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Suleiman: Parliament should not boycott presidential election

Lebanese President Michel Suleiman criticized Hezbollah for going to fight in Syria and called for fixing some of the constitution’s flaws.
Lebanon's President Michel Suleiman (L) and Defence Minister Fayez Ghosn arrive to attend a military parade to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Lebanon's independence in downtown Beirut November 22, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir (LEBANON - Tags: ANNIVERSARY POLITICS MILITARY) - RTX15OFG

The Dec. 8 speech by Lebanese President Michel Suleiman in the Baabda Palace was no ordinary one. His words were few, but highly meaningful in clarifying key concepts. Some of those concepts were already known, while others have been promoted by the president and have become a main feature of his presidency.

The president’s speech encapsulated his six years of experience as head of state. He gave ideas on how to get out of the gridlock and strengthen the social safety and political development of Lebanon’s political system. If Suleiman’s reign can be summarized in one feature, it may be his tireless efforts to keep Lebanon neutral toward regional conflicts. That was the essence of the Baabda Declaration, a document that not only was approved by all Lebanese parties, but also formed the basis over which the international powers met in support of Lebanon in a New York conference last month. That conference was one of the declaration’s most prominent manifestations.

While the busts of the 12 presidents since Lebanon’s independence were being uncovered, Suleiman spoke about the crises that the country has passed through since independence. All the crises had a common theme: the Lebanese people disagree about foreign policy, about Lebanon’s position in the Middle East’s conflicts and about Lebanon’s role regarding the emerging regional powers. Suleiman talked about the volcanoes that have erupted whenever the Lebanese have abandoned their neutrality and drifted toward the deadly “game of the axes.” This happened in 1958 with the rise of Nasserism, which brought Lebanon to the brink of civil war, and in 1969 with the dispute over the Palestinian resistance’s weapons. That later crisis paralyzed the country and led to the signing of the Cairo Agreement, the first stab inflicted against the state. The Cairo Agreement legitimized armed groups being above the state, thus upsetting the country’s balances and resulting in the civil war that erupted in 1975.

This disagreement over foreign policy was no more than a reflection of the country’s identity crisis, which has never been resolved. It is the original sin; the sin of not clearly deciding on the country’s role and message.

The president’s words rang true when he said that foreign policy in a diverse country should be taken by consensus. It is no exaggeration to say, in light of Lebanon’s modern as well as ancient history, that the country can only be sustained if there is consensus on foreign policy. It is the top priority, the cornerstone of the country’s structure. This matter goes beyond Lebanon’s stance toward nearby countries and conflicts. It actually affects the core issues of belonging and identity.

Against this background, and in light of the ongoing conflict in the region, which has taken on a sectarian dimension, the president criticized whoever “went beyond the nation and the state, and disregarded the border for the sake of an internationalist jihad, to support a particular sect, or to get involved in an external conflict, to protect a certain cause or certain weapons.”

That message was directed at Hezbollah, which has violated Lebanon’s national pact. Hezbollah’s action has become an obstacle to the establishment of the state. Hezbollah is fighting others on religious grounds, forgoing the line of the Lebanese entity and its borders, at least those established with the formation of Greater Lebanon in 1920. This entity is based on the principle of a partnership that relies on dialogue to achieve reform and progress.

Remarkably, the president broke the taboo of not touching the Taif Agreement. He proposed developing the Taif Agreement to move Lebanon toward a civil state. The president did not talk about amending the Taif Agreement, but about developing it. The term “civil state” has become a slogan of historic proportions in light of the Arab revolutions that have been betrayed by religious movements. The latter failed miserably in Egypt, while in Syria they have become synonymous with war, fire and the other face of dictatorship.

The civil state may constitute a safety net for Arab societies, which have entered a phase of turmoil that may end in a democratic pluralistic system that resembles Lebanon’s, as the president liked to remind.

The president proposed developing Taif by clarifying the powers of the president and by fixing some of its shortcomings that have been revealed during and after the Syrian tutelage. Those shortcomings have paralyzed state institutions.

The constitution also didn’t set a deadline to form a government, as evidenced by the current crisis. Najib Mikati’s government resigned about nine months ago and no new government is in the offing. What’s more, there is no deadline for a minister to implement a decision made by the council of ministers. After Taif, ministers constitute an authority that can sabotage governance.

Also, some constitutional articles about prerogatives and enforcement mechanisms should be clarified. It seems as if those who wrote Taif bypassed the thorny issues related to the sectarian game and wrote ambiguous clauses instead of maintaining the effectiveness of the institutions and the balance of powers. For example, Article 49 stipulates that the president is responsible for “safeguarding the constitution and Lebanon's independence, unity and territorial integrity,” but gives him no mechanisms with which to do so.

The most important message delivered by the president from the Baabda Palace, the first headquarters of the Mutasarrifiyya (1861), is his appeal to parliament and to the political forces not to boycott the spring parliamentary session in which the next president will be elected. The most imminent danger is a presidential vacuum caused by a parliamentary boycott. The president stressed the need to avoid disruption and attend the parliamentary session out of respect for the republic and its institutions.

Based on his experience, Suleiman set the features of the next president. He said that the logic of compromise and moderation, on which the social contract is based, cannot withstand presidents having extreme or populist stances. The next president should be moderate, wise and courageous. He did not say that the next president should necessarily be chosen by consensus, only that the electoral session should not be boycotted. That’s the bottom line.

The president’s message was directed to all those who are wagering on a presidential vacuum, either for personal reasons — since some candidates may see that a vacuum enhances their chances to becoming president — or for reasons related to the country itself during a critical time when other countries are falling apart and national borders are being reconsidered.

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