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Bazzi: Lebanon's Presidential Politics--No Violence, More Haggling

Interviewee: Mohamad Bazzi, Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
November 27, 2007

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Mohamad Bazzi, former Middle East bureau chief for Newsday, says there will be likely be more haggling ahead of a new deadline for Lebanon’s political parties to agree on a compromise candidate to become the country’s next president. He also says Syria can play a tempering role if it feels the road is opened at the Middle East conference in Annapolis for talks on ending Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights.

The term of office of Lebanon’s president, Emile Lahoud, ended on Friday. He stepped down and theoretically another Christian Maronite was supposed to be elected by the parliament to replace him, but a consensus candidate could not be agreed upon. So we’re in a state of limbo now. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has set this coming Friday as the date for parliament to choose the next president. Do you think it’s likely the political parties will come up with a candidate by then?

Judging by what’s happened in the past week, it’s unlikely that they’re going to find a consensus candidate by Friday. There seems to be this unwritten agreement now between the two sides—between the governing coalition and the opposition led by Hezbollah—to keep the rhetoric down while they negotiate a little more. There’s really not any real deadline on paper for them anymore. Everyone expected some kind of cataclysmic event by Friday, when the president’s term ended, but in very Lebanese fashion it turned out to be completely the opposite. Each side held back, the ruling coalition known as the March 14th coalition did not go into parliament and elect its own candidates with a simple majority and, in exchange, the opposition didn’t take to the streets and didn’t try to impose a rival government.

So you have more intense negotiations, but the two sides don’t seem much closer than they were last week. We should keep in mind the backdrop of the Annapolis summit this week. Up until the end of the summit on Wednesday, we’re unlikely to see anything move in Lebanon. The Syrians want to see what they can get out of this summit—if they can get some progress on getting negotiations started on recovering the Golan Heights from Israel, they might have some incentive to push the opposition in Lebanon to reach a compromise. But it’s not just the opposition—Hezbollah and its alliance with General Michel Aoun—that’s causing a roadblock in all of this. The governing coalition is also partly to blame. And the United States and Saudi Arabia, which support this governing coalition, are also partly to blame.

We know that the opposition seems to have centered on retired General Aoun, who at one time in his life was fighting the Syrians and was forced into exile, into France in 1990.  I’m not sure whom the Siniora government preferred. Did it have a candidate?

The so-called March 14th movement, which is led by Saad Hariri [the son of Rafik Hariri, who was a former prime minister assassinated on February 14, 2005] has two main candidates. One of them, to make matters more confusing in Lebanon, is actually a cousin of the president who just stepped down. His name is Nassib Lahoud, and the other one is Boutros Harb, who is a long-time member of parliament. Those two candidates are favored by March 14th, but there’s this concept in Lebanon that everything has to end up with neither a victor nor anyone vanquished, and that just causes tremendous problems because someone has to win some small victories eventually.

Please talk about Aoun for a minute. He came back to Lebanon after the Syrian troops left in 2005, after the assassination of former Prime Minister Hariri. Why did he then not join the March 14th group?

Aoun was in exile in France from 1990 to 2005, and it was the Syrians who forced him into exile. He was one of the first Lebanese political leaders who really challenged the Syrian president and the Syrian domination of Lebanon, so he has this long history of fighting with Syria. He was actually involved at the beginning of what’s become known as the Cedar Revolution, the popular uprising against the Syrians that followed the assassination of Rafik Hariri. Aoun and his movement were actually in the huge anti-Syrian demonstration on March 14, 2005 that gave a name to this movement. During the election that followed in June 2005, Aoun just couldn’t work out an alliance with Saad Hariri, and the other Lebanese leaders who were in this March 14th, pro-Western, anti-Syrian coalition. It really went down to gerrymandering of local politics, it went down to who’s going to get the best electoral alliance to get the most seats in parliament.

And so he threw his weight behind Hezbollah?

It was a couple months later. One of the twists of Lebanese elections and electoral law that few people realize is that in that first election, after the Syrians were gone in June 2005, Hariri and his allies actually made an alliance with Hezbollah in certain districts. And that was one way they could win some additional seats. What Hezbollah insists to this day is that the price of this alliance was that Hariri and his allies agreed not to disarm Hezbollah. And then, since then, March 14th and the Hariri movement has backed away from that and has been demanding that Hezbollah disarm, in line with UN Security Council resolutions. So it was a very short-lived alliance.

This is not unusual in Lebanese politics: this sort of alliance, the strange bedfellows that you have, because of the very Byzantine election structure in that country. Now, Aoun, in early 2006, really surprised almost everyone on the political stage when he signed what was called a “memorandum of understanding,” which was actually an alliance with Hezbollah. There had been secret negotiations going on for a few months, and he signed this agreement with the Hezbollah leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, and Aoun basically believed that his political fortune would be best served with Hezbollah. Hezbollah said that he would be their presidential candidate and, so far, they seem to have stuck by that—he’s still their first preference. And Aoun probably sees it as his best, and possibly last, chance to be president. He’s seventy-two years old right now, the Lebanese president usually serves six years, and in the next go-around he may not be able to be a contender.

Now he made a compromise offer last Thursday, which would have done what?

