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The man who could be president

Latest update : 2008-02-14

As the Lebanese Parliament continues postponing the vote to elect a new president, army chief Michel Sleiman has emerged as the likely candidate for the presidency.

Once again, the Lebanese parliament has postponed a presidential vote, this time until Dec. 7.

The Western-backed governing coalition and the pro-Syrian opposition have long been at odds about finding a successor for Emile Lahoud, the pro-Syrian president whose term ended Nov. 23.

The divide between the two camps has been so acrimonious in recent times that analysts have repeatedly warned that Lebanon could plunge into a civil war, the sort that ripped the very fabric of the multi-confessional Mediterranean nation between 1975 and 1990.

But there are growing signs that politicians across the pro-and anti-Syrian divide could settle on a consensus candidate for the presidency. Army chief Michel Sleiman has emerged as the likely candidate for the presidency.

Sleiman’s election though is far from certain. The constitution currently prevents a senior public servant from becoming president. The majority and the opposition must all agree on the amendment before any real steps can be taken.
So who is this candidate who seems to have reunited the fractious Lebanese parliament?

Approved by Damascus, yet not quite under Syrian control
In 1988, Michel Sleiman succeeded Gen. Emile Lahoud, then president-elect, as commander of the Lebanese Army. Syria’s tight control over the Lebanese armed forces meant that Sleiman’s nomination was approved by Damascus.
But things changed after the March 14, 2005 assassination of then Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
“On that day, Michel Sleiman refused to obey the government’s orders and allowed soldiers to mix with the (anti-Syrian) protesters,” said Elie Masboungi, a journalist at the Lebanese French-language daily L’Orient-Le Jour.
“He also knew how to command national security during the (2005) withdrawal of Syrian troops amid the chaos of pro-and anti-Syrian protests, the likes of which were never seen before in Lebanon,” said Masboungi. “His management of that potentially volatile situation has today earned him the trust of the Lebanese people.”

Earning brownie points at Nahr al-Bared
Gen. Sleiman’s popularity also grew after the drawn-out battle at Nahr al-Bared, the Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon where the Lebanese army was locked in over four months of heavy fighting with Islamist militants.
“The victory of an under-equipped and out-of-practice army inspired admiration from the Lebanese people and reinforced the fame of the Gen. Sleiman,” said Lebanese journalist Philippe Abi Akl.
“The army was under-equipped and had not actually fought for a long time – soldiers even manufactured explosive devices from gas canisters. Its victory, after it lost 168 men, attracted an emotional feeling that focused on him,” said Abi Akl.
Banners supporting the army and its commander began to adorn the streets of the capital of Beirut and other Lebanese cities. His popularity was so high following the Nahr al-Bared encounter that there were rumours that Michel Sleimane was a potential presidential candidate. But the general resolutely denied the rumours.

A delicate balancing act 
On Nov. 22, 2007, Lebanese Independence Day, Sleiman paid visits to Lahoud, Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, anxious to appear on equal terms with all political factions.
Under Lebanon’s constitution, the president must hail from the Maronite Christian community, the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim and the speaker, a Shiite.
Sleiman has also managed to shelter the army from the political crisis that has effectively paralysed Lebanon for months. He prevented the military from fragmenting along confessional lines – a prospect that has haunted the army since the civil war.
Like the government, representation in the Lebanese armed forces is a based on representations of the country’s religious groups. On Nov. 22, he released a communiqué urging soldiers to stay away from the political crisis.
In the past few days, he has embarked on a series of meetings with Lebanese religious leaders as well as opposition leaders that has not gone unnoticed in a country where the spectre of a divide along religious lines continues to haunt the people.

Date created : 2007-12-01