Tight security in Lebanon ahead of election

Anticipation builds as dignitaries from both Western and Arab countries arrive in Beirut for long-delayed presidential election.

Michel Suleiman 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Michel Suleiman 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Lebanese flags and pictures of army chief Michel Suleiman adorn Beirut's streets Sunday as parliament prepares to elect the consensus candidate as president - a key step toward reconciling Lebanese factions after a long political crisis that has brought the country to the brink of all-out civil war. Hundreds of policemen and army troops sealed off the capital's downtown area where lawmakers are scheduled to meet at 5 p.m. to vote for the compromise choice of both the majority and opposition. Foreign dignitaries including Arab and European foreign ministers are expected to attend the session. The vote has been postponed 19 times since November, when President Emile Lahoud stepped down without a successor. It comes after a deal brokered by Qatar after five days of talks there between Lebanon's Western-backed government and the Hizbullah-led opposition. Attendance will include representatives from both sides of the Middle East's Sunni-Shi'ite divide: the foreign ministers of Syria and Iran, which support the Hizbullah-led opposition, and Saudi Arabia, a strong backer of Lebanon's government. Other dignitaries expected to attend Sunday's session are the emir of Qatar, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and EU Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana. A US delegation of six congressmen, three of them of Lebanese descent, was also among arrivals. Iranian Foreign Minister Manochehr Mottaki told reporters at Beirut airport he was carrying with him a "sea of support" for Lebanon. Kouchner, in a veiled comment aimed at Hizbullah, said he had hoped the solution would come in a more "democratic" way. "But this is Lebanon," he added. Kouchner had for months tried to mediate between feuding Lebanese politicians to no avail. On the eve of the election, there was anticipation and much excitement across Lebanon. The Lebanese flag - red and white with a cedar tree in its middle - adorned almost every street and wall in parts of the country. Slogans welcoming the president-to-be, along with his pictures, stretched across highways leading to the capital. The Arab-mediated Doha agreement reached Wednesday ended a standoff that had paralyzed Lebanon's government before boiling over into the worst violence since the 1975-1990 civil war, leaving at least 67 people dead and at least 200 wounded. Suleiman's candidacy is unopposed, a compromise after the majority and the opposition withdrew their candidates. Still, some have objected to the way it has all come about. Lebanon's constitution bans serving top government officials, including army commanders, from becoming president. Parliament should have to amend the constitution but experts are saying this time around is an exception because the president's post is vacant. The army general bid farewell to fellow officers Saturday, and was expected to take off his uniform in a symbolic break with the military just after he is elected president. The Qatar deal was a major victory for the Iranian-backed Hizbullah and its allies, who got their long-standing demand for veto power over all government decisions. But most Lebanese just seem happy that the shadow of war has been lifted, at least for now. Over the past two days, life has returned to Beirut's upscale downtown district - a symbol of the city's rebirth after it was devastated and rebuilt after the 15-year civil war. The area had turned into a virtual ghost town by a Hizbullah-led sit-in for the past 17 months. Already it appears that the economy, battered by violence and uncertainty, is on the upswing. The stock market is up and, according to tourism officials, 750,000 Lebanese expatriates have booked summer vacations in Lebanon. "Hundreds of Arab and foreign investors are preparing to return with their money to Lebanon after they were searching for a secure place," Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said in a statement after chairing his Cabinet's last meeting Friday night. Suleiman's election Sunday is expected to fuel momentum toward stability, and he has pledged to strengthen "reconciliation and understanding" among rival factions. "Lebanon is a country that deserves much from us. The Lebanese are a people who enjoy life. They have always proved that they are stronger than crises and pitfalls to which they have been subjected and for which they have paid blood, tears and sacrifices," An-Nahar newspaper quoted Suleiman as saying Saturday. "We have a big challenge ahead of us," he said.