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Lebanon's Man in the Muddle By: Amir Taheri
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, May 30, 2008

EVEN before he was sworn in as Lebanon's new president on Sunday, Gen. Michel Suleiman had earned the sobriquet tawafoqi - "man of consensus." He lived up to that label in his first address as president - with something for everyone.

Suleiman, the former Army chief of staff, waved an olive branch at Syria, the power behind much of Lebanon's troubles these last four decades. But he also suggested that Syria and Lebanon establish diplomatic ties - something Syria has always rejected because, deep down, it doesn't really recognize Lebanese independence.

On his first full day in office, Suleiman arranged to meet the visiting Iranian foreign minister, Manuchehr Motakki. After all, the Islamic Republic is a key player in Lebanese politics, thanks to its control of the Shiite Hezbollah militia and the Maronite Christian bloc led by ex-Gen. Michel Aoun.

Yet the "man of consensus" at least partly owed his election to Saudi Arabia and Egypt (whose support led to the success of the recent Doha peace conference among Lebanese factions). So the new president spent a good part of his first day in office on the phone with Saudi and Egyptian leaders.

Suleiman became the "man of consensus" because, at first, nobody wanted him as president. The Western-backed democratic coalition, headed by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, wanted Nassib Lahoud (a former ambassador to Washington). The Hezbollah-led opposition, backed by Iran and Syria, wanted Aoun.

Had they acted with greater courage six months ago, the democrats - known as the March 14 Coalition - might have been able to elect their candidate. But they hesitated - allowing the Iran-backed faction to heighten the crisis and draw in the Arab League. Once the Arab League was involved, the Lebanese coalition lost a good part of its independence.

Suleiman's election is hailed throughout the region as a sign that neither side in Lebanon has won. In a sense, however, the winner was Hezbollah and its Maronite allies - the side that relied on bullets rather than ballots. They showed that, even if you lack the votes, you can still prevent the election of someone you don't like - provided you have the guns.

Suleiman has made it all but clear that he won't press for Hezbollah's disarmament, although two UN Security Council resolutions demand just that.

At least one member of the democratic bloc, the Maronite leader Samir Geagea, even hinted at fears that Suleiman may be a tool of Syria because he was appointed chief of staff during the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. Other coalition members, however, including the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, describe Suleiman as "a true patriot."

No one really knows how the Suleiman presidency might shape up in the difficult years ahead, but two points are clear:

* His election restores Lebanese politics to a certain normality that it hasn't known for the last 18 months. With a new "consensus" president in place, Hezbollah gunmen may find it harder to invade Beirut neighorhoods.

The struggle for power can now shift back to the political arena - rather than the streets, city districts and mountains. And next year's general election promises a decisive showdown between two opposing visions of the nation's future.

* Rival powers bidding for influence in Lebanon may have learned that they can't achieve exclusive domination for their proxies without provoking civil war. That understanding may enable Lebanon to return to its traditional neutrality, including on the Palestinian issue - thus resuming its role as a Middle Eastern haven of peace (and center of political intrigue).

Tactically, Hezbollah looks like a winner. Strategically, however, the Iran-backed party could be a loser: For, while it can try to seize power by force as Lebanon's strongest military power, it's been proven to lack electoral base needed to dominate the government.

In the last general election, Hezbollah gained 11 percent of the vote; it would be glad to do as well next year. The new electoral law should raise Shiite representation in the parliament - but it isn't at all certain that Hezbollah would gain, rather than its rival Amal, not to mention independent Shiite candidates.

And the bloc led by Aoun looks like the biggest loser in the new electoral-districting system. Aoun is likely to end up with fewer seats in the next parliament, further weakening the Hezbollah-led bloc.

And Suleiman's speech included a potentially more important change: a promise to work for a reform to enable at least some Lebanese citizens abroad to vote in the country's elections.

In the wake of the civil war and long Syrian occupation, twice as many Lebanese live abroad as in-country. Allowing their votes would open a range of probabilities - none favorable to Hezbollah.

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