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    Middle East
     Jul 8, 2005
The new face of Lebanon
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - A lot of political maturity and good faith is coming out of Beirut following the appointment of Fouad al-Siniora (62) as premier of Lebanon. He was voted into office by 126 of the 128 deputies in the Lebanese parliament.

Tested in economics and politics, Siniora is believed to be the perfect man to end Lebanon's numerous woes, especially after the assassination of ex-premier Rafik Hariri and the exodus of the Syrian army from Lebanon.

The new parliament is unlike any since the end of the civil war in 1990 as it includes many ground-breaking newcomers, such as General Michel Aoun, who returned to the country after 15 years in exile; Saad Hariri, the son of the slain prime minister; Solang Gemayel, the widow of slain president Bashir Gemayel; and Strida Gagegea, the wife of arrested warlord Samir Gagegea.

Many traditional faces were defeated in the recent multi-phased elections, including ex-interior minister Sulayman Franjiyyieh, Druze leader Talal Arslan, Maronite leader Nassib Lahhoud and Beirut politician Najah Wakim. Other previously influential leaders did not run for office, such as Beirut chief Tammam Salam, ex-deputy prime minister Issam Fares, and former prime minister Omar Karameh, leaving parliament, for the first time in 50 years, without a member of the Karameh family, the scions of Sunni power in Tripoli.

New man in the job
Siniora was born in 1943, grew up in the coastal city of Sidon, and studied at the American University of Beirut (AUB), the institution that molded many of Lebanon's greatest leaders throughout the 20th century. Siniora lectured at AUB in the 1970s, and served in the auditing committee at the Central Bank of Lebanon from 1977 to 1982.

He then joined the vast business empire of Rafik Hariri, and is currently chairman and managing director of Groupe Mediterranee, encompassing four Hariri-owned banks (Banque de la Mediterranee, Saudi Lebanese Bank, Allied Bank and Banque de la Mediterranee Suisse). He is also a board member of the Arab Bank, one of the largest in the Arab world.

When Hariri came to power in 1992, he brought Siniora with him, first as minister of state and then as minister of finance, a post he held in all the Hariri cabinets from 1992 to 2004. The Western media have depicted him as an anti-Syrian statesman who has been opposed to Syria since 1990. That is not true. Like Hariri, who was his childhood friend, mentor and employer, Siniora was one of the most prominent figures to rule Lebanon during the heyday of Syrian hegemony in the 1990s.

A pragmatic politician, he was pro-Syrian when it was correct to be working with Damascus, and softened his allegiance when it became politically incorrect to be an ally of Damascus. He was never anti-Syrian.

He was never Aoun, Amin Gemayel or Raymond Edde, three politicians who opposed the Syrian presence in Lebanon from day one and continued to speak out against Syria until the Syrian army evacuated in April. These men refused to join the political system when Syria was around, whereas Siniora and Hariri joined, created and legitimized the last 15 years of Syria's control in Lebanon by working closely with the Syrians and taking part in consecutive governments created by Damascus since 1990.

Siniora and Hariri would have continued to work with the Syrians had Damascus not mistakenly abandoned them and empowered their yes-man, President Emile Lahhoud, at their expense in 1998. They grew disenchanted with the Syrians from then, and the frustration increased tremendously when Syria renewed the mandate of Lahhoud in 2004, forcing both men into the opposition.

Pro-Syrian or not, Siniora was elected prime minister with a majority vote from Syria's enemies and allies. He was backed primarily by Saad al-Hariri, who came out with a majority vote in parliament and could have, had he wished, assumed the premiership because he commands a parliamentary majority. Hariri declined, however, preferring instead to test the waters through Siniora due to his age and experience, and to avoid a head-on-clash with Lahhoud, who had obstructed his father's economic and political reforms in 2000-2004.

Instead, he designated Siniora to lead the battle for him. Currently, consultations are under way to create Siniora's cabinet. Not many deputies boycotted consultations with Lahhoud, sending a positive signal that the opposition wants to cooperate with the president, whom they had earlier promised to eject, in creating a new Lebanon. The president is eager to cooperate, fearing that a parliament packed with his opponents would veto the constitutional amendment created by Syria for renewing his term in 2004 and vote him out of office.

Deputy Strida Gagegea, who has been waiting for an audience for six years with Lahhoud to request a presidential pardon for her arrested husband Samir, triumphantly entered Baabda Palace and voted for Siniora. She had allied herself during the elections with Walid Jumblatt, the traditional ally of Hariri and Siniora, who repeatedly had vowed to topple Lahhoud.

Another triumphant entry into Baabda Palace was that of Aoun, who had also called for Lahhoud's removal, and now met the president face-to-face for the first time in 15 years. It was Lahhoud, when serving as army commander, who ejected Aoun from Baabda Palace in 1990. He, too, voted for Siniora and the prime minister was grateful, calling on Aoun during his protocol meetings with former prime ministers for consultations.

