Lebanon rivals can agree, Italian minister says

Rival Lebanese leaders say they can agree on a new president in a step seen as vital to defusing a deep political crisis but “everything could still go wrong”, Italy’s foreign minister said on Saturday.Massimo D’Alema said leaders from the rival camps had told him they could agree on a candidate to replace President Emile Lahoud, a close ally of Syria whose term ends on November 23.

But talks to reach a deal before November 21, when parliament is set to convene to elect the new head of state, had hit a stumbling block because of Christian leader Michel Aoun’s insistence that he should fill the post, D’Alema said.

“The negotiations are hitting a particularly difficult point because there is a player who says ‘I am the candidate’. This is clearly a problem,” D’Alema told Italian reporters during a visit to Beirut, referring to Aoun.

“He thinks he is the candidate who can unite the country but as an observer, it doesn’t seem likely to me.”

Aoun, a former general, is leader of the biggest Christian bloc in parliament and part of the Hezbollah-led opposition, which has been locked in a power struggle with the Western-backed governing coalition for more than a year.

The political conflict is the country’s worst internal crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.

Many fear it could trigger violence without a deal on the presidency, which is reserved for a Maronite Christian according to the country’s sectarian power-sharing system.

LIST OF CANDIDATES

The head of the Maronite church has given a list of candidates to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a leading member of the opposition, and majority leader Saad al-Hariri.

They are then expected to choose.

“I have been told by Berri and Hariri that it is possible to find an agreement on one of the personalities on the list, even though I am not sure they are thinking of the same person,” D’Alema said.

“The ingredients of a deal are there but then everything could still go wrong.”

Lebanese political sources say the list includes Aoun — the opposition’s declared candidate — and two figures supported by the governing coalition.

But the consensus figure is expected to be one of three moderate candidates named by Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir. They are MP Robert Ghanem, former central bank governor Michel Khoury and former minister Michel Edde.

The candidate will be Lebanon’s first new president since Syria pulled its troops out of Lebanon in 2005. Damascus controlled Lebanese politics until the withdrawal.

D’Alema said: “My impression is that the consensus solution can be found.”

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