Thursday, October 25, 2007

Lebanese await potentially pivotal meeting between Aoun and Hariri

Lebanese await potentially pivotal meeting between Aoun and Hariri
Jumblatt confers with us ambassador after trip to washington

By Rym Ghazal
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: The political scene in Lebanon was anxious on Wednesday as the country held its breath for a highly anticipated meeting between the leader of the parliamentary majority, MP Saad Hariri, and the head of the opposition Free Patriotic Movement, MP Michel Aoun. The two men were expected to discuss efforts to agree on a consensus presidential candidate to replace incumbent Emile Lahoud, but as The Daily Star went to press, there was no official confirmation that they were meeting or planned to do later Wednesday. Sources close to Aoun cited "security reasons" for keeping the media uninformed about the time of the meeting. Sources close to the seat of the Maronite patriarch in Bkirki told The Daily Star that members of a joint committee from Christian components of both camps would keep meeting until the end of the week in an effort to agree on a candidate. "If by end of the week there is no agreed upon name, then the committee will stop its meetings," said the source.

Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir has repeatedly told the media that he would not name any candidate, leaving it up to the politicians to decide on the name, which he will later approve or disapprove. Sfeir met with a representative of Hariri, Nader Hariri, who passed on greetings from the Future Movement MP and the latest developments. While there was no statement released to the media following the meeting between Sfeir and Hariri's representative, the Central News Agency quoted sources close to the talks as saying that the patriarch expressed fears over the possibility of new "political and security" obstacles developing in the run-up to the presidential election in Parliament, currently scheduled for November 12. Meanwhile, the head of the pro-government Democratic Gathering bloc, MP Walid Jumblatt, is back in Lebanon after a trip to the United States. Jumblatt met with US Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman on Wednesday, but neither side commented publicly after the meeting.

The Loyalty to the Resistance bloc released a statement on Wednesday in which it lashed out at "US and local attempts to jeopardize consensus." The bloc reiterated its commitment to a consensus president, and expressed its hope that an agreement will be reached by the constitutional deadline. Lahoud's term, extended under Syrian pressure in 2004, ends on November 24. MP Michel Murr met separately with Hariri and Speaker Nabih Berri on Wednesday, after which he described a feeling of "optimism" regarding discussions on the presidency. "There are reasons to be optimistic, as there are groups reconciling with each other and things are moving forward," Murr told reporters after meeting with Hariri. "We need to reach an agreement before the next Parliament session to avoid a presidential vacuum in the country," he added. Murr also called on the committee meeting under Bkirki's auspices to intensify its efforts and to reach on an agreement before November 12. "It is important for the committee to come up with some decisions as they are one of the uniting steps," said Murr. As for speculation that a candidate's name would be announced this weekend by the committee, Murr was cautious. "We have to wait to see what happens with the committee," he said.

With others endorsing consensus, the head of the pro-government Lebanese Forces, Samir Geagea, criticized statements calling for a neutral candidate. "Who is this politician without links to either March 14 or March 8? It is unrealistic," he told a press conference in Maraab. "Those who are playing up the fact they are not with anyone are hiding their true agenda." Geagea said that "if 40 per cent of the country is with March 14, and 40 per cent is with March 8, and the independents have 20 per cent support, are we going to ignore 80 per cent of the people and cave into the demands of the minority?"

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