Lebanese Rivals Agree on Compromise Candidate

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After two weeks without a head of state, Lebanon's two rival political factions appear to agreed on a candidate for president. But the choice — army Gen. Michel Suleiman — is seen as a setback for Lebanon's ruling coalition.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Coming up, a story on the long-term implications of last week's election in Russia.

But first, an upcoming election in Lebanon. For more than two weeks, Lebanon has been a country without a president, since the last head of state completed his term. Now two rival political factions appear to have agreed on a compromise candidate: its army commander, Michel Suleiman. That choice is seen as a setback for Lebanon's ruling coalition, which is backed by the West. It's a victory, though, for the opposition, which is led by Hezbollah.

NPR's Ivan Watson reports from Beirut.

IVAN WATSON: When Lebanon's last president, Emile Lahoud, stepped down at the end of his term last month, crowds of Sunni Muslims danced in the streets of Beirut chanting Lahoud is out.

(Soundbite of chanting)

WATSON: This was a dramatic reversal, because when parliament first elected Lahoud president in 1998, many Lebanese also danced in the streets, but at that time in celebration.

Ms. AMAL SAAD-GHORAYEB (Visiting Scholar, Carnegie Middle East Center): I recall when Lahoud became president, people were very optimistic about his, you know, his tenure - at the beginning of his tenure.

WATSON: Amal Saad-Ghorayeb of the Carnegie Middle East Center says people initially had high hopes for Lahoud because he had been the commander of the Lebanese army.

Ms. GRAY: They saw him as - because he came from a military background - as being a real patriot, a real nationalist, and that's because Lebanon is such a divided country.

WATSON: Today, Lebanon's political elite is more divided than ever, and it is once again turning towards making a general head of state. The Western-backed coalition which controls a slim majority in parliament recently dropped its opposition to appointing army commander Michel Suleiman president. For parliament member Mustafa Alush(ph), nominating another general was a bitter pill to swallow.

Mr. MUSTAFA ALUSH (Parliament Member, Lebanon): It could be the way out of this Michel Suleiman. And I think it is an anti-democratic maneuver. But again, if this is the only way out, we may have to accept it.

WATSON: Though Suleiman has commanded the Lebanese army for almost a decade, he's a virtual unknown on the Lebanese political scene.

Again, Amal Saad-Ghorayeb of the Carnegie Middle East Center.

Ms. SAAD-GHORAYEB: Michel Suleiman as the army general has been very low profile and he's not a public figure. He's rarely in the media, he's rarely in the news.

WATSON: Suleiman advanced rapidly through the ranks of the armed forces at a time when Syria controlled the Lebanese army. He was made army commander in 1998.

According to his official biography on the Lebanese army Web site, Suleiman worked closely with the armed wing of the Shiite movement Hezbollah to counter the Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon. It was there in 1993, army spokesmen say, that Suleiman narrowly escaped death when an Israeli helicopter fired a rocket at his jeep, killing his driver.

Timur Goksel, a former spokesman for the United Nations peacekeeping force in Lebanon, worked with Suleiman and describes him as a cautious character who kept the army out of politics.

Mr. TIMUR GOKSEL: He's a solid guy. He's a - he's cautious and he's been very, very careful over they years not to be seen as taking sides.

WATSON: In 2005, Suleiman ordered his troops not to open fire on anti-Syrian protesters when they launched what came to be known as the Cedar Revolution, which helped force the Syrian military out of Lebanon.

Last summer, Suleiman again won praise after a long battle in a Palestinian refugee camp between the army and an al-Qaida-inspired militant group called Fatah al-Islam which left more than 100 soldiers dead.

Suleiman soon emerged as the leading presidential candidate for the Hezbollah-led opposition movement.

Amal Saad-Ghorayeb says Hezbollah believes a President Suleiman would not give in to Western pressure to disarm its fighters.

Ms. SAAD-GHORAYEB: They saw Suleiman as the most acceptable, the most palatable choice, and one that was closest to their agenda, one at least who was not pro-American.

WATSON: In the village square of Suleiman's small hometown of Amchit, huge portraits of Suleiman in uniform hang next to a giant Christmas tree.

Marionite Christian villagers like 23-year-old hairdresser Joe Hawad(ph) are getting ready to celebrate.

Mr. JOE HAWAD: Now we're preparing for the happy day.

WATSON: What's the happy day?

Mr. HAWAD: When he becomes the president. That's it.

WATSON: Ivan Watson, NPR News, Amchit, Lebanon.

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