Lebanese lawmakers elected Michel Sleiman as president of their deeply divided nation Sunday in a critical first step towards ending a crippling 18-month political crisis.
At a packed swearing-in ceremony in Beirut, Sleiman took the oath of office, pledging to protect the country's constitution, sovereignty and independence.
His terse swearing-in statement was greeted by a standing ovation inside Lebanon’s parliament building, where the ceremony was held, while firecrackers and celebratory gunshots erupted on the streets of Beirut.
Sunday’s swearing-in ceremony ended a political deadlock between rival political blocs that had left the nation without a president since November.
Wearing a black suit and grey tie, Sleiman called for a minute of silence for Lebanon’s “martyrs” shortly after taking the oath – a poignant reminder of the violent confrontations and strings of assassinations that have gripped the country since the Feb. 14, 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Speaking to a gathering of Lebanese parliamentarians as well as foreign dignitaries at the ceremony, Sleiman appealed for unity in a fractiously divided nation that earlier this month hovered precariously on the brink of civil war.
"I call upon all of you, politicians and citizens, to start a new phase called Lebanon and the Lebanese... in order to achieve the interests of the nation," he said.
International community welcomes Sleiman’s election
Sleiman’s election followed last week’s mediation talks in Doha, Qatar, which brokered a deal to end a recent bloody confrontation between pro-and anti-Syrian groups that killed at least 65 people and plunged Lebanon to the brink of civil war.
With each faction accusing the other of serving external masters, the Lebanese political crisis is widely viewed as an extension of rifts between Shia and Sunni Muslim powers as well as the confrontation pitting the West – especially the United States – against Iran and Syria.
Welcoming Sleiman’s election Sunday, US President George Bush said he was confident that Lebanon had chosen a leader who would uphold the country's international obligations under UN resolutions that call for Hezbollah to be disarmed.
"I am hopeful that the Doha Agreement ... will usher in an era of political reconciliation to the benefit of all Lebanese," said Bush in a statement.
Hezbollah has rejected any move to force it to lay down its weapons, which it says are needed to deter an Israeli attack.
A speech reaching out to opposing blocs
In his speech Sunday, Sleiman said Lebanon’s arms should only be directed at the enemy, referring to Israel, whose annexation of the disputed Sheeba Farms territory came up for criticism.
"The Shebaa Farms remain under occupation and because of continued threats and violations of our sovereignty by Israel, we must draw up a national defence strategy to protect the country," Sleiman said.
But his statement on Lebanon’s arms was also a veiled reference to Hezbollah’s arms.
Sleiman’s speech, which was aimed at reconciliation, was a careful balancing act between the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority led by Saad Hariri, son of Lebanon’s former prime minister, and the pro-Syrian Hezbollah and its allies.
"We cherish our relationship with Arab countries and seek brotherly ties with Syria based on mutual sovereignty and independence," he said.
At the same time, Sleiman stressed his commitment to UN resolutions and the international tribunal set up to try those behind Hariri’s assassination.
The outgoing Western-backed governing coalition had pushed for the UN tribunal and blamed Syria for Hariri's death.
Despite the euphoria greeting Sleiman’s election, the critical problems facing Lebanon remain as a new Cabinet is formed. All eyes are currently on the new prime minister’s appointment, a tricky task in Lebanon’s fractious political climate.
Under Lebanon’s confessional system, the post of prime minister must be occupied by a Sunni Muslim.