Multiple attempts failed to resolve stalemate between rival politicians, By Hani M. Bathish, Daily Star,

BEIRUT: Politically, 2007 was a year of intense activity in Lebanon, but with few tangible results. It was a year of looming constitutional vacuums, incessant political bickering, and near total legislative inertia, as the doors of Parliament remained shut, and the country was left without a head of state, just a Cabinet whose own legitimacy was questioned.  An encampment of opposition supporters in Downtown Beirut laying siege to what they saw as the ruling coalition’s "monopoly on power" is what many will remember of the past year. What began as a resignation of opposition ministers in protest over the path the government was taking snow-balled into a major political crisis as 2006 came to a close. Little did anyone know that the sit-in near the Grand Serail would last for more than a year.

The start of the year also saw an economic reform plan unveiled to cut public debt and revitalize the crippled economy. The opposition viewed the plan as a new edifice of the hated government to tear down. Each component of the plan was met with outright rejection by the opposition and protest rallies led by the opposition-aligned General Labor Confederation.

The logjam persisted right up to and beyond the end of former President Emile Lahoud’s term  on November 23.  Throughout the year, the governing coalition and the opposition traded accusations, recriminations and even expletives. It was a year of crisis milestones, from the ratification of the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon to try suspects in the slaying of former Premier Rafik Hariri, to disagreement over a consensus presidential candidate and the distribution of Cabinet posts in a new government.

The Council of Maronite Bishops warned early in the year that the situation had become "unstable" and that "Lebanon’s salvation should emanate from inside the country not from outside it." The warning went unheeded as old demons from the 1975-90 Civil War were roused.

On January 23 thick black smoke enveloped Beirut as protesters blocked roads with burning tires. The opposition’s general strike succeeded in bringing the country to a grinding halt for a day, but at a price. Unavoidable but limited clashes between rival factions, in Tarik al-Jdideh and in the Christian suburbs north of Beirut, saw the Lebanese Army assume a critical security role that day.

The following day, Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said the opposition was "holding back" in its efforts to topple the government and warned of "more surprises" ahead. January 25 surprised everyone, as clashes between rival political groups at the Beirut Arab University escalated and spilled over into the streets of Tarik al-Jdideh, threatening to spark a wider Sunni/Shiite clash. The morning of January 26, however, saw calm return as an overnight curfew was lifted. The army managed to preserve order and civil peace.

February witnessed revitalized diplomacy aimed at resolving the impasse as dialogue started between Saudi Arabia and Iran to try to nip any sectarian strife in the bud. Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa also visited Syria for talks, while a call for calm from Nasrallah was welcomed amid efforts to renew inter-Lebanese dialogue.

Disagreements between rival parties, however, re-emerged over the equitable distribution of Cabinet posts in a new government. The opposition continued to demand a "blocking third" of 11 ministers, while the ruling coalition floated the much-criticized idea of giving the opposition 10 ministers with the 11th minister to be neutral.

The month also saw Speaker Nabih Berri signal his refusal to convene Parliament until the government was remade, throwing into doubt the start of a new regular session of Parliament on the first Tuesday after March 15, as is tradition. The speaker’s move was an additional rallying point for members of the parliamentary majority.

February 13 saw one more atrocity added to the long and bloody record of bombings and assassinations in Lebanon: the deadly twin bus bombings in the town of Ain Alaq.

March saw the first gathering of majority MPs in Parliament to protest the speaker’s decision not to convene sessions. It also saw the first of many bilateral meetings between Berri and parliamentary majority leader MP Saad Hariri. Majority MPs maintained pressure on the speaker to convene Parliament, but were careful to avoid scuttling talks between Berri and Hariri.

As a result of the impasse, many items of business in Parliament were indefinitely placed on hold, not just the ratification of the international tribunal, but also the approval of the 2006 budget and the passing of a new electoral law.

Both sides began to consider options if a deal was not reached by mid-March and a new session of Parliament was not convened. Berri persisted in his refusal to open Parliament as long as the present government was in power, insisting the government be remade first. The first Tuesday after March 15 thus came and went with the doors to the House shut. That day saw pro-government MPs gather in Parliament for the first of many Tuesdays to protest its closure as Democratic Gathering leader MP Walid Jumblatt accused Berri of holding the legislature hostage.

