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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