Lebanese may have to wait a little more for new president

Speaker Nabih Berri declared on Tuesday that the upcoming parliamentary session to elect the next head of state would likely be postponed, as senior Arab League official Hisham Youssef arrived in Beirut for two days of consultations with rival leaders. “As we near the deadline for a new president, it is critical to elect the president in line with the Lebanese Constitution and on time,” Youssef told reporters on Tuesday after meeting with Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

Following in the footsteps of other regional and international efforts, the Arab League sent its envoy to Lebanon as the presidential term of President Emile Lahoud comes to an end on November 24.

“Hopefully, the ongoing consultations will lead to a result soon,” said Youssef, who added that it was unlikely that the head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, would be coming to Lebanon any time soon.

Moussa’s repeated visits to Lebanon failed to bring about any tangible results in the country’s long-running political crisis. The March 14 ruling coalition and the March 8 opposition have been separated by a wide chasm since six of the latter’s ministers resigned from Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s government in November last year.

Youssef stressed the importance of the American and French positions over the upcoming election, and how the Western stance “reflected” that of the Arab League.

“Consensus is the best way to end the crisis,” Youssef said. The Western-backed March 14 Forces and the Hizbullah-led opposition have been unable to agree on a consensus candidate after months of negotiations and foreign prodding.

The Arab League official also met with Berri on Tuesday and is scheduled to meet with rival senior Lebanese leaders during his two-day visit to the capital.

Berri told As-Safir newspaper  Tuesday that he might delay the parliamentary session set for November 12 to vote for a new president if rival factions fail to agree on a candidate.

If the November 12 session gets postponed, it would make it the third electoral meeting to be postponed. Sessions called for September and October were postponed as the feuding camps failed to find a mutually acceptable candidate.

Sources close to Berri told The Daily Star that he would probably wait to postpone the session until he conferred with parliamentary majority leader MP Saad Hariri, who will return to Lebanon this week to meet with the speaker.

“Everything will become more clear once Hariri meets with Berri, as Hariri will bring with him the results from France and the US, and from Berri’s side he will inform Hariri of the local developments,” said Arafat Hijazi, Berri’s senior adviser.

Hijazi said Berri was “optimistic” over how the situation was progressing and the postponement, if it happens, would be just for a handful of days.

“An agreement is within reach, and therefore the speaker will postpone Parliament for just a few days – November 14 or 15, nothing longer,” he said.

Berri met with US Ambassador Jeffery Feltman for an hour on Tuesday, but neither official made any comments to the media after the meeting.

Feltman also met with Phalange Party leader and  former President Amin Gemayel on Tuesday, but no statements were made to the media.

As the deadline for electing a new president inches closer, there has been an upsurge of national and international efforts to reach an agreement on the next head of state, in order to bring stability after almost a year of enervating deadlock.

Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir met separately on Tuesday with two delegations. The prelate met with Siniora’s representative, Radwan al-Sayyed, and Hariri’s envoy, Nader Hariri.

“Consultations between Siniora and Sfeir are always ongoing. This time we met about the developments from the recent regional and international contacts made by Siniora,” Sayyed told reporters after meeting Sfeir on Tuesday.

Sayyed said that no candidates’ names had been discussed, but rather how “most” Lebanese leaders have agreed on having a consensus president.

“There is a great push to have the presidential election on time,” he said.

In an interview with satellite broadcaster Al-Jazeera, Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) leader MP Michel Aoun accused the majority of trying to “completely eliminate” the opposition.

“We have given up a lot of our demands. What is left for us is to pack our bags and leave the country,” Aoun said Tuesday.

TheFPM leader also believes that “going back to the people” was the best option for deciding on the next president.

“Let the people vote for the next president, and not just a few leaders,” he added.

Aoun said that he would “never sell Lebanon to Syria” and that he had proven throughout his career that he could “protect Lebanon.”

Aoun added that together with Gemayel he would form a “moderate Christian group,” and that this alliance would be made official soon.

“I agreed with Hariri on most of the controversial issues,” Aoun said, referring to his recent meetings with the majority leader in Paris.

At the same time, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Monday night that no deal had been cut with Syria over the election.

“There is no deal between Paris and Damascus, but rather Syrian authorities were reminded of fundamental issues,” Kouchner told reporters in Paris.

He stressed the need for Syria to refrain from interfering in Lebanese affairs, linking normalization of Franco-Syrian ties with Syrian compliance.

Kouchner said the presidential election should proceed without foreign interference, stressing that the Lebanese should pick the new head of state “alone.”

Kouchner defined the manner by which the president should be elected: A list would be presented by Sfeir, followed by discussions between Hariri and Berri to choose one or two candidates from the list, and these nominees would be put forward for election by MPs. 

Asked about the fate of Frenco-Syrian ties, Kouchner said: “If Damascus respects the democratic process, it’s obvious that relations between Paris and Damascus will improve.”

Kouchner also hinted to the media that he could return to Beirut “soon.”

In related news, Lebanon was expected to be on the agenda as US President George W. Bush hosted French President Nicolas Sarkozy for talks in Washington late Tuesday.

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