Lebanon News

Uncertainty as Sleiman bids farewell

Prime Minister Tammam Salam hands a gift to President Michel Sleiman who chaired the last Cabinet session of his term at Baabda Palace, Friday, May 23, 2014. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: President Michel Sleiman will leave Baabda Palace Saturday at the end of his six-year mandate as Lebanon is destined to slip into a presidential vacuum following Parliament’s failure to pick a successor.

The Kataeb Party, meanwhile, warned that a presidential vacuum would threaten Lebanon’s unity because the Maronite president was the symbol of the state.

Sleiman Friday chaired what was described as the last and farewell Cabinet session at Baabda Palace with 42 items on its agenda.

Before entering the session, some ministers voiced frustration that the country’s top Christian post would become vacant starting Sunday after Parliament had failed in five consecutive attempts to elect a president.

Minister of State for Administrative Development Nabil de Freij expressed his regret “because the presidency post will be vacant,” blaming lawmakers who have boycotted election sessions for the presidential stalemate.

Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil signaled that the Cabinet work might be affected by the failure to elect a president. “The Cabinet work will not continue as it is now once [the presidency] becomes vacant,” LBCI TV quoted Bassil as saying.

Addressing the Cabinet session, Prime Minister Tammam Salam praised the achievements made during Sleiman’s tenure, Information Minister Ramzi Joreige told reporters after the meeting.

Sleiman thanked Salam and Cabinet members for their best wishes for him as he prepares to leave office, but he expressed regret over the failure to elect a president on schedule.

He also underlined the need for electing a president quickly because he is the symbol of the country’s unity and the protector of the Constitution, Joreige said.

Sleiman, who hosted a dinner for the ministers, said he would deliver a farewell speech Saturday outlining his position on national issues.

Among decisions approved by the Cabinet was the formation of a ministerial committee to follow up the issue of the influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon, Joreige said. He added that the committee would make recommendations to face the flow of Syrian refugees in coordination with various concerned departments.

The foreign minister was assigned to seek to set up safe camps for the refugees in Syria or in the border buffer zone between Lebanon and Syria in cooperation with the relevant regional and international organizations, Joreige said.

The presidential deadlock cast a pall of gloom over the fate of the legislative and executive branches of power after major Christian parties decided to boycott legislative sessions in protest at the looming vacuum in the presidency.

Lebanese Forces MP George Adwan said Parliament should not be allowed to legislate while the presidency seat is vacant. Another LF MP Antoine Zahra said his party would only attend Parliament sessions to elect a new president or to discuss extraordinary issues.

The Kataeb Party also signaled it would boycott Parliament sessions if a presidential vacuum took hold.

A statement issued after a meeting attended by the party’s three ministers and lawmakers and chaired by party leader Amine Gemayel said that until a new president is elected, Parliament would become an electoral, rather than legislative, body. It urged the nation’s lawmakers to benefit from the remaining hours before the expiry of Sleiman’s term on Sunday to elect a president.

“In addition to disrupting the role of a constituent component of the entity and the state, a vacancy in the presidency post will threaten Lebanon’s unity because the president is its symbol,” it said.

It warned of “dangerous reverberations” of the presidential vacuum on the country’s 1943 National Pact concerning equal power sharing between Muslims and Christians.

The statement called for “respecting constitutional provisions which make Parliament an electoral, rather than legislative, body until a president is elected.”

MP Michel Aoun’s Change and Reform bloc will meet Monday to decide on whether to attend Parliament and Cabinet meetings.

Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt said “regional and international compromises” were essential to break the presidential election deadlock.

In an interview with Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV Friday night, he praised Saudi Arabia’s recent invitation for Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to visit Riyadh for talks.

He said a renewal of contacts between the two regional heavyweights would reflect positively on the situation in Lebanon.

Jumblatt renewed his call for the election of “a consensual president.”

He said his party’s presidential nominee, MP Henry Helou, could be an acceptable compromise candidate, while opposing Aoun and Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea for president.

In the latest flurry of activity focusing on the presidential crisis, Geagea, the March 14-backed candidate, met former MP Ghattas Khoury, an adviser to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, at the LF leader’s residence in Maarab, north of Beirut.

They discussed recent developments in the presidential election, focusing on the March 8 boycott of the Parliament session to choose a new head of state.

They also discussed “steps that should be taken in the next phase which [begins] after the end of the Constitutional deadline on May 25,” according to an LF statement.

U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon David Hale also discussed the presidential impasse with former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

British Ambassador Tom Fletcher met with Speaker Nabih Berri in Ain al-Tineh and discussed the presidential stalemate.

After the meeting, Fletcher said it was sad that time was running out for lawmakers to elect a new president within the Constitutional timeframe.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 24, 2014, on page 1.




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