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World Council for the Cedars Revolution

Mar 03rd
Home arrow News Content arrow Blog arrow Blog Items arrow Opinions and Editorials arrow Op-Ed: Historical Syrian Control Over Lebanon's Presidential Elections
Op-Ed: Historical Syrian Control Over Lebanon's Presidential Elections PDF Print E-mail
Written by FT   
Saturday, 10 November 2007

The Road to Democracy as heralded by The Cedar's Revolution hinges on Freedom, Sovereignty and Independence, mostly from Syrian Control
The Road to Democracy as heralded by The Cedar's Revolution hinges on Freedom, Sovereignty and Independence, mostly from Syrian Control

Electing a president in Lebanon used to be straightforward - Under Syrian Control.

Assad key to Beirut’s options
By Roula Khalaf in London, Financial Times 

Published: November 8 2007 22:46 | Last updated: November 8 2007 22:46

Electing a president in Lebanon used to be straightforward. Hafez al-Assad, the late Syrian president, would settle on a choice most favourable to Damascus, and then relay it to his Lebanese allies, who dominated parliament.

MPs would then meet and confirm the candidate in a vote.

The process took on a grotesque turn in 1998, when Assad announced his selection of Emile Lahoud, then army chief, in an Egyptian newspaper interview. Five years later, Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded his father, decided to take no chance and decreed, against the will of a vast majority of Lebanese and the world community, that Mr Lahoud’s mandate would be extended for three years.

Much has changed in Lebanon since then. The Lahoud extension intensified opposition against Syria’s dominance and it is believed to have cost the life of Syria’s main opponent, Rafiq Hariri, the former prime minister assassinated in 2005. But the killing, which many Lebanese blamed on Syria although Damascus denied involvement, provoked street protests and international pressures that forced Syrian troops out of Lebanon.

Yet Syria’s influence is far from over, as evidenced by the raging crisis over this year’s presidential election. With the clock ticking on the November 23 deadline that ends Mr Lahoud’s term, Syria can no longer impose its own candidate, but it can, through its allies, still have an important say in the process.

Although anti-Syrian MPs have a narrow majority in parliament – made ever so slim by assassinations – such is the weakness of the state that they risk provoking two rival governments and a civil conflict if they elect a president against the will of the pro-Syrian opposition led by Hizbollah, the Shia militant group.

Moreover, in Lebanon’s sectarian political system, the speaker of parliament, a Shia who belongs to the opposition, has the power to prevent the assembly from convening unless he agrees with the outcome of the election. A scheduled vote has been delayed twice and a session of parliament planned for Monday is likely to be postponed. With the presidency reserved for Christian Maronites (the Sunni get the premiership), Muslim leaders are now waiting for Christian groups, who have divided loyalties, to come up with an initial list of candidates.

To ensure that the election takes place, however, the government’s Arab and western friends have turned their attention to Damascus in recent days, hoping to persuade it to exert pressure on its allies and facilitate a compromise.

“The Syrians have a veto because they can close parliament and this is recognised by everyone including us,” says a pro-government politician. “What everyone is trying to do now, in his own way, is to take that veto away from them.”

The Saudi government is boycotting Syrian officials; the UN Security Council has called for a free vote; the US is piling up the pressure through additional sanctions; and France is offering Damascus carrots while also wielding a stick.

The US Treasury on Monday froze the assets and prevented US dealings with two pro-Syrian Lebanese politicians and two Syrians, including a relative of Mr Assad: accusing them of exerting control over the Lebanese political system and undermining the ruling coalition.

France, meanwhile, has sent envoys to Damascus, promising a normalisation of relations, deeply strained since the Hariri murder in 2005, if the regime keeps its hands off the Lebanese election. French officials say Syria’s answer has been encouraging, but Paris is waiting to see if words translate into deeds.

Some Lebanese politicians suspect Syria prefers a chaotic outcome that divides the country into two competing administrations. But Faisal Miqdad, Syria’s deputy foreign minister, dismisses the suspicions, insisting Damascus is looking for stability in Lebanon. Syria wants a consensus president who is not hostile towards it and will not interfere or put any names forward, he says.

Accusing the US of seeking “an American president for Lebanon”, he told the FT that Syria was in agreement with France over the “parameters” of the election. Syrian analysts, meanwhile, say Damascus would be satisfied with a friendly president who redressed relations, put an end to Beirut’s confrontation with Damascus and took “the edge off” the UN tribunal to try the alleged killers of Hariri.

Diplomats and analysts say the process is likely to go down to the wire and could still go either way – an election or a deepening crisis. “But if there’s no election, it’s a leap into the unknown,” warns a western diplomat. “And the un-known is not in the interest of anyone.”
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007


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