BEIRUT, Lebanon – Lebanon’s feuding political factions put aside their differences Sunday and elected the nation’s army commander as president, filling a six-month vacancy and bringing a festive feel to a capital that had been a war zone just days ago.
Beirut was adorned with Lebanon’s cedar flag emblem and portraits of Gen. Michel Suleiman in his military uniform as the Lebanese parliament met to formally name him president. After his swearing-in, Suleiman gave an inaugural speech that called for Lebanese unity and national dialogue in the wake of fierce sectarian battles that left about 70 people dead and some 200 wounded earlier this month.
“Let us unite … and work toward a solid reconciliation,” Suleiman, 59, said. “We have paid dearly for our national unity. Let us preserve it hand in hand.”
Fireworks painted the sky, celebratory gunfire rang out, and drivers honked horns as Lebanese of all backgrounds welcomed their new president and the end of an 18-month power struggle.
Suleiman is a Maronite Christian, in accordance with Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing agreement. But while he was the consensus candidate, his election was stalled by the power struggle between the U.S.-allied Lebanese government and the opposition movement led by the Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran and Syria. The infighting got so bad that there was no successor when the term of the previous president, pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud, ended in November.
The deadlock was broken earlier this month when Hezbollah and its allies took over much of Beirut in a violent response to a political provocation. With the balance of power then tipped in favor of the opposition, the government caved to Hezbollah’s demands during peace talks in Doha, Qatar, last week.
Arab mediators there negotiated a peace agreement that allowed Hezbollah to keep its vast arsenal intact, gave it veto power over all government decisions, and tweaked electoral law to better represent the country’s disparate sects. In return, the opposition agreed to dismantle a protest camp that has stood in downtown for months, remove its gunmen from the streets, and stop blocking Suleiman’s path to the presidency.
The new president defended Hezbollah’s right to retain its weapons because Lebanon remains “weak,” then emphasized that such arms were not to be used internally. Suleiman added that Lebanon should restore its ties with neighboring Syria, which dominated its smaller Mediterranean neighbor for a generation, but also backed the government’s goal of an international tribunal to investigate the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Some pro-government groups had criticized Suleiman’s close ties to Syria; he reportedly was appointed army chief by Damascus in 1998 and his brother-in-law was the official spokesman for the late Syrian President Hafez Assad, whose son is now in power.
“I call on you all, people and politicians, for a new beginning,” Suleiman said before legislators who cheered and offered him a standing ovation. “Let us be united.”