Can the Arab League solve Lebanon's political crisis?

The Arab League's secretary-general flies into Beirut this week in an effort to end the country's presidential stalemate.

Nasser Nasser/AP
Cairo, Egypt: Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa (r.), talked with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem (l.), and Syrian representative at the Arab League, Ahmed Yousef (c.), before the Arab foreign ministers meeting on Sunday. Mr. Moussa is expected in Beirut this week, the latest high-profile visit here in a string of efforts to solve Lebanon's six-week presidential deadlock.

Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, is expected in Beirut this week, the latest high-profile visit here in a string of efforts to solve Lebanon's six-week presidential deadlock.

He will push for the acceptance of a joint Arab proposal – a plan that supports the election of Army chief General Michel Suleiman – that was adopted unanimously Sunday at a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo. Syria, which backs the Lebanese political opposition to the Western-supported government, also approved the plan.

Where Mr. Moussa hopes to succeed, French and other Arab initiatives have failed.

Lebanon has been without a president since Nov. 23, when the previous incumbent, Emile Lahoud, left office at the end of his term. New elections have been delayed largely due to disputes over power-sharing.

Although the Lebanese opposition, spearheaded by the militant Shiite Hezbollah, has cautiously welcomed the Arab plan, analysts suggest that it could founder as rivals discuss the finer points in the days ahead.

"The devil is in the details and there are plenty of opportunities to derail the plan in the future," says Michael Young, opinion editor of the English-language Daily Star newspaper.

The March 14 coalition, which holds a slim parliamentary majority, gave a more positive reception to the Arab League proposal than did the opposition. Saad Hariri, a top March 14 leader, hailed it as "historic and noble."

The proposal calls for the immediate election of General Suleiman,whose nomination as head of state is supported by both sides; the formation of a national unity government in which Suleiman would hold the balance of power through ministers close to him; and the adoption of a new electoral law.

Under the Lebanese Constitution, a new government is formed after the election of a president. The opposition has blocked Suleiman's election since November, demanding a prior arrangement on the composition of the next government as well as key civil service appointments.

Hezbollah demands enough of a share of the next government to allow it to block any legislation that it deems a threat, such as moves to force the organization to disband its formidable military wing.

Mohammed Raad, who heads Hezbollah's parliamentary bloc, says a final decision on the Arab League proposal would depend on subsequent developments. "We don't want to be pessimistic or block the route to any productive decision, especially in a complicated matter like the Lebanese issue."

Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a Hizbullah expert at the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut, says the Arab League proposal appeared to be an attempt to "weaken the opposition and corner it. It seems that Hezbollah is not too thrilled about it and I think that the end result will be that the opposition will not agree."

Michel Aoun, Hezbollah's main Christian ally in the opposition who harbors presidential ambitions himself, is also likely to object to the proposal, analysts say. Granting the balance of power in the next cabinet to Suleiman, a Maronite Christian, as all Lebanese heads of state traditionally must be, will significantly weaken Mr. Aoun's political influence.

So why would Syria sign onto a plan that might weaken its Lebanese allies? One reason, analysts say, is the threat of a boycott of the Arab League summit scheduled to be hosted by Damascus in March. The summit is a prestigious annual event attended by Arab heads of state and will boost Syria's credentials in the region.

According to Lebanon's An Nahar newspaper, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem was warned on the sidelines of Sunday's Arab League meeting that Saudi King Abdullah would refuse to attend the March summit if Damascus failed to endorse the Arab League proposal.

"The Syrians want the summit to be a success," says Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst, adding that although the Arab League proposal is "not perfect [for Syria] … it's the closest thing to perfect at this stage."

Still, Mr. Muallem, in Cairo, said that while Syria and Saudi Arabia have agreed to cooperate on Lebanon, Damascus "cannot put pressure on anyone in Lebanon because the solution [to the presidential crisis] should be Lebanese."

Some Lebanese analysts interpret Muallem's comment as an attempt to absolve Damascus of blame should the Lebanese opposition eventually reject the Arab League proposal and continue holding out for a better deal.

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