French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner warned Lebanon’s deadlocked political factions that they must either agree on a consensus president before Wednesday’s planned parliamentary electoral session or face serious internal and regional consequences, as he continued a frenzy of mediation between the feuding camps.
Arab League chief Amr Moussa arrived in Beirut on Monday night to add to the diplomatic weight pushing to break the two-month impasse over the presidential election between the March 14 ruling coalition and the March 8 opposition.
Kouchner’s series of meetings on Monday with senior Lebanese leaders revealed that no agreement had been reached on a consensus candidate to succeed Emile Lahoud, whose term ends on November 24.
“Everybody was agreed” on the process to reach consensus, Kouchner said. “Everybody said they had agreed. Now I’m amazed, France is amazed, that something is stuck, something is blocked, something is derailed, and I would like everyone to assume their responsibilities,” a visibly angry Kouchner told the media after meeting parliamentary majority leader MP Saad Hariri on Monday.
With the deadline for electing a new head of state down to its final days, Kouchner returned to Beirut for the sixth time since taking office in May – a sign of the intense international focus on Lebanon’s presidency. Many observers have read the standoff as a proxy battle for regional supremacy between the US and West, which back Premier Fouad Siniora’s government, and Syria and Iran, which support the Hizbullah-led opposition.
After Kouchner’s visit last week, Lebanon’s rival groups had agreed to negotiate over a consensus candidate from a list of names presented by Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir.
“I would like to know who is not in agreement,” Kouchner added. “I would like to know who has an interest in chaos, who has an interest in the elections not taking place, who has an interest in making it even more complicated for the life of all the Lebanese.”
Kouchner also met with opposition leader and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, after which he told the media that there were “obstacles” blocking the path to consensus but he remained optimistic an agreement would be reached.
“We have two days. We will continue working,” he said.
He said that even the Syrians had agreed on the French-proposed mechanism for choosing the president and added that those blocking the deal “will carry the responsibility for the destabilization of Lebanon and its regional consequences.”
The French envoy refused to discuss any of the names on Sfeir’s list and stressed that it was up to the Lebanese to decide on the new president.
“It is not France who will choose a name, who votes and decides the fate of Lebanon. It is the Lebanese opposition and majority, Shiites, Sunnis and Maronites who decide who is going to be the president,” Kouchner told the media after meeting Berri in Ain al-Tineh. He warned a vacuum in the country could not be filled be by two governments, and condemned all movements in the streets, regardless of who is behind it.
“We don’t need president with extraordinary qualities but just a president as it is the government and what comes after that is more critical,” he said.
But he warned, without fingering anyone, that those holding up the agreement would “bear responsibility,” and that they will be exposed.
“France will let the whole world know who is the responsible for this situation,” Kouchner warned.
Moussa added his voice to the chorus of worry. “The Arab world is worried about the current situation in Lebanon,” he told reporters upon his arrival.
Moussa echoed Kouchner’s fears and said in the dwindling time there “must be movement, there must be work and there must be an accord.”
“If there is a political will to find a solution, it could be resolved in just half an hour,” he said as he headed to a meeting with Siniora.
Sources close to Berri told The Daily Star on Monday that the possibility of the postponement of the Parliament session for the fourth time was “being discussed” with Berri contemplating putting the session off until Friday to give the disputed leaders more time.
Kouchner’s day also included meetings with Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, and Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun. Kouchner said that Aoun is “not a problem but part of the solution.”
Prior to meeting Kouchner, Aoun has insisted on Monday he fill the post and in a sign he was refusing to budge, said on Monday he would not accept that the will of Christians “be broken.”
“Stop saying that Aoun is suggesting the ‘Me and no one else’ solution to the crisis, and instead give us an actual solution,” Aoun told reporters after his bloc’s weekly meeting.
“I am not a consensus candidate, but I guarantee a consensus solution,” said Aoun.
Aoun also accused Siniora’s government of creating the “escalatory” political atmosphere, but added that there is still time to find a solution.
“The time limit for the election [of a president] remains open even after November 24. Parliament remains open until a president is elected,” he said, calling on Christian leaders to meet at his residence in Rabieh.
Meanwhile, Geagea, after meeting Kouchner, voiced doubt that Wednesday’s session will go through, telling reporters that “the situation is very complicated and very difficult.”
But Geagea dismissed the possibility of a civil war, and said, “no one can threaten civil unrest, for the Lebanese Army will maintain calm.”
“The biggest threat to Christians is the hampering of the presidential elections,” he said.
It has been reported that contact between the LF and the FPM has been recently revived, and that LF MP George Adwan discussed with Aoun the upcoming presidential elections.
Sfeir called on Lebanese leaders to take responsibility and said it was up to the leaders to add or remove names from the list of presidential candidates he had submitted.
“The presidential election issue is not easy to solve as it involves too many players,” Sfeir told the media on Monday.
“The solution is tied to the Lebanese and is linked to neighboring and faraway countries,” he said.
Sfeir said that the candidates on his list included names that have been published, and others who are “less known,” but that all of his candidates could serve as a consensus president.
Sfeir also warned that a civil war and having two presidents “are possibilities but would be disastrous” to the country.
Meanwhile, head of the Democratic Gathering MP Walid Jumblatt renewed his support for the list drawn up by Sfeir.
“We support Sfeir’s list and are confident it contains the name of a president that would preserve the unity and sovereignty of the country,” Jumblatt was quoted as saying in the weekly Al-Anba newspaper.