Lebanese majority backs army commander as president

Saad Hariri's support of general may help end Lebanon's year-long political crisis.

Michel Suleiman 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Michel Suleiman 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The largest bloc in Lebanon's deadlocked parliament has dropped its opposition to the army chief becoming the next president, bringing Gen. Michel Suleiman one step closer to being the new head of state and ending Lebanon's year-long political crisis, a lawmaker said Wednesday. The apparent breakthrough, announced by legislator Amman Houry after weeks of political deadlock, came just one day after the Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland - a meeting that Lebanon's powerful neighbor, Syria, had chosen to attend. It had been widely expected that tension between the United States and Syria would ease after Syria's participation at the Annapolis meeting. That was expected to affect the Lebanon political crisis, because the Syrian-US tension has, in part, played itself out through Lebanon's complex politics. Suleiman is seen as a uniting figure, who both the US-backed majority in Lebanon and the pro-Syrian opposition - as well as outside players - can back. All sides appear to view him, at least for now, as a relatively neutral player who can guarantee that no side in Lebanon's fractured politics dominates the other. Houry, a legislator with the Future Movement of Saad Hariri, said the bloc had reversed its previous stand against amending the constitution to elect a sitting army commander. "We declare our acceptance to amend the constitution in order to reach consensus on the name of the army commander, Gen. Michel Suleiman," he said. Hariri is effectively the leader of Lebanon's parliamentary majority, and his support is tantamount to the majority's acceptance. Houry's statement described Suleiman as "symbol of the unity of the military establishment which has given martyrs and blood in defense of the nation against the enemy and against those who threatened civil peace." Suleiman is also respected by Hizbullah, which is leading the opposition, suggesting that after months of being unable to elect a new leader, the republic may once more have a president. The wild card remains whether Michel Aoun, a leading Christian opposition politician, a former army commander and a presidential candidate himself, would go along. Parliament has been deadlocked since September on electing a president and failed to pick a head of state before President Emile Lahoud left office on Friday, leaving a dangerous power vacuum. All sides, however, have accepted the military's role in keeping security. Suleiman's name had previously been floated as a candidate, but that would have required a constitutional amendment to allow senior state employees to run while still in office. The 59-year-old general, who has been commander for the last nine years, appointed with Syria's approval when Damascus ran the show in Lebanon, has been doing the rounds of the leaders of Lebanon's disparate communities this week. He is credited with keeping the military together in the political upheaval since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Saad's Hariri's father, in 2005 and the subsequent withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. He is also a staunch supporter of Hizbullah's right to fight Israel and refused to crush anti-Syrian protests. But since last year's war between Hizbullah and Israel and the deployment of the Lebanese army in southern Lebanon near the border with Israel, Suleiman has distanced himself from the Shiite Muslim guerrillas. The legislature was scheduled to meet again on Friday to try one more time to elect a leader.