month presidential deadlock, officials close to the prelate and sources in Bkirki said Thursday.

“Patriarch Rai is really fed up with Parliament’s repeated failures to elect a new president. He realizes that the Lebanese public opinion, especially the Maronite community, is looking for more concrete action to choose a president than the almost daily demands made by the rival factions on the need to elect a new head of state,” Hares Chehab, secretary-general of the Islamic-Christian National Dialogue Committee, told The Daily Star.

“All options are on the table to help break the presidential deadlock,” said Chehab, who represents the Maronite patriarch on the dialogue committee formed by Bkirki as a way of enhancing Christian-Muslim ties.

“For this purpose, Patriarch Rai plans to consult in the next few hours with some personalities as well as a number of neutral politicians from all communities on ways to resolve the presidential crisis,” he said.

Chebab declined to elaborate on what other options Rai might resort to if all efforts to elect a president failed. “If the presidential impasse is not broken, the Maronite Church will act accordingly,” he said.

Media reports said among the other options left for Rai is to call on the Lebanese to stage civil disobedience in a bid to pressure lawmakers into going to Parliament elect a president.

Sources in Bkirki, the seat of the Maronite patriarchate north of Beirut, said Rai, increasingly concerned about the vacuum in the country’s top Christian post, is planning to consult with key political leaders in an attempt to find “a practical formula” aimed at accelerating the election of a successor to former President Michel Sleiman, whose six-year term ended May 25.

“All the Lebanese and the world are asking ‘what’s the next step’ after the country slid into a presidential vacuum. The Maronite Church, led by Patriarch Rai, is searching for practical measures aimed at speeding up the election of a president,” a source in Bkirki told The Daily Star.

“Bkirki is seeking a formula that will not threaten the country’s security and stability or the National Pact on coexistence,” the source said.

According to the source, some visitors have urged Rai to propose names of candidates for the presidency so that lawmakers can choose one of them.

“But the patriarch is very cautious toward such a proposal,” the source said.

Rai discussed the presidential stalemate Wednesday with Zghorta MP Sleiman Frangieh, who heads the Marada Movement, at the prelate’s northern summer residence in Diman.

The patriarch had met recently separately with Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, and his Christian archfoe, Free Patriotic Movement head MP Michel Aoun to discuss how to break the presidential impasse. The three, along with Kataeb Party head Amine Gemayel, are the four top Maronite leaders vying for the presidency.

While Geagea is the March 14 coalition’s declared candidate for the presidency, Aoun has been viewed as the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance’s undeclared candidate.

Speaker Nabih Berri Thursday called for a new Parliament session next week to elect a new president, the ninth attempt in under four months.

But in the absence of an agreement beforehand between the March 8 and March 14 parties on a consensus candidate, the new session is doomed to fail like previous ones over lack of quorum because of an expected boycott by lawmakers from Aoun’s bloc and Hezbollah and its March 8 allies.

With no solution in sight to the presidential crisis, the Bkirki source said the Maronite Church can no longer endure the presidency seat remaining vacant for long.

“The presidency institution ensures national balance. Without the presidency, there will be no legitimacy to any power because this would run contrary to the National Pact on coexistence,” the source said. “Patriarch Rai sees that the election of a president will create an optimistic climate to help resolve worsening socio-economic problems in the country.”

In his sermons in the past few weeks, Rai has warned that a presidential vacuum would run contrary to the 1943 National Pact and eliminate the role of Christians in the country’s power-sharing system.

“A vacuum will pose a challenge to the National Pact and the Constitution ... A vacuum will eliminate an essential component of this country, which is the Christian component,” he said.

Rai has also warned against the Cabinet indefinitely replacing the president, saying this would amount to “a grave violation” of the power-sharing pact between Muslims and Christians. Last month, he urged lawmakers to stop legislation in Parliament and give priority to the election of a president.

Dating back to 1943, the National Pact is an unwritten agreement that laid the foundation of Lebanon as a multi-confessional state and has governed the political dynamics of the country to this day. Under the pact, the presidency is allotted for the Maronites, the premiership for Sunnis and the speakership for Shiites.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 18, 2014, on page 3.

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