Michel Sleiman, a man of unity

Lebanese MPs will meet Sunday to elect General Michel Sleiman as president after an agreement to end the country’s crisis was reached in Doha. Profile. (Report: S. El Meddeb & T. Grucza)


 “The army is my life. I have always tried to protect it from political and religious conflicts in a country were everything rests on religion,” declared Michel Sleiman, commander-in-chief of the Lebanese army, to FRANCE 24 in April 2008 during a meeting at the Ministry of Defense. “I never want to see it divided.”


Now, just a few months later, Michel Sleiman is about to become the 12th president of Lebanon. From here on he will have to protect the whole country from crumbling.


Born in 1948 in Amsheet, in the west of the country, Michel Sleiman held several positions within the Lebanese army before being named commander-in-chief in 1998. Lebanon was still under Syrian supervision at that time and his appointment had been approved by Damascus.


However, he has since succeeded in shedding the nickname – “man of Damascus” – that anti-Syrians had given him. During the great protests of March 14, 2005 General Sleiman refused to deploy his troops.

“That day he refused to obey the government’s orders and prohibited his soldiers from breaking up the mob,” recalled journalist Elie Masbounji of the Lebanese daily newspaper L’Orient-Le Jour. “He also knew how to oversee the safety of the country during the withdrawal of Syrian troops,” she added.


Golden boy in Nahr el-Bared victory

Other events, like the deployment of the army to southern Lebanon after the Israeli offensive in 2006, also contributed to the increased popularity of Michel Sleiman.

But his position as commander-in-chief was especially reinforced after the long battle with the Islamist group Fatah al-Islam in the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp, between May and September 2007.

Despite difficulties, the Lebanese army seemed united and his popularity grew. “The victory of an ill-equipped army, which had not seen action for a long time, resulted in a burst of affection for Sleiman,” declared Philipe Abi Akl, director of the Lebanese press agency Al Markaziya.

“It should not be forgotten that the army lost 168 soldiers, regardless of religion, while fighting the terrorists,” he added.


Pro-Syrian to some, pro-American to others

It was during this time that his name began to circulate as a potential presidential candidate. Initially the army refuted the rumors – through official statements – but his good relationship with the leaders of the anti-Syrian majority as well as with the leaders of the opposition reinforced his status as a potential candidate and especially as a “man of consensus.”

“And yet it was not easy,” explained Joseph Bahout, researcher at the Center for the Study of International Relations in Paris. “The anti-Syrian majority in parliament thought he was too close to Syria and the opposition accused him of being pro-American.”


The army was highly criticised for staying on the sidelines at the beginning of May when Hezbollah took western Beirut by force, resulting in the death of 67 people. They remained passive in order to retain their unity. Like all public offices in the country, the Lebanese army is made of soldiers with different religions. “It had no choice but to remain neutral. Lebanese history shows that when it is not, it explodes,” Bahout added.

Now Michel Sleiman will have to show that he is able to maintain his relationships with the various factions that make up Lebanese society – Sunnis, Christians, Shias, Druze and their various political groups – while carrying out effective policies. A real challenge.

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