Lebanon's Suleiman set to become president

Lebanon’s Parliament is set to elect army chief General Michel Suleiman as the country’s president on Sunday, filling a post left vacant for six months by a political crisis that threatened a new civil war.

“It is today a great day of hope for Lebanon, starting a new process of consolidation of democratic institutions,” Italy’s Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, among scores of dignitaries who will attend the vote, said in Beirut.

“This is the right way of consolidation of a stable situation and of sovereignty and independence of Lebanon.”

A Qatari-brokered deal last week between rival Lebanese leaders defused 18 months of political stalemate that erupted into fighting this month. Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters briefly seized parts of Beirut, routing government loyalists.

Members of Parliament from the United States-supported ruling majority and the Hezbollah-led opposition will attend a parliamentary session at 2pm GMT to elect Suleiman as president, as stipulated by the Doha agreement. The vote had been postponed 19 times because of the crisis.

The deal met most of the opposition’s demands and secured the election of a president who has good ties with Syria and Hezbollah.
The agreement was widely seen as a setback for Washington and its allies, who had pressed for Hezbollah to be disarmed and Damascus isolated.

The deal also calls for the formation of a national unity government in which the opposition will have veto power, and a new law for 2009 parliamentary polls.

It defuses a conflict that has stoked sectarian tensions, paralysed government and battered the economy.

Parliament has not met for more than a year and a half, during which time the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has barely functioned. Bouts of violence claimed scores of lives and revived memories of the 1975 to 1990 civil war.

Sunday’s vote will be attended by Qatar’s emir and his prime minister—the driving force behind the Doha agreement—and a host of foreign ministers including those of arch-rivals Syria and Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia, France and Egypt back the Lebanese government while Iran and Syria support the opposition. No US administration official is expected at the session though a delegation from Congress arrived to attend the vote.

Lebanese troops tightened security in the capital, blocking off streets leading to Parliament in downtown Beirut.

Syrian era

Lebanon’s complex power-sharing system stipulates that the country’s president should be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of Parliament a Shi’ite.

Suleiman, who relinquishes his post as army commander, fills a chair vacated in November by Emile Lahoud, an ally of Syria. Appointed army chief in 1998 when Damascus controlled Lebanon, Suleiman is inescapably linked to the Syrian-dominated era.

He coordinated closely with Syrian troops before they were forced to withdraw from Lebanon in 2005 by international pressure triggered by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

As president, Suleiman will have to grapple with a slew of divisive issues including ties with Syria and a UN Security Council resolution that calls for all militias to be disarmed—a demand supported by Hezbollah’s Lebanese opponents.

But his first task is to appoint a new prime minister and coordinate with him on the formation of the new Cabinet.

The leader of the parliamentary majority, Saad al-Hariri, is the frontrunner for the job, but incumbent Siniora—an ally—remains a possibility, officials said. The president has to name the candidate nominated by a majority of MPs.

Suleiman will be sworn into office shortly after his confirmation and will deliver a speech to parliament, setting the tone for his six-year term.

Fluent in English and French, Suleiman is married with three children. He graduated from the Military Academy in 1970 and holds a Lebanese University degree in politics and administration. He was born in the Christian village of Amchit. - Reuters

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