Lebanon awaits Hariri’s keynote speech on crisis

Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri

With no solution in sight to the presidential crisis, all eyes are focused on a keynote speech to be delivered by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri Sunday in which he is expected to highlight his ongoing efforts to put an end to the 20-month-long vacuum, Future Movement sources said Friday.

Hariri is scheduled to address by video link a Future Movement rally at the BIEL Sunday afternoon commemorating the 11th anniversary of the assassination of his father, the late former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was killed along with 21 others in a massive suicide bombing in Beirut on Valentine’s Day in 2005.

The assassination has caused a major political earthquake, leaving negative reverberations that are still felt in Lebanon’s instability and sectarian tensions.

There has been media speculation that Hariri is expected to officially endorse MP Sleiman Frangieh’s candidacy for the presidency during his speech. But this was refuted by Future sources Friday.

“[Former] Prime Minister Hariri is unlikely to officially endorse MP Frangieh’s candidacy for the presidency,” a Future source told The Daily Star.

“Instead, Hariri will reaffirm he will pursue efforts and contacts to put an end to the presidential vacuum as soon as possible,” the source said.

Frangieh has emerged as a strong candidate for the presidency since his landmark meeting with Hariri in Paris in November as part of an internationally backed initiative launched by the head of the Future Movement to end the presidential vacuum and revive the work of Parliament and the government, long paralyzed by the deadlock.

However, Frangieh’s presidential bid has been bogged down by vehement opposition from the three main Christian parties: The Free Patriotic Movement, the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb Party.

Last month’s surprise endorsement by LF chief Samir Geagea of his wartime foe, MP Michel Aoun, for the presidency has also thrown Frangieh’s bid into confusion. Geagea’s dramatic move was apparently aimed at undermining the Marada Movement leader’s candidacy, which is backed by Hariri and his Future bloc, Speaker Nabih Berri’s bloc, MP Walid Jumblatt’s bloc and some independent lawmakers.

Frangieh has vowed not to withdraw from the presidency race in favor of Aoun. But he said he would bow out from the race only if Hariri decided to back Aoun.

Hariri’s support for Frangieh’s candidacy has put a strain on the Future Movement’s ties with the LF. Geagea’s endorsement of Aoun’s bid has also added a further strain to the Future-LF ties.

Geagea, who had attended and addressed similar rallies in the past, is not expected to participate in Sunday’s commemoration, the Future source said.

The Hariri commemoration rally comes after Parliament this week failed in its 35th attempt in a row to elect a president over a lack of quorum, prompting Berri to schedule a new session for March 2.

Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk reiterated his position that regional powers, rather than local players, held the key to the presidential election.

“I am optimistic that the presidential election will take place this year. I will not set tomorrow or after tomorrow as a date. But I insist that the presidential election is a regional decision rather than a local one,” Machnouk told reporters after meeting with Aoun at the latter’s residence in Rabieh.

In a clear reference to the escalating Saudi-Iranians tensions in the region, he said: “The regional clash will eventually lead to a truce that allows an understanding on securing a constitutional quorum to elect Lebanon’s president.”

Many Lebanese politicians and analysts contend that a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which back opposing sides in Lebanon, is essential for facilitating the election of a president.

Machnouk said he discussed with Aoun the reactivation of the government’s work, underlining the need for stability. He said it was easy to reach a common ground with the FPM founder on security issues.

“The financial and economic situation is going through great difficulties. This matter needs an understanding with all the political parties in order to act seriously and responsibly to prevent any economic collapse in Lebanon,” Machnouk said. “I consulted with Gen. Aoun on security issues and some vacancies in the Internal Security Forces Command Council. The possibility of reaching an understanding with Aoun is easy and possible.” The minister said there is no reason to postpone municipal elections scheduled for May.

Meanwhile, MP Ibrahim Kanaan from the FPM called on rival politicians to resort to the people’s opinions and democracy over the presidential election following the inter-Christian agreement, a reference to the reconciliation between Aoun and Geagea. “We firmly want to complete this understanding with the [Muslim] partner and say to him that we are ready at the national level to be in agreement with him.”

Kanaan, accompanied by LF media spokesman Melhem Riachi, told reporters after meeting with Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai in Bkirki, “The agreement should take into account this Christian will which says that I want Lebanon’s unity and the Constitution.”

Education Minister Elias Bou Saab. also from the FPM. called after meeting with Rai for the election of “a strong president” who has wide popularity within the Christian community.

“My talks with the patriarch focused on a solution to the Christian situation which begins with an agreement on a strong president who represents the Christians,” he said. He added that the country’s problems can be solved when “there is a head of state who enjoys a strong representation and around whom the Christians, and subsequently the Lebanese, will rally.”

“If Gen. Aoun is elected president, we can say that everyone will stand on his side,” Bou Saab added.

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