Saturday, December 29, 2007

Deja vu: Berri postpones session to elect president

Deja vu: Berri postpones session to elect president
Vote now slated for january 12

By Hani M. Bathish
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Speaker Nabih Berri has postponed for the 11th time a parliamentary session to elect a new president to January 12, according to a statement issued by the General Secretariat of the Chamber of Deputies on Friday. The statement said there is no longer a need for a constitutional amendment to allow grade one civil servants to be elected to the presidency. It referred to an interpretation of Article 74 of the Constitution that waives restrictions on such candidates, as they would normally have to resign from their post before their election to the presidency. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora chaired a Cabinet meeting Friday and approved 750 government decrees that were left unsigned by former President Emile Lahoud. The Cabinet also approved posthumous promotions for all Lebanese Army officers and enlisted men who fell in fighting around the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp earlier this year.

Opposition stalwart and Marada Party chief Suleiman Franjieh told reporters Friday that if the opposition did not get 11 Cabinet posts in the new government there will be no election and no new president. He said recent government actions only complicate matters. "We represent 60 percent of the people, and we have 45 percent of parliamentary seats, all we want is 11 out of 30 Cabinet posts, if they refuse to give us what we want, let them rule alone," Franjieh said referring to the ruling March 14 alliance. "If they decide to elect a president with half plus one of MPs this will lead to strife, if they can handle it, let them go ahead," Franjieh added. Change and Reform bloc leader MP Michel Aoun, who chaired a meeting of his bloc Friday, told reporters afterward that the vacuum in the presidency was "planned" by the ruling coalition for a long time. He said the opposition wanted a national salvation government to save the country from this void. "Before the presidential election, an understanding has to be reached [with the ruling coalition]. Their refusal to negotiate with the opposition and usurping presidential powers is a coup d'etat," Aoun said. He added that the government is "bad intentioned" and does not want to apply the law. Aoun said the opposition will not reveal the steps it will take to resist the government's coup. He said the present government contradicts the pact of communal coexistence and takes its marching orders from abroad. "They prefer slavery to freedom ... they look for masters in foreign embassies," Aoun said of the ruling coalition. He said that the national unity government the opposition is asking for would come after a president is elected, adding that the opposition's demands are legitimate and all it is asking for is governmental participation.

Former President Amin Gemayel, speaking to reporters at his home in Bikfaya Friday, said the main obstacle to accord remains the opposition's demand to have over a third of Cabinet posts and thus the power to bring down the government. "This is unreasonable as what brings a government down is only a vote of no confidence by the majority in Parliament and not the blocking third which the opposition is asking for," Gemayel said. Asked about renewed French efforts to revive their diplomatic initiative concerning Lebanon, Gemayel said the French initiative is continuing and that lately there had been an "exchange of ideas on certain possible solutions" to resolve the crisis. "All [proposals] revolve around the central point of the blocking third to bring down the government, which is difficult for us to accept," he said. Gemayel said that apart from the blocking third, the ruling coalition remains open to all other suggestions and proposed solutions, even regarding the constitutional mechanism to facilitate the election of General Michel Suleiman as president. "We have a solution to allow us to quickly hold elections should there be a law in this regard," he said, referring to the draft law to amend the Constitution. "All we hope for is cooperation from everyone and for the opposition to be convinced finally that it is in its best interest and in Lebanon's best interest for us all to put our trust in General Suleiman as an ideal consensus candidate and elect him," Gemayel said. He added that after the election a national unity government would be set up in which the president will have a "balancing vote" as is customary in most cabinets. Loyalty to the Resistance bloc MP Hussein Hajj Hassan, speaking at a party rally in Baalbek Friday, said the government's actions are illegal and unconstitutional. He also compared the government of Siniora to a "US embassy that occupies the Grand Serail." He said the Cabinet works to ensure American interests "These actions that the government insists on taking, in addition to the petition delivered by 13 majority MPs, are provocative, and if they think they will win the battle they will face a resounding defeat. Whoever takes escalatory steps has to deal with the results of that action."

Monday, December 24, 2007

Home on Holiday, the Lebanese Say, What Turmoil?

Home on Holiday, the Lebanese Say, What Turmoil?
Tamara Abdul Hadi for The New York Times
Published: December 24, 2007

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Lebanon may seem an unlikely holiday spot: the government has collapsed, car bombs go off periodically and foreign envoys warn of an impending civil war. And yet, so many people have been streaming into this tiny, embattled country in recent days that the flights are all overbooked, and some well-heeled travelers are driving 18 hours from the Persian Gulf. Beirut’s restaurants, bars and malls are all packed with revelers. Why? The answer is that the Lebanese diaspora reverses itself on holidays, as the migrants who sustain the war-shattered Lebanese economy all year return from jobs across the globe to spend time with their families. Nothing will deter them — not bad weather, not interminable flights and certainly not the Grinch-like mood of Lebanon’s endlessly feuding politicians. “My plane was full of Lebanese flying home, and when it landed we all shouted ‘Beirut’ and clapped,” said George Elias, 23, who works for an investment firm in Japan. He and a dozen friends — mostly Lebanese who work abroad — were in the midst of a pub crawl in Gemayze, a fashionably bohemian district. All of them wore identical white T-shirts with “Free Hug” printed across the front, and they were hugging everyone they saw, in a puckish campaign of mass affection. “Politics is causing problems in Lebanon, so we want people to think about something else,” Mr. Elias said.

