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For Lebanon’s President Suleiman, a week fraught with political peril

Lebanon's President Michel Suleiman speaks during a ceremony marking the 67th Army Day, at a military academy in Fayadyeh, near Beirut, August 1, 2012.


It's not easy being president of Lebanon.

Never mind that the Christian head of state's powers have been shorn over the years and that greater power lies in the hands of the Sunni prime minister and in the multi-confessional parliament.

Or that real power in the country can be found in a Shia political/militant movement (Hezbollah) that elected, by choice, only a handful of MPs, and whose leader, Hassan Nasrallah would not soil his hands by entering parliament himself. Hezbollah's Shia and Christian allies do the dirty work for him.

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It still falls to the Lebanese president, however, to deal with any number of emotionally charged and politically volatile issues.

In the past week alone, we witnessed:

1) President Michel Suleiman, who has held the office for four years, attempting to deal with the fact that a foreign power, Syria, was shelling northern Lebanese villages with impunity. Syria alleged, correctly, that the villages were housing Syrian nationals who had fled across the border, some of whom were opponents of the Bashar al-Assad regime, and included militants who return to Syria at times to fight.

The President directed the Foreign Minister to issue a rebuke to Syria and insist it stop this violation of sovereign Lebanese territory.

This being Lebanon, however, such an edict enters a political minefield: the Foreign Minister, a Shiite, owes his allegiance to Hezbollah, a staunch ally of Syria.

Thus no rebuke is sent; the Syrian ambassador isn't even called in to receive a reprimand.

In the end, both Syria and Lebanon exchange memos, declaring that both sides will respect each other's territory. The shelling continues.

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The Lebanese army has been dispatched to the area, but it neither attempts to fire back at Syrian forces who are shelling Lebanon, nor to find and detain those Syrian militants housed in the northern area.

The first act would upset Lebanon's Shia-Christian bloc that supports the Syrian regime; the second would upset the Sunni-Christian parties who favour the opposition.

2) President Suleiman, himself a former commander of the country's armed forces for 10 years, on Wednesday actually had to call for a Lebanese defence strategy that depends on the Lebanese Army.

What would seem a sine qua non in any other country is not a given in Lebanon.

Here, more than the army, there is a private militia, operated by Hezbollah, that has the most firepower and determines Lebanon's defence strategy.

It's Hezbollah that largely sets the terms for dealing with Syria in a non-confrontational way, and dealing with its other neighbour, Israel, in a confrontational way.

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It is Hezbollah that leads the country into the arms of Iran, while Sunni powers in Lebanon maintain close ties with Saudi Arabia.

The Christian President is left having to request that parliament come up with money to improve the capacity of the national army, without explicitly saying anything about the Hezbollah elephant in the room.

3) Mr. Suleiman this week also had to deal with an elephant-like presence in Sidon, the major city in southern Lebanon. It too was a situation fraught with political peril.

A fundamentalist Sunni imam, Ahmed Assir, and several of his disciples and followers launched a sit-in protest and erected a village of tents in the middle of the city's busiest commercial street, grinding business to a halt. Sheik Assir said he would only take down the compound and end his protest if his principal demand was met. That demand was that Hezbollah be made to give up its arms.

He appealed particularly to President Suleiman to raise the matter at the next National Dialogue meeting, scheduled for later this month, and deal with it "seriously."

The National Dialogue was launched in early 2006, a year after the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri and a few months before Israel's war on Hezbollah in Lebanon. It was an attempt to overcome grievances among the country's many religious and political factions. And it always was meant to deal with Hezbollah's large arsenal and military force, considered illegal according to UN Security Council resolutions and various Lebanese agreements.

The trouble is, the subject of the Hezbollah arms is almost never raised. Political leaders prefer to turn a blind eye to it. That, Sheik Assir says, is why he decided to protest.

"Someone has emerged who dares say 'no' to Hassan Nasrallah," is how the sheik summed up his mission in an interview this week. "We must say 'no' to these arms that are used in a demonic way."

Sidon is a Sunni bastion and home to the Hariri politicians. While agreeing completely with the sheik's objectives, the politicians denounced his method, that was hurting local business and raising national tensions.

In an agreement arrived at Wednesday, Sheik Assir finally took down his camp. President Sleiman agreed to raise the issue of Hezbollah's arms at the upcoming meeting, and guaranteed that all parties would discuss a plan to subject Hezbollah's weapons "to a degree of national oversight," according to Lebanon's Daily Star.

It may be a token concession, but Sheik Assir succeeded in putting the weapons on the front pages here, and President Suleiman escaped, looking like a statesman.

4) The President's next priority is dealing with the issue of Lebanese Shia pilgrims taken hostage in May by opposition forces in Syria while travelling home from a pilgrimage to Iran.

Mr. Suleiman's initial efforts to obtain Syrian help fell on deaf ears as the Assad regime has other priorities. His efforts to get Saudi, Qatari and Turkish help have made some progress, he told the families of the 11 Lebanese hostages in a meeting at the Presidential Palace Tuesday. A spokesman said he told the families that the case "will come to a happy end soon."

The Syrian hostage takers say they will release the prisoners if Hezbollah chief Nasrallah apologizes for his support for Syrian President al-Assad. Sayyed Nasrallah has refused to do so.

The families of the 11 hostages gave the overworked President Sleiman 48 hours to win their relatives' release, or they would escalate their protest.

The presidential clock is ticking.

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