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Proceed with caution

Parliament has once again postponed, this time to December 7, but for the first time since the buzz of presidential elections began months ago, there just might be an obvious front runner: Army Commander General Michel Sleiman.  Some reports and a number of key factors, however, suggest that placing all bets on Sleiman could be somewhat premature.    

The announcement that the Future Movement had given its okay on Sleiman came from Deputy Ammar Houri on Al-Arabiya TV Wednesday afternoon, and though yet to be confirmed by Future leader Saad Hariri, neither has it been denied.  Lebanese analysts and observers have long regarded Sleiman as Syria’s man.  As such, the sudden and unexpected March 14 endorsement of the army commander has left many wondering if there might be something serious afoot.

Instead of welcoming Sleiman’s nomination with open arms, as many in Lebanon at first expected, Syria, Iran and their opposition allies in Lebanon have demurred.  A few opposition deputies have expressed their support, but many others have let it be known that they have serious reservations about this surprise March 14 initiative.  Deputy Elias Skaff, head of the Popular Bloc and a member of Aoun’s Change and Reform bloc, was one of the most optimistic.  He told NOW Lebanon, “I don’t think anyone will object to a constitutional amendment if it is the only solution to the present crisis.”

As was done for former President Emile Lahoud in 1998, the constitution would have to be amended prior to presidential elections in order to allow a grade one civil servant like the army commander to run for president.  March 14 leaders in the past have been loath to repeat such a move, but both Democratic Gathering head Walid Jumblatt and Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea have hinted in recent days that they would be willing to reconsider for the sake of compromise.

Personally, Skaff welcomed Sleiman’s candidacy.  “General Sleiman is a patriotic man who has served his country. He is a decent man with a good reputation and has all the necessary requirements for any presidential candidate,” he said.  “If Aoun will allow the bloc’s non-FPM members to participate in the constitutional-amendment session, we will definitely do so.”

He cautioned, however, that a final Change and Reform decision would have to wait until after their meeting Thursday.  Despite Skaff’s seeming enthusiasm – which mirrored that of Metn bloc head Michel al-Murr – both deputies, along with the five Change and Reform deputies aligned with them in parliament, have made it clear that they have no interest in abandoning Aoun’s personal presidential bid until the General himself has done so.  And Aoun, it seems, has no serious interest in backing Sleiman – a man who, as president, could steal much of Aoun’s own clout, especially with the Lebanese army.

A sizable segment of March 14 Christians, too, are less than enthusiastic about Houry’s announced initiative.  MP and presidential hopeful Boutros Harb, in a Wednesday night NBN TV interview, argued that, “Such individual declarations reflect personal opinions and are not binding for March 14 forces.”

Ultimately, Sleiman lacks enough support to be a shoe-in next week.  The US, oddly enough, seems to be with both Harb and Aoun on this one.  At a Washington Institute conference held on Tuesday, US Ambassador to Lebanon Jeffery Feltman said, once again, what he has said so many times before: that it is vital for Lebanon’s next president to be “in compliance with the March 14 core values… and in consensus with the UN resolutions.”  Feltman, furthermore, defended March 14’s right to elect a president with only a simple-majority quorum.

Sleiman simply does not fit the American bill.  The US State Department has not forgotten the army commander’s less-than-appealing position on UN Security Council resolutions 1559 and 1701.  His words in a 2004 interview with the Lebanese daily Al-Mustaqbal just might come back to haunt him: “[1559] blatantly interferes in Lebanon’s and Syria’s sovereignty and ignores the characteristics of the fraternal relations and treaties between the two countries.” 

At the end of the day, reaching consensus – even on Sleiman – will likely be fraught with complications for Lebanon’s political class. The balance at present is simply too delicate for Sleiman to waltz into Baabda after a friendly parliamentary session.  The country, to be frank, had best not hold its breath. 

Hezbollah cannot afford to break with the Free Patriotic Movement just yet; it needs Aoun to have any hope of gaining a blocking-third in the government set to be formed directly after presidential elections.  Syria, in turn, cannot afford to break ties with Hezbollah. Because the Annapolis Peace Conference held this last week failed to instigate any deal, or even serious side-talks, with Syria over the return of the Golan or the possibility of tabling the Hariri tribunal, the Syrian regime still needs Hezbollah’s and Amal’s un-begrudging support in Lebanon in order to maintain its influence.

Let us not forget that little is ever so simple in Lebanon.  Major world papers on Thursday published short bios of Sleiman with overly-confident assumptions that the army commander was just technicalities (like a constitutional amendment) away from being Lebanon’s next head.  But, with many March 8 and March 14 players not quite on board, the selection of Sleiman is by no means a foregone conclusion.  The thought of electing a Lebanese president without either Iranian or US support, after all, is still alien.