ON Friday August 31, the Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, Nabih Birri, delivered a speech outlining his proposals for the current political crisis in the country, ahead of the presidential election in parliament later this month.
The Amal movement leader Birri put forward his ideas in an hour-long speech in Baalbek that was broadcast by Al-Manar Television.
Birri put forward proposals for ending the stand-off over the election of the next president, proposing a two-thirds quorum to elect the president, in return for the opposition dropping its demands for an expanded, unity government before the election.
In a message to the Lebanese government, Birri said: ‘In November last year, I called for roundtable consultations on a national unity government. Why am I reminding them of that date?
‘This is because they are saying that we are demanding a national unity government to obstruct the presidential elections.
‘We had demanded this 10 months ago. After the Israeli massacres, imagine that the Israelis united themselves, while we did not.
‘They said then we cannot give the opposition one-third of the cabinet seats. Why?
‘They said they feared about the international tribunal.
‘Otherwise, they said, they had no objection to the 13-17 formula (13 cabinet seats for the opposition and 17 seats for the current majority).
‘They even hinted to (former) Prime Minister Al-Huss at accepting 15-15.
‘After the approval of the international tribunal at the UN Security Council, they disowned even what was less than 13-17.
‘They said they were ready for a national unity government only after the presidential elections. They continue to say this today.
‘Our response was that the fall of the illegitimate government and the formation of a new government takes place automatically after the election of a new president.
‘We told them: We want a national unity government to preserve unity and it would be better if this is done sooner so as to win time concerning Paris-3 and other issues.
‘The answer was: This means that you want to obstruct the election of the president.
‘We said: On the contrary, a national unity government paves the way for the presidential elections.
‘They said: Then you definitely want a government now to obstruct the presidential elections.’
Declaring his proposals, Birri said: ‘Now, and at this moment, I tell you: Despite all that happened, forgive us.
‘First, let us all acknowledge presidential elections on the basis of consensus and a two-thirds quorum.
‘The opposition does not want a government, not even an expanded one, before the elections, as long as you do not want such a government.
‘Here we agree to what you want.
‘Second, once an agreement is reached on the principle I mentioned, I undertake to immediately launch consultations and dialogue with many parties, beginning with the patriarch, and particularly with the leaders of the national dialogue that was held on March 2, 2006, at the Chamber of Deputies, to reach an agreement on the name of the coming president.
‘The faster we reach an agreement on the presidency, the better. Good things are better done quickly.
‘This will end the sit-in, bury the sedition, and dispel the impending evil in the last 10 days and the ghosts of theorisation and pessimism.
‘That will also enable us to immediately address the economic collapse which has begun to fall upon us, and the security schemes invading us.
‘In what I am proposing there is no victor or vanquished. At any rate, any concession is a concession for Lebanon.
‘You say that your decision-making is Lebanese.
‘I admit that I worked and continue to work on an Arab and international assistance in many of the initiatives, the latest of which has been the thankful French initiative.
‘That was preceded by many initiatives by Saudi Arabia and the Arab League.
‘However, what I am proposing now is a purely Lebanese initiative.’
Birri added: ‘We are not retreating for you, but retreating in order to embrace you. . . unless your intention is to control rather than to participate.
‘I am certain that within the constitutional deadline, we will reach an agreement on the name of the president of the republic.
‘Consequently, we will not push our country towards the unknown.
‘This is especially since as far as the national issues and the building of stability and public order are concerned, there should be no difference between pro-government and opposition forces.’
In his speech, Birri also urged the Lebanese government to take action with Libya to uncover the fate of Imam al-Sadr and discussed inter-Arab relations, Arab-Iranian relations, Arab-US arms deals, and the autumn conference called for by US President George W Bush.
Later on the same day, Al-Arabiya Television reported: ‘During a speech he delivered on the occasion of the 29th anniversary of the disappearance of Al-Imam Musa al-Sadr, Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Birri has presented an initiative to end the crisis of the presidential elections.
‘Birri proposed postponing the opposition’s demand to form a national unity government until after the presidential elections, provided that a president is elected through a two-third majority vote by the Chamber of Deputies.’
Al-Arabiya carried a three-minute live telephone interview with Faris Su’ayd, former Lebanese MP and a member of the ‘March 14 Forces’.
Su’ayd began by saying that Birri was different from the opposition team ‘when he stressed the need to hold the presidential elections, unlike the announced demand by the March 8 team; namely, to form a national unity government before holding the presidential elections.
‘Speaker Birri’s position, which is also different from Hezbollah’s, confirms that there are different points of view inside the March 8 team.’
Al-Alam television’s ‘With the Event’ programme on the presidential crisis also discussed the latest initiative by Birri.
The presenter asked how the Lebanese government and opposition forces would react to the proposal, and why the US ambassador’s position has so far been vague.
The deputy head of Hezbollah’s political office, Hajj Mahmud Kumati, Lebanese State Minister of the Chamber of Deputies Michel Pierre Fir’awn, first deputy of the Falange Party Rashad Salame, and Free Patriotic Movement MP Nabil Naqula were guests of the programme.
The presenter asked Kumati whether Birri’s initiative represented a ‘last chance opportunity’ for the Lebanese opposition.
Kumati replied that the timing of the initiative was crucial, because it gave time for parliament to amend the constitution if it needed to do so to resolve the political impasse.
He said that the choice was between a president acceptable to all parties and voted in by a two-thirds majority, or “a continuation of the policy of exclusion’’.
He said that there was ‘an overwhelming consensus’ for a two-thirds majority quorum, adding that ‘even the Patriarch and some members of March 14 demand a two-third quorum because the post of president cannot be sustained by a weak incumbent with an uncertain legitimacy.’
Asked whether he denies any accusation of US interference in Lebanon’s presidential election, Fir’awn replied: ‘Washington, the EU and the Arab League support the election (of a new president) and any fears they may have centre around this election not taking place.’
Salame said that the Birri initiative was ‘an optimistic surprise’.
He said Birri’s proposal was serious and represented a compromise, in that it dropped the demand for a unity government.
Lebanese newspaper the ‘Daily Star’ quoted US Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman in a meeting with Birri saying: ‘It is not for the US to name candidates because we are confident that the Lebanese Parliament would elect a president committed to Lebanon’s independence, democracy, sovereignty, unity and plurality.’
Media reports circulated the week before said that Birri would not make public his initiative before he received the answers of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on three questions concerning the presidential election in Lebanon.
Birri had sent his questions via Feltman.
‘Asked whether he supports the election of a new head of state by absolute majority, Feltman said the US supports the election of a new president in line with the Lebanese Constitution as well as (UN) Resolution 1559, stressing that interpreting the constitution was the responsibility of the Lebanese: “This is your Constitution, not ours’’.’
Current President Emile Lahhud said he would appoint an interim government headed by the army chief if rival leaders could not agree on a new head of state before his term expires in November.
Senior Shia cleric Sayyid Muhammad Husan Fadlallah said that: ‘In Lebanon everyone awaits the answer of the US government, conveyed by the US ambassador (Feltman).’