After Lahoud, choose a president for all

Posted in Broader Middle East | 08-Sep-05 | Author: Michael Young

Lebanon's pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud.

An unsourced sidebar in Sunday's Al-Nahar estimated that it will cost half-a-million dollars to fly Emile Lahoud and his dwindling court to New York so he can get the cold shoulder from most of the world's grandees at the annual United Nations General Assembly session. But he will surely pretend it doesn't matter, that he can always get a bowl of warm soup from the brigands and nonentities he has favored meeting during his seven years of striving for foreign policy insignificance.

Perhaps, but at this stage Lahoud must look beyond self-interest and realize that his presence is poisoning Lebanon's political waters. One year ago the president was given a three-year extension by a cowed Parliament, and he had the temerity to interpret this as a mandate. It is no longer relevant whether the Mehlis report finds him personally guilty of involvement in Rafik Hariri's murder; in any self-respecting country, a president whose closest subordinate was involved in a major crime, who then covers for that subordinate and defends him publicly after his detention, is ripe for the slab. Beyond this, Lahoud must accept he has nothing to offer the system. His presence has become a drag on the evolution of the post-Syria order. Innocent or guilty, Lahoud must go.

But one thing the president can do (other than cancel that useless and embarrassing New York junket) is to act responsibly and prepare his own political obituary. That doesn't mean he should choose a successor, since Lahoud doesn't have a majority in Parliament to do so. Rather, he should set in motion a timetable for his resignation and the election of a replacement, and oversee a process that is consensual.

We now know that Walid Jumblatt's trip to Paris last week was not done for security reasons, as many assumed. Instead, he felt the urge to coordinate with Saad Hariri on Lahoud's ouster, and, more importantly, to test the waters for who might come afterward. Jumblatt cancelled a news conference he had called following that of the UN investigator, Detlev Mehlis. No reason was given, but the possibility is that Jumblatt wanted to use Mehlis' revelations to raise the ante on the president. However, when the investigator said that Lahoud was not a suspect in Hariri's death, the Druze leader had no choice but to retreat.

Jumblatt and his followers have been playing an inconsistent and destructive game on the presidency. Last week Jumblatt wanted Lahoud out, then he backtracked after meeting with Hizbullah's secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah; his ministers at first refused to attend Cabinet sessions presided over by the president, then changed their mind. Recall how only weeks after the deaths of Samir Kassir and George Hawi - deaths the "Bristol opposition" blamed squarely on a security complex they said was controlled by the president - opposition politicians sat next to Lahoud, smiling, in the consultations for the formation of a new government.

Perhaps the most bizarre outbursts have come from Jumblatt men Marwan Hamade and Akram Shuhayyib. In an interview last week with the magazine Al-Akhbar, Hamade bluntly stated that Michel Aoun would not be president, since he did not control a parliamentary majority. Shuhayyib, in turn, implicitly said that Aoun was a no-no because, as he put it, "we've had bitter experiences with military men in the past."

The Jumblattists' focus on Aoun is odd, for two reasons: if the general is inconsequential, then he doesn't merit the attention; and if he is not, then it's not up to a minority faction in Parliament to rule out his chances of taking office. But what was particularly pernicious in Hamade's statement was how it ignored the logic used by the Jumblatt-Hariri coalition to recently justify bringing Nabih Berri back as speaker of Parliament: whereas Berri was defended as someone who had a sizable parliamentary bloc and was favored by his community, that same reality has been deemed irrelevant in Aoun's case. As for Shuhayyib, he didn't convincingly explain why military men were any worse than former militiamen, even if one can admit that both tend to be tiresome.

Whether Aoun becomes president or not should not be the issue, though he should have the same opportunity as others. However, Jumblatt, in trying to bring Hariri in on a prefabricated deal to place a favorite in power - doubtless Ghattas Khoury or some other peon - is going further out on a limb than previously, and reviving the dangerous strategy that was used to pass the appalling election law. There are already indications, though, that Hariri is reluctant to again fall into Jumblatt's trap, and that he prefers to allow the election of the next president to be a consensual affair, not one manipulated by Jumblatt and himself.

That's where Lahoud might be useful. He could set the conditions for a new election by setting those for his withdrawal. By all accounts, he would have the support of the Aounists as well as of the Hizbullah-Amal bloc, and Hariri would probably go along if the president accepts a short deadline to leave office. The point is to ensure a smooth process that does not involve a divisive vote in Parliament to reverse the constitutional amendment of last year extending Lahoud's term. Yes, the president may feel the urge to twist the system to stay in power, but what kind of tainted presidency would he then be defending? Before long, Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir would entreat him to abandon, since the Maronite community could only lose from Lahoud's stubbornness.

Only after the president is out should there be consultations on individuals, and needless to say the parliamentary majority would have the greatest sway. Its decision may well be to overlook Aoun. This would be difficult to defend in light of Berri's election, but acceptable constitutionally. However, successful Lebanese presidents have traditionally satisfied two conditions: they represented a plurality within the Maronite community, and they had broad appeal among other communities. When presidents have come up short on one or both of these conditions, the result has usually been damage to the system, or even war.

If Lebanon is to move forward in the coming years, a new president must be able to speak for his own community, collaborate with a prime minister very likely from the Hariri camp, talk as an equal to Hizbullah and the Shiite community, particularly about implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1559, deal with Syria from a position of true sovereignty, and have the willingness to make Lebanon's case overseas without being advised that it would be better to stay home.

Emile Lahoud satisfied none of these conditions, but he can salvage some of his self-respect by agreeing to retire as soon as possible, allowing the system to bring in a successor very different than he is.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.