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THAT'S A GAME TWO CAN PLAY
by Amir Taheri
Gulf News
December 28, 2005


Imagine a game in which new players have entered the field to compete according to new rules but find themselves faced with one old player still trying to retain the old rules.

That is what is happening in Lebanon in the wake of the Syrian military withdrawal that ended 29 years of occupation.

A new parliament has been elected and a new government is in place. The media, terrorised into silence or forced to practise dissimulation, have rediscovered the joy of free expression. After a moment of hesitation business is beginning to pick up as confidence in the future is raised.

More importantly, perhaps, the rule of law is being restored to Lebanon, ending decades of lawlessness promoted by the Syrian intelligence services and their local agents.

By all accounts, Lebanon is resuming its historic vocation as a haven of freedom in a region still trying to emerge from the darkness of despotism.

And, yet, even a day-trip to Beirut would reveal that there is still something wrong. Political assassinations, a speciality of the Baathist regime, continue at the rate of one every few weeks. The latest victim was Gibran Tueni, one of the rising stars of Lebanese politics and media. At least a dozen prominent Lebanese figures have fled for safety to France to escape possible assassination. In Beirut everyone asks who will be the next target.

"It is as if you were staging one play but found out that one of the central characters is a leftover from another play," says a Lebanese intellectual. "The Syrians are gone but the most conspicuous symbol of their rule remains."

Illegal extension

That symbol, of course, is President Emile Lahoud whose legal tenure ended last year, but was extended by Damascus for a further three years.

It was on that illegal extension that the late prime minister Rafik Hariri quarrelled with Syria's President Bashar Al Assad, triggering a chain of events that led first to Hariri's resignation and then his assassination.

"To see Emile Lahoud still haunting the presidential palace like a ghost from the past gives the feeling that Hariri has not yet won the argument, even by giving his life," says a Lebanese politician.

Sa'ad Hariri, Rafik's son and leader of the largest bloc in the newly elected parliament, has publicly called on Lahoud to "retire and go home".

His demand is echoed by leaders from all sides of the political spectrum in Lebanon. And yet the "prolonged president", as he is called, shows no sign of wanting to bow out.

How has Lahoud, a retired admiral, managed to survive the shipwreck of Syrian occupation in Lebanon?

The answer lies in Lebanon's sectarian constitutional arrangements under which the president must be a Maronite Christian while a Sunni Muslim gets the premiership and a Shiite Muslim the speakership of the parliament.

Should Lahoud be allowed to hang on for as long as there is no consensus within the Maronite community on his successor?

The Maronites are deeply divided in at least three factions.

One faction, with the Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir as its de facto leader, is anxious that showing Lahoud the door at this time could be seen as the result of pressure from other communities, notably the Sunni Muslims and the Druzes.

Members of this faction have a narrow reading of the constitution which, although stipulating that the president must be a Maronite does not give the Maronite community the exclusive right to nominate let alone appoint him.

In fact any political group could field a candidate for the presidency as long as the choice happens to be a Maronite.

The final decision, however, is left with the parliament where the Maronites hold fewer than 20 per cent of the seats.

Many in Lebanon, including within the Maronite community, are not comfortable with the idea of the patriarch posing as the king-maker at a time that other Lebanese communities are invited to separate religion from politics in a common quest for pluralism.

A second faction is led by former General Michel Aoun who earlier returned from a long exile in France and managed to win a parliamentary seat in the last general election.

Aoun who, at one stage, staged a mini-military coup and declared himself the dictator of Lebanon during the last phase of the civil war before running away, sees himself as a mini-version of General Charles De Gaulle returning home to claim power.

Tarnished image

Aoun, however, is no De Gaulle, and even his admirers admit he is tarnished by years of association with Saddam Hussain, the deposed Iraqi despot who is on trial in Baghdad on charges of crimes against humanity.

Aoun is also handicapped by his long absence from Lebanon, his tempestuous character and his advanced age. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that while he may not be able to make something he is in a position to break anything that anyone else might try to make.

One sign that Aoun is ready to be the wrecker if necessary is his sudden discovery of sympathy for his former Syrian foes. His message to Damascus is stark: Drop Emile Lahoud and adopt me lest you get someone worse!

A third faction within the Maronite community consists of the modernists who believe that Lebanon has a unique chance to build a solid democracy, enter the global system, and make a strategic alliance with the major Western powers.

This faction could field at least four potential presidential candidates: parliamentarians Boutros Harb, Robert Ganem and Samir Frangieh, plus former deputy Naseeb Lahoud.

Although he suffered a setback by losing his parliamentary seat in the last general election, Naseeb Lahoud appears to be the only prominent Maronite capable of winning support from all Lebanese communities.

One of the youngest of the potential presidential candidates, Naseeb Lahoud is also among the most experienced with a political and diplomatic career spanning a quarter of a century. The fact that he is married to a Muslim lady of Palestinian origin further enhances his image as a potential unifier in a divided nation.

"The sooner we replace the bad [Emile] Lahoud with the good [Naseeb] Lahoud, the better for Lebanon," says a Lebanese journalist.

The question, however, is whether or not Patriarch Sfeir and the major powers interested in Lebanon would prefer a lame-duck president to a new and active one who might embark on an ambitious, but risky, policy of reform and change in both domestic and foreign policy fields.

Iranian author and writer Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.

 

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