When a Lebanese Army soldier appeared on the street, the group besieged him with free hugs. He obliged with a smile, his machine gun jostling at his waist with each hug. Across town in western Beirut, the malls were packed with glamorously dressed shoppers, and even outdoor cafes were full, despite the 50-degree chill. “Look at all these people — there’s a political crisis, but do they care?” said Ali Hasbini, a burly 30-year-old sitting at a cafe table with three other young Lebanese overseas workers in the Verdun district. “Of course not.” The table was a panorama of the diaspora: one of the men lived in Singapore; one in Aden, Yemen; one in Jidda, Saudi Arabia; and one in Dubai. All had come home to see the families they helped sustain. The fact that Christmas almost coincided this year with the Muslim holiday Id al-Adha may have prompted more emigrants to return. In other ways, it is an ominous time: Lebanon has been without a president since Nov. 23, when Émile Lahoud stepped down without any agreement on a successor. Since then, Parliament has delayed voting on a new president 10 times, and negotiations have grown steadily more rancorous. Mr. Hasbini, who works for a television and film equipment company in Jidda, waved it all aside. “We get fed up,” he said. “It’s like W.W.F. or a soap opera, except here we get it live. “Politics? Khalas, you’re home,” he added, using the Arabic word for “enough.”

For some families, Lebanon has become little more than a reunion site. “We’re all here for the holidays but none of us live here anymore,” said Maria Pamoukian, 28, an urban planner based in Abu Dhabi who was born in Beirut. There are 10 people in the family — seven adults and three children — she added, all now scattered across the globe, though they still maintain a big apartment here. Like many others, Ms. Pamoukian said she struggled to find a plane ticket, and succeeded only after pleading with the airline to give her a break because a friend was getting married. They gave her a ticket to Damascus, and she drove the rest of the way, she said. The trip took 16 hours. Tarek Masri, 26, said he had almost given up on getting a flight from Saudi Arabia, where he works, until a car bomb east of Beirut killed one of Lebanon’s top army generals last week. That prompted a cancellation, and he got his ticket home. Beirutis like Mr. Masri are too hardened by years of civil war to be intimidated by a bombing. “It’s usually Gulfi tourists who cancel when that happens,” he said. “It’s not the Lebanese. We’ve heard it all before, seen it all before.”

But there is a corollary to this ritual of return: much of the middle class — including many of its best and brightest — no longer live in Lebanon. The pace of emigration appears to have picked up after the violence of the 2006 war with Israel and the political crisis that has followed, said Guita Hourani, a sociologist at Notre Dame University in Zouk Mosbeh, north of Beirut, who has studied migration patterns. The oil wealth in the gulf region has also helped lure away more young Lebanese. “It’s getting harder to find skilled people,” said Nassib Ghobril, the head of research and analysis for Byblos Bank. “Gulf companies come here and poach people from banks and other sectors. They recruit whole classes of graduating seniors.” These migrants supply Lebanon with about $1,400 per capita every year, Mr. Ghobril said — one of the highest rates of remittances in the world. Those transfers are one of the pillars sustaining the consumer economy, he added, though they do not make up for the country’s soaring public debt, the lack of long-term investment here, or the slow bleeding of the country’s main natural resource — its people. But there is another way of looking at it. “Perhaps instead of talking about brain drain we should talk about brain globalization,” Mr. Ghobril said with a mischievous grin. “The globalization of Lebanon.”

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Berri puts off vote on president for ninth time

Berri puts off vote on president for ninth time
Murr insists only 'minor obstacles' remain

