Lebanon's New President to Strengthen Ties with Syria

After a six-month vacancy, Lebanon swears in a new president Sunday. The vote in parliament for Gen. Michel Suleiman ends 18 months of political stalemate. Sulieman vows to strengthen ties with Syria; Lebanon's relationship with its neighbor is a source of much its political turmoil. Mohanad Hage Ali, political editor the Arab world daily Al-Hayat, speaks with NPR's Guy Raz.

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GUY RAZ, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz sitting in for Andrea Seabrook.

There's a new president in Lebanon today, a country that's been without a leader for six months. General Michel Suleiman took office earlier today after being elected by the parliament. The vote breaks a year-and-a-half-long political stalemate.

Mohanad Hage Ali has been following the drama. He's the political editor for the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, and he joins us now from London. Welcome.

Mr. MOHANAD HAGE ALI (Political Editor, Al-Hayat Newspaper): Thank you.

RAZ: Lebanon hasn't had a president since November. Why did this take so long?

Mr. ALI: There has been a stalemate in the political situation. You have two conflicting sides - the pro-Syrian coalition and the anti-Syrian coalition. Since the assassination of Hariri, things started to escalate in Lebanon.

RAZ: This is former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Mr. ALI: Former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Since his assassination, Rafik Hariri's son and other political figures led the coalition against Hezbollah and his pro-Syrian allies.

RAZ: One of the first things that the new president, General Suleiman, did today was he said he would strengthen ties with Syria. But as you just mentioned, the controversy over that relationship between Lebanon and Syria has been one of the main reasons for the political turmoil in Lebanon. How significant was that announcement today?

Mr. ALI: It is very unfortunate because noting that the former Lebanese President Amin Gemayel was a very divisive individual. And in the legacy of the Syrian presence in Lebanon, which is in itself also a controversial and divisive issue, this president could play the role of a referee between the conflicting sides in Lebanon, and also can enhance the transition into a new political phase in the country where we could see a more independent country than the past.

RAZ: Can General Michel Suleiman, the new president of Lebanon now, can he really bring the country together?

Mr. ALI: I think he can do a pretty good job in preventing situation from escalating to violence, like what happened in the past couple of months. He mentioned in a speech specifically about the weapons of resistance, meaning Hezbollah, that we will not allow the weapons to be directed internally.

RAZ: But haveā€¦

Mr. ALI: It will only be directed against Israeli enemies.

RAZ: But haven't all the leaders of Lebanon essentially been saying the same thing for months about Hezbollah, that Hezbollah has to disarm?

Mr. ALI: The importance of this president in particular is that he has strong ties with all parties. And in this regard, he spoke in details what is to be done about Hezbollah's weapons.

RAZ: But why would Hezbollah voluntarily disarm simply because now President Michel Suleiman has asked them to do so?

Mr. ALI: He didn't really ask them to do so. He wanted to reach a settlement by which there would be a defined relation between the government and Hezbollah's arm and Hezbollah's decision to go into a war with a neighboring country like what happened in July 2006.

RAZ: With Israel.

Mr. ALI: With Israel, exactly.

RAZ: As an observer of Lebanon, how fragile is the political situation there now, even with a new president?

Mr. ALI: It is fragile to a large extent since you had this small civil war in the past couple of months. And also you won't reach a stage whereby the political differences will spill into violence in the streets like we had about a month ago.

RAZ: Mohanad Hage Ali is the political editor of Al-Hayat, a leading pan-Arab newspaper. He spoke with us from London. Thanks so much.

Mr. ALI: Thank you.

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