Beirut (AsiaNews) – Symbol of Lebanon’s unity and a mosaic of religious confessions, the Lebanese army has once again saved the country from disintegration. Twice before, in 1958 and 1988, its commander became president. On Sunday the country’s National Assembly triumphantly elected Michel Suleiman as the 12th president of independent Lebanon with 118 votes in favour out of 127 present.
In his inaugural speech the new head of state did not leave out any of the burning and controversial issues that have affected the lives of the Lebanese in the last three years, from respect for the Taif Agreement that establishes equality between Christians and Muslims in the government and the top offices of the state to the need to grant citizenship (and the right to vote) to immigrants who want it, as well as issues like the weapons of the resistance, the need for Lebanon not to waste any card it may have, the international tribunal to judge the assassins of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and the privileged relations with Syria, which are so crucial for Lebanon’s survival. All this was said in plain language, without any oratory gimmick or false promises, but also without any subterfuge.
When the president-elect raised the issue of exchanging ambassadors with Syria, TV cameras showed an unmoved Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, the first top Syrian official to come to Lebanon since Syrian troops pulled out in April 2005, seated near Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki and his Saudi counterpart Saud al Faisal, both of whom applauded.
Something amazing and almost impossible to comprehend was visible in this coming together of foreign dignitaries for this event. Lebanon’s National Assembly saw representatives from the United States (ten congressmen of Lebanese origin), France (represented by its colourful Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner), Europe (with Javier Solana), Spain (leading participant in the UN-led international peace keeping force in southern Lebanon) as well as big regional powers like Iran and Turkey (represented by its Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan), Saudi Arabia, Egypt as well as Qatar whose emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, symbolically co-chaired the session in fulfillment of the Doha Agreement’s first clause, sitting on the left of the Speaker of the chamber.
Is there a Middle Eastern Yalta in the making as a result of the Doha Agreement and Michel Suleiman’s election? One may be tempted to say yes given the backing for the new dispensation. Indeed, in a highly symbolic gesture the new president received a phone call from his Syrian counterpart. Similarly, by stressing the direct link between Lebanon and its Arab environment, the Iranian minister actually acknowledged that “maintaining peace and quiet in this country means maintaining peace and quiet in the entire region.”
This means that if we want to understand what happens in Lebanon we must pay attention to what happens in the region, including Palestine, Iran and Turkey. For the Lebanese there are no doubts that the Doha Agreement that ended 18 months of government crisis was linked to the indirect Turkish mediated peace talks currently underway between Israel and Syria.
As they have done before sceptical Israeli settlers on the Golan and the West Bank can say they have seen this before; however, the tone adopted by Syrian daily Teshreen, which talks about “prudent optimism”, bodes the opposite. An indirect confirmation of such optimism comes from former Israeli Chief of the General Staff Ehud Barak who said that in case the Golan is returned to Syria Israel will know how to defend its borders.
In response to questions raised in Tel Aviv Damascus has however reiterated that ties between Syria and Iran are “non-negotiable,” thus showing how difficult negotiations between Israel and Syria will be since Damascus remains an unconditional ally of the Iranian regime whose president keeps on predicting the imminent “end of Israel,” knowing full well that neither Washington nor Tel Aviv can allow Tehran to get its hands on nuclear weapons.
This digression on Iran may seem of little use but that is not the case. Peace talks between Israel and Syria will certainly have repercussion on Hizbollah’s position, its place and role in internal Lebanese politics, hence on Lebanon’s stability. In fact, this is already being felt right now by what is actually taking place. Undoubtedly a new regional order is emerging from which Lebanon is taking advantage.
Will the Lebanese be able to reap any benefits from these opportunities and consolidate their democracy? Will they prove capable of adopting much needed political, economic and military reforms to ensure their country’s stability by the time the next regional crisis comes along? For a start, will they calmly address the next steps envisaged by the Doha agreement?
This accord calls for the creation of a national unity government and fresh parliamentary elections next spring. The president has clearly said in his inauguration speech that democracy is based on the principle that parties can take turns in governing. This is a relief for the current majority which the opposition views as unrepresentative. But it is also a challenge everyone must face in anticipation of the May 2009 elections and the future.
Under its new president Lebanon will have to build institutions that reflect both its diversity and unity by adopting a modern electoral law and promoting a culture of national unity.