It’s a compromise intended to give him another shot at the presidency, because he offered the compromise to the governing coalition, to March 14th, of having a president who would serve a shortened term, sort of a temporary president who would serve two years until the parliamentary elections of spring 2009. He wanted to name that president. But he said it wouldn’t be himself, and it would not be someone from his own movement—so someone who would be a compromise or an outsider—and, in exchange, he would allow Hariri to name a prime minister for the same period, of two years, but also a prime minister who was not Hariri and not part of Hariri’s movement. Then there would be elections in the spring of 2009 and, at that point, they could have elections, redraw the entire political map, and choose a president for the regular six-year term.

And this was turned down because?

This was turned down because the governing coalition said that this was unconstitutional. And it’s true that there was no direct mechanism for this within the constitution. But you know the constitution also calls for having a president when the outgoing one leaves. It’s also intended to avoid a power vacuum, as has happened right now. And it’s not completely clear at the moment who has President Lahoud’s powers. Before he left office he made a statement about the country being in a state of emergency and that he was passing his security powers to the army. Immediately the government, the ruling coalition, rejected that, saying that it was unconstitutional. So there’s some confusion on the ground about what’s happening.

The United States and France have been the major Western powers supporting the March 14th group. Do they have a candidate in mind?

The United States seems to have this position of wanting a president one of whose priorities will be to disarm Hezbollah. This is the central problem we have, because Hezbollah is not going to accept a candidate who’s going to go after it and force it to disarm. So there seems to be a problem with the United States almost not wanting to accept any candidate who would support Hezbollah or not challenge it. France seemed less concerned with that. There are several other names being mentioned. One is Michel Edde. He’s about seventy-nine years old, and he’s been around the political scene for a long time and is from a big political family. He is actually someone who Aoun might appoint, if they actually end up with some sort of temporary president.  Given his age, he’s someone who might step down if he’s asked to.

There’s one name being mentioned, Robert Ghanem, who’s in his sixties. He’s close to the March 14th movement, but in the past maybe six months to a year he’s been trying to develop his relationship again with Syria, and trying to portray himself as a potential compromise. Hezbollah and Aoun don’t seem to accept him. They still view him as very close to March 14th. There’s also the head of the army, General Michel Suleiman, who has been credited with keeping the army together. He’s a Maronite—the head of the army is a spot that goes to the Maronites. There’s one issue with the head of the army, which is that the constitution has to be amended to allow a current, and active general, to serve as president.

Syria, at the last minute, agreed to send its deputy foreign minister to the Annapolis conference. They say they want to make sure the Golan Heights is on the agenda. How does this play out? In the past, the United States has been able to use the Golan Heights as a way to get the Syrians to compromise on Hezbollah. Does Syria have very much leverage on Hezbollah politically or not?

It does have some leverage. It’s an open question whether Syria or Iran has more leverage over Hezbollah at this point, because Hezbollah is so dependant on Iran for military and financial aid. This might be one of those situations where Iranian and Syrian interests diverge slightly. But the Syrians see real movement on the Golan. If they see a potential opening of Israeli-Syrian talks, they would calm things down a little bit in Lebanon as a gesture, as a signal to the Americans and the Israelis. In the end the Bashar Assad regime is very interested in regaining the Golan. It would give him something that even his father [the late president Hafez Assad] never achieved. Now I’m sure they would also view this as part of a bigger package that would include some accommodation in its relationship with Lebanon.

They would want to view all of these things together and they would want to deal with all of these things together. And really keep in mind that Assad is more likely to be able to deliver a deal with Israel than say, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas can. He’s much stronger.

Okay, bottom line. Who do you predict will end up as Lebanon’s next president?

In Lebanon, it’s almost impossible to predict who’s going to be president. There’s always this theory that all the names we’re hearing now are already burnt cards because they’re being discussed publicly and in the end it might be someone completely a surprise to everyone.

The next question is, if Friday comes and there’s no president, will there be a disaster, or just more jockeying?

We’ll see more jockeying. We’ll see another extension of the parliamentary sessions, possibly another week or another two weeks, who knows? But this week is kind of an experiment. The rhetoric has been calmed down, and they’ll see that nothing serious is going to happen. And there’s this constant political tension, there’s this constant fear of trouble when you’re living in a country without a president. But, as we know, Lebanese have a history of being able to deal with this, and maybe part of the problem is just that the average Lebanese can deal with this all too well and may not make as much of a fuss about it as maybe they should.

The Taif Accord that Saudi Arabia put together to end the civil war in Lebanon in 1989, called, among other things, for an end to sectarianism. So why isn’t there a direct presidential election in Lebanon in which anyone can run, regardless of sect? Would people support that, or is that just impossible?

No, there’s been some polling done in Lebanon that shows actually the majority of people would support direct presidential elections. And you’re absolutely right that this is one of the points about the Taif Accord. All the Lebanese confidently hold up the Taif as if it’s some sort of Magna Carta of Lebanon, but they all ignore the simple fact that it also calls for an end to sectarianism.  This is because it’s really not in the interest of any of the groups that are on the scene right now: Hezbollah, Aoun, Hariri. It is not in any of their interests to have a multifaceted political system and a system that’s not based purely on sectarianism. Moving forward that would probably be the best way for Lebanon to get out of this constant cycle of political paralysis and violence and then violence.

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