BEIRUT

Lebanon News

Dialogue delay hints at deeper problems

File - President Michel Sleiman heads the National Dialogue meeting in Baabda, Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

Sources close to the Presidential Palace in Baabda told The Daily Star Friday that President Michel Sleiman’s formal invitations to political leaders and prominent figures for the upcoming National Dialogue session have been temporarily halted.

The sources noted that the delay in sending the invitations was due to the meeting being rescheduled. The new date will be set by Sleiman upon his return from the Arab summit in Kuwait next week, according to the sources.

“The Lebanese presidency invited members of the National Dialogue committee to convene a session on Monday, March 31, at 11 a.m., to continue discussion on the national defense strategy,” a statement from Baabda Palace said Friday morning.

But parliamentary sources said the delay in calling the session was also due to deeper problems, such as the unbalanced representation of the country’s sects.

The sources were unsure about whether an invitation would be extended to former Prime Minister Najib Mikati and former Finance Minister Mohammad Safadi, both of whom participated in previous National Dialogue sessions.

If the two former ministers were to be invited, the number of Sunnis in the session would jump to four, alongside Prime Minister Tammam Salam and former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who would represent former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the Future Movement leader.

The sources also noted that problems were likely to arise over the selection of representatives for the Catholic sect. Leaders from the community have recently complained that Catholic ministers such as Tourism Minister Michel Pharaoun better represent them than the current official candidate, Fayez al-Hajj Shahine.

The last session was held in September 2012, when Sleiman proposed a national defense strategy that would allow Hezbollah to keep its weapons so long as they were under the command of the Lebanese Army, which would have an exclusive right to the use of force.

In this scenario, Hezbollah’s arsenal would be used by the state until the Army was able to take over all defense responsibilities.

Several MPs affiliated with March 8 expressed their belief that Sleiman did not expect another round of National Dialogue sessions to be fruitful, suggesting instead that his efforts were aimed at polishing his image, in case he decided to run for the position of secretary-general of the Francophone Organization.

Speaking to The Daily Star, Lebanese Forces MP Antoine Zahra said: “Instead of distributing invitations for the National Dialogue table ... it would be better if President Sleiman dedicated his effort ... to urge Speaker Nabih Berri and the other March 8 politicial parties to deal seriously with holding the presidential elections as scheduled.”

He said the LF would meet to discuss whether it would participate in National Dialogue once it received an invitation.

The majority of political parties, with the exception of the LF, attended the last sessions. The LF previously argued that the sessions were futile so long as Hezbollah remained unwilling to hand over control of its weapons to the state, but has recently voiced a new willingness for “serious dialogue” with the party.

The parliamentary sources said that if an invitation were extended, then all the parties would have to agree to attend, on the grounds that none of them could afford to be labeled as the party who shunned the sessions.

But the sources added that the thorniest and most pressing issues, such as the presidential and parliamentary elections, involvement in the Syrian war and Hezbollah’s arms, have yet to be resolved, and there is no sign of an imminent breakthrough over the forthcoming Dialogue session.

The sources noted that the only point expected to win the agreement of all Dialogue participants was the need to support the Internal Security Forces and the Army in their war against the growing occurrence of terrorism.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 22, 2014, on page 2.

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Summary

Sources close to the Presidential Palace in Baabda told The Daily Star Friday that President Michel Sleiman's formal invitations to political leaders and prominent figures for the upcoming National Dialogue session have been temporarily halted.

The sources were unsure about whether an invitation would be extended to former Prime Minister Najib Mikati and former Finance Minister Mohammad Safadi, both of whom participated in previous National Dialogue sessions.

Speaking to The Daily Star, Lebanese Forces MP Antoine Zahra said: "Instead of distributing invitations for the National Dialogue table ... it would be better if President Sleiman dedicated his effort ... to urge Speaker Nabih Berri and the other March 8 politicial parties to deal seriously with holding the presidential elections as scheduled".

He said the LF would meet to discuss whether it would participate in National Dialogue once it received an invitation.


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