By Hani M. Bathish
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Speaker Nabih Berri postponed a parliamentary session to elect a new Lebanese president for the ninth time on Monday, setting Saturday as the next chance to fill the office vacated at midnight on November 23 by Emile Lahoud. In all, 102 MPs came to Parliament Monday, many of them arriving as early as 10 a.m. for the noon session. The speaker's consultations included talks with opposition Reform and Change bloc MPs Ibrahim Kanaan, Neamatallah Abi Nasr and Shamel Mozaya. Berri then met with representatives of the ruling March 14 coalition: first Democratic Gathering leader Walid Jumblatt, then parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri. Berri also met MPs of his own Liberation and Development bloc as well as other deputies from both camps. Change and Reform MP Michel Murr said that only "minor obstacles" remain to achieving consensus, specifically agreement on the number of ministers each bloc gets in Cabinet. According to him, the majority has agreed to several points in Change and Reform leader MP Michel Aoun's initiative, while Aoun has dropped two conditions. "Berri spoke to [Aoun] who agreed to remove two conditions from his initiative; one concerns the presidency the other concerns the length of the president's term," Murr said. "There are several points in [Aoun's] initiative around which agreement has been reached, among these are the new electoral law and the Constitutional Council," Murr said. Kanaan told The Daily Star no progress has been made, adding that the majority had reneged on points already agreed on concerning the electoral law and its commitment to a national unity government. "There has been no agreement on a constitutional mechanism to amend the Constitution. In fact there were suggestions to bypass an amendment to Article 49 of the Constitution and to go ahead with a vote immediately," Kanaan said. Article 49 bars grade-one civil servants from the presidency, including General Michel Suleiman, commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces and the leading consensus candidate. "The speaker told me that he stressed to Hariri the need to negotiate with General Aoun and that no concessions can be made before they meet and talk with [Aoun]," Kanaan said, adding that politicians should not be overly optimistic in their statements. "We hope by Saturday we reach agreement and reach solutions that do not violate the Constitution," he added, stressing that for that to happen the majority has to talk with Aoun.

Lebanese Forces (LF) MP Antoine Zahra called on the Cabinet of Premier Fouad Siniora to issue a proposal for an amendment to the Constitution and present it to Parliament to vote on. "All the talk of bypassing the Constitution will not reach any result," he said. "There is one way to elect the sole candidate ... Suleiman, to the presidency, by amending the Constitution in line with constitutional norms." He added that the amendment had to have the approval of two-thirds of the Cabinet and two-thirds of Parliament. "Any other suggestion is merely to gain time and continue to hinder progress and prolong the vacuum," he argued, adding that that despite what he called March 14's "best intentions," what the opposition wants is to waste time and impose unworkable conditions. "It appears the problem is political, not procedural," he said. "Syria's decision regarding Lebanon appears to be to maintain the vacuum in the country." Zahra also warned that the his party did not want the next president to be "handcuffed" with preconditions. "The [election] is linked with a comprehensive basket of conditions," Hizbullah MP Hussein Hajj Hassan told reporters. "These conditions include amending the Constitution, defining the shape of the next government, distributing Cabinet appointments, determining how many ministers each bloc gets, as well as agreeing on the identity of next army commander." He said that without reaching a "comprehensive understanding" between rival camps the opposition will not ensure a quorum is reached in Parliament. "It all depends on [March 14] ... They ought to accept and adhere to political agreements and present us with unambiguous guarantees. If they don't we will consider they are merely maneuvering to eventually renege on agreements with us later."

After the postponement was announced, March 14 MP Jawad Boulos told reporters the majority was not convinced that the opposition has taken the fundamental decision to fill the vacancy in the presidency. "We still believe that [the opposition's] policy is aimed at avoiding the election; they do not want there to be a president in Lebanon, they do not want there to be functioning institutions in Lebanon, they do not recognize the Taif Accord," Boulos said. "We have a Constitution, we have laws, we need to implement them and if we do implement them we will find the right solutions and elect a president very soon," he added. He said the president should play an active role in designing the program which will govern the country under his administration. "The opposition wants to agree to everything prior to the election of a president and then bring in a figurehead president," Boulos said. LF boss Samir Geagea told AFP that he holds little hope of a solution being reached by the next session on Saturday unless the opposition accepts Suleiman's election unconditionally. "Rumors of an impending deal yesterday were aimed at cooling off tensions created by French and US pressure on Syria," Geagea said. The LF leader called US Undersecretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch Sunday night and discussed international efforts to resolve the crisis and elect a new president for Lebanon. March 14 MP Nayla Mouawad told reporters Monday at Parliament that the Lebanese were promised a parliamentary session Monday to elect Suleiman, but she accused the opposition of rejecting solutions because of its regional alliances. "We must elect Suleiman without any preconditions," she argued. "We call on [opposition] MPs to meet in Parliament and respect the amendment process and respect the powers of the president and not tie his hands." - With agencies

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Bomb kills Lebanese general tipped for army chief

Bomb kills Lebanese general tipped for army chief
By Nadim Ladki

BEIRUT (Reuters) - A car bomb killed a Lebanese army general in a Christian suburb of Beirut on Wednesday, removing a leading contender to replace military chief General Michel Suleiman who is set to be elected president next week. The attack heightened tension in Lebanon where rivals are embroiled in a struggle over the presidency that has fuelled the biggest political crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war. Brigadier General Francois al-Hajj, head of army operations, and his bodyguard were killed in the early morning blast that hit their car in Baabda, a wealthy area that houses the presidential palace and several embassies. Hajj was the ninth fatality in a string of assassinations of anti-Syrian politicians and journalists that began with the 2005 killing of ex-premier Rafik al-Hariri. Politicians from the Western-backed ruling coalition and Hezbollah-led opposition denounced the attack, as did the United States, United Nations, France, Germany, Syria and Iran.

