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Lebanon president's big challenges

BBC correspondent Jim Muir reports from Beirut on the challenges facing newly-elected Lebanese President General Michel Suleiman.

Man puts up a poster of General Michel Suleiman in Beirut
Gen Suleiman is seen as a quiet man who radiates efficiency and decency

Before he cleared his desk at the defence ministry in Yarzeh on Saturday in preparation for the move to the presidential palace at nearby Baabda, General Michel Suleiman had just one large photograph next to his computer.

It was of his former chief of operations, Brig Gen Francois al-Hajj, who was assassinated on 12 December last year when his car was blown up as he was on his way to work at Yarzeh.

Who killed Gen al-Hajj, and why, is still not publicly known.

Supporters of both sides - the embattled, Western-backed government, and the opposition, spearheaded by Hezbollah and supported by Syria and Iran - attended his funeral, just as they are now backing Gen Suleiman as the country's next president.

But the message was clear. Nobody is immune from the violence and the sinister machinations of the assassins who have claimed so many victims in Lebanon since the 1970s.

Two of Michel Suleiman's presidential predecessors died violent deaths shortly after being elected.

In 1982, Bashir Gemayel was buried in the rubble of his Phalangist Party headquarters, demolished by a massive explosion. He had been lifted to power by the Israeli invasion.

In 1989, Rene Muawwad was blown to smithereens when his motorcade was hit by a huge car bomb blast.

He had been elected, like Gen Suleiman, as the result of an Arab-sponsored settlement, reached at Taif in Saudi Arabia.

So Michel Suleiman comes to office with no illusions about the harsh facts of life and death in Lebanon.

He is also well-aware of the limitations bounding his "power".

Neutral and unified

Like his immediate predecessor, Emile Lahoud, he comes to Baabda from the command of an army which, while respected, mirrors the complex fragments of Lebanon's patchwork society in a way that makes it unable to play the cohesive political role the military have taken on in many of the region's countries, such as Turkey or Egypt.

General Michel Suleiman

When the Lebanese turn to the army for a suitable Maronite Christian, as they are now doing for the third time, it is because the politicians have failed to come up with an acceptable name neutral enough to win support across the board, not because the military are horning in on politics.

Michel Suleiman won the support of all factions because of the skilful way in which he managed to keep the army neutral and unified through the conflicting currents which have buffeted it over the past few years.

Early last year, for example, he refused orders from the Western-backed government to intervene and remove the barricades with which Hezbollah and its allies were blocking roads in protest at government policies. He believed that would have been taking sides.

He won accolades all round for the army's performance in eventually crushing the Sunni militants of Fatah al-Islam at the Palestinian camp of Nahr el-Bared over several bloody months last year.

But when Hezbollah and its allies invaded west Beirut earlier this month, ransacking offices and burning newspapers belonging to the Sunni leadership, he issued strict orders to his troops not to intervene, even if shot at.

That kept the army from splitting to pieces along sectarian lines, as it did during the civil war.

Limited powers

But preserving its unity came at the price of acknowledging its weakness and inability to stand up to Hezbollah, which everybody knows is both stronger and more cohesive.

"They already have him in a hammerlock before he's even started," was the comment of one Beirut analyst.

The new president's political influence will also be limited by the agreement reached in Qatar on the composition of the new national unity government.

Blast in which Lebanese army Gen Francois al-Hajj died, 12 Dec 2007
Who killed the former chief of operations Gen Francois al-Hajj is still unknown

Under one of the proposals circulating beforehand, the distribution of the cabinet's 30 seats would have been broken down as 10 for the current government side, 10 for the opposition, and 10 to be nominated by the president.

But the Doha agreement reached last week allocates 16 seats to the Western-backed side, 11 to the opposition, and only 3 to the president.

That means the opposition will enjoy the one-third veto power it needs to prevent its rivals taking major decisions requiring a two-thirds majority.

At the same time, the agreement leaves the current government side, which has a slim majority in parliament, the absolute majority it needs to approve lesser measures.

So Gen Suleiman's three seats will not command the swing factor in either of those situations.

He has said that he sees the coming period as one of "reconciliation and understanding".

Given that he is the only prominent figure in the power structure who is not clearly identified as partisan, he will have a major role to play in fostering those two concepts.

But he comes to the job with no political experience, and will be dealing with leaders who have decades of Byzantine manoeuvring and manipulation behind them.

"I wonder how he'll be able to cope with those sharks!" said one well-placed Lebanese source who knows Gen Suleiman.

'Low point'

To those around him, the new president is a quiet man who radiates efficiency, decency and respect for others.

"He's not an arrogant person, but unlike some quiet people, he also doesn't project a feeling of power," said one.

Other Lebanese presidents, including Emile Lahoud, have come into office on a high, riding on a wave of unity and popularity - only to find their stars waned rapidly as they fell foul of some of the political barons or their outside sponsors.

"Suleiman is coming in at a low point, and the question is whether he will rise, or sink further," said one Lebanese analyst.

One thing for sure is that in the months to come, Michel Suleiman will be drawing heavily on the skills which enabled him to steer the army through the minefield it has survived in recent years.





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