Le­banon’s Hariri backs Aoun for pres­i­dent

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

For­mer Le­banese Prime Min­is­ter Saad Al-Hariri in­tends to en­dorse Michel Aoun for the va­cant pres­i­dency, se­nior po­lit­i­cal sources said, and the Hezbol­lah ally could be elected head of state later this month. Long an op­po­nent of the Iran-backed Shi­ite group Hezbol­lah, Hariri would be­come prime min­is­ter again un­der the plan that could re­shape Le­banese pol­i­tics. It has drawn op­po­si­tion in his party and a final de­ci­sion has not yet been taken, al­lies said.

The pres­i­dency, which is re­served for a Ma­ronite Chris­tian in the coun­try’s sec­tar­ian power-shar­ing ar­range­ments, has been va­cant for 2 1/2 years due to po­lit­i­cal con­flicts. Aoun, a vet­eran politi­cian in his 80s, has long cov­eted the post. It was not im­me­di­ately clear if Aoun’s candidacy would en­joy enough sup­port among other politi­cians to se­cure the nec­es­sary two-thirds quo­rum for the vote in the 128-seat par­lia­ment. The next sched­uled par­lia­men­tary ses­sion to elect a pres­i­dent is set for Oct. 31. Op­po­nents of Aoun’s candidacy in­clude Par­lia­ment Speaker Nabih Berri, head of the Shi­ite Amal Move­ment and a close ally of Hezbol­lah, which it­self has yet to comment. Hariri, 46, led the “March 14” al­liance against Hezbol­lah and its al­lies, af­ter the 2005 as­sas­si­na­tion of his fa­ther Rafik Al-Hariri. He re­mains a fierce critic of Hezbol­lah, which is fight­ing in Syria in sup­port of Pres­i­dent Bashar Al-As­sad.

The pro­posal, un­think­able un­til re­cently, casts new light on the predica­ment fac­ing Hariri, whose stand­ing as Le­banon’s most in­flu­en­tial Sunni politi­cian has been shaken by a fi­nan­cial cri­sis at his Saudi-based con­struc­tion busi­ness. The trou­bles at Saudi Oger, which has been hit by fall­ing oil prices and cuts in Saudi state spend­ing, have led to a cash crunch in Hariri’s Fu­ture Move­ment. Diplo­mats say Hariri has fallen from fa­vor in Saudi Ara­bia, which these days cares far more about con­fronting Ira­nian in­flu­ence in the Gulf and Syria than about Le­banon.

Op­po­si­tion from within

Two se­nior politi­cians told Reuters that Hariri had ex­pressed his in­ten­tion to nom­i­nate Aoun for the pres­i­dency as part of the power-shar­ing deal. A third source, a member of Hariri’s Fu­ture Move­ment, con­firmed Hariri had ex­pressed this in­ten­tion, but mem­bers of his own par­lia­men­tary bloc op­posed it. Fouad Sin­iora, a for­mer prime min­is­ter and head of the Fu­ture Move­ment’s par­lia­men­tary bloc, told the news­pa­per Daily Star that Hariri had told his MPs on Tues­day that he had de­cided to sup­port Aoun’s candidacy, but added that there was “no final de­ci­sion yet on this mat­ter”. One of the se­nior sources said Hariri would an­nounce his sup­port for Aoun “within the com­ing few days”.

The cur­rent govern­ment of Prime Min­is­ter Tam­mam Salam has been paral­ysed by ri­val­ries ex­ac­er­bated by re­gional con­flict. Hariri be­came prime min­is­ter for the first time in 2009, but his cab­i­net was top­pled in 2011 when Hezbol­lah and its al­lies re­signed. Since then, he spent most of his time abroad. Last year, he nom­i­nated Hezbol­lah ally Suleiman Fran­jieh for the pres­i­dency, but Hezbol­lah stuck by Aoun.

Aoun, a for­mer army com­man­der, heads the largest Chris­tian bloc in par­lia­ment and has a large fol­low­ing in the di­vided Chris­tian com­mu­nity. He has been a po­lit­i­cal ally of Hezbol­lah since 2006. A sig­nif­i­cant fig­ure in Le­banon’s 1975-90 civil war, Aoun led one of two ri­val gov­ern­ments dur­ing the final years of the con­flict. In 1990, the Syr­ian army forced him into ex­ile. He re­turned in 2005 af­ter Syr­ian forces with­drew un­der in­ter­na­tional pres­sure fol­low­ing the Hariri as­sas­si­na­tion. Aoun’s main Chris­tian ri­val, wartime en­emy Samir Geagea, ear­lier this year also en­dorsed Aoun’s candidacy.

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