Thursday, May 22, 2008

Lebanese rivals set to elect president after historic accord

Lebanese rivals set to elect president after historic accord
By Hussein Abdallah
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Lebanese lawmakers are set to elect the commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces, General Michel Suleiman, as president on Sunday after rival political leaders clinched a deal in Doha on Wednesday to end an 18-month feud that exploded into deadly sectarian fighting and threatened to plunge the nation into all-out civil war. The deal that was reached at Doha after four days of intensive talks will lead to electing Suleiman, forming a national unity cabinet, and drafting a new electoral law for the 2009 parliamentary elections. The agreement was announced by Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani at noon Wednesday as the rival leaders gathered at a roundtable. "Some of you took to the streets asking your leaders not to return to Lebanon without reaching an agreement ... I would like to tell you that your leaders have finally agreed and they will shortly be on their way back," Sheikh Hamad said, addressing the Lebanese people. The rival leaders officially signed the agreement shortly after it was announced. They arrived in Beirut later in the day.

As the good news reached Beirut, people in the capital and in different areas of the country could not help but show their content and relief. The feeling of relief was followed by instant action as opposition supporters began to remove tents at the site of their 18-month sit-in in Downtown Beirut after Speaker Nabih Berri declared an end to the protest. Berri said that ending the sit-in was a gift from the opposition to the Doha agreement. The speaker also thanked Qatari and Arab mediators for their role in helping Lebanese parties reach an agreement. The long-awaited deal addressed two key issues of contention between the opposition and ruling majority. As far as forming a national unity government is concerned, the opposition has managed to get its long-demanded veto power. The new cabinet will be made up of 16 ministers for the parliamentary majority, 11 for the opposition, and three for the elected president. The 11 ministers (one third plus one of the 30-member cabinet) are all that it takes for the opposition to block any government decision to which its is opposed. However, the next cabinet is not due to last long as it will resign by default when the parliamentary elections are due next spring. Meanwhile, the most important deal of all was the agreement reached on drafting a new electoral law for the 2009 parliamentary elections.

The issue of the electoral law was the major hurdle to the success of the Doha talks after the rival sides, which approved adopting the qada (smaller district) as an electoral constituency, appeared at odds over how to divide seats in Beirut. As the Doha talks were moving close to failure, a late night meeting on Tuesday of a six-member committee to discuss the electoral law finally achieved a breakthrough. Following a short session, opposition MP Ali Hassan Khalil told NBN television that a settlement was in the offing. The feuding parties have finally managed to agree on dividing Beirut into three balanced constituencies. The first constituency is a Christian one with five seats, the second is a mixed one with four seats, and the third is a Sunni-dominated one with 10seats. The formula is likely to secure for parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri at least 10 out of Beirut's 19 seats. On the other hand, Reform and Change bloc leader Michel Aoun will have to fight to win the five seats in the Christian district as the Armenian vote will be a deciding factor in the mixed constituency. Up until the last minute, Aoun was reportedly fighting to put six seats in the Christian district, but ended up accepting the 10-5-4 formula. As for other parts of the country, the two sides agreed on adopting the divisions of the 1960 electoral law.

Prime Minister Fouad Siniora described the agreement as a "great achievement in ... the history of Lebanon." Speaking shortly after the Qatari emir announced the agreement, Siniora called on all Lebanese parties to condemn violence and pledge not to use arms to settle political disputes. The Doha agreement has committed all parties not to use violence and stated that security was the exclusive responsibility of the Lebanese state. Under the agreement, a dialogue is set to begin in Beirut to address the issue of the state's relations with political groups in the country. Such dialogue is to be held under the auspices of the new president. The issue of Hizbullah's possession of arms was not discussed at the Doha talks or mentioned in the agreement as the Arab committee decided to make do with banning the use of violence, a clear reference to the recent clashes in Lebanon between opposition and pro-government militants. The clashes left up to 65 dead and 250 wounded.

Hariri also praised the deal. "Today, we are opening a new page in Lebanon's history," he said. "I know the wounds are deep, but we have no one except each other," he added. Hariri thanked both his allies and opponents for facilitating mutual concessions and facilitating an agreement. Hariri reportedly left Doha for Saudi Arabia's capital, Riyadh, while other leaders returned to Beirut. Two other March 14 stalwarts, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and former President Amin Gemayel, sounded more cautious as they welcomed the agreement on Wednesday. Both Geagea and Gemayel agreed that what was achieved in Doha was the best of all possible options, but stressed that the most important part was implementing the agreement. "After ending the sit-in in Downtown Beirut, we will now move to electing a president ... The Parliament, which was closed for more than a year, will now open its doors," Geagea said. "We will finally leave the streets and return to state institutions," he added. Geagea also said that Suleiman would be Lebanon's first "real" president after 18 years of waiting, a reference to the influence Syria exerted on Lebanese politics after 1990. "Suleiman will be the first real president after the late Rene Mouawad," he said. Mouawad was assassinated in November 1990 shortly after he was elected as president. Hizbullah MP Mohammad Raad said that the agreement reached at Doha was not an ideal one, but nevertheless "is enough to take Lebanon from one stage to another."

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