Monday, October 29, 2007

Moallem insists Syria has no favorite in Lebanese presidential sweepstakes

Moallem insists Syria has no favorite in Lebanese presidential sweepstakes
Cousseran offers no comment after talks with leadership in damascus

By Rym Ghazal
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Syrian officials on Sunday urged Lebanon to choose a president on time and without any foreign interference, after meeting with French envoy Jean-Claude Cousseran. "Syria and France do not have the name of a candidate, but we want the elections to take place on time," Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told reporters on Sunday. The comments came after Moallem and Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa met Cousseran on Sunday, as part of France's efforts to break the ongoing political deadlock in Lebanon between the Syrian-backed March 8 opposition and the anti-Syrian March 14 ruling coalition over the upcoming presidential election. Moallem said "points of view were identical on a compromise president" agreed upon by the Lebanese people. "Neither Syria nor France are pushing a particular candidate," he said. The official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) said Cousseran and Sharaa "reviewed bilateral relations and the recent developments in the region including the situation in Lebanon." SANA quoted the vice president as saying that Syria wanted a stable and safe Lebanon, and he added that there should be agreement among Lebanese "without any foreign interference in order to elect a president who is for all Lebanese." Cousseran, who did not speak to reporters after the meeting, is on a regional tour.

Last week, the foreign ministers of France, Italy and Spain were in Lebanon and met with government and opposition leaders in an attempt to reconcile their conflicting views on the election of a new president, although the talks failed to yield any immediate results. Meanwhile, Lebanon is waiting to hear on Tuesday the conclusions of negotiations of the four-member committee grouping Christian representatives from the majority and the opposition. Sources in Bkirki, the seat of the Maronite Church where the meetings took place, told The Daily Star that the report on Tuesday was a "compilation of the minutes" of the five meetings held by the committee. "The report will not include a name, as is being widely reported," the source said on Sunday. The committee has concluded its work, said Bishop Samir Mazloum on Saturday, and its recommendations will go to Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir, who will decide whether to release them. The daily An-Nahar reported on Sunday that the report would focus more on the role of the MPs in the presidential election, and the committee had agreed that all MPs should attend the electoral session. The feuding camps have squabbled over whether a simple majority or two-thirds of MPs must attend a voting session in order for the election to commence. An-Nahar also stated that the representatives of the March 14 coalition wanted the recommendations referred to Sfeir, while opposition representatives wanted them referred to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri, who were also leading talks on a consensus presidential candidate.

Meanwhile, Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) leader Michel Aoun was accused on Sunday of threatening a "coup" if the next head of state were elected by a simple majority of deputies, with reports that the long-awaited meeting between Aoun and Hariri had been postponed. "We call on everyone to maintain a minimum of decorum when making political statements," said a statement released by the Lebanese Forces on Sunday, calling on Aoun to "practice restraint" when making his speeches. The statement charged that Aoun insulted the Lebanese Forces in many speeches. On Saturday, Aoun adopted a highly critical tone just hours after meeting with US Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman and accused Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's government of "usurping power." "We will not allow" the presidential election to take place by a simple majority, Aoun told supporters from the mountain town of Aley. "If a president is elected without a two-thirds quorum, he will be illegitimate and we will not accept him. This would be some kind of coup, which we will meet with a counter-coup," Aoun said. Aoun also rejected the idea of an "illegitimate" government taking over from outgoing President Emile Lahoud if consensus on a presidential candidate were not reached by the constitutional deadline of November 24. Aoun added that the marginalization of Christians would not last, because the FPM "would not accept the obliteration of any sect in Lebanon."

In other related mediation efforts, former President Amin Gemayel met with Siniora on Sunday evening and discussed the presidential election, although the two did not release any statement. Gemayel also met over the weekend with Hizbullah MP Hassan Fadlallah in his Sin al-Fil residence for talks aimed at finding ways to "settle the ongoing political crisis." The two officials "stressed on the consensus atmosphere to achieve presidential elections and the need to support the initiatives of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri," said a statement released by Gemayel's office on Saturday. Gemayel was quoted as saying that "the only exit out of the impasse goes through the election of a new president with wide participation" by the various factions, while Fadlallah was quoted as expressing support for "consensus efforts exerted by former President Gemayel." The two-hour meeting included an assessment of the relations between Gemayel and Hizbullah, the statement said. On Sunday, Hizbullah officials reiterated their demand for a "consensus" president, but one who would "support" the resistance. "The right president will bring together the disputed factions and will unite the country ... and would not discard the resistance and lessons learned from history," resigned Energy and Water Minister Mohammad Fneish said on Sunday during a ceremony for students in Nabatiyeh.

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