The United States, which cast suspicion on Syria for being behind some earlier assassinations, took a more cautious line this time. "I'm not going to be pointing fingers at anybody today," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters. Lebanese security sources said 35 kg (77 lb) of explosives packed into an olive-green BMW car were detonated by remote control as Hajj's four-wheel-drive vehicle drove by. Hajj, 54, had been seen as one of two main contenders for the job of army chief, traditionally a Maronite Christian. The post would fall vacant if parliament elects Suleiman president in a long-delayed vote now slated for Monday. "The army and the Lebanese people will not succumb to terrorism," Suleiman said in a statement. "(Hajj's) martyrdom strengthens us and reinforces our belief in victory and confidence in Lebanon's future." Political and religious leaders said the killing showed the need to reduce tensions by electing Suleiman swiftly. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said the military was targeted for its role in preserving Lebanon's security and stability.


No group claimed responsibility for Hajj's killing. Some Lebanese politicians accuse Syria of carrying out the string of nine killings. Damascus has denied any involvement. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem denounced the "criminal attack" on Hajj. "We condemn any action that threatens Lebanon," he said. The White House said it would not assign blame until Lebanon's probe of the latest assassination is complete. But a spokesman said President George W. Bush would "continue to stand with the Lebanese people as they counter those who attempt to undermine their security and freedom." U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned Hajj's killing and calls on the Lebanese for "calm and restraint at this critical juncture in their history." Hajj helped lead an army onslaught on al Qaeda-inspired militants at the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon this year in which 168 soldiers and about 230 Fatah al-Islam fighters were killed. "Once he was nominated for the leadership (of the army), they killed him," his father Elias told reporters in the slain officer's village of Rmeish in southern Lebanon. Hajj came from a family of tobacco farmers and was the eldest of 12 children. The blast wrecked Hajj's car, burnt others and damaged buildings. Charred metal littered the blackened streets. "We are facing a security catastrophe," said Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun, calling on the interior minister to resign. Visibly shaken, the former army chief told reporters Hajj had been his preference for the top military post. The army has stayed largely neutral in Lebanon's political turmoil and is regarded as a unifying force. On Monday, the parliamentary speaker postponed the presidential election to December 17, the eighth delay so far. Pro- and anti-Syrian factions agreed last week Suleiman should take the presidency, reserved for a Maronite. It has been vacant since the term of Emile Lahoud ended on November 23. Arab and Western states fear a prolonged vacuum in the presidency could further destabilize Lebanon, where rival camps have accused each other of rearming and training fighters.

(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam and Mohammad Azakir in Beirut, Claudia Parsons at the United Nations and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Alistair Lyon and Robert Woodward)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Majida El Roumi's Speech in English!

Although something is lost in the translation... the passion, the tears, the emotions... the way she expressed herself; its not the same as hearing her quivering voice and seeing the tears... even the presenters and the journalists covering the event were sniffling... but nevertheless here it is for all to read:
How many hearts have to be broken? How many homes have to be ruined? How many Lebanese have to be given worries as their daily bread? How many young men and women have to leave the country before you decide to meet and put an end to this disastrous situation and this horrible division? How can divisions reach the point of having people tell me, “Do not pray at Pierre’s funeral or say a word in Gebran’s commemoration, or you would be speaking up against the others.” Who are the others? Aren’t you all Lebanese? All those martyrs who have died from the southernmost part of the country in massacres perpetrated by Israel to its northernmost part, in the case of our beloved army martyrs, and all those who died for our youth’s sake, … Aren’t they all – truly and honestly – ours? Didn’t they break our hearts? Aren’t they only guilty of being Lebanese?

We no longer meet to pray for the martyrs’ souls, since we now have “their” martyr and “our” martyr. I reject this painful discrimination. I hereby say that it was an honor to sing for Pierre inasmuch as it is an honor to speak about Gebran. If I am accused of being Lebanese, then I am the lucky one. I no longer care who will be offended by these words. Indeed, I know that some people will be offended, but I no longer care about them because, after 30 years of war, we have come to lose hope. I no longer care to bear witness to anyone on this earth, especially not in politics. I only bear witness to the Lord, and our Lord loves peace. He is against violence and He tells me to bear witness to what is right, to the best of our youth and to the sovereignty and freedom of this land, as any self-respecting citizen with some dignity should do. I bear witness to the tormented, martyred Lebanese people who has close brushes with death everyday and barely hangs on to life. I say: enough is enough…

You say you are entrusted with Lebanon’s sovereignty and our safety… [In reality,] you have torn the country into pieces, and you want to replace it with one that is tailor-made for confessions, parties and power obsessions. However, this country is far greater than that. You are responsible for driving wedges among us and dividing us under a single roof. You have scattered us and linked our case with half of the world’s pending issues… Why should we be a card in everyone’s hand? How can you accept to remain divided for 30 years, and then tell the whole world that you are unable to run the country’s affairs? In the end, this may be the ultimate aim. If so, then why are you doing it? You are entrusted with our freedom, our sovereignty and our independence. I am here to say: [You have done] enough… let us live.

