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French Version

'Defusing crisis may not be in hands of Aoun, Hariri'

Political analysts warn agreement on transitional government 'would only postpone problem'

Political analysts expressed mixed assessments of the meetings between parliamentary majority leader MP Saad Hariri and Change and Reform bloc leader MP Michel Aoun on Thursday. While some are optimistic that the two will hammer out a deal, others believe that the decision to defuse the crisis is not in their hands, but rests with their regional and international allies and patrons.

Progress has been reported in Paris in terms of bringing viewpoints closer together and overcoming past misunderstandings. Reports also suggest that the two leaders have tackled major issues at length. In addition, the fact meetings are continuing is perceived as a good sign, as analysts stress that it is better for leaders to meet and talk than to boycott one another.

Political science professor Shafik Masri believes that both men will likely reach an understanding on a general framework for a solution without agreeing on specifics, which they will then present to their respective local and regional allies for approval and secure the blessings of Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir.

"The two men are not only negotiating over the name of the president, but on the appointments in the new Cabinet and the political program, otherwise how can Aoun be compensated?" Masri asked, adding that it was unlikely Aoun would be the next president. "Aoun will likely be compensated by being given Cabinet posts in the new government."

Masri said that in every step the two men take they keep their local and regional alliances in mind. "I take it for granted that Hariri in all his opinions is blessed by the Saudis, and Aoun, while representing a large Christian majority, will not undermine his alliance with Hizbullah," Masri said. He added that if their political allies do not like the deal they reach, neither Hariri nor Aoun would accept it or announce it. Masri said that both Sfeir and Speaker Nabih Berri are likely to be kept in the picture and Sfeir's blessing is vital if a deal is to be hammered out.

"The other Christian parties may oppose a deal reached by Aoun with Hariri, unless the deal gets the blessing of the patriarch," Masri stressed.

He added that the meetings between Aoun and Hariri must be conducted within the regional and international contexts and the flurry of diplomatic activity that preceded their talks.

Political analyst Simon Haddad doubts that the Paris talks tackled the root of the problem, only ways to postpone it until the next parliamentary polls in 2009. Haddad believes that it is unlikely that names of possible candidates for the presidency were discussed in the meetings, as Aoun's position on this matter is well known and fixed.

"The discussions probably focused on the shape of the next [cabinet]," Haddad said. "Some have said Aoun asked for a 50/50 split of ministerial appointments between the majority and opposition in a 24-minister cabinet."

He added that an agreement along these lines would usher in a transitional period, with a mixed Cabinet and a neutral president, until the next parliamentary polls in 2009, serving only to postpone the problem.

Haddad said some members of the ruling coalition were not happy with Hariri meeting Aoun, and that this was one of the reasons that prompted the majority leader to meet Aoun in Paris away from any political pressure from his allies. "If they agree, the presidential elections could happen at any time, but if they do not the March 14 Forces will still proceed to elect a president in Parliament with whatever number of MPs attend," Haddad said. "The majority will not allow a constitutional vacuum to emerge."

Osama Safa, director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, said the decision to defuse the political crisis is not in the hands of either Aoun or Hariri, but said their meeting was a very good step toward breaking the ice and is certainly better than having a boycott between the top political leaders.

"In the last 15 minutes it is difficult to eliminate the lack of trust between both sides; that needs a broader meeting to include other parties who are not represented and it would need a lot of preparation," Safa said. He added that the only way the talks between Hariri and Aoun would come out with a drastic solution is if one managed to convince the other of his point of view.

"The maximum outcome of the talks would likely be mutual appeasement," Safa said, adding that this would mean an agreement on a consensus president and government acceptable to both sides "that would postpone and manage the crisis rather than solve it or tackle the roots of the crisis."

He said major political forces from both the ruling coalition and opposition are not represented at the table, which they ought to be even if Hariri and Aoun are delegated to speak for their political allies.

Political science professor Selim al-Sayegh said bilateral meetings between rival politicians such as Aoun and Hariri could create a coupling of interests. "There is a belief that the cost of nonagreement is greater that the cost of any compromise," he said, adding it will soon be evident how free both sides are to decouple the local agenda from the regional and international one.

Sayegh said that the dynamic of rapprochement between the two rival camps has its own momentum that is difficult to reverse or stop. He said the meetings between rival leaders could also help in the event the regional and international green light for consensus is not given and the Lebanese enter the damage-limitation phase.

Beirut 02-11-2007
The Daily Star

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