Hezbollah rejects Rai call to abandon Aoun on presidency

Patriarch Beshara Rai, right, receives Hezbollah official Sayyed Ibrahim Amin al-Sayyed

Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai told a Hezbollah delegation Tuesday that ethical commitment to Lebanon was more important than ethical commitment to persons, in a clear response to the party’s commitment to supporting MP Michel Aoun’s presidential bid.

Rai’s stance came after Hezbollah rejected a request from the patriarch to intercede with Aoun to talk him into quitting the presidency race as a means of ending the 19-month-long power vacuum, Bkirki sources said.

Hezbollah argued that it is ethically committed to supporting Aoun’s presidential campaign in the face of an internationally backed initiative backing MP Sleiman Frangieh for the country’s top Christian post, the sources said.

“Ethical commitment to the homeland is more important than ethical commitment to persons,” Rai told a Hezbollah delegation that visited Bkirki to congratulate the patriarch on Christmas and the New Year, according to a source who attended the meeting. The Hezbollah delegation was led by the party’s Political Council chief Sayyed Ibrahim Amin al-Sayyed.

“There was disagreement between Patriarch Rai and Hezbollah over several points, particularly the presidential issue,” the source told The Daily Star. “However, the two sides underlined the need to find a solution to the current presidential crisis.”

In discussing the initiative supporting Frangieh for the presidency, Rai, according to the source, told the Hezbollah delegation: “Our main concern is the presidency. We separate between it and the naming of the [presidential] candidate. For more than 18 months, you have been saying Gen. Michel Aoun is your sole candidate. But you could not achieve any result in the past 18 months.”

Rai recalled he had told Aoun, being one of the four top Maronite leaders who met in Bkirki earlier this year to discuss the presidential crisis, that “we support anyone of them who can enjoy the biggest support.” In addition to Aoun, the other three Maronite leaders vying for the presidency are Frangieh, Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea and former President Amine Gemayel.

Responding to Rai, Sayyed, according to the source, said: “You are asking us to intervene to persuade Gen. Michel Aoun [into quitting the presidential race]. But we are ethically committed to Gen. Aoun. If someone else wanted to persuade him, we will not do it.”

“We are absolutely against the current [presidential] vacuum. We are aware of the risks entailed if this vacuum persisted. But our commitment to Gen. Aoun is not political in order for us to retreat on it. It is an ethical commitment. Hezbollah will not compromise over this issue [ethics],” Sayyed said, according to the source.

In response, Rai, according to the source, said: “We do not intervene in the game of [presidential] candidates. But we want a president. Lebanon has been suffering since the Baabda Palace became vacant from various problems at all levels, particularly the government structure, which can no longer find solutions to a people who are suffering from poverty day after day.”

Rai did not explicitly support Frangieh’s candidacy, but called on rival political factions to deal seriously with the initiative backing the Marada Movement leader’s presidential bid.

“One of the positive aspects of the reported presidential initiative is that it has set the presidential issue into motion,” Rai said, according to the source. “The initiative should be dealt with seriously. We don’t intervene in names [of candidates]. We have separated the initiative from a presidential candidate.”

Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri is backing Frangieh’s candidacy as part of an initiative to reach a comprehensive political settlement to end the presidential stalemate and revive the work of Parliament and the government paralyzed by the power vacuum.

The initiative, reached during a meeting between Frangieh and Hariri in Paris last month, calls for the Marada Movement leader to be elected president and the head of the Future Movement to return to premiership.

However, Hariri’s initiative has been stymied after drawing staunch opposition from the country’s three main Christian parties – the Free Patriotic Movement, the LF and the Kataeb Party.

Although Frangieh is also a key ally of Hezbollah, the party refused to budge on supporting Aoun for president.

“Sleiman Frangieh is a friend, and even more than a friend. He is a brother. But precedence is for Gen. Aoun’s candidacy,” Sayyed was quoting as telling Rai during the one-hour meeting that was also attended by Maronite Bishop Samir Mazloum and Hares Chehab, two members of a joint dialogue committee between Hezbollah and Bkirki.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Sayyed said Hezbollah will not abandon its commitment to Aoun’s candidacy.

“For us, politics is about ethics, not lies and maneuvers. Therefore, when we committed ourselves to Gen. Aoun over his presidential candidacy, we cannot give up this commitment in the face of any a new development or a new political turning point,” Sayyed said. “This commitment is ethical.”

Responding to March 14 calls on Hezbollah to exert pressure on the FPM founder to bow out of the presidential race, he said: “We are not the party that must act to overcome an obstacle in the way of this initiative or this settlement. We are not concerned with this matter … We will not accept that our only role is to persuade Michel Aoun into quitting his candidacy for the presidency. This matter will not happen.”

Rai also met with former Minister Jean Obeid, a potential presidential aspirant whose name has been proposed as a consensus president.

Obeid called for the election of a president who can reflect the broadest consensus among the Lebanese. “I am one of those who call for the election of a president today without further delay, regardless of the person to be elected,” he told reporters after the meeting. “Filling the [presidential] vacuum is better than a prolongation of vacuum.”

The patriarch also met with Riad Salameh, governor of the Central Bank, whose name has been often mentioned as a possible presidential candidate.

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