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Lebanon Set to Get New President

Hopes to tackle Syrian refugee crisis

Michel Aoun, a former military chief and ally of the Islamist Hizbullah movement, is expected to be elected as President next week, 29 months since the term of the former President Michel Suleiman’s term ended, and during which Lebanon has been without a president. The logjam was broken after former Prime Minister Saad Hariri endorsed the 81-year-old Aoun, in a deal which is expected to get Hariri appointed as Prime Minister.

Under Lebanon’s power-sharing agreement, the role of President is reserved for a member of the Christian minority. For almost two years, the parliament, which chooses the president, has not been able to agree on a new president.

Hariri said he decided to endorse Aoun after he had exhausted all other options and that the move was intended “to preserve the political system, reinforce the state, relaunch the economy, and distance us from the Syrian crisis.”

Despite Aoun’s ties to the Shi’ite Hizbullah, which makes some Sunnis in Lebanon uncomfortable, most Lebanese want political stability, analysts say.

“We have been going through a period of stagnation and dysfunctional government,” Tamirace Sakhoury, a professor of political science at Lebanese American University told The Media Line. “Lebanon needs a president and there seems to be a consensus that it will be Aoun.”

The parliament is set to meet next week for a session to vote on the President. It will be the 46th such session since Suleiman’s term expired. But it may not be as easy as Hariri hopes. At least two senior members of his party said they would oppose Aoun’s nomination as well as Nabih Berri, the speaker of Parliament from the Shi’ite-affiliated Amal party.

Berri accused Aoun and Hariri of working together to destroy political Shi’ism in Lebanon, and warned of the possibility of “civil war.” Berri’s threat echoes in a country that fought a bitter civil war from 1975- 1990 and caused an estimated 250,000 casualties.

There was also concern in Lebanon that Aoun’s nomination could give the Hizbullah movement more power. Hizbullah is already a significant political force in Lebanon, and runs social welfare organizations in south Lebanon. Thousands of Hizbullah fighters have been involved in the civil war in Syria for the past five years, and along with Iran, are credited for propping up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Lebanon, a country of just four million people, has absorbed more than one million Syrian refugees, sparking tensions in the country. Refugees are often willing to work for much lower wages than Lebanese citizens, sparking social tensions.

About half of the Syrian refugees are under age 18, and human rights groups say that hundreds of thousands of refugee children in Lebanon are not in school. In a recent report Human Rights Watch says that of the refugee children age 15 – 18, less than three percent were enrolled in school in Lebanon.

“Lebanon and the international community’s failure to enroll of hundreds of thousands of children in school will have serious implications for the lives of these children and the future of Syria,” Bassam Khawaja, a Lebanon researcher for Human Rights Watch, told The Media Line. “There are a series of barriers keeping children out of school including arbitrary enrollment requirements, a harsh residency requirement that makes it difficult for refugees to maintain legal status, and transportation costs that impoverished families can’t afford.”

Khawaja said there is widespread child labor in Lebanon, especially among Syrian refugees.