In the name of what is right, in the name of the Lord, who you say you love and according to whose will you claim to be acting, let this state remain a state. Whose interest would be served if this nation remains unsheltered and if the state breaks up into countless component parts? I am here to conjure you up in the name of the Lord to make peace. You are so stifling us that there will be no one left to hear you. I am here for Gebran’s sake to tell him: I have come to pay tribute to you, my dear brother and friend. Our hearts will keep on beating as one as long as you are alive within us. Why is that so? Because we remained oblivious to the worth of the perfect man that you were. If no tribute is paid to you today as a King who left us, who deserves such a tribute then? Do those who have slain us deserve it? We shall not give it to them. Dear Gebran, I see your pictures on billboards, and I am ashamed to tell you that your blood will not have been spilled in vain. In the name of the everlasting God, I tell you with total confidence that there will come a day when your blood will bloom only in the three colors of our national flag. This day of freedom and sovereignty will undoubtedly come no matter how long it takes because no one can grow greater than Lebanon… Nor shall Lebanon ever be diminished. All shall perish and Lebanon shall remain, and you shall always be there, O Gebran, along with the great men who have borne witness to its dignity and its special vocation on this Earth.

Majida El Roumi's Speech during Gebran Tueni's event

Sunday 09 Dec. 07 Ms. Majida El Roumi brought tears to the eyes of everyone who heard her speech during the 2nd anniversary of the Martyrdom of MP Gebran Tueni (RIP). Here is what she said courtesy of
Yislam hal tim Ms. El Roumi... God Bless Lebanon!!

Lebanese MPs get set to delay presidency vote for eighth time

Lebanese MPs get set to delay presidency vote for eighth time
jumblatt backs compromise, reaches out to hizbullah

By Mirella Hodeib
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: The parliamentary session scheduled for Tuesday to vote on a new Lebanese president is likely to be postponed as government and opposition leaders have yet to agree on a mechanism to have the constitution amended, sources from both camps said late Monday. The poor chances of holding a session to elect the commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), General Michel Suleiman, as president were acknowledged by a source close to Speaker Nabih Berri and by one of his allies, Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun. Sports and Youth Minister Ahmed Fatfat offered much the same prediction in a brief telephone interview. The postponement would be the eighth since Parliament first attempted to elect a president in September. Aoun warned Monday that a presidential election was "unlikely to take place before the end of the year." "We are not scared of chaos should vacuum persist," Aoun told reporters following the weekly meeting of his Reform and Change parliamentary bloc. "It seems that there will be neither election nor constitutional amendment on Tuesday." He accused the parliamentary majority of "blocking" Suleiman's election. "I think that the majority does not want to elect General Suleiman and all this is nothing but a maneuver," Aoun said. Aoun has tied the election to the conclusion of a comprehensive agreement on several political issues, including the shape of the next government.

Also Monday, Suleiman met with Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir for 30 minutes at Bkirki. The LAF commander declined to comment following the visit. Article 49 of the Constitution bars public servants, including Suleiman, from acceding to the presidency while in service. But articles 76 and 77 offer two different means to have the constitution amended and both require the approval of the government - which is not recognized by the opposition. MP Robert Ghanem, who heads Parliament's Administration and Justice Committee, and Future MP Bahij Tabarra - both of the ruling March 14 coalition - are expected to submit a petition to amend the Constitution at Tuesday session. The petition will be signed by five MPs from each side. However, Article 77 specifies that the petition requires the approval of both two-thirds of MPs and the Cabinet. The opposition brands the government headed by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora as illegitimate, after six ministers, including all five Shiites, submitted their resignations in November 2006. Thus far, opposition MPs have refused to send a draft amendment to a government they do not recognize, and visitors to Siniora on Monday quoted him as saying that he would not accept any amendment that does not pass through the government. He also reportedly rejected calls for a Cabinet resignation before the presidential election takes place.

