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Maronite Patriarch calls for Taif review; draws fire.

The 1989 Arab-brokered and internationally-backed Taif Accord, which put an end to Lebanon's devastating 1975-90 civil war, is currently at the center of a heated controversy that has further split the already divided rival political factions on how the country should be run. The controversy was sparked last month by Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai when he publicly called for the amendment of the Taif Accord with a view to boosting the Maronite president's powers. It was the first such call by the head of the influential Maronite Catholic Church since the power-sharing peace agreement was signed by Muslim and Christian lawmakers in the Saudi summer resort of Taif.

Rai's call has triggered a wave of reactions from both Muslim and Christian leaders, with some rejecting the call outright, while others said the time was not ripe to discuss any amendment of the accord given the deep political divisions between the Hizbullah-led March 8 alliance and the Western-backed March 14 coalition. A member of caretaker Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri's parliamentary Future bloc has even warned that a call for amending the Taif Accord is a recipe for civil war.

Seemingly frustrated with the inability of rival leaders to solve the country's worsening political and economic crisis, including the failure to form a new government to end the fourmonth-long power vacuum, Rai called for a new Taif Accord in order to restore the president's powers which the accord had taken away and put them into the half-Muslim, half-Christian Council of Ministers.

Gaps Remain

"We support the principle of participation, which saw the approval of political and constitutional reforms, but the post-Taif experience, spanning over 21 years, has proved that there are gaps that need to be filled," Rai told reporters at the Maronite patriarch's seat in Bkirki, north of Beirut, on May 30. "Can the president solve problems if he is denied prerogatives?" Rai asked, urging Lebanese political leaders to review the Constitution to grant the president further powers that will allow him to intervene in times of crisis. "The Taif Accord is not divine. We have all approved it but there are gaps that need to be filled," Rai said.

"We are not requesting anything out of the ordinary." However, Rai stressed that his appeal to boost the president's prerogatives was not a request to return to the pre-Taif era, when executive power was largely vested with the president. "I am not requesting the restoration of the presidential system; that is long gone. We approved a system based on participation, which we support, but we reject the fact that the president is denied any possibility to fill gaps," he said.

In addition to ending the civil war, the Taif Accord basically stripped the Maronite president of most of his executive powers and vested them in in the Council of Ministers, and legitimized the Syrian military presence in Lebanon, allowing Damascus to have the final say over strategic policies. Damascus withdrew its troops in 2005 under international pressure following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. "The prime minister and his Cabinet along with Parliament are the institutions running the country and there is no power in the hands of the president ... we have to fill in the gaps of the Taif Accord," Rai said.

Nasrallah's Comment

Responding to Rai's call, Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah urged Lebanon's feuding parties to introduce reforms into the country's Constitution and political system rather than amend the Taif Accord. "Let us talk about reforming the system and Constitution rather than the Taif Accord," Nasrallah said in a televised speech on June 1. "When we talk about reforms, we seek understanding and consensus rather than to impose an equation of 'victor and vanquished,' which leads to negative repercussions and counter-results."

Nasrallah said Lebanon's Constitution, whether pre-or post-Taif, was the outcome of a compromise among the Lebanese given the "country's nature," a reference to Lebanon's confessional power-sharing system.

"One of the obstacles in the way of the establishment of a solid state in Lebanon lies in the Constitution and the country's political system," Nasrallah said in a speech marking the 22nd anniversary of the death of the founder of Islamic Republic in Iran Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. "Because of the country's nature, it is difficult to follow normal procedures to draft a Constitution and that is why at times of crisis we debate whether to amend or hold on to the Taif Accord, leaving the Lebanese divided on a sectarian basis," Nasrallah said.

Significantly, negative reaction to Rai's call for amending the Taif Accord came from some Maronite leaders. Commenting on Rai's call for a new Taif Accord, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea said the entire Lebanese system needs to be thoroughly and deeply debated. "But in my estimation, the time is not ripe now amid all the developments [in the region]. Before we discuss a new Taif [Accord], let them form a government," Geagea told a news conference on May 31.

Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) leader MP Michel Aoun, who launched an ill-fated "war of liberation" against Syrian troops in Lebanon after the Taif Accord was signed, said he supported Rai's call for amending the Accord. "When we demanded this (amendment of Taif Accord), they raised hell against us. We support this issue, but neither this constitution, nor the amended one can work if the signatories do not respect the texts and ethical criteria," Aoun told reporters after chairing a meeting of his parliamentary bloc on May 31. Aoun has repeatedly called for boosting the president's powers to enable him to rule in times of crisis.

Whirlpool

Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) leader MP Walid Jumblat said he supported boosting some of the president's powers, but opposed an amendment of the Taif Accord. "I don't think we can tolerate again the amendment of the Taif Accord. When we reached the Taif [Accord], it took us from 1975 to 1989. I don't think we will again enter this whirlpool," Jumblat told reporters after meeting former Prime Minister Selim al-Hoss on June 1.

Recipe for Civil War

MP Nuhad Mashnouq, a member of Hariri's Future bloc, said the call for amending the Taif Accord is a recipe for a new civil war. "The talk about amending the Taif [Accord] reflects tension. There might be something that must be discussed concerning the prerogatives of the president or Parliament ... But the talk about amending the Taif [Accord] now is a recipe for a new civil war rather than a call for reaching a solution," Mashnouq told a Future seminar on June 2. He stressed that the amendment of the Taif Accord should not be proposed before its provisions have been fully implemented.

Among major provisions in the Taif Accord that have not yet been implemented is the formation of a national committee to be chaired by the president to abolish the sectarian political system which allots key posts along sectarian lines. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri's repeated calls for the abrogation of the confessional system have been rejected, mainly by leaders of major Christian parties who contend that the time is not ripe for such a major step. Christians, who are shrinking demographically, fear secularization would marginalize them in the political system.

Motives

A political analyst with the leftist newspaper AS SAFIR questioned the motives and goals behind Rai's call. "What does Patriarch Rai want from the call for a second Taif [Accord] at this time?" asked Nabil Haitham in a news analysis on June 2. "It is the first time in the post-Taif era that Bkirki [the Maronite patriarch's seat] calls publicly and frankly for a second Taif [Accord] to boost the position of the presidency and restore to it powers it lost when this accord was enforced more than 20 years ago," he said.

"Perhaps such a position [by Rai] raises questions about its timing as to whether it was merely an expression of the patriarch's nervousness over the insult the president received after he was unable to impose his order on a director general," Haitham said. He was referring to Internal Security Forces (ISF) Director General Ashraf Rifi who refused to comply with orders from President Michel Suleiman and caretaker Interior Minister Ziad Baroud to withdraw members of the ISF's Information Branch from a building affiliated with the Telecommunications Ministry last month.

Haitham asked whether Rai's call was designed to test reactions from Muslim leaders. He quoted supporters of Rai's call as saying that the "slap" Suleiman received in the telecoms incident was "the straw that broke the camel's back." "Supporters of Rai's call estimate that he chose to issue his call for a second Taif [Accord] at a calculated timing at the national level amid the paralysis of state institutions in the country, in addition to the failure to form a government. All this leads to raising the question about the worthiness of this accord," Haitham said
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Title Annotation:TAIF ACCORD
Publication:The Weekly Middle East Reporter (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:Jun 11, 2011
Words:1479
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