Posted by Joshua on Sunday, January 6th, 2008
A Lebanon agreement seems to be emerging that would give the Maronite president more power than he has had since the Taif Agreement of 1989 empowered the Sunni Prime Minister at the expense of the Maronites.
Arab ministers meeting in Cairo yesterday announced that they had arrived at an agreement, which would involve two important steps.
1. The first step is the immediate passage of a constitutional amendment to allow Michel Suleiman to become President.
2. The second step is to be the formation of nation unity government.
As we know, the nature of such a national unity government has been contested over the last year and has been the major point of contention between the opposition and parliamentary majority. Hizbullah and Aoun have demanded a blocking third of the cabinet, which has been unacceptable for the March 14 bloc.
Most news stories are still not including details of the proposed national unity government. Naharnet is an example: Suleiman For 'Empowered' President by Unanimous Arab Backing.
This al-Nahar article in Arabic spells out the deal as follows:
– يعقد الاجتماع التالي في 27 الجاري لتقييم نتائج التحرك واتخاذ المواقف اللازمة بشأنه.
وكانت قد رجحت مصادر مطلعة نهار امس ان يكون البند المتعلق بحكومة الوحدة الوطنية يتضمن حكومة من 30 وزيراً يكون فيها 10 للموالاة و10 للمعارضة و10 لرئيس الجمهورية.
Of the thirty minister cabinet, 10 ministers will be appointed by the majority; 10 will be appointed by the opposition, and ten will be appointed by the president. This formula is a major innovation that gives the president important new power.
Thus, no side will be able to impose a decision or block a decision. (i.e. the ruling part will not have enough votes to impose a two-thirds majority decision, but the opposition will also not have the one-third vote to block decisions.
The president will have the power to break a cabinet vote that divides down parties lines.
This restores power to the Maronite president that was taken away at Taif and given to the Sunni Prime Minister. It does not give Hizbullah the power it demanded and seems to be a real concession on its part. Ultimately, it takes power away from the Muslims and places it into the hands of the Maronites.
One reading of the tea leaves suggests that Farouq al-Sharaa's visit to the Pope roughly two months ago was to reassure him that Syria favored a greater role for the Maronite presidency. Sfeir has been insisting for some time that a Suleiman presidency requiring a constitutional amendment would be better than a March 14 decision imposed by a simple majority in contravention of the constitution and in contravention of the spirit of the Lebanese tradition of consensus among the sects. Sfeir has been sensitive to Maronite anxieties that Hariri and the Sunnis have taken too much power from the Maronites. He has been leery of a Maronite backlash against a purely March 14 solution to Lebanon's impasse.
The length of a Suleiman presidency was also in dispute. It seems to have been resolved by the acceptance of a shorter term of 2 years, which would allow Suleiman to preside over parliamentary elections due to take place in 2009 and the drawing up of a new election law to precede the parliamentary elections. General Aoun had demanded that it not extend beyond 2-3 years. He hopes to become president following Suleiman's term.
Pro March 14 news outlets suggest that the deal only came about due to severe pressure on Syria. They suggest that it is a win for Saudi Arabia and the March 14 allies of the US and France.
News reports said Muallem backed the Arab plan on Lebanon after his Saudi counterpart threatened that the Saudi Monarch would boycott the forthcoming Arab Summit to be held in Damascus in March if Syria continued to block the presidential elections in Lebanon.
Nickolas Blanford in Time explains that Syria faced greater isolation and a reinvigorated UN investigation because it had not disciplined Lebanon's opposition. Both France and the US were fed up with Lebanese opposition insistence on a blocking third. Bush had gone on record to say he was "fed up with Syria," and Blanford writes:
Sarkozy's efforts to engage Syria appear to have foundered, and, in a calculated swipe at the Syrian regime, he immediately followed his announcement of severed contacts with a promise to release funds for the international tribunal being established in the Netherlands to judge the accused killers of Hariri.
This is how Nasrallah responded to such threats in his televised speech: (Quote thanks to mideastwire.com)
"Indeed the recent statement of President Sarkozy in which he pointed to the issue of the international tribunal means that there is a sort of enticement and intimidation policy, which means that he might have informed Syria that if it extends some help on the Lebanese issue, they will suspend the international court. But in my capacity as a Lebanese oppositionist, I want to submit testimony for history. Syria indeed has an interest in resuming good French-Syrian relations and good Arab relations. Syria indeed has an interest in resuming good European-Syrian relations. It definitely has an interest in distracting the phantom of the international court. But if Syria was only considering its own interests, it would have came to the opposition and pressured it and embarrassed it.
"Eventually Syria is capable of applying pressures, but whether the opposition responds or not is another issue. What happened is that Syria came and talked to the opposition, not all the opposition indeed because there are no contacts for example between Syria and General Aoun. They came and asked us: You as an opposition, what do you accept and what do you refuse?
called the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Egypt on Sunday, as well as other Arab officials, to thank them for helping find a solution to the crisis, his office said in a statement.
Saniora also called pro-government Lebanese officials and urged them to back the Arab initiative, calling it "a major development on the road to solving the crisis in Lebanon."
But Syrian and Iranian officials have also been underlining their positive role.
Larijani, Iran's foreign minister, who was visiting the Syrian capital of Damascus, said Iran supports any push to create consensus among the Lebanese people. "We wish success for Amr Moussa's efforts" said Larijani, referring to the head of the Arab League, who is scheduled to visit Lebanon in the coming days.