Internationally, the month saw EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana warning Damascus to change its "stance and behavior" before good relations could be resumed between the European Union and Syria. Meanwhile, UN International Investigation Commission chief Serge Brammertz threatened to identify "non-cooperative states" in his investigation of political assassinations in the country. Late March also witnessed the first limited clashes between the Lebanese Army and Fatah al-Islam at the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, as camp residents called for the ejection of the militants.

The end of the month also saw the arrival in Beirut of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, after attending the Arab League summit in Riyadh. Ban said he hoped the Lebanese would ratify the treaty establishing the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon through "their constitutional process," urging leaders of rival camps to put their differences aside and pave the way for the tribunal’s establishment.

The arrival in early April of German Chancellor Angela Merkel put the weight of the EU behind the UN to make sure the tribunal was established. She urged Syria "to do its part" by establishing diplomatic relations with Lebanon, demarcating their common border and putting an end to cross-border arms smuggling. Merkel said Germany wanted to see Lebanon’s independence and sovereignty respected by regional states, pointing to the need for the full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701.

Hariri welcomed Berri’s suggestion in April that rival Lebanese leaders head to Saudi Arabia for talks hosted by King Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz. Saudi Arabia announced its willingness to host any meeting "to announce agreement reached by the Lebanese in Lebanon." Berri then announced he had reached an agreement with Siniora on a national unity government in consultations with Moussa, but said the deal fell apart as the ruling coalition insisted on an extraordinary session of Parliament convening first. Berri said the deal was based on the "19+10+1" Cabinet formula, which would include one independent minister and a third of Cabinet posts for the opposition.

The opposition was sharply criticized in April by senior Russian legislator Mikhail Margelov, who said he "regretted" the actions of the opposition and external inference in Lebanese affairs. He said "by resorting to a forceful and shortsighted approach" the opposition aimed to hamper Parliament from ratifying the international tribunal.

Perhaps to relieve some of the pressure on the opposition, Berri announced in mid-April that the he would convene Parliament to elect a new president on September 25, two months before Lahoud’s term expired. International diplomatic efforts to break the deadlock intensified as both Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Sultanov and UN Undersecretary General for Legal Affairs Nicholas Michel arrived in Beirut. Sultanov expressed reservations about establishing the tribunal under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, a step which would by-pass the Lebanese Parliament. Instead Sultanov called on the Lebanese to "depend on themselves" and not on the UN Security Council to establish the court.

Following Sultanov’s visit to Damascus, Ban arrived in Syria and met with Syrian President Bashar Assad, asking him to use his influence and encourage Lebanese factions to arrive at an agreement to establish the tribunal. Assad said he would do what he could to foster consensus among the Lebanese. Berri said that successful presidential polls on September 25 would open the door to resolving the crisis.

In April, the abduction and slaying of Ziad Qabalan and Ziad Ghandour, both of whom had affiliations with Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party, threatened to usher in a new chapter of instability in the country. Jumblatt called for restraint as members of the Shamas clan, Shiites from the Bekaa, emerged as prime suspects in the killing.

As Hizbullah affirmed its victory in the summer 2006 War in late April, Nasrallah’s ally, Reform and Change bloc leader MP Michel Aoun, called for the direct election of a new president, thus bypassing Parliament and the Constitution.

May began with limited clashes in North Lebanon between the Al-Qaeda inspired Fatah al-Islam and members of mainstream Fatah-aligned factions, while Ban warned that the UN Security Council’s patience with Lebanon was waning, renewing calls on the Lebanese to ratify the tribunal through their constitutional institutions.

As veiled threats began to emanate from Baabda about the possible establishment of a parallel government, Ain al-Tineh issued warnings of "dire consequences" should consensus on the presidency not be reached. The Vatican also warned against leaving the presidency vacant. By mid-May, US Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs David Welch was in Beirut to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to Lebanon which he said remained "firm and enduring," as well as his country’s support for the Siniora government. Welch urged MPs to elect an independent president who "should not be beholden to outside parties."

