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Lebanon will fall short of Belgian record on days without government: ambassador.

Summary: BEIRUT: Those concerned about the lack of a government in Lebanon can take heart - the country is unlikely to come near the record-breaking 250 days without a coalition that Belgium is almost certain to reach Friday. At least that's what Belgium's bicycling ambassador to Lebanon, Johan Verkammen, thinks. In an interview with The Daily Star, Verkammen joked of the record

Interview

BEIRUT: Those concerned about the lack of a government in Lebanon can take heart -- the country is unlikely to come near the record-breaking 250 days without a coalition that Belgium is almost certain to reach Friday. At least that's what Belgium's bicycling ambassador to Lebanon, Johan Verkammen, thinks.

In an interview with The Daily Star, Verkammen joked of the record, whose current holder is Iraq on 249 days, that "once we have a record, we want to keep it."

On a more serious note, he said he thought it was unlikely Lebanon would be without a government as long as Belgium. "I have the impression, although of course you never know, that talks have advanced already on the formation of this new government."

Regarding the probability that Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati will form a government without the March 14 coalition, Verkammen remarked that "it's not up to [non-Lebanese] to say what kind of coalition should be in the government in Lebanon. Certainly coming from Belgium where we know how difficult it is, you will not hear me saying how the Lebanese should do it."

The lack of a governing coalition is not the only parallel between the two outwardly-different countries. Belgium's system of government divides power between the federal government, the country's three linguistic communities, and its three regions.

Lebanon's confessional system, which comprises 18 confessional groups, is different and perhaps more complex than Belgium's, but Verkammen said that "it's perhaps a little easier for us [in Belgium] to understand how to manage this diversity within a country, with different communities."

Verkammen attributed the current Belgian deadlock to controversy over institutional reforms. "As you can see from the crisis in Belgium [democracy is] always a work in progress, it's always evolving," he said. "But if you can make it evolve according to the wishes of the people, and through democratic dialogue, that's fine, I think.

"That is maybe a message that could be given [to Lebanon]: that our system is not perfect, and I don't say it would be an ideal example for Lebanon, but C* perhaps there are some elements in our system, as there may be in the Swiss federal system, or in the German, that could perhaps be useful as sources for Lebanon."

Verkammen noted that decentralization of power, a feature of Belgium's federal system, is mentioned as a priority the 1989 Taif Accord, the treaty which helped end Lebanon's Civil War.

Another unlikely similarity between the two countries is bike culture.

As Verkammen, an avid cyclist, told The Daily Star, "biking is a very popular sport in Belgium, I love it myself, and I couldn't come here without my bicycle C* In the beginning I thought that nobody here bikes."

But over the past year he has discovered an enthusiastic biking community in Lebanon. "Nice people, who wake up very early Sunday morning C* and meet at Antelias [to cycle together], and I've participated a few times."

Verkammen keeps his early morning cycling treks low-key, leaving his bodyguards at home. "I don't think bad guys expect an ambassador on a bike."

"Lebanon is a beautiful country," he said. "The roads are not perfect for biking, but the countryside is very nice, and once you are in the mountains it is quite beautiful."

Verkammen's love of cycling has taken him across political and geographical borders. His "big accomplishment" was cycling to Damascus from the ambassador's residence in Yarze and back in one day.

That was two years ago, and he humbly admitted doubts that he would be able to do it again, "because [of] all the mezzeh and the dinners. It's not so good for keeping in shape, the diplomatic life."

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:4EUBL
Date:Feb 17, 2011
Words:692
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