BEIRUT: Concerned that the presidency seat might become vacant by May 25, the United States is urging rival Lebanese parties to hold the presidential election on time, political sources said Friday.
“U.S. Ambassador David Hale has relayed a clear message to Lebanese leaders on the need for the presidential vote to take place on time in order to avoid a vacuum in the presidency,” a senior political source told The Daily Star.
Amid a flurry of U.S. activity to facilitate the presidential poll, Hale met separately Friday with Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Tammam Salam to discuss the election.
The U.S. envoy will fly to Saudi Arabia at the weekend for talks with Saudi officials and probably with former Prime Minister Saad Hariri on the election, the source said.
Hale’s moves come as Salam and other Lebanese politicians sounded pessimistic that a new president could be elected on time in the absence of a local, regional and international accord on a compromise candidate. President Michel Sleiman’s six-year term expires on May 25.
Hale’s meetings also coincided with the return of Saudi Ambassador Ali Awad Assiri to Lebanon following a monthslong absence for security reasons. Assiri’s return was seen as a positive reflection of Saudi concern for Lebanon’s stability, including the timely election of a president.
Assiri said Saudi Arabia did not and would not interfere in internal Lebanese affairs and urged the rival Lebanese factions to choose a president without foreign intervention.
“We hope to see an inter-Lebanese consensus reached inside Lebanon so that the next Lebanese president is elected by the Lebanese par excellence,” he told the National News Agency.
Separately, the Cabinet filled vacant posts Friday by appointing new governors for Beirut and other newly established governorates including Hermel and Akkar.
In a Cabinet session at Baabda Palace, ministers agreed to appoint Ziad Shbib as Beirut governor, Bashir Khodr as governor of Baalbek-Hermel, Fouad Fleifel as governor of Mount Lebanon, Ramzi Nahra as governor of north Lebanon, and Imad Labaki as governor of Akkar, Information Minister Ramzi Joreige told reporters after the meeting.
The Cabinet accepted the resignation of acting Beirut Governor Nassif Qaloush, weeks after a former employee accused him of sexual harassment.
The Cabinet also recruited 2,500 Internal Security Forces members and 500 General Security personnel, and allocated $24 million to open a road to the remote village of Tfail in east Lebanon.
Hale stressed that the presidential election was the responsibility of the Lebanese, saying that there was no role for Washington and other external powers in the vote.
“Many ask about the role of the international community, including the United States, in this election,” Hale told reporters after meeting Berri in Ain al-Tineh.
“It is very simple: Our role is to assist the Lebanese to protect this process, so that a Lebanese president is elected by the Lebanese, according to the Constitution, and on time.”
“We have no role in picking or choosing a candidate, nor should any other foreign power. It is only the right and the responsibility of the Lebanese,” he added.
Hale stressed that both the presidential election and parliamentary elections this fall are “entirely Lebanese processes.”
“The Lebanese must choose their leaders. And those leaders will have serious work ahead of them,” he said.
“Lebanon is facing a variety of economic, security and social issues. If they are to be properly addressed, all three arms of the government should be functioning.”
“The international community, and certainly the U.S., need representative Lebanese partners if we are to help this country.”
Meanwhile, Sleiman called for the election of a new president at next week’s Parliament session.
“I hope a new president will be elected at the next session even if this requires holding successive sessions because this is the real democratic practice,” Sleiman said, addressing the Cabinet meeting.
In another statement, Sleiman renewed his warning against a power vacuum. He also rejected foreign intervention in the presidential vote.
“The election should be held on time and a vacuum should be avoided,” Sleiman told a delegation of Lebanese ambassadors.
Berri has adjourned Wednesday’s session to elect a president until May 7 after not enough lawmakers showed up to secure a two-thirds quorum of the legislature’s 128 members required to begin the session.
While Salam said the election of a president would lead to progress in Lebanon, he added that “if [we] fail to elect a new president, Lebanon will face a new crisis.”