Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Lahoud, Aoun, Geagea milk cows together in Bekaa Valley

Lahoud, Aoun, Geagea milk cows together in Bekaa Valley
After naming nine children after political events and figures, local farmer hopes to name next child after new president - if political crisis is resolved

By Agence France Presse (AFP)

QABB ELIAS: Lebanese Christian leaders Samir Geagea and Michel Aoun may be at each other's throats politically, but their namesakes in the Okla family get along like a house on fire. Mazyad Ibrahim Okla, a farmer in the Bekaa village of Qabb Elias, 50 kilometers, east of Beirut has named his five sons Aoun, Geagea, Chirac, Lahoud and even Bashar after Syrian President Bashar Assad. Now another baby is on the way, and Okla is impatient for the election of a new Lebanese president so he can give that name to the child if it is a boy.

Each child's birth has coincided with a major political event.
"Aoun was born in 1990 at the end of the Civil War and general Aoun was a hero," said 48-year-old Okla, who has also fathered four girls. A visit by former French President Jacques Chirac to Lebanon in 1996 prompted him to name a son after the former French president, who does not remotely resemble the gap-toothed olive-skinned boy. "France is our best friend, and Chirac was Hariri's friend," he said of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri whose assassination prompted this devoted loyalist to name a daughter "Irhab." The word means terrorism in Arabic. "My wife gave birth 10 days after the assassination. If it had been a boy I would have called him Hariri." Okla does not regret naming his plump-cheeked blond-haired 2-year-old "terrorism" even though it may raise the ire of feminists and women's rights groups. "I want everyone to ask her what her name means when she grows up, so she can tell them about dear Hariri," the proud father said of the slain anti-Syrian five-time premier. Of his sons, Lahoud - named after the incumbent President Emile Lahoud - is teased the most at school. According to his sister Waad, the eldest child who cares for her siblings when their parents are working on the farm, Lahoud came home one day from school and was crying. When she asked him what was wrong, he replied: "Everybody tells me my days are numbered. Why is something bad happening to me?" As Waad tells the story, Geagea goes off to milk the cows in the barn and Aoun who is 2 years older goes to help him by holding the pump. Little Bashar hides behind milk churn, and shyly looks on. Aoun says he wants to follow in the footsteps of the head of the Free Patriotic Movement and join the army or the police, while Geagea - who is the best student among them all - wants to become a fighter pilot.

With another baby due soon, the Okla family plans to name the new arrival after the next president. But the politically divided country has been unable to choose a new head of state because of ongoing disagreements between the anti-Syrian majority and the Hizbullah-led opposition. If the new arrival is a girl, therefore, she will be called "Salam" which means peace in Arabic. Okla and his wife Hammama, Sunni Muslims, plan to have "as many kids as God wants" and say they will continue naming them after politicians. With a Chirac and an Assad already in the family, another "foreigner" being accepted into the fold cannot be ruled out. But asked whether they would name any new children after President George W. Bush or his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, both shake their heads emphatically and shout "la, la!" - "no!" in Arabic. "Only after the French, because they really like us," Mazyad adds.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

'Clairvoyant' Michel Hayek sees new Lebanese president, more assassinations, Hizbullah 'surprise'

'Clairvoyant' sees new Lebanese president, more assassinations, Hizbullah 'surprise'
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Reputed clairvoyant Michel Hayek predicted late on Sunday that "Lebanon will witness the election of a new president despite current problems." He also ruled out the "imminent" threat of civil war. In an interview with George Salibi on New TV, Hayek foresaw "a few skirmishes and problems" in the country. "There is no impending end to the string of assassinations," he said, referring to the political murders that have plagued Lebanon since 2005. Nicknamed "the Nostradamus of the Middle East," Hayek is known for his yearly predictions for Lebanon, the Middle East and the world. "I see tripartite skirmishes between Lebanon, Syria and Israel," Hayek said without further elaboration. He predicted that Shaker all-Abssi, leader of the Fatah al-Islam militant group "will reappear in a different situation."

In September, the Lebanese Army took over the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli after three months of fighting with Fatah al-Islam. "The achievements of Lebanese Army Commander General Michel Suleiman will be distorted," said Hayek. "I see attempts to attack the army as well as changes in its personnel and leaders." He also said the army would face some "internal problems." Hayek's forecasting also implicated political leaders. "Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun and Premier Fouad Siniora are part of a plan and I see a new stand, position and equation," he predicted, adding that Hizbullah would make a decision "that will surprise many people."

On the international scene, Hayek said that French President Nicholas Sarkozy "will face a complicated crisis." In addition, he predicted the death of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert - who promptly announced on Monday that he has prostate cancer. Among past predictions, Hayek has foreseen the deaths of Princess Diana and former Premier Rafik Hariri, as well as MP Gebran Tueni. -The Daily Star

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.

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?"

