Saturday, November 24, 2007

Lahoud steps down, but no one else steps up

Lahoud steps down, but no one else steps up
Cabinet says army is on its side after berri postpones election yet again for lack of consensus
By Hani M. Bathish and Nafez Qawas
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Emile Lahoud left Lebanon's presidency at midnight on Friday, just hours after announcing the transfer of security responsibilities to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) because Parliament had failed to elect his successor. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora issued a statement shortly thereafter declaring Lahoud's move unconstitional. Lahoud's announcement explained his gambit by asserting that existing conditions in the country "could lead to a state of emergency," but Siniora's statement affirmed that only the Cabinet has the executive authority to declare such a state. "[Lahoud] aims to deceive citizens into believing that the whole country is under intense danger, whereas the situation is secure as the army is maintaining security in the country," the statement read, adding that since a new president was not elected "this government will continue to assume its responsibilities and exercise its full authority." Education Minister Khaled Qabbani, speaking to New TV late Friday, said that the LAF's commander, General Michel Suleiman, had been in contact with Siniora and assured him that the army would follow the directives of the current Cabinet. Sports and Youth Minister Ahmad Fatfat confirmed this, telling The Daily Star there was "complete coordination" between the government and the military and that the Cabinet has "no doubts" as to Suleiman's commitment. "Lahoud does not have the right to issue such a statement in the first place," Fatfat said, adding that it was designed to spread fear. "The army has already taken all the precautions necessary in coordination with the government," Fatfat said, adding that no extra security measures would be taken. In a statement read out by spokesperson Rafik Shalala, Lahoud said: "There are conditions and risks on the ground that could lead to a state of emergency," leading the outgoing president to hand the army responsibility for maintaining order. The statement argued that the present government is illegitimate and unconstitutional and therefore incapable of assuming power in "a safe and constitutional" manner. Lahoud further instructed the army to report to the government once a "constitutional" one comes to power.

The Cabinet held a ministerial meeting Friday night ahead of assuming presidential powers in accordance with the Constitution. All majority-aligned ministers attended, except for Defense Minister Elias Murr. The session, which started at 6 p.m., was held to discuss the impact of postponing the presidential electoral session in Parliament. The session was postponed for one week to allow time for further negotiations. MPs from the ruling March 14 coalition warned that they retain the right to elect a president by absolute majority and that as of midnight Friday Parliament would be in continuous session, as per the Constitution, until a new president is elected. Speaker Nabih Berri announced the one-week postponement a little after 1:30 pm "to allow time for further consultation and to reach a consensus." He added that if consensus were reached before that date, the session could be held sooner. In all, 109 majority and opposition MPs went to Parliament on Friday, but while the former entered the main chamber and waited for the session to convene, the latter waited outside. Berri met with MPs from various blocs and held closed meetings with both March 14 MP Walid Jumblatt, head of the Democratic Gathering, and parliamentary majority leader MP Saad Hariri. Telecommunications Minister and March 14 MP Marwan Hamadeh told The Daily Star majority MPs were determined to thwart what he described as "further attempts to hinder the election of a president." "From midnight tonight we are free to gather. Not only is this a right, but also a commitment imposed on us by Article 74 of the Constitution," he said. Asked if the majority were considering electing a president by simple majority, the minister did not respond. MP Hussein Hajj Hassan, of the opposition Loyalty to the Resistance, noted that the postponement was to complete negotiations toward agreement on a consensus president. "This is far better than resorting to reckless choices like those the [majority] have talked about," Hajj Hassan said. "The opposition is ready to move to face any coup attempted by the group in power. The real coup would be electing a president by simple majority and giving the Cabinet presidential powers." Asked what these moves would be, he said: "Let them carry out their coup to see what we will do," adding that this was a step the opposition would prefer not to take.

