BEIRUT (Reuters) - Former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri on Friday called on lawmakers to elect a president after nearly two months of a power vacuum in Lebanon.
He also demanded that Shi‘ite movement Hezbollah pull out of the war in neighboring Syria.
Lebanon has not had a president since May because politicians have been unable to agree on a candidate that would satisfy the country’s two main political blocs - Hariri’s Sunni-led March 14 alliance and Hezbollah’s March 8 coalition.
Lebanon’s sectarian tensions have been worsened by the three-year-old war in Syria, which pits overwhelmingly Sunni rebels against President Bashar al-Assad, a member of the Shi‘ite-derived Alawite minority, and allied Shi‘ite groups including Hezbollah.
Hariri told his supporters by televised broadcast that electing a president was the first step to resolving the political deadlock and would open the way to Lebanon holding parliamentary elections on time.
“We want parliamentary elections held on schedule, and we do not want an extension for the parliament,” he said. “But the entrance to the parliamentary elections is electing a president of the republic - today before tomorrow.”
Hariri, seen as one of the few political leaders of Lebanon’s Sunnis, has been in self-imposed exile between France and Saudi Arabia. He has feared attack ever since his government was toppled in 2011 by the March 8 coalition.
Lebanon, still recovering from its own 1975-1990 civil war, has periodically dealt with periods of political vacuum as rival sectarian blocs jockeyed for influence. But the stakes are higher as Syria’s conflict stokes tensions at home.
Parliamentary elections have already been delayed once because of political deadlock and violence spilling over from Syria – they were supposed to be held in June last year but were postponed until November.
Under Lebanon’s political system, the president must be a Maronite Christian. The prime minister is a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament is a Shi‘ite Muslim.
Hariri has blamed Assad for the 2005 assassination of his father, Rafik al-Hariri, who also served as prime minister. A special tribunal in the Netherlands has been trying four Hezbollah members in absentia for the killing, which the group denies having anything to do with.
In his speech on Friday, Hariri renewed his demand that Hezbollah end its participation in Syria’s conflict, which critics say has sucked Lebanon further into their larger neighbour’s quagmire.
“Unfortunately Hezbollah believes that it will save the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The truth is no one can save Assad’s regime,” he said.
Hariri said Lebanon must confront militants but he rejected arbitrary and unjustified arrests or violations of citizens’ rights. He called on Hezbollah to work within the framework of the state.
“If Hezbollah is part of a national Lebanese project led by the state to confront terrorism, that is a good thing,” he said.
“But if it is part of the trinity led by Iran that includes (Prime Minister Nuri) al-Maliki’s state in Iraq and Assad’s state in Syria, this constitutes a heavy burden for Lebanon and the safety of the Lebanese people.”
Reporting by Alexander Dziadosz, Editing by Angus MacSwan