Lebanon: Lahoud steps down, but no one else steps up

November 24th, 2007 | Posted in Hezbollah, Lebanon, Corporate Media, Imperialism, Politics, War and Terror
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    Daily Star: Saturday, November 24th.

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    By Hani M. Bathish and Nafez Qawas.

BEIRUT: Emile Lahoud left Lebanon’s presidency at midnight on Friday, just hours after announcing the transfer of security responsibilities to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) because Parliament had failed to elect his successor. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora issued a statement shortly thereafter declaring Lahoud’s move unconstitutional.

Lahoud’s announcement explained his gambit by asserting that existing conditions in the country “could lead to a state of emergency,” but Siniora’s statement affirmed that only the Cabinet has the executive authority to declare such a state.

“[Lahoud] aims to deceive citizens into believing that the whole country is under intense danger, whereas the situation is secure as the army is maintaining security in the country,” the statement read, adding that since a new president was not elected “this government will continue to assume its responsibilities and exercise its full authority.”

Education Minister Khaled Qabbani, speaking to New TV late Friday, said that the LAF’s commander, General Michel Suleiman, had been in contact with Siniora and assured him that the army would follow the directives of the current Cabinet.

Sports and Youth Minister Ahmad Fatfat confirmed this, telling The Daily Star there was “complete coordination” between the government and the military and that the Cabinet has “no doubts” as to Suleiman’s commitment.

“Lahoud does not have the right to issue such a statement in the first place,” Fatfat said, adding that it was designed to spread fear. “The army has already taken all the precautions necessary in coordination with the government,” Fatfat said, adding that no extra security measures would be taken.

In a statement read out by spokesperson Rafik Shalala, Lahoud said: “There are conditions and risks on the ground that could lead to a state of emergency,” leading the outgoing president to hand the army responsibility for maintaining order.

The statement argued that the present government is illegitimate and unconstitutional and therefore incapable of assuming power in “a safe and constitutional” manner. Lahoud further instructed the army to report to the government once a “constitutional” one comes to power.

The Cabinet held a ministerial meeting Friday night ahead of assuming presidential powers in accordance with the Constitution. All majority-aligned ministers attended, except for Defense Minister Elias Murr. The session, which started at 6 p.m., was held to discuss the impact of postponing the presidential electoral session in Parliament.

The session was postponed for one week to allow time for further negotiations.

MPs from the ruling March 14 coalition warned that they retain the right to elect a president by absolute majority and that as of midnight Friday Parliament would be in continuous session, as per the Constitution, until a new president is elected.

Speaker Nabih Berri announced the one-week postponement a little after 1:30 pm “to allow time for further consultation and to reach a consensus.” He added that if consensus were reached before that date, the session could be held sooner.

In all, 109 majority and opposition MPs went to Parliament on Friday, but while the former entered the main chamber and waited for the session to convene, the latter waited outside. Berri met with MPs from various blocs and held closed meetings with both March 14 MP Walid Jumblatt, head of the Democratic Gathering, and parliamentary majority leader MP Saad Hariri.

Telecommunications Minister and March 14 MP Marwan Hamadeh told The Daily Star majority MPs were determined to thwart what he described as “further attempts to hinder the election of a president.”

“From midnight tonight we are free to gather. Not only is this a right, but also a commitment imposed on us by Article 74 of the Constitution,” he said.

Asked if the majority were considering electing a president by simple majority, the minister did not respond.

MP Hussein Hajj Hassan, of the opposition Loyalty to the Resistance, noted that the postponement was to complete negotiations toward agreement on a consensus president.

“This is far better than resorting to reckless choices like those the [majority] have talked about,” Hajj Hassan said. “The opposition is ready to move to face any coup attempted by the group in power. The real coup would be electing a president by simple majority and giving the Cabinet presidential powers.”

Asked what these moves would be, he said: “Let them carry out their coup to see what we will do,” adding that this was a step the opposition would prefer not to take.

Fatfat told The Daily Star that according to the Constitution, from midnight Friday Siniora’s government would assume presidential powers.

“The government only assume these powers temporarily until a new president is elected,” he added.

Hariri, speaking from Bkirki, where he met with Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir on Friday, said that consensus remained possible.

“The time has come for us as Lebanese to understand that we have no path open to us but consensus,” he said. “It is our duty and we will always seek it.”

He added that electing a president by simple majority was a constitutional right that March 14 has not resorted to because it wants consensus.

“We said from the first moment that Speaker Berri an-nounced his initiative,” the MP said, “we want consensus and we proceeded along this path on the understanding that there is a list that the patriarch has put forward through French mediations, but consensus failed to transpire due to some political disagreements with certain political parties.”

Refusing to respond directly to a last-minute initiative put forward by MP Michel Aoun, leader of the opposition Change and Reform bloc, Hariri nonetheless said that any changes to the president’s term in office would amount to tampering with the Constitution and the office.

Aoun had suggested that he choose a neutral president to serve a two-year term, while Hariri select a neutral prime minister to head a government of national unity. The majority rejected the proposal.

“If we can agree on a president let him be a president for a full six years,” Hariri said.

At midnight, as a festive mood prevailed in pro-March 14 neighborhoods, Lahoud made good on earlier pledges and left office as scheduled under the terms of the extension granted to him under Syrian pressure in 2004. He also unloaded a few parting shots at his detractors at home and abroad.

“The majority will be the losers in the end if they don’t accept to elect a new president, either by consensus or at least with a two-thirds [quorum in Parliament]” he told Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. TV moments after leaving Baabda Palace.

“Lebanon is not America or France,” he added, mentioning two of the Siniora government’s strongest foreign backers. “It is a consensus democracy.”

“No matter what [US President George W.] Bush says, this [Siniora’s] government is unconstitutional and illegitimate,” Lahoud said. “And they know it.”

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