For 15 years, the Muslims of Lebanon had refused to recognize Aoun's legality as prime minister in 1988-1990, claiming that it was illegal for a Maronite to assume a job traditionally reserved for a Muslim. By meeting him, along with former prime ministers Salim al-Hoss, Amin al-Hafez, Rashid al-Sulh, Omar Karameh and Najib Mikati, Siniora was saying: "Yes, we recognize that you, too, were prime minister of Lebanon once."

Aoun has declared that he will not join Siniora's cabinet because the prime minister refused to give Aoun's allies the Ministry of Justice. By stepping down, he also abandons the portfolios of education and administrative reforms, which had been allocated to his Free Patriotic Movement. Aoun had demanded the justice portfolio for his ally, the judge Yusuf Khury, wanting to use it to wage his anti-corruption campaign and strike back at the traditional leaders of Lebanon who have used the judiciary against him since 1990, preventing his return to Lebanon on charges of corruption, from which he was declared innocent in May.

Siniora knows only too well how strong a political machine the judiciary can be since it was used against him from 1998 to 2000 by Lahhoud and his prime minister Salim al-Hoss, who accused him of corruption while serving as minister of finance under Hariri in 1992-1998. He, too, was declared innocent of the charges in 2003.

Saad Hariri has demanded that the portfolio of justice remains in the hands of his allies, most probably current minister Khalid Qabbani, to keep it under his strict control during the investigations into the murder of his father earlier this year.

Hezbollah, which has decided to enter the political arena, swept into parliament with 14 seats out of 128 seats and has demanded that it be given two ministries in the Siniora cabinet, which are yet to be decided. Siniora has promised to work with them, not against them, and is unlikely to use pressure do disarm Hezbollah, something that not even Hariri, with his immense power and influence, dared to try.

Siniora has stated that as far as he is concerned, UN Resolution 1559 calling for Hezbollah to disarm is redundant as the disarming of Hezbollah is a domestic Lebanese matter to be decided by the Lebanese themselves, and not by the international community.

The way ahead
The tasks awaiting Siniora are colossal. Prime among them is security. Over the past five months, four political figures have been assassinated; Hariri, ex-economy minister Basil Fulayhan, journalist Samir al-Kassir and Communist Party leader George Hawi. Siniora is expected to consolidate security, reform the security establishments widely blamed for the chaos, and prevent the re-occurrence of such crimes.

Another challenge is the economy. Siniora is accredited for having combated waste and encouraged privatization to reduce government spending in the 1990s, having, for example, closed down the Ministry of the Displaced and other government agencies accused of draining the treasury.

He introduced value-added tax (VAT), which became the primary money generator in Hariri's Lebanon. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have welcomed the election of Siniora, knowing that he will continue what Hariri began and reduce public debt, which amounts to more than $35 billion (a staggering 185% of Lebanon's gross domestic product.

Siniora is expected to use his skills to encourage the US, France, Saudi Arabia and the World Bank to grant more donations to Lebanon to help end its snowballing economic crisis. Saad Hariri has already left for Saudi Arabia, where he will drum up support for the new prime minister.

On the other hand, Siniora has to prove himself by combating corruption and expanding tax collection. His critics blame him for much of the public debt, which he and Hariri created in the 1990s, and for over-taxing the middle class through VAT.

Hariri and Siniora were the architects of Paris I, an international donors conference held at the Elyse Palace on February 27, 2001, where $500 million was drummed up from the World Bank and the European Investment Bank.

On November 23, 2002, they held Paris II, getting $10.1 million in grants, along with $2.4 billion from lending countries, $3.6 billion from commercial banks operating in Lebanon and $4.1 billion from the Central Bank of Lebanon.

These amounts now challenge the new prime minister. He needed them to rebuild Lebanon in the 1990s, yet if not dealt with in an effective manner, they could blow up in his face and ruin his premiership.

It is unlikely that Siniora will be able to tackle these sensitive issues or create miracles before the end of 2005. His appointment, however, has sent positive vibes throughout Lebanon, reassuring investors and tourists that a strong man with talent, will and character is now in power in Beirut.

He is the man people hope will right the many wrongs done in Lebanon since the election of Lahhoud in 1998 and the assassination of Hariri. He is not Hariri, but from all the Muslim politicians in Lebanon, Siniora becoming prime minister is the closest thing to having re-elected Hariri. He raises people's confidence in the government, something that Lebanon sorely needs.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst

(Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing.)


Michel Aoun comes home to roost (May 13, '05)

Lebanon guided by the Nasrullah factor
(Feb 26, '05)

 
 



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