Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Suleiman’s chances diminishing

How fast the pace of change in Lebanon: last week it seemed that army commander Michel Suleiman was destined to become the new president. Since yesterday, however, opposition against his candidacy has increased so much that his chances are becoming less and less.

The role of the religious leader of the Maronites in Lebanon, patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, is quite interesting. Last weekend, he stated in an interview that he would support Suleiman, even up to the extent of changing the constitution to allow him to become president. In earlier statements, the patriarch had always maintained that adapting the constitution is a red line. So what made him cross his own imposed red line?

During the interview the patriarch said that the only reason for changing the constitution could be to save the country. Well, yeah, “saving the country” sounds pretty vague and leaves ample room for interpretation: the various parties in Lebanon have various ideas about saving the country and the patriarch’s statements didn’t clarify much as to why specifically now the constitution should be changed to allow Suleiman to become the next president.

Maybe the patriarch was trying to unite the Christian forces in the March 14 alliance to unite around a strong candidate. By dangling the frightening prospect of a junta in front of their eyes, the patriarch might have hoped to create a sense of urgency.

If those were his ulterior motives, then chapeau bas: within a few days after the patriarch’s speech, this is exactly what happened. Yesterday, the March 14 Christians announced that they will come up soon with one candidate for the presidency. Interesting enough, they added two things: that the candidate must be ‘made in Lebanon’ and vetted by the patriarch. The first requirement is pretty much a rebuke of the patriarch’s support for Suleiman, whom many consider a Syrian lackey. Perhaps to reduce the possibility for any hard feelings, the second condition must make the patriarch feel good again.

What is almost funny, if it weren’t so serious, were the comments by Samir Geagea during the press conference the meeting of the March 14’ Christians was over. He mentioned that they have tried to reason with Michel Aoun, but that he refused to withdraw his own candidacy. With a strong hint of regret, Geagea concluded that he had to resort to democracy. What a pity this must be for a former warlord, indeed.

Michel Aoun in the mean time is in a difficult position. In response to the patriarch’s comments, his party supported the idea of having Suleiman run a military government. Even more kudos for the patriarch for eliciting Aoun to admit that he would be willing to consider giving up his presidential ambitions.

Now, he won’t give them up for a March 14 candidate, but still, the mere admission was already quite something and seemed to have weakened his position that his ambitions were non-negotiable. Aoun is unlikely to feel good right now about reacting so hastily to the patriarch’s statements.

It will be interesting to watch future developments: Will he be able to keep on supporting a Syrian-backed Suleiman, especially if Suleiman would be fully supported by Hezbollah? Or would he break with his allies and make a run for the presidential post himself? My money would be on the latter option, but then again, nothing in Lebanon is certain and predicting politics here is like predicting the weather: best to be done in hindsight.


Anonymous said...

very interesting piece... your last sentence says it all.

Gabriel said...

Good article but you completely misread the comments by Dr. Geagea. He is very much in favor of democracy and not like you said against it!

You are right that it will be interesting to see what Aoun will do. But one thing for sure: he will make a fool of himself!!

Jeha said...

"he refused to withdraw his own candidacy", so we have "to resort to democracy"...

This is an odd choice of words, and may well reveal the root of our troubles;

1- Too much combina: on one hand, we do not accept majority decisions,

2- No sense of Pluralism: on the other, we majorities do not leave any leeway for minorities.

Then again, Aoun's maximalism did not make it easy for others. Many would love to see him rendered politically irrelevant, were it not for the fact that the likes of Geagea would then fill in the void.

We're being limited to choosing among warlords...

jordi said...

In my opinion there are 4 options:

1) a president will be chosen in a democratic and regular way;

2) chaos: 2 presidents, 2 governments and the army will be divided as well;

3) chaos: but the army will not be divided and the army will take over (Sleiman will be president);

4) there will be no consensus and the political leaders will decide to postpone the final decision.

My bet will be option 4: typical Lebanese solution and maybe even worse for the country than the other options (another stalemate!). One way to realize this option: Sfeir 2 years for president to buy time. Maybe Sfeir doesn't want to, maybe he has to. Many other ways as well to realize this option.

Option 1: Democratic rules, "regular", and "order" on one side and Lebanon on the other are not compatible.
Option 2+3: The majority on the streets seems to be afraid for this scenario. What is expected by the majority doesn't happen in Lebanon.