According to the National News Agency, the premier made a series of phone calls to the ambassadors of Russia, Egypt, and China on Monday to explain his government's stance concerning an amendment, as well as recent political developments. Fatfat, who represents the Future Movement in the Siniora government, said that an election on Tuesday "is unlikely to take place." "MPs from the opposition will not show up at the Parliament and the scenario witnessed in the past seven sessions is likely to be replicated," the minister told The Daily Star on Monday. Concerning the amendment, Fatfat said the Constitution makes it clear that "any amendment should go through the government." "Articles 76 and 77 of the Constitution propose two options to having the Constitution amended and both scenarios require that the government approves or supervises the amendment," he added. Meanwhile, Berri's spokesperson, Arafat Hijazi, told The Daily Star that the speaker "strictly opposes" having the amendment go through the current government, adding that Berri was working on having the Parliament "amend the Constitution itself." "Exceptional circumstances require exceptional measures, especially since the Parliament is a full-fledged independent entity," Hijazi said. While dismissing the possibility of an election taking place on Tuesday, Hijazi said that MPs from Berri's Development and Liberation parliamentary bloc "will report to Parliament tomorrow." "One never knows what might happen," Hijazi added. In other developments, the head of the Democratic Gathering, MP Walid Jumblatt, said the "political concessions" made by the March 14 Forces "are not to be seen as a sign of defeat or surrender." "It is not a drawback, as some are calling it. It is rather a step forward and a pre-emptive measure against attempts to hamper democracy and civil peace," he argued in comments carried by his Progressive Socialist Party's Al-Anbaa newspaper. He told the weekly that any deal that does not take into consideration March 14's principles would be "treason." He also said that Lebanon's independence could not have been achieved "without the sacrifices of the resistance," adding that Hizbullah "should be gradually merged with the Lebanese Army so as to stand in the face of Israel." "This merger, if achieved, would spare Lebanon a number of problems, including that of excessive foreign interference," Jumblatt said.

Monday, December 10, 2007

It took a singer to voice what Lebanon really needed to hear

It took a singer to voice what Lebanon really needed to hear
By The Daily Star

The phenomenon of celebrity entertainers wading into political debate is typically a source of annoyance and/or mirth, their comments frequently being so banal and/or uninformed as to actually render a disservice to public discourse. This was not the case, however, on Sunday when Majida Al-Roumi, a Lebanese singer with international star power, had the opportunity to address an audience that included much of her country's political elite. The occasion was a ceremony in Beirut to commemorate the second anniversary of the assassination of MP and journalist Gebran Tueni, and Roumi honored his memory by being loyal to his penchant for straight talk. She was preceded by representatives of Lebanese youth, always a favorite subject of Tueni's oratory and writing, and as a group they demonstrated that he was successful in getting through to at least some of their generation, instilling in them a degree of sociopolitical awareness far beyond their years. This they will need if they are to avoid the kind of pointless feuding into which their elders have dragged an entire country. It was Roumi who stole the show, though, by adopting Tueni's blunt style as she chastised Lebanon's political class - all of them - for the damage they have wrought and continue to wreak. She rightly berated them for having spent the past three decades engaged in divisive politicking that has exposed the country to meddling from both East and West - and for not having learned anything from the experience. It is too early to know whether she managed to make any of them feel ashamed, but she certainly made some of their offenses clear, especially those that have engendered visions of Lebanon and the Lebanese that exclude people because of their background and/or their beliefs.

Tueni was murdered precisely because such sickening attitudes have enjoyed such unchallenged prevalence in so many quarters for so very long. Now it is the duty of those he awakened - not those who twist his words into more of the cheap and malicious mudslinging that masquerades as politics in Lebanon - to help obtain justice, and to do so in a just way. The Special Tribunal created by the United Nations to try suspects in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri will also delve into the Tueni killing and those of all the others cut down over the past three years or so. If it is abused in any way for political gain, a strategy for which some players have shown enthusiasm, it can only perpetuate the cycle of revenge and deepen the intra-Lebanese divisions that Roumi so thoroughly and thoughtfully condemned. That would mean that other Lebanese who have also died for Lebanon - including, as Roumi noted, Hizbullah fighters who have fallen in battle against Israel and Lebanese Army soldiers who gave their lives at Nahr al-Bared - made their sacrifices in vain.

The international importance of denying impunity to those who tried to assassinate freedom of the press by murdering Tueni was communicated by the World Association of Newspapers' having put its imprimatur on Sunday's proceedings for the second year in a row. The local importance was articulated by his father and mentor, MP Ghassan Tueni. Himself an elder statesman of Lebanese journalism, he underscored the fact that his son's legacy consists largely of words, which can never be effaced. If and when justice has been obtained - for all Lebanese - those words will have acquired a practical permanence to match their symbolic indelibility.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Lebanese leaders put off presidential election again

Lebanese leaders put off presidential election again
Twin House sessions planned for Tuesday - one to Amend Constitution, one to fill top post

