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Sun 13 Nov 2005 04:00 AM

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Leader in waiting

Chibli Mallat, the man who wants to be the next president of Lebanon, speaks to Massoud A. Derhally about his aims.

Leader in waiting|~|Lebanon-pic-200.jpg|~||~|THE SYRIANS MAY BE OUT, BUT to many Lebanese, the determination of president Emile Lahoud to remain in office — a consequence of an amendment to the Lebanese constitution coerced by Damascus — poses an ominous and debilitating threat to the stability of the country.

Lahoud intends to remain in power until his mandate expires, irrespective of the findings of the UN's recent report into the assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri — which says he received a phone call from a dubious individual in the wake of the killing. This and other findings raise several questions about the confessional political structure of Lebanon, rooted in the Taif Accords that ended the country's 15-year civil war.

Though the prevailing political gridlock has divided the Christian community of Lebanon, with blocs emerging in support of Lahoud and of former army general Michel Aoun, there now is an alternative to the status quo of political figures that have dominated the political landscape of Lebanon for the past 30 years.

That alternative came on November 2 in the form an opinion piece in the Lebanese daily An Nahar by Chibli Mallat, a lawyer and an academic, who announced his bid for the presidency of the country.

Like many Lebanese, Mallat was frustrated with the history of Syrian tutelage over Lebanon and more recently, in the wake of the Cedar Revolution, by the stalemate of the political environment. This was epitomised by Lahoud’s continued presence in the presidential palace in Baabda.

Though he doesn’t really say it, Mallat’s bid for the presidency stems from a set of principles guided by democratic ideals and a conviction that one should never place the state before the freedoms of individuals. The constitutional crisis that persists in Lebanon, says Mallat in an extended interview with Arabian Business, is what prompted him to act.

A public opinion poll published by Lebanese daily An Nahar on November 8, showed 54% of Lebanese in favour of president Lahoud’s departure.

“The risks of the deadlock developing into violence are high especially in Lebanon, especially in the Middle East,” he explains. “My bid for the presidency will help chart a new course [and] open new hopes in the right direction, that would partly solve the immediate crisis and partly offer the Lebanese a different type of standing in the world.”

Mallat has thought about charting this new course before and trifled with the idea of running as early as the 1998 elections in Lebanon. At the time, Mallat, who comes from Baabda, and has a distinguished track record as an author and editor of over 20 books, published Presidential Choices in the run up to the elections at that time.

Much of what he puts forward today in his campaign for the presidency, Mallat has already voiced in his book.

The salient point that underlies how he wants to orchestrate change rests largely on the desire to “to let the Lebanese public into the Lebanese presidency”, says Mallat. “This comes from a strong belief that the best democratic choice for something of that importance, the presidency in Lebanon, is its open competitive nature,” he adds.

Mallat regrets waiting this long to enter the political arena. “I made a mistake not to declare that I was running for president, as I wanted to simply encourage other people who were all silent, or afraid, relying on Damascus and Washington to come up with a 100% candidate,” says Mallat. “I stood up against the change of the constitution, but should have done more than this at the time, and said: ‘Look it is feasible, and I’m openly running for president. Let the best person win.’ It could have perhaps created a different atmosphere.”

For one reason or another, Mallat stayed outside the realm of politics and saw, much to his disgust, the grip of Syria grow tighter on the sphere of Lebanese politics. However, he could bare no more as Lahoud’s term was extended and Hariri was assassinated. This led to the Cedar Revolution that brought over a million Lebanese to the heart of Beirut on March 14 and to the withdrawal of Syria's troops from the country last April.

Until those events, Mallat’s activism appeared to be largely limited to his legal practice, which handled high-profile cases that resulted in the indictment of Muammar Gaddafi of Libya over the disappearance of Musa Sadr. Sadr, a charismatic Iranian-born Shiite cleric in Lebanon, disappeared and is assumed to have been murdered while visiting Libya for talks with the Libyan leader.

There is also the case Mallat brought against Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon for his involvement in the massacre of 2000 Palestinian civilians during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 — in addition to assisting with the creation of the Iraqi opposition strategy for ending Saddam’s dictatorship.

His legal practice aside, Mallat has also been preoccupied with his academic work, public speaking and writing articles in defense of the present Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora, who president Lahoud tried to imprison when he first came to power to defend the Lebanese people who lived under Israeli occupation and were branded as collaborators by others inside Lebanon.

The winds of change ostensibly led Mallat to shed any political expediency he may have exercised up to that point.

Mallat repeatedly declined public office in Lebanon on account of the process being seriously flawed democratically.

In 1991-1992, he declined to accept membership in parliament in the aftermath of the Taif agreement as one of the ‘appointed’ deputies. “This was contrary to my belief in democratic principles. I did not run in 1992 when there were elections because at the time the Maronite leadership had decided to boycott the elections and I did not want to break ranks for what seemed to me a legitimate stand on account of the Syrian and Lebanese governments not respecting the pullout clause in Taif,” says Mallat — in reference to a clause that stipulated Syrian troops would begin withdrawing from Lebanon two years after the Taif agreement was consummated.

