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Lebanon Prepares to Elect New President After Extended Political Turmoil


The Lebanese parliament is scheduled to elect a president on Sunday, ending an extended period of political turmoil that erupted earlier this month into violent clashes between Lebanon's U.S.-backed government and the Hezbollah-led opposition. A political settlement reached in Qatar earlier this week paved the way for the election, six months after the last president stepped down. But analysts warn that some difficult, unresolved issues could be tough challenges for Lebanon's new leader. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from Beirut.

Beirut is a city transformed. The opposition's protest tents are gone, a year and a half after they went up outside the prime minister's office. The crowds are back in downtown restaurants and cafes. And the partisan banners and flags that have blanketed many parts of the city for the last several years have been largely replaced by the red-white-and-green Lebanese flag, and the white banner of the Lebanese army.

In a city where, not too long ago, the faces of factional leaders peered out from posters all over town, now the walls are plastered with the face of General Michel Suleiman, who is to be elected president on Sunday.

And even those pictures have changed. Posters of the general in his military uniform have been replaced by images of him in a civilian suit and tie.

Lebanon's last head of state, Emile Lahoud, stepped down in November when his term ended, but the election of army chief Suleiman has been delayed for months, while political factions wrangled over the shape of the next government. Earlier this month, fighting erupted between supporters of the government and opposition factions led by Hezbollah. The rivals finally reached a compromise on Wednesday, after days of talks in Qatar, agreeing to give the opposition enough Cabinet posts to veto any government decision.

But analysts warn that the compromise reached in Doha did not address the most difficult issues. They were left for later negotiations that could prove a serious challenge for the new unity government.

Mohamad Bazzi is the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "And in the end, the entire system works on consensus, so General Suleiman would have to achieve consensus on all of the important questions, and that's the most difficult problem… there's no consensus around the thorny questions, like Hezbollah's weapons," he said.

Difficult questions that could threaten the fragile coalition include Lebanon's relationship with Syria and its cooperation with the U.N. tribunal investigating the 2005 killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Those are among the issues that led to the political standoff in the first place.

Earlier this month, the crisis erupted into the worst internal fighting that Lebanon has seen since its civil war - fighting that largely fell along sectarian lines. The new president will have to deal with the legacy of that violence as well as with the issues that led to it.

The group Human Rights Watch is urging the new government to investigate the killing of civilians during the clashes, as well as other human rights violations that took place.

Human Rights Watch researcher Nadim Houry says, if the victims do not feel the state can provide justice, it could lead to another round of violence. "Seventy-one people died, more than 200 were wounded, and yet no one has been held accountable. And if this future government, and if this future president want to succeed in building a state, the first building block has to be accountability, and the recognition that victims have to get their due," he said.

The first task facing the new president will be forming a government. Traditionally, there is considerable wrangling over which faction gets which Cabinet post. Insiders say the Doha agreement likely included a compromise over the so-called key ministries, which include the justice, defense and interior portfolios.

Suleiman became a consensus candidate for president precisely because he has good relations with both sides of Lebanon's political divide and successfully kept the army neutral throughout the crisis. As he moves into the Baabda presidential mansion, his leadership skills are likely to be tested on a whole new level.

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