The slaughtering of army troops stationed outside the Nahr al-Bared camp by Fatah al-Islam militants on May 20 shocked the nation. The attack was a wake-up call for many Lebanese to put aside their political differences and support their national army in its fight against the terrorist threat in the North. As the fighting in Nahr al-Bared intensified and both sides dug in, Lahoud surprised the country with a rare visit to Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir in Bkirki, from where he called for a six-minister "national salvation cabinet" to break the political deadlock and urged rival factions to sit and talk as soon as possible.

In early June Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema said from Beirut that agreement could soon be reached between rival factions and spoke of a positive mood in Damascus following his visit to the Syrian capital, where he met Assad and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem. D’Alema also raised the possibility of a "trade-off" with Syria to secure its "cooperation" on Lebanon.

In mid-June Lebanon received French envoy Jean-Claude Cousseran, who invited rival leaders to meet in Paris under French auspices to try to resolve the political impasse. Then came the June 13 assassination of Future Movement MP Walid Eido, blown up with his son along Beirut’s famous seafront.

The assassination was followed by a Cabinet decision to hold parliamentary by-elections in Metn and Beirut in August to elect new MPs to replace slain deputies Eido and Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel. 

Amr Moussa returned to Beirut in late June and met Berri, describing the political situation in Lebanon as delicate, but saying he was optimistic the Lebanese would overcome their differences. After concluding his visit to Lebanon with a meeting with Nasrallah, Moussa conceded that he had been unable to extract a "written agreement" between rival parties.

Also in June, the opposition warned of a disaster if agreement were not reached over the government and the presidency. Hariri, in an interview, said the opposition wanted to nullify all government decisions and decrees to date.

July saw Cousseran return to Beirut to issue a formal invitations to 14 rival Lebanese political parties and  blocs to meet in France from July 14 to 16 to resolve their political differences. Meanwhile, the Change and Reform bloc raised the possibility of contesting the legality of by-elections if they were held on the basis of a decree issued by the current "unconstitutional" government.

After three days of talks held at La Celle Saint-Cloud outside Paris, French Foreign Minister Kouchner announced that rival Lebanese politicians would resume dialogue in Lebanon. He also said he would head to Beirut on July 28 to build on the progress made in the dialogue started in France.

The FPM decided to contest the parliamentary by-election in Metn and kicked off its campaign in early August, in preparation for a hard-fought battle against President Amin Gemayel. Sfeir’s attempts at finding a compromise and avoiding an electoral battle in Metn failed. The Council of Maronite Bishops had proposed postponing the vote in Metn and reserving the vacant parliamentary seat for Gemayel’s Phalange Party, but this suggestion was rejected by Gemayel. Strong attendance at both Gemayel’s and the FPM’s election rallies indicated that the outcome was far from certain. The FPM victory, while narrow, reflected a truly divided electorate, at least in Metn.

In August, Lebanese Armed Forces commander General Michel Suleiman for the first time indicated his willingness to head an interim government if MPs were unable to elect a president before Lahoud’s term expired. Defense Minister Elias Murr personally put the idea to Suleiman, who agreed, provided all sides accepted his nomination.

In late August, the deepening crisis prompted Sfeir to lament politicians’ "destabilizing bickering," which he said "drives many Lebanese to emigrate in search of a safer country." Before long, Cousseran was back in Beirut and announced the imminent return of Kouchner to help broker a deal.

With September came Berri’s "olive branch" initiative, in which he relinquished the opposition’s demand for a national unity government before the presidential election. In return, Berri called on the ruling coalition to accept the election of a president through consensus and via a quorum of two-thirds in Parliament. As the ruling coalition took its time to ponder Berri’s proposal, many began to sense internal divisions within the ranks of the March 14 Forces, though the alliance denied this. Saudi Arabia saw in Berri’s initiative a chance to break the deadlock. Aoun said that Hariri lacked control over other alliance members to come out with a unified position. Meanwhile, debate over what quorum was needed to elect a new president continued.

Kouchner returned to Beirut in mid-September and continued to press Lebanese leaders to elect a president. The month also witnessed presidential hopefuls Nassib Lahoud, Boutros Harb and Robert Ghanem formally announce their candidacies.

Lines of communication were restored between Berri and Hariri after the two exchanged Ramadan greetings and agreed to talk again at a later date. The UN, through Ban, announced that Syria was a major player in the Lebanon issue, urging rival Lebanese leaders to reconcile and elect a new president, and expressing concern over the possible emergence of two governments in the country.

