x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Rare show of unity by Lebanese politicians

Future Movement endorses former foe in a bid to prevent a return to the bloody clashes with Hizbollah-led opposition.

A supporter releases fireworks in front of a giant portrait of Nabih Berri after the Amal leader's re-election as speaker.
A supporter releases fireworks in front of a giant portrait of Nabih Berri after the Amal leader's re-election as speaker.

BEIRUT // Lebanon took the first step yesterday towards forming a new cabinet with the re-election of Nabih Berri to his fifth term as speaker of the parliament in a vote that showed widespread political support for the opposition figure from the majority. Mr Berri and his Amal Movement played a large role in the opposition's unsuccessful attempt to unseat the majority in elections this month, but his close ties to some majority parties - not to mention a dearth of alternatives acceptable to Lebanon's Shiite community - all but ensured his re-election. Under an unofficial tradition that divvies up power among Lebanon's various confessions, the speaker must be a Shiite Muslim, while the president is Christian and prime minister a Sunni. Mr Berri saw some opposition from Christian parties in the majority, who argued that his role in the political battles that paralysed the most recent parliament should exclude him from returning, but with the endorsement of Saad Hariri, the Future Movement MP and the man many expect to be named prime minister tomorrow, he was able to win 90 of 128 votes. A total of 28 MPs from the Christian majority parties refused to vote in the election, only offering blank ballots. Christians in the opposition bloc, led by Gen Michel Aoun, also opposed his candidacy although much less overtly, preferring to do so out of the public eye but than agreeing to support him after the outcome became certain. Mr Aoun and Mr Berri repeatedly clashed over campaign strategy and allocation of seats on their joint lists during the run up to the parliamentary elections. Mr Berri immediately reached out to his opponents, vowing to serve the parliament instead of managing it as speaker. "Those who cast blank votes today I am sure will re-elect me in four years," he said in his acceptance speech. "I am responsible towards, and not for, parliament and the Lebanese citizens and I am committed to the legislature's inner rules." Mr Berri's support for the bloody clashes in May 2008 between the opposition led by Hizbollah and supporters of Mr Hariri's party was overlooked by the majority, Mr Hariri told a local newspaper, because of the need to work with the opposition to avoid future bloodshed. The daily As Safir said Mr Hariri heard objections to Mr Berri's re-election during the launch meeting on Wednesday of the "Lebanon First" parliamentary bloc in Mr Hariri's Beirut home. But Mr Hariri reportedly warned Mr Berri's opponents that he had "paid a dear price" for the bloody events of May 7 2008, adding that "if we are keen on coexistence, then we must extend our hand to Berri." For his part, Mr Berri called upon Mr Hariri and the majority to ensure that a national unity government is formed in the wake of the bitter elections and last year's bloody sectarian clashes between Sunni and Shiite. "This requires us to facilitate the establishment of a national government," he said. Despite the lack of surprise in the balloting, Mr Berri's supporters took to the streets of Beirut to fire automatic weapons in the air to celebrate. Local media reported that one person was killed and 11 wounded in the spray of bullets. At Beirut's famed Cafe Younis, bullets narrowly missed patrons as they enjoyed their coffee. Marina Kaysar, 28, was working nearby when she received a phone call telling her that her car had been hit by gunfire. "When I got the phone call telling me that the back window of my car was broken because of celebratory bullet, I was shocked," she said. "It's unreal, this country. I have no insurance and I know no one will pay me to fix my car. The big people in this country win and take their positions and us, the small normal people, we always pay for their arrogance." Patrons immediately began arguing with Lebanese police dispatched to the scene, who appeared confused as to why they were angry. "It's only car glass and people are happy that [Mr Berri] won," said one police officer. "What's the big deal?" The big deal, said Elie, 39, who did not want to have his surname published for fear of antagonising Mr Berri's passionate and occasionally violent supporters, was the lack of regard for the safety of the public during what is widely considered a routine election. "I'm not surprised that Berri won, we all saw it coming," he said. "But my surprise is why his supporters are exaggerating it. The shooting and the fireworks, why all this? I almost got killed with a bullet that fell on the car. I think I'm lucky today, I was one metre away from the car." mprothero@thenational.ae