Choice of president Lebanon’s decision alone, Obama says


Choice of president Lebanon’s decision alone, Obama says
Hussein Dakroub/The Daily Star/Nov. 22, 2014

BEIRUT: U.S. President Barack Obama sent a strong message Friday calling for the election of a Lebanese president without foreign interference, while pledging that Washington would continue to support Lebanon in the fight against terror.

Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, meanwhile, decried the continued presidential vacuum, saying it was an insult to the founding fathers of Lebanon’s independence, and called for immediate consultations to elect a president.

The two figures’ statements came on the eve of the 71st anniversary of Lebanon’s independence from France in 1943. The government has decided to cancel Independence Day celebrations because of the deadlock over electing a president.

“As a friend of the Lebanese people, the United States regrets this anniversary day passes without an elected president of the Lebanese Republic, an important but missing symbol of the unity of the nation and a key factor in promoting Lebanese sovereignty and stability,” Obama said in a letter released by the U.S. Embassy on the occasion of Independence Day which falls Saturday.

“The election of a president must be a Lebanese decision only, but it is a decision that must be taken for the sake of the Lebanese people,” he said.

Parliament failed this week for the 15th time since April to elect a president over a lack of quorum, fueling fears of a prolonged vacuum in the country’s top Christian post. The rival March 8 and March 14 parties have traded blame for the delay in picking a successor to former President Michel Sleiman, whose six-year term ended May 25.

Senior government officials have acknowledged that the key to ending the deadlock that has left Lebanon without a president for nearly six months lies with regional and international powers, citing particularly a long-awaited rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which back opposing sides in the country.

In his letter, Obama stressed that the Lebanese Army and security forces should alone be responsible for defending Lebanon’s borders and expressed pride in Lebanese-American ties, particularly in terms of combating the rise of extremist threats.

“We are also proud of our long-standing relationship with the Lebanese Armed Forces, and the Internal Security Forces, and of our contributions to the development of these state institutions, which alone have the legitimacy and responsibility to defend Lebanon’s borders and safeguard its citizens, and are accountable to all Lebanese,” Obama said. “The U.S. will continue to stand with our Lebanese partners in the face of the threat extremists pose to our countries and the world.”

He praised the Lebanese for their resilience, saying he was confident Lebanon would be able to overcome security challenges facing the country.

The British Embassy also posted a video on YouTube with Ambassador Tom Fletcher reading a statement from Queen Elizabeth II congratulating Lebanon on its national day.

“It gives me great pleasure to send the people of Lebanon my congratulations and warmest greetings on the celebration of your National Day, together with best wishes for good fortune, stability and happiness in the coming year. Elizabeth R,” Fletcher said. The camera then moves to several embassy staff singing the Lebanese national anthem.

For his part, Hariri said it was shameful for Independence Day to fall with the country lacking a president.

“The insistence to spin in the circle of vacancy and keep the presidency the hostage of external changes is an insistence to keep Lebanon in the whirlpool of division and loss,” Hariri said in a statement.

“It is also the biggest insult to those elite Lebanese men who achieved independence and took it as a base for the birth of the National Pact and the coexistence formula,” he said.

The head of the Future Movement renewed his call to begin immediate consultations by the rival factions to agree on the election of a new president, saying such talks would be part of a road map to protect Lebanon from the repercussions of regional turmoil.

“Independence Day is an occasion to renew the call for a road map that protects Lebanon from the surrounding storms, and to initiate, without any delay, consultations to agree on electing a president who would make his priority the revival of national dialogue, the prevention of strife and the disengagement of [Lebanese] militarily from the Syrian war,” Hariri said in a clear allusion to Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria.

This road map, Hariri said, represented the “solid foundation for the required stability and a suitable environment for the Army to successfully carry out its role in controlling the border, fighting terrorism and freeing the kidnapped soldiers.”

ISIS and Nusra Front militants are still holding hostage 26 Lebanese soldiers and policemen they captured during clashes with the Lebanese Army when they overran the northeastern town of Arsal in early August.

Hariri said this Independence Day was the most bitter given the absence of a president who should be a national symbol. “And the feeling of bitterness is even stronger, because of the heartache of the mothers, wives, fathers and children of the kidnapped soldiers that resonates in the homes of all Lebanese,” he said.

“It is shameful and deplorable that Independence Day falls while Lebanon is without a president, to whom the Constitution bestows the exclusive honor of taking the oath of preserving the nation’s independence and territorial integrity,” Hariri added.

Speaking on the same occasion, Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi vowed to uproot terrorist organizations in Lebanon and free the kidnapped servicemen, while commending soldiers for thwarting a plot by militants to establish an “emirate of darkness” in the country. “The anniversary of independence comes as Lebanon is threatened by the most dangerous terrorist plot in the entire region,” Kahwagi said in his Order of the Day.

Addressing troops, Kahwagi said: “You were the ones who foiled this plot with your blood and the blood of the martyrs. You thwarted a dream to establish an emirate of darkness from the country’s eastern border to the sea.”

“This plot, if it were allowed to happen, would have led to destructive sectarian events across the country and we would have entered a vortex of a civil war more dangerous than some might imagine,” he added.

“Your confrontation of the terrorist organizations, isolating them in the Arsal region and ending their abnormal presence in the city of Tripoli and its surroundings with a record speed have been appreciated and admired by the Lebanese and the world,” Kahwagi said. “Our decision is clear: The war against these organizations is ongoing. No leniency, no complacency in fighting terrorists until we root them out of Lebanon.”

In addition to fighting ISIS and Nusra Front militants in Arsal, the Lebanese Army also crushed Islamist militants in the northern city of Tripoli last month.

Kahwagi said the Army would spare no effort to secure the release of the kidnapped soldiers. He urged soldiers to remain alert on Lebanon’s southern border and be wary of Israel which, he said, was taking advantage of regional conflicts to achieve its own goals.