The slaying of Phalange Party MP Antoine Ghanem in late September led many MPs to limit their movements. Some March 14 MPs decided to flee the country, while others moved in to the Phoenicia InterContinental Hotel, close to Parliament. Berri’s telephone call to Jumblatt to offer condolences over Ghanem’s slaying was seen as a step toward reconciliation. After Berri’s historic meeting with Sfeir, the speaker was upbeat about the prospects of electing a consensus president. But September 25, the scheduled date for the election, passed without a new president, as the session was postponed for a month. Hariri said a consensus president would be found through dialogue. Both Hariri and Berri met several times during Ramadan to push toward consensus, and hopes emerged of an early parliamentary session to elect a new president before the October 23 session.

October began on an optimistic note, with many parties making conciliatory overtures, and rival camps acknowledging the need to elect a president chosen by the Lebanese, not foreign powers. Meanwhile, legal and political experts said political divisions would persist even after a president was elected if the roots of the problem were not tackled. Discussion about the constitutional obstacles thwarting the election of grade one civil servants, namely the army commander and Central Bank governor, began to emerge.

In October, Nasrallah suggested holding direct presidential polls, echoing Aoun’s earlier proposal, but was rebuffed by the March 14 Forces. Bkirki in mid-October stepped in to try to reconcile rival Christian factions. Separate meetings were held between March 14 and opposition Christian leaders and Sfeir. The meetings resulted in the formation of a four-member committee representing the rival leaders whose task was to sift through the names of possible candidates for the presidency acceptable to both sides and hopefully arrive at a "very short" list of candidates.

Word that the October 23 session could be postponed began to circulate early as MPs met in Parliament for a regular session on October 16 to elect new parliamentary committees, the first regular session held in months. Sfeir urged MPs to pick a president who would unite the Lebanese. With the postponement of the second electoral session, the four-member committee meeting in Bkirki reached an understanding that both camps would remain committed to democratic means of resolving political problems and agreed that the qualities of the next president should match the specifications set by Sfeir. This came amid predictions that Aoun and Hariri would meet soon. Berri in the meantime postponed the October 23 session to November 12.

After great anticipation, marathon meetings between Aoun and Hariri convened in Paris on November 30, away from the media spotlight. A serious desire to work toward resolving the deadlock emerged from the meeting, as Aoun expressed confidence that the November 12 session would convene. Analysts said talks between Hariri and Aoun involved negotiations over Cabinet appointments and the new government’s political program. Others felt the decision to resolve the crisis was out of Aoun’s and Hariri’s hands, as that decision rested with regional and international allies.

Days before the November 12 session speculation was rife over the prospects for consensus. As the army reassured the populace that it was in control of the security situation on the ground, analysts began speculating about whether the ruling coalition would actually resort to electing a president with a simple majority if consensus was not reached in the last 10 days of Lahoud’s presidency.

Internationally, diplomatic efforts intensified as both Kouchner and D’Alema said they would visit Beirut in mid-November to push the Lebanese to elect a new president before Lahoud left office. Sarkozy’s chief of staff, Claude Gueant, expressed from Beirut his country’s support for consensus, but stressed that a new president had to be elected in accordance with the Constitution and within constitutional deadlines.

As yet another session was postponed until November 21, Kouchner arrived on the 13th and shuttled between both camps, warning that the situation remained complicated, and pushing Sfeir to produce a short list of suitable candidates for president, or pick just one name. Following close on Kouchner’s heels, Ban arrived in Beirut on November 16 and urged the Lebanese to elect a president with broad popular support. Again Ban called on the Lebanese to set aside their difference and go ahead with a vote for a new president. Ban said the Lebanese were at an important crossroads, urging the timely and constitutional election of a new president.

Meanwhile, strict security measures were put in place in the capital, as the army deployed more than 10,000 troops to maintain order ahead of a parliamentary session to elect a new president. Moussa, who joined Kouchner in Beirut, expressed frustration at the continued failure of the Lebanese to elect a consensus president. On November 21, Berri postponed the electoral session until November 23, the day Lahoud’s term ended. Moussa left Beirut on November 22 describing the crisis as complex, but saying he was hopeful that consensus was still possible.