Fatfat told The Daily Star that according to the Constitution, from midnight Friday Siniora's government would assume presidential powers. "The government only assume these powers temporarily until a new president is elected," he added. Hariri, speaking from Bkirki, where he met with Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir on Friday, said that consensus remained possible. "The time has come for us as Lebanese to understand that we have no path open to us but consensus," he said. "It is our duty and we will always seek it." He added that electing a president by simple majority was a constitutional right that March 14 has not resorted to because it wants consensus. "We said from the first moment that Speaker Berri an-nounced his initiative," the MP said, "we want consensus and we proceeded along this path on the understanding that there is a list that the patriarch has put forward through French mediations, but consensus failed to transpire due to some political disagreements with certain political parties." Refusing to respond directly to a last-minute initiative put forward by MP Michel Aoun, leader of the opposition Change and Reform bloc, Hariri nonetheless said that any changes to the president's term in office would amount to tampering with the Constitution and the office. Aoun had suggested that he choose a neutral president to serve a two-year term, while Hariri select a neutral prime minister to head a government of national unity. The majority rejected the proposal. "If we can agree on a president let him be a president for a full six years," Hariri said. At midnight, as a festive mood prevailed in pro-March 14 neighborhoods, Lahoud made good on earlier pledges and left office as scheduled under the terms of the extension granted to him under Syrian pressure in 2004. He also unloaded a few parting shots at his detractors at home and abroad. "The majority will be the losers in the end if they don't accept to elect a new president, either by consensus or at least with a two-thirds [quorum in Parliament]" he told Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. TV moments after leaving Baabda Palace. "Lebanon is not America or France," he added, mentioning two of the Siniora government's strongest foreign backers. "It is a consensus democracy." "No matter what [US President George W.] Bush says, this [Siniora's] government is unconstitutional and illegitmate," Lahoud said. "And they know it."

Familar faces, familiar arguments
Hani M. Bathish
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT Majority and opposition MPs performed a well-practiced routine on Friday, mimicking their reactions to three earlier failed attempts at holding a presidential election session. As always, majority legislators asserted their right to elect a new president, while the opposition insisted its boycotting of the session was a legitimate constitutional tool. Deputy Speaker and March 14 MP Farid Makkari read out the majority's statement, affirming that it would not relinquish its rights and obligations and would not be absent from any electoral session. "Boycotting is not a democratic choice but it is a violation of the Constitution," Makkari said. "The majority is committed to stability in the country and will not resort to any steps that could take the country into the unknown." He added that the majority would not relinquish its right to resort to an absolute majority to elect the next president. "This is a constitutional right, so there is no debate about it," Makkari said. Development and Liberation MP Ali Hassan Khalil responded by questioning Makkari's knowledge of constitutional law. "What was said by the deputy speaker does not reflect the general mood of understanding that prevailed in secondary meetings held on the sidelines of [Friday's] session, which resulted in agreement to postpone the session until November 30," Khalil said, adding that opposition MPs' non-participation in an electoral session was a democratic right. Parliamentary majority leader MP Saad Hariri told reporters after leaving the House that there would be "no compromise at the expense of our martyrs," a reference to several assassinations of majority MPs. "We came to parliament as MPs of March 14 who represents the Lebanese people and the people want to elect a president; we came to say democratically we are here and we are with consensus and we want to elect a president for a full six-year term, and people cannot interpret the constitution any way they like," Hariri said. March 14 MP Walid Jumblatt, head of the Democratic Gathering bloc, read out a statement at Parliament in which he said agreement had been reached with Speaker Nabih Berri to keep seeking consensus. "We took it on ourselves as the March 14 Forces and the Lebanese people to stay within the constitutional framework and to preserve civil peace no matter what the price," Jumblatt said. He added that attending the session Friday was to reaffirm consensus and "our constitutional right to elect a president." Another March 14 MP, George Adwan of the right-wing Lebanese Forces, said that from Friday the legislature does not need an invitation from Berri to convene, but is in continuous session by law until a new president is elected. "We have a Parliament and that is were we should elect a president and Parliament is not exercising its right," Adwan read from a prepared statement. "It is our constitutional right to exercise this majority." Adwan said that violating the Constitution places the country at risk, but he also sought to allay fears, saying: "We have a strong army and security forces and leaders who are aware and capable."

MP Ibrahim Kanaan of the opposition Reform and Change bloc said those who want to serve the Lebanese "do not push for a rejection of consensus," referring to the majority's dismissal of a last-minute proposal put forward by the bloc's leader, MP Michel Aoun. "Those who want to preserve sovereignty and independence do not seek confrontation," Kanaan said. Lebanese Forces MP Elie Keyrouz said that Hizbullah was "the real source of danger to the Lebanese formula," accusing the resistance of serving Syrian interests. Answering Keyrouz, opposition Loyalty to the Resistance bloc MP Hussein Hajj Hassan said that the "Lebanese Forces alone seem to have decided [for March 14] to oppose consensus

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