By Hani M. Bathish
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: A parliamentary session Friday to elect Lebanon's next President has been postponed until noon Tuesday as efforts to remove several constitutional and political hurdles continue at a feverish pace. Meanwhile, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner voiced confidence Friday as he left the country that a new president would be elected by Tuesday. The postponement of the session was announced shortly after Speaker Nabih Berri met with several majority and opposition MPs in Parliament, including a one-and-a-half-hour meeting with parliamentary majority leader MP Saad Hariri. Hariri also met Saudi Ambassador Abdel-Aziz Khoja, former MP Nassib Lahoud and Public Works Minister Mohammad Safadi in Qoreitem Friday. Berri also met MP Mohammad Raad, who heads Hizbullah's Loyalty to the Resistance bloc, as well as deputies from MP Michel Aoun's Change and Reform bloc. Change and Reform MP Michel Murr, speaking to reporters after meeting with Berri in Parliament, said a proposal to present a petition to Parliament for amending the Constitution is being considered. The amendment would allow Lebanese Armed Forces commander, General Michel Suleiman, to be elected president. "Presenting a petition has been agreed on between Speaker Berri, MP Saad Hariri and the Loyalty to the Resistance bloc. It will be prepared by legal experts, among them former Justice Minister Bahij Tabbara and MP Robert Ghanem, who helped draft it," Murr said. He added that the draft would be signed by 10 MPs - five from the opposition and five from the majority. "The five opposition MPs will include MPs from Hizbullah, Amal and Aoun's bloc," Murr said, adding that this new constitutional formula would be reviewed Tuesday before the electoral session convenes.

Meanwhile, Ghanem said a petition signed by 10 MPs calling for a constitutional amendment to allow Suleiman's election to the presidency would be submitted to Parliament on Saturday. "There will be two sessions Tuesday, one to amend the Constitution and another to elect the president," he added. Speaking to reporters at Beirut's Rafik Hariri International Airport after holding three days of intensive talks with Lebanese leaders, Kouchner said there was general consensus in the country, and that rival parties must arrive at an under standing whereby a new president is elected next Tuesday. "This is what I hope and expect will happen," he added. "We struggled hard and meetings lasted for a total of four hours and it was difficult to reach agreement," he said. "The whole world looks to Lebanon today," Kouchner added, addressing he Lebanese public. "You should know a complete success could emerge on Tuesday, but it should be your success. I say this because the president elected must be your president acceptable to all sects." Kouchner said he was happy because obstacles were being dealt with one after the other and if a new president were elected Tuesday it would be a victory for Lebanon and the Lebanese. The French minister also said that a new premier must be acceptable to the new president who would appoint him. Development and Liberation Bloc MP Ali Hassan Khalil, speaking to reporters after the postponement of Friday's session, said no "final understanding" has so far been reached on an amendment to the Constitution to allow the election of Suleiman to the presidency. "We have from now until Tuesday," he said, "to try to complete consultations, which we feel is sufficient time to arrive at an understanding among the parties." "We cannot talk of specific mechanisms [for amending the Constitution]. There are ideas being put forward and circulated for discussion in a positive and serious manner, but saying we reached a final understanding on such a mechanism is not accurate," Khalil said. "General Aoun is also part of the open discussions being undertaken. His views, ideas and initiative are all being taken on board." He added that the opposition remained united in its stance. Future Movement MP Atef Majdalani told The Daily Star that the majority refuses to discuss Cabinet appointments or the premiership before the election of a new president. He said cutting the president's term short, as Aoun suggests, would be a "constitutional violation that threatens the country's unique formula and the Christian presence" which the majority will not accept. "Unfortunately we are obliged to reach an understanding with the minority. We have taken positive steps toward them [and] we hope they too take similar steps toward us," he said, adding that Lebanon cannot "take one more moment of vacuum" in the presidency.

Social Affairs Minister and March 14 MP Nayla Mouawad, speaking after the abortive session Friday, blamed Aoun for the latest delay. "I call on Aoun to stop putting up new obstacles and being a front for Syrian-Iranian ambitions in Lebanon," she told reporters. "March 14 offered a serious initiative to find a way out of this constitutional crisis and to end the vacuum in the presidency, which is nominating General Suleiman as president without any preconditions," Mouawad added. "We sacrificed our two candidates and sacrificed our fixed position against amending the Constitution ... and the March 8 forces obstruct our efforts with all their might." Majority MP Jawad Boulos told The Daily Star he had hoped popular pressure and Kouchner's visit would create a "strong dynamic" to push forward agreement, but it did not. "[The opposition] feels that a political agreement which bypasses the Constitution is the best way to go," he argued. "We disagree." Lebanese Forces boss Samir Geagea told the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation that the postponement Friday was not surprising. He said the obstacles lie with finding a constitutional mechanism to hold the presidential election. March 14 refused to enter into "bargaining" or political discussions with the opposition that could harm constitutional processes, he said.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Suleiman gains support from March 14, awaits official word from opposition

Suleiman gains support from March 14, awaits official word from opposition
Gemayel announces 'historic position,' calls for 'national solidarity'

