BEIRUT: Former President Michel Sleiman returned to his north Lebanon hometown Sunday morning, where he was greeted by thousands of people welcoming him back after serving six years in the presidential palace.
Meanwhile, French President François Hollande contacted Sleiman and thanked him for his efforts during his term, particularly his role in preserving the peace and stability in Lebanon, the former president’s office said.
Hollande also expressed concern over the current situation in Lebanon, hoping that a new president is elected as soon as possible so that the country does not remain in a vacuum for long.
For his part, Sleiman thanked Hollande for his phone call, stressing on the importance of bilateral cooperation between the sisterly states during the six years he was in Baabda.
U.N. Chief Ban Ki-moon also contacted Sleiman and expressed his appreciation for his efforts, particularly in terms of maintaining security and stability.
According to Sleiman’s office, Ban expressed readiness to implement the recommendations of the International Support Group for Lebanon and to "do his best to help make the conference to support the Army a success."
Ban also said he was keen on having the presidential election in Lebanon take place as soon as possible without a lengthy vacuum.
Upon his arrival in Amsheet with his wife, Wafaa, a man lifted Sleiman on his shoulders as church bells tolled and residents threw rice and flowers in celebration of his return.
The streets were flooded with people, with supporters of the former Army general hanging banners in support of Sleiman and his photo covering several buildings and balconies.
Several politicians also flocked to Sleiman's residence, where he received well-wishers during a reception commemorating the end of his term.
Sleiman, Lebanon's 12th president, left Baabda Palace on Saturday afternoon, plunging the country into a presidential vacuum as political parties remain in deadlock over a successor.
With no candidate capable of garnering the needed majority to win the presidential seat, and attempts to extent Sleiman's term ending in failure, Lebanon has now entered a presidential void for an undetermined period of time.
Sleiman’s election in 2008 filled a lengthy presidential void during which rival political groups had engaged in heated disputes that lead to armed clashes in the capital.
Sleiman helped form four governments during his six-year term: the Cabinet of former PMs Fouad Siniora, Saad Hariri and Najib Mikati, and Prime Minister Tammam Salam in 2014.
Sitting in his house in Amsheet, journalists began asking Sleiman questions about his farewell speech, which touched on various controversial issues; including expanding both the prerogatives of the president and the national defense strategy.
"Enough. I will not talk about politics today," Sleiman said before he shared a laugh with former Prime Minister Najib Mikati.
MP Walid Jumblatt, who has strong ties with the former president, described Sleiman as an “exceptional” politician, upon his arrival to Amsheet.
“[Sleiman’s] political performance, his calm and ability to run the country were exceptional,” Jumblatt said.
“I will only say that I support state building and the Baabda Declaration,” he added, referring to the agreement signed by rival groups in 2012 to distance Lebanon from regional turmoil particularly in Syria during a Dialogue session chaired by Sleiman.
Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Awad Asiri praised Sleiman’ achievements during his tenure, saying Lebanon should take advantage of the regional situation to elect a new president as soon as possible.
“I commend the achievements he was able to make, we call for honest, political activity to choose a successor and we hope that the latter would adopt Sleiman’s approach,” Asiri told Al-Jadeed television in a brief chat during the reception in Amsheet.
“The regional situation now is different and Lebanon has an opportunity, we hope there is an urgency in electing a new president because the summer season is promising and so is Lebanon’s security situation,” he said.
During his farewell speech Saturday, Sleiman called for constitutional reforms that would expand the authority of the president.
“The constitutional practices in the past six years revealed constitutional gaps that obstruct political work in the country,” Sleiman said in his farewell address. “The constitutional committee prepared a suggestion to amend the constitution that will be handed to the next president.”
The constitutional amendments Sleiman suggested included, “restoring the right for the executive power to dismantle the Parliament under the initiative of the president [and] giving the president the right to call for an exceptional Cabinet session when needed.”
He also highlighted the need to set a national defense strategy for the country, an issue that he pushed for throughout his tenure.
“I suggested to the National Dialogue Committee a proposal for the defense strategy, and on the eve of May 25, a memory we are proud of, I say it is time to build a national defense strategy because this is an essential gateway to the emergence of the state,” he said.
May 25 marks Liberation Day, when Israel withdrew from south Lebanon in the year 2000, ending its 28-years long occupation of the country.