Monday, October 22, 2007

Feuding Lebanese factions show signs of progress

Feuding Lebanese factions show signs of progress
Aoun and gemayel hold late-night talks at home of mutual friend

By Hani M. Bathish
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) leader MP Michel Aoun and former President Amin Gemayel held talks on Sunday at the residence of a common friend in Rabweh. The meeting between Aoun, a key opposition player, and Gemayel, a stalwart of the ruling March 14 coalition, was still under way when The Daily Star went to press, but the talks were believed to be aimed at breaking the impasse over the election of Lebanon's next president. The relationship between the two men suffered a downturn in the aftermath of the Metn by-election in August, when Gemayel lost to FPM candidate Camille Khoury for the seat made vacant by the assassination of the former president's son, Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel. In another sign of a possible rapprochement, the National News Agency reported late Sunday that Lebanese Forces (LF) MP Georges Adwan had visited Aoun at the latter's residence in Rabieh earlier in the day. Meanwhile, the diplomatic weight of three European foreign ministers, as well as a positive meeting between Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and parliamentary majority leader MP Saad Hariri, failed to settle the presidential issue. Amal Movement MP Ali Hassan Khalil told New TV that the Parliament session scheduled for Tuesday to elect a new president would almost certainly fail to take place because either opposition MPs would boycott it or Berri would postpone it. Both camps have said more time is needed to build consensus on a candidate, and Berri and Hariri at their Friday meeting progressed to the stage of discussing names. Gemayel, speaking to Voice of Lebanon radio on Sunday, said Tuesday's session would be postponed for 10-15 days. "We can consider it postponed. Speaker Berri was informed after consulting with all parliamentary blocs that it is better to postpone the session for several weeks," while Berri's and Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir's initiatives proceed, he said. Gemayel said he hoped the extra time would be used wisely and lead to a consensus on a president capable of protecting the country or a choice of two or three suitable candidates who can be nominated for a vote by MPs.

Parliamentary sources told the Naharnet Web site on Sunday that Berri was considering rescheduling the session for November 6 or 13. The foreign ministers of France, Italy and Spain - Bernard Kouchner, Massimo D'Alema and Miguel Angel Moratinos, respectively - left Beirut with the distinct impression that matters concerning presidential election were "moving forward and in the right direction," Kouchner said. "It's a very strong sign that the three countries come at a very timely moment," Moratinos said at a news conference at UN Interim Force in Lebanon headquarters in South Lebanon on Saturday, calling the visit "historic." Gemayel in his radio interview said that international backing for Lebanon was unwavering and that the EU had proved it by sending the foreign ministers to Lebanon. "They do not have a magic wand to impose their will on Lebanese MPs," he said, "but this does not prevent their visit from being one of support and encouragement and a way for sending messages." Gemayel said a meeting of opposition and majority leaders with the three ministers at the French ambassador's residence on Saturday evening was simply an opportunity to meet and talk. "I cannot say that anything new happened, as each side merely restated their fixed positions. March 14 stressed the need to hold elections within the constitutional timeframe and rejected the emergence of a constitutional vacuum, while March 8 stressed the need for a two-thirds quorum," Gemayel said. Apart from Gemayel, those in attendance included LF leader Samir Geagea, Aoun and resigned Energy Minister Mohammad Fneish of Hizbullah. The Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation reported that during the meeting Geagea rejected the idea of a agreeing on a president ahead of an electoral session, while Fneish warned that the country would face great difficulties if the majority elected a president by a simple majority. Geagea wondered why the country should face difficulties when there were constitutional institutions through which matters can be settled. Fneish said opposition MPs have the constitutional right not to attend an electoral session.

Kouchner, meanwhile, told reporters that the EU foreign ministers came out of the meeting "with the feeling that things are getting better." "It seems to us that there is some movement forward," the French official added. March 14 presidential candidate and MP Butros Harb said a constitutional vacuum at the pinnacle of the state threatened the country with disintegration. "Whoever thinks he is capable of managing a vacuum while ensuring security and unity is mistaken. We have to avoid a vacuum," Harb said, adding that MPs might have a constitutional right not to attend a parliamentary session, but not if the action leads to a constitutional vacuum. Harb said Sfeir's and Berri's initiatives complemented one another, adding that both camps would try to agree on a president who met Sfeir's specifications. "I will not participate is selecting a president who does not meet these criteria," Harb said, adding that it was unacceptable for Lebanon to have a weak, subservient president who lacks experience and the required character to lead the country.

Social Affairs Minister Nayla Mouawad, who met US Vice President Dick Cheney in Washington on Saturday, repeated frequent government accusations of Syrian interference in Lebanon and argued that the best defense was Christian accord on a new president. "We will do our utmost to make sure [Sfeir's] initiative succeeds," she said, "as we believe what [Sfeir] said - failing to elect a new president before November 24 would place Christians' existence in Lebanon at risk." Cheney told Mouawad that the US would protect Lebanon's current government. Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh said the majority would not accept an "interim" president elected for a two-year term, as some have suggested. He said while consensus was the "preferred path," the election will proceed in any case. "We will not leave Lebanon without a president," he said.

For his part, Iranian Ambassador Mohammad Rida Shibani said that all "foreign and domestic conspiracies" to hold Lebanon hostage to US and Israeli aims would fail. "Iran will always remain supportive of the rights of Lebanese people in rejecting oppression and resisting the occupier," he said at a ceremony on Sunday to honor him and Iran's reconstruction efforts in the South after last year's war with Israel. Hizbullah's number two, Sheikh Naim Qassem, said a strategic partnership between Lebanon and the US was impossible and those seeking it aimed to crush the resistance in favor of Israel. He made the comments at memorial ceremony on Sunday for a resistance fighter whose remains were among those returned by Israel in an October 14 prisoner exchange. "Holding elections with half plus one of MPs, if you think of it, means you choose strife, and are thus responsible for your choice," Qassem said, adding that reaching a consensus on the presidency would put an end to US tutelage over Lebanon.

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