Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Sfeir steps up efforts to reach compromise on Metn by-election

Sfeir steps up efforts to reach compromise on Metn by-election
Mudslinging intensifies as vote draws near

By Hani M. Bathish
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Fears generated in the heated by-election campaign in Metn and violent skirmishes between party supporters Sunday night prompted Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir to intensify his efforts on Tuesday to find a compromise and avoid an electoral clash. Hopes for a possible solution were rekindled from Dimane following intensive meetings there between politicians from the country's feuding camps and Sfeir. Change and Reform bloc MP Ibrahim Kanaan met Sfeir twice on Tuesday at the patriarch's summer residence in North Lebanon, raising hopes of a possible breakthrough. Kanaan told reporters that discussions were positive and constructive, adding that politicians needed to be up to the challenge and not just pour fuel on the fire. Sfeir also met March 14 Forces MP Samir Franjie and former MPs Mansour Ghanem al-Bon and Fares Soueid.

Christian Lebanese Unions secretary general Habib Efram, who met Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) leader MP Michel Aoun on Tuesday in Rabieh, told reporters after the meeting there was still some hope of reaching a solution in the next 48 hours to avoid an electoral showdown in Metn. Former President Amin Gemayel, addressing supporters in Bikfaya, said the election face-off in Metn was not meant to disrespect the men and women of the FPM who took part in the struggle for sovereignty, freedom and independence during the period of Syrian tutelage. "This battle is aimed at preventing Syrian influence from returning to Lebanon," he said. In an obvious reference to Aoun, Gemayel said no one could claim to be a patriot while aligning himself with foreigners and allowing his country to become a tool for implementing external policies. "Every white paper with the name of Amin Gemayel that you cast in the ballot boxes is a flower that you send to Pierre in paradise," Gemayel said, speaking of his son, assassinated Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel.

Aoun showed no sign of retreating from the electoral battle on Tuesday while addressing supporters in Dbayeh. "If they want a battle, let it be a battle," Aoun said. "We are ready." He added that the privilege of the president to sign government decrees calling for by-elections must not be violated. President Emile Lahoud did not sign the government decree calling for August 5 by-elections in the Metn and Beirut's second district. Aoun said that playing with people's emotions by using the memory of Pierre Gemayel to win votes was not right, and he lambasted the March 14 Forces for systematically tarnishing his image and casting doubts during the past two years on his party's majority support among Lebanon's Christians. He urged all citizens in Metn to get involved in the electoral campaign and to vote based on their convictions. "The electoral battle is over participation in government and participation in elections," Aoun said, urging his supporters to overcome "doubts and temptation" and not to be afraid to turn out to vote on Sunday. Aoun said the election of a successor to Pierre Gemayel had already been delayed for eight months. "Why not wait a little longer? Why hold these by-elections now ahead of presidential elections? It's because [the March 14 Forces] want to create conflict within the Christian community," Aoun said. Aoun said the army and security forces were in charge of ensuring the electoral process proceeded without a hitch. He said his opponents could hang their flags and their posters, "but we will not allow them to block the streets. We will break the hands of whoever strikes us."

Friction between Gemayel and Aoun has been increasing since Aoun announced that he and his allies the Tashnag Party and MP Michel Murr would jointly contest the Metn seat. Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea said that the electoral fight would be a "sporting battle" and he expressed confidence in the final outcome. In reference to Aoun, Geagea said those who still thought their popular base was 60-70 percent of the electorate had "their watches off by two years." Lebanese Forces MP Antoine Zahra accused Aoun of covering for Syria through his alliances with Syria's allies in Lebanon. Zahra, speaking to Future TV, rejected the formation of a government that could be used as an alternative to the presidential election, adding that the presidential election had to be held as scheduled on September 25. Zahra said the party that initiated the ongoing exchange of accusations should stop first, if it were necessary to stop the exchange. He said Aoun's alliance with Syria's cohorts allowed Aoun political freedom of movement, which convinced the Syrian regime it could continue to influence Lebanese politics through local Syrian partners. Gemayel also on Tuesday met Armenian Orthodox Catholicos Aram I Keshishian at his summer residence in Bikfaya.

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