With consensus remaining elusive, Berri postponed the November 23 session for one week and Lebanon’s 11th post-independence president left the Presidential Palace at midnight without handing the reins to a successor. Instead, Lahoud issued a vague statement handing the security of the country to the army, which indicated that it would follow the directives of the Cabinet. Just before midnight, Lahoud walked out of the palace doors for the last time as president, inspected the honor guard, said a few words to the press, and left.

Thus ended an era much derided by Lahoud’s detractors, who had long sought to force him out of office. Lahoud stayed as he had promised until the very last minute of his extended term.

As the feared vacuum in the presidency became fact, French Foreign Ministry spokesperson Pascale Andreani was keen to distance Kouchner, who had shepherded the mediation process, from the debacle: "The failure to elect a president does not mean that France has failed … It is the Lebanese who have failed." Three EU ministers, Kouchner, D’Alema and their Spanish counterpart, Miguel Angel Moratinos, expressed doubts that rival Lebanese factions could agree on a president.

The parliamentary majority announced in early December its willingness to amend the Constitution to allow Suleiman to be elected president. Suleiman was the opposition’s unofficial substitute candidate in case they could not get Aoun. With the nomination, new questions emerged on whether Parliament could meet to amend the Constitution, as the legislature was seen from November 23 to be in "constant session" as an "electoral body" whose sole task is to elect a president.

Sfeir again urged a presidential vote "before it’s too late," questioning whether any of those in charge of the country really appreciated the seriousness of the situation. After a meeting of March 14 MPs, the alliance called for the widest possible national solidarity over Suleiman as a consensus president. Hizbullah’s number two, Sheikh Naim Qassem, said only that he has a "positive view" of the army commander.

As Kouchner returned to Beirut to clinch agreement on Suleiman’s candidacy, Aoun sprang a list of demands on the ruling coalition that he dubbed "Christian Principles and Basics," offering conditional support for Suleiman’s candidacy. The demands included redressing a Christian imbalance in government jobs and agreement on a new electoral law. Kouchner continued intensive talks with Hariri and Berri to narrow the gap, but to no avail. Aoun then demanded the new president have veto powers in Cabinet and insisted a consensus president step down at the next general election in 2009, thus cutting the president’s term by four years.

On December 7 another scheduled electoral session was postponed until the 11th. The short postponement raised hopes that rival groups could be nearing agreement. But optimism was short-lived as the opposition began hinting it would revert to Aoun as its sole candidate for president if the March 14 alliance did not accept a "basket of conditions," which included agreeing over Cabinet appointments, the new electoral law and the new government’s ministerial statement. The ruling coalition rejected any preconditions that would "handcuff" the new president, insisting on immediate presidential elections.

The opposition also objected to any constitutional amendment that would pass through the present Cabinet, which it insists is illegitimate. Suleiman’s election rests on an amendment to Article 49 of the Constitution, which forbids any grade one civil servant from being elected president. Amid new obstacles to consensus, the army’s operations chief, General Francois Hajj, was assassinated. Hajj, who had close ties with the resistance, had been a serious contender for the army commander’s post to succeed Suleiman.

Aoun was then declared the opposition’s "sole negotiator," a man the ruling coalition had to talk to in order to resolve the political impasse. Aoun called for a document of understandings between the opposition and the ruling coalition offering "tangible guarantees" before holding elections.

As the US dispatched its envoy, Welch, to demand the Lebanese elect a president immediately, Berri postponed two more electoral sessions, the ninth and 10th. The speaker then set December 29 as the date for the election, but that session was also postponed.

As the Cabinet promised, it met on December 24 and issued a draft law to amend Article 49 of the Constitution and sent it to Parliament for a vote. Then on December 26, March 14 MPs presented Parliament with a petition calling for an emergency session to discuss and ratify the amendment. The opposition decried both moves as provocative.

Berri responded by declaring that according to an interpretation of Article 74 of the Constitution offered by former Justice Minister Bahij Tabbara, an amendment was no longer required to elect Suleiman, thus the speaker refused to convene a session specifically to amend the Constitution.

As the year ended, lines of communication between rival camps remained severed – and Baabda Palace empty.