A new era or the next stage?

Downtown Beirut, after the opposition cleared its 15-month old tent city and the army cleared their 15-month old barbed wire installations and roadblocks, has yielded streets I didn’t even know were there, and has instantly been filled to the brim with droves of luxury cars belonging to high-class boutique customers and upscale restaurant patrons. Yesterday evening, fireworks erupted all over the country – a ride from Batroun up north down to Beirut didn’t leave more than 5 minutes without colourful explosions, or more than 500 meters without Lebanese flags and posters of Suleyman – in uniform or in civil dress. ‘Despite the army’s plea that citizens refrain from firing their weapons into the air, at least five people were injured by falling bullets in Sleiman’s hometown of Amchit following the announcement of his election.’ All along the Hizbullah-controlled airport road, meanwhile, the green-on-yellow stylized portraits of Mughniyeh have been replaced by billboards saying ‘Killna na’ul: shukran Qatar’ (‘All of us say: thank you Qatar’). More sober-minded Lebanese have been remarking on the eerie similarity to the eruption of national joy and celebration when Emile Lahoud, another army general, was elected president some 9 years ago. I have been getting the distinct impression that the entire population is laying the whole gigantic problem-solving load on the shoulders of this one man, who will serve as the national scapegoat when it turns out (as it inevitably will) that all the existing disputes cannot be resolved by one man alone if that man doesn’t get the cooperation of all parties involved. We are now in an orgy of joy and celebration and supposed national unity every bit as intense and dramatic as the explosion of violence and anger that erupted barely two weeks ago. Moving from one extreme to the other only takes a few days in this country…

Suleiman has been elected by 118 parliamentarian votes out of 127 – so not unanimously, as some (mostly Lebanese Forces) MP’s objected to the fact that the constitution had not been amended to allow a functioning first-grade public servant to be elected as president. Some others voted blank and 2 more voted for ‘one-time presidential hopefuls’. The session was attended by hosts of foreign dignitaries flown in to celebrate the final achievement of Suleymman’s election, after 19 failed attempts.
The first act of the newly sworn-in president, Lebanon’s 12th since independence in 1946, was to dissolve the government (and so, ironically, after 5 months of no president and (half) a government, the country now has a president but no government). Negotiations on the appointment of the new prime minister will start on Wednesday in parliament.

Sleiman then gave his inaugural address to the Lebanese Parliament. In a speech that will serve as the first indicator of his new Administration, he called for a reactivation of Lebanon’s national institutions and a de-escalation of the political rhetoric between Lebanon’s rival political factions. He declared Lebanon’s commitment and respect for all relevant UN resolutions, and rejected the use of militia’s weapons internally. He also declared the need to create a national defense strategy that capitalized on the experience of the resistance, meaning Hezbollah, to protect Lebanon from Israeli aggression. “We paid a high price for our national unity, so let us preserve it hand in hand, for God unites us,” Sleiman said in conclusion. May 25 coincided with the eight-year anniversary of South Lebanon’s liberation from Israeli forces, a fact noted in both Sleiman and Berri’s speeches.’

In a telling move, the first official visitor to be received by the new president will be Iranian foreign minister Manuchehr Mottaki, while ‘Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri on Sunday expressed gratitude to the United States “because it got convinced that Lebanon is not the proper place to apply its agenda for the new Middle East.” On the other hand, Saad Hariri is tipped to become prime minister of the new government, in a move that should do a lot to defuse the feelings of humiliation prevalent among Lebanon’s sunni population after Hizbullah’s temporary takeover of ‘their’ parts of Beirut. The prime minister of course has to be a sunni anyway, according to the Taif accords, but choosing the ubiquitous M-14 figurehead for the post is a very reconciliatory move.

On the new election law which has been adopted as part of the Doha agreement, and which changes the electoral districts in Beirut, see the detailed map provided by Nowlebanon here. The downloadable pdf-file compares the new law to the previous one and also gives a good idea of the complexity (and lack of actual democracy in the sense of one-man-one-vote) of the Lebanese confessional election system in general.

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