Speaking from Cairo,
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told Hezbollah's Al-Manar television that his country has repeatedly said it is ready to help end Lebanon's political crisis but "cannot put pressure on anyone in Lebanon because the solution should be Lebanese."
Speaking about his meeting Saturday with Saudi counterpart Saud al-Faisal, al-Moallem said, "Syria has its friends in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia has its friends in Lebanon and we have agreed to cooperate."
Al-Moallem was apparently referring to Hariri, who holds Saudi citizenship and has close relations with the royal family in the oil-rich nation.
Syrian Commentators writing on this site also argue that Syria comes out a winner.
Basically, the president wins much more power … he has a number of ministers (appointed by him) who will make sure that
1) the majority (Seniora) does not have 2/3 as they wanted and
2) the opposition does not have the 1/3 they wanted
Not what Hizbollah wanted, and not what Hariri wanted … they both do not have enough power to force their agenda on the other side … only the President has that new power which is … a modification to Taif ! Hizbollah will be barely able to accept it .. but I hope they will.
The Christians win. The Shiites (Hizbollah) should be able to live with it even though they are not overly empowered through this arrangement (which makes them less perceived as a threat to the M14 group) and Syria gets its favorite man as President (General Sleiman) without worrying about a Seniora government that can be a threat to Syria. (In Arabic the full resolution)
And Syria wins. They got their man (Sleiman) to be the most powerful man in Lebanon … they did not disappoint Aoun (they did not sell him easily) and they weakened and constrained the Saudi (Sunni) power in Lebanon … without allowing Hizbollah to grow too powerful.
Isn’t that exactly what Syria wanted in the first place?
On top of that it looks like Syria was flexible.
Regardless of how the developments are spun by this or that as their victory, I just pray that deflation does indeed happen. All’s well that ends well and, speaking for myself, I really don’t care who gets the credit. [And judging by your prediction, it sounds like everyone will claim success]. The majority of Lebanese just want to be able to go to their jobs, work hard at advancing their status. I hope they will soon be given the chance to do this more effectively than the current conditions permit.
Nasrallah said in his recent speech that no one can pressure Hizbullah, not even Syria. But he added that as a friend, Syria can ask a lot and Hizbullah will consider it. Perhaps he was preparing his people for a climb down?
In conclusion, here is a final roundup by Alex:
This was not simply a meeting of the foreign ministers of the Arab league. A serious deal was reached, at the regional and at the Lebanese levels. Here is what happened:
1) Prime minister of Qatar visited Bashar in Damascus the day before
2) Foreign ministers of KSA, Egypt, Qatar and Syria met in Moussa's house. That's where the final agreement was reached. At first Saud al-faisal told Mouallem that Syria's allies are asking for the undoable and that Saudi Arabia (and Egypt) are not going to be attending the Arab Summit if Syria does not help convince her allies to reduce their demands (Which implies that KSA and Egypt WILL attend the Arab summit in Damascus now). Then, Moussa suggested a compromise .. which I suspect he knew already from the Qatari prime minister who was in Damascus earlier, that Syria will accept.
3) They called Seniora to inform him of the deal they reached (to inform him) and and he replied "I completely welcome" the agreement.
4) Hizbollah people were contacted and they expressed a similar opinion. But I have not heard a clear statement from Nasrallah yet.
As I said earlier, I expect that Hizbollah will require some clarification behind the scene when Mouallem comes back … this agreement is borderline acceptable to them. Although I tend to think that wen the Iranian envoy was in Damascus that day and gave his blessing to "Syria's efforts to settle the conflict in Lebanon" that Hizbollah took part in the decision to go along with the eventual Arab League formula.
5) Saad Hariri called this agreement "Noble and Historic" .. that's good enough I assume.
6) Nothing yet from Junblatt and Geagea. They also will need to hear some details from Tareq Mitri when he comes back to Beirut.
Before the Arab league meeting, M14 figures asked Arab ambassadors (Egypt etc) to take firm actions to punish Syria. Similar escalation came from the opposition side. Lebanese Information Minister held a news conference in which he compared the tense situation in Lebanon to that which preceded the assassination of Rafiq Hariri and expressed his worries that similar bloodshed might be ahead for Lebanon if an agreement is not reached.
Most likely we will see many new difficulties. But whatever the extent of the influence of outsiders (Syria and KSA at a direct level, then the United States and Iran behind them) an agreement was reached on the outside after consulting with their allies on the inside. We will now find out if the Lebanese themselves are to blame for their own problems or not.
It remains unclear how this deal will alter the Saudi-Syria competition in the region.
Syria is counting on its backing of Lebanon's Maronites to pay off in the future. It believes that Lebanon's Maronites are more naturally allies of Syria than they are of Saudi Arabia. If Syria can cement the growing alliance between Lebanon's Shiites and Maronites in order to separate them from the Sunni community, which has become ardently anti-Syrian and pro-Saudi, Damascus may be able to cultivate a friendly Lebanon well into the future. Syria is trying to position itself as the protector and benefactor of the region's Christians, not only by coming to their aid in Lebanon, but also by giving Iraqi Christians refuge as they are driven out of Iraq and by supporting secularism. As Washington allies itself with strictly Sunni Saudi Arabia, Syria is positioning itself as an ally – not just of Shiites, but of all minorities. This Syrian stand as the champion of all minorities and secular Arabs may actually convince Israel – the Jewish state – to take a second look at making peace with Syria.