By Hani M. Bathish
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: The ruling March 14 alliance announced Sunday that it would back the commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces, General Michel Suleiman, as a compromise candidate for the presidency, backtracking on its earlier opposition to amending the Constitution in order to fill the vacancy in the top post. "March 14 takes this historic position and calls for the widest possible national solidarity around it," former President Amin Gemayel said, reading out a statement after the alliance's meeting at Beirut's Phoenicia InterContinental Hotel. Gemayel said the initiative aims to bring to an end to the paralysis in the country. He also acknowledged that not all of his allies were entirely comfortable with an amendment. "March 14 registers ... the reservations of some of its members, in principle, on amending the Constitution and sees this [divergence] as reaffirming its democratic course within its understanding of diversity," Gemayel said. Sunday's March 14 meeting was chaired by parliamentary majority leader MP Saad Hariri and included Gemayel, Deputy Speaker Farid Makkari, Democratic Gathering leader MP Walid Jumblatt, Lebanese Forces boss Samir Geagea and presidential candidate Nassib Lahoud. Absent from the meeting was another presidential candidate, MP Butros Harb. Yet another possible contender, MP Robert Ghanem left early for what were described as personal reasons. Several Cabinet ministers, MPs and other members of March 14 were also present. Lahoud was reportedly among the members of the alliance who expressed reservations about amending the Constitution. Liberation and Development bloc MP Ali Khreis said the opposition will hold a meeting on Monday or Tuesday to come up with an official stance on Suleiman's candidacy. Speaking at a memorial ceremony in the South, Khreis voiced optimism that the crisis would be resolved in "the next few days." He said the army commander meets the specifications of a consensus president, praising Suleiman's "national stances" at several crucial junctures the country has faced.

Khreis also responded to Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir's suggestion on Friday that Speaker Nabih Berri had closed the doors of Parliament, arguing that "those who closed the door and hindered public institutions are those who hindered initiatives and insisted on monopolizing power." Gemayel, who accompanied Geagea on a visit to Suleiman at the latter's office in Yarze on Saturday, told Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC) on Sunday that he felt the general had a firm grasp of the problems facing the country, as well as the people's fears and concerns. He said he discussed means of reviving the role of constitutional institutions through a dialogue among the various parties to be led by Suleiman. Gemayel said Suleiman's good relations with Syria were not an obstacle but could be of use. Geagea told LBC that a resolution to the crisis was close at hand, going so far as to say that a solution to the political impasse could be reached in "a matter of hours." Geagea said the meeting with Suleiman on Saturday was aimed at dispelling fears of a potential struggle between the army and the Lebanese Forces, which fought pitched battles near the end of the 1975-1990 Civil War. "There is only one army. The Lebanese Forces today is a political party conducting only political activities in accordance with its convictions," Geagea said. He added that the situation in Lebanon was "very dangerous," comparing the country to "a very sick person requiring urgent surgery." "All we can do is to carry out consultations and talks. God willing a solution is close at hand," Geagea said.

On the opposition side, Hizbullah's number two, Sheikh Naim Qassem, also expressed support for Suleiman in an interview with Al-Manar TV on Saturday, but he also signaled his party's continued alliance with its initial candidate, Change and Reform Bloc leader MP Michel Aoun. "We, in Hizbullah ... have a positive view of General Michel Suleiman in addition to our appreciation of Michel Aoun's stance, and consider this [option] a serious one," Qassem said. "There is a big opportunity for discussion to reach an accord on the presidential election." Hizbullah officials have in recent days linked their support for any presidential candidate to Aoun's stance. Now that Aoun has publicly supported Suleiman, Qassem's comments can be seen as implicit support for the army commander as well. Meanwhile, efforts were reportedly under way on two of the three tracks via which constitutional amendments can be proposed to clear the way for a Suleiman presidency. Justice Minister Charles Rizk said Sunday that he would soon present Prime Minister Fouad Siniora with a his own proposed amendment. He said it would then be studied and discussed in Cabinet before a final draft is reached. A source close to Rizk told The Daily Star that he would present his proposal to Siniora on Monday. "He will present the proposal ahead of a Cabinet meeting planned for either Tuesday or Wednesday that will discuss the proposal," the source said. Rizk, speaking to Voice of Lebanon radio, stressed the need to "uphold Article 49 of the Constitution and not permit senior civil servants to run for president before two years pass after their resignation from their posts" as the article in question stipulates. He warned against the wording used in previous amendments, alluding to the Syrian-sponsored change in 2004 that extended Lahoud's term for three years. "A more lasting formula must be found that nonetheless preserves the exceptional nature of [Suleiman's candidacy], thus preventing other civil servants from abusing their positions to ease their way into the presidency," Rizk said. In addition to Rizk's legislation, Future Movement MP Bahia Hariri said moves were also afoot to have 10 MPs present an amendment proposal to the government and for a parliamentary session to convene on December 7, or sooner, "to rescue the country from this crisis." "We are confident that the crisis will end soon and with the New Year Parliament will be a beehive of legislative activity," Hariri said. Amendments can also be put forward by the president, but that office has been vacant since Emile Lahoud left office on November 24.

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