In 1996, Mallat stayed outside the fray of politics and parliamentary elections, largely because of a conflict of interest presented by the presidency that his father, Wajdi Mallat, held of the constitutional court in Lebanon.

But the most difficult moment for Mallat was when his good friend Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader, asked him to stand in 2000 on his Baabda list. “It was difficult because Walid was running a very courageous campaign and I did not want to let him down,” says Mallat. “But if I had run at that time, I would have in order to protect my ‘Christian’ electorate base to say harsh things about Syrian rule, which would put the bar too high for Walid. That’s why I decided not to run, not to embarrass him.”

Mallat stayed out of the most recent elections in Lebanon, held without the presence of Syrian troops for the first time in decades, because he believed little would come of his participation in Baabda where the process was polarised where on the one hand existed Michel Aoun’s list and on the other the “opposition’s," says Mallat.

“I have always regretted the collapse of the opposition, and efforts to create national lists, which would have transformed the country in the best possible way, did not survive March 14,” laments Mallat, who refused to entertain the portfolio of minister of justice in the newly elected parliament because he did not want to sit with Lahoud as president.

But things are different today, enough so at least, that Mallat, who has played an important role in promoting democracy and safeguarding human rights, has decided to also elevate his strong activism in the Lebanese Cedar Revolution and standing up against Lahoud and the changing of the constitution — to become a contender for the presidency.

Christian Philip, deputy head of the French Parliament, who knows Mallat well, believes Lebanon could benefit from new blood.

“After World War II in France, in 1958 when De Gaulle was in power, he changed a lot of people and maybe now its time in Lebanon to give opportunities to new personalities,” Philip tells Arabian Business.

“Mallat has very good ideas regarding his country. He wants to open a debate in his country that it is necessary — that Lebanon is able to have new people, new personalities and that its maybe time to change. He believes it is necessary to try to change the traditional political system founded on confessionalism.”

Though it is unclear how the present impasse surrounding the presidency will be resolved, Mallat is nonetheless heartened by the shows of support in the like of phone calls from leading personalities; including Fouad Siniora, the Lebanese prime minister and people offering their financial support.

He is also unabashedly adamant about Lahoud stepping down. “Mr. Lahoud’s legitimacy has long vanished," he says. “It is very clear from the increasingly damning news of the extension of his mandate that it was a coercive and threatening extension. He ran, actually he did not even run, except to Damascus to seek support, into the face of resolution 1559, which in two places says the upcoming presidential elections would have to happen without foreign intervention and foreign influence,” Mallat adds.

“It is quite clear that the constitutional amendment never stood under Lebanese law because it flies into the face of the basic principles of democracy; now it’s also contrary to international law. Practical consequences: Simply put, no one, least Emile Lahoud, can stop Parliament from meeting and electing a new president.”

Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who has been at the centre of the Lebanese opposition to the Syrian presence in Lebanon and to Lahoud’s term extension is supportive of Mallat.

In an interview with Arabian Business, he says: “Anybody from the Maronite Christian community is entitled to run for the presidency because of our confessional system, but the question is how long Mr. Lahoud will stay?”

“Chibli is a friend and a distinguished intellectual, we might have our differences, we might not agree on some issues, but in the end it is up to the parliament to decide,” Jumblatt adds.

Jamil Mroue, the publisher of the Lebanese Daily Star, believes the time is up for the Lebanese president. “I am 100% sure that the people of Lebanon are so sick of the way their politicians are conducting business and certainly the way their current president has been conducting business. Even if you are a person who likes this president personally there is absolutely no way that as a citizen you might like what he is doing to the country,” Mroue tells Arabian Business.

As far as Mroue is concerned, Mallat is the man for the job. “In terms of being qualified on paper, I don’t see anyone who is more qualified. He is a Maronite, who has been teaching Islamic law and in the case of Lebanon, more interestingly Shiite law. He is more qualified than almost all the Shiite community bar three or four individuals in the affairs of their sect and religion.

“He is a Maronite with all the credentials that Maronites would have in terms of heritage and family. He is a secular person and that is a wider sect that is unregistered in Lebanon, probably bigger than all the sects — a very substantial minority,” adds Mroue.

Lahoud’s downfall appeared imminent in the wake of the Mehlis report; whose findings, Jawad Boulos, a Lebanese member of parliament, and many other Lebanese find disturbing and troubling.

“There is a very damaging fact in the Mehlis report, which is that one of the suspects in the assassination operation contacted the president of the republic on his own personal phone,” explains Boulos. “This is a very damaging allegation for the presidency and for the president. Obviously it needs to be investigated in full and it's very necessary for us to know how this individual had access to the president’s personal mobile phone and why he actually made the call that he made at that particular time on February 14.”

There is also the issue of responsibility of the president for the actions of the people who were directly under his command at the time of the assassination, specifically the president of the republican guard, Mustafa Hamdan who is now under arrest.

“If it appears that the president did not know [of the execution of the assassination] he certainly can’t escape responsibility. And if he knew then obviously the responsibility is even more potent,” says Boulos.

Despite the unabated criticism of Lahoud the road to the presidency is not guaranteed for a number of reasons. For one, there is little indication that Lahoud will budge, even though there are serious questions regarding whether or not he is implicated in the killing of Hariri.

For now, the repercussions of the Mehlis report and to that end, UN Security Council Resolution 1636, as far as Lahoud is concerned, have largely been limited to Syria. German judge Detlev Mehlis has also not expressed any interest in questioning the Lebanese president nor named him as a suspect in the case.

There is also the issue of the Christian community that is clearly divided on the issue of the presidency, as that is the only position that symbolises their voice, with the prime minister being a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the parliament Shiite.

The inability of the Christian community to agree on a successor to Lahoud has done little to quell the present predicament.

The Maronite bishops, led by Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir said in a statement this month: “The current dispute over whether the president should remain or vacate his position has got Lebanon into an awkward situation. The presidency should remain above this dispute.”

Lahoud has exploited the statement to his advantage, with his supporters interpreting it as supportive of him finishing his term. Others, however, believe the Lebanese president is on shaky ground.

“Lahoud is dangling by a thread. Nobody today has any desire to see him remain in office. The only thing is that until they can agree on a successor, Lahoud will remain in office,” says Michael Young, a Lebanese political commentator and a vehement anti-Syrian critic.

“You are reaching the point where an increasing amount of pressure is going to be exerted on the one person who can decide and that’s the Maronite patriarch. On the one hand, half of the Christians are saying we should defend Lahoud because we don’t want the presidency to be diminished. The other half is saying we should get rid of Lahoud because we don’t want the presidency diminished,” explains Young.

Uncomfortable and in a difficult position, the patriarch is aware of the cleavages among the Christians, largely a result of conflicting ambitions.

The situation is further exacerbated by the ambitions of Michel Aoun — a retired army general who returned to Lebanon after living in France for 15 years, and who believes he is inalienably the right man for the presidency.

There are those who want Aoun to become president and of course those that want to ensure he doesn’t become president.

Mallat will nonetheless have to reckon with the army general, who will, in all likelihood, wage or intensify his attacks on anyone who vies with him in the competition for the presidency.

“Neither Mr. Lahoud, nor Mr. Aoun, nor anybody else, is in a position to dictate to the country who the next president is. Competitiveness in this election is absolutely crucial,” says Mallat.

Mallat believes Aoun is concerned and intimidated by him entering the campaign for the country's presidency. He is less concerned about the leanings of the patriarch whom he knows.

“The patriarch will not take a position, nor is he asked to take a position in my favour," explains Mallat. “He has to represent all the Maronites, even the less glorious Maronites like Mr. Lahoud.

“However, the patriarch taking a position on an open process would be good, and that is what I understand by respect for the Constitution. If the constitution does not regulate democracy, what is then for?

“One of the sentences I can relate from the Patriarch’s high standing as democrat is ‘why should we short-circuit the people?’ This idea informs my presidential bid,” he adds.

One of the genuine dimensions of this presidential bid, Mallat believes is the necessity of the president of Lebanon to resemble the convergence of the March 14 demonstration that gathered more than a million Lebanese from various political spectrums.

“There is no reason why we should settle for less. I think of myself as the effective non-violent soldier of that revolution, amongst many others. The country deserves better,” says Mallat.

Though he is secular, Mallat is not entirely adamant about rewriting the constitution of the country — which was drawn up by the French and contributed significantly to the sectarian strife that has characterised Lebanon since the country's first civil war in 1860.

“Religion is an important factor in daily life,” he says, “as long as people identify with it as their guiding moral dimension, you cannot say let’s forget about religion,” says Mallat, adding: “What you want to do is to channel the most positive dimensions of religion and lessen the channels that may be anti-democratic.”

One way for the negative elements of sectarianism to retreat is to the ability to elect directly the head of the executive, according to Mallat.

“It is a 19th century system that allows MPs to choose the head of the executive branch," he says.

“We need to move a second stage of democracy, and this is one way to do that, which does not necessarily do away with sectarianism, but still liberates public space a bit further. It may well be that a balance remains in law between Muslims and Christians, we have to be inventive but work as consensually as possible in that direction,” explains Mallat.

As Mroue puts it, Mallat “brings in a breath of fresh air, in Edward de Bono’s lateral thinking kind of mind — he has just moved the parameters and the paradigms of what to do in being a presidential candidate. He is venturing into new grounds that are treacherous and is a man of principles willing to stand for them.”


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