Michel Sleiman: From tightrope walker to 'sovereignist’

In political circles, Lebanon is often referred to as a country ever permeable to external influence, where embassies and consulates hold sway. While this clichéd assertion may allow local stakeholders to shirk their responsibilities, it also reflects the ascendancy of external powers in major Lebanese elections, especially those for president.

Since 1943, no president can claim to have been elected without a regional and international green light. Over the decades, several foreign powers have had a say in choosing the Lebanese head of state, be it the United Kingdom, France, Syria, Iran, Egypt or the United States.

Once elected, a Lebanese president’s mandate may also depend on regional factors. This story is one of power games, diplomatic interference and precarious geopolitical balancing acts, which L’Orient-Le Jour aims to tell in a 13-part series.

This 12th installment of our series discusses how the election of Michel Sleiman, which was the result of a local, regional and international compromise, initially served as a rebalancing factor on the Lebanese political scene. However, toward the end of his mandate, the president gradually shifted stances to become a resolute opponent of Hezbollah and its regional sponsors.

Michel Sleiman: From tightrope walker to 'sovereignist’

President of the Republic Michel Sleiman at the Druze-Christian reconciliation event in the village of Brih, Chouf qada, May 17, 2014. (Stock photo/L'Orient-Le Jour)

Michel Sleiman’s journey to the presidency, which he assumed on May 25, 2008, began three years before, during the mass demonstrations that started March 14, 2005, which led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon the following month.

At the time, Sleiman was the army chief of staff under President Emile Lahoud and refused to order his troops to clash with demonstrators who were pouring into downtown Beirut’s Martyr’s Square from many parts of the country. This was the first test of Sleiman’s eligibility as a serious presidential contender.

In several subsequent interviews, Sleiman recounted that Lahoud and the heads of the Lebanese-Syrian security apparatus put immense pressure on him to clamp down on the demonstrators and deny them access to Martyrs’ Square.

Despite these calls for repressive measures, the army chose to protect the demonstrators — a decision that would later play in Sleiman’s favor at home and abroad.

During the same period, the so-called March 14 camp made various attempts to have Lahoud removed from office, and Sleiman’s name was mentioned behind the scenes as a potential successor to him.

These attempts failed, largely due to the Maronite patriarch, Nasrallah Sfeir. He was opposed to the idea of overthrowing the president through street protests — not necessarily because he supported Lahoud, but because he wanted to preserve the prestige of the presidency [a position reserved, by convention and not by legislation, for the country’s Maronite community].

Sleiman encountered several challenges on his way to Baabda’s Presidential Palace.

After the events of March 14, 2005, he had to deal with the July 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, from which he managed to escape unscathed.

From the end of that year he had to contend with the March 8 parties’ long-term sit-in at the city center, led by Hezbollah and Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement. The protesters wanted to bring down Fouad Siniora’s government.

As army chief, Sleiman worked to separate 8 March protestors from pro-March 14 demonstrators.

He designated the Riad al-Solh Square for the March 8 supporters and the Martyrs Square for the March 14 alliance. Army troops also guarded the Grand Serail from the demonstrators’ attempts to storm the building.

Sleiman’s actions allowed him to claim a centrist position, maintaining equal distance from both factions.

Unending challenges

Tensions between opposing sides continued to escalate, and in early 2007 clashes broke out around the headquarters of the Arab University in Beirut. The army was able to contain the scuffles, but another ordeal soon followed in May of that year.

Sleiman showed his determination to confront Palestinian militant groups allied with the Syrian regime, despite the opposition of Hezbollah. After four months of fighting the Lebanese army successfully drove Fateh al-Islam salafist militants from Nahr al-Bared refugee camp.

The ordeal did not end there. On Jan. 27, 2008, clashes broke out between the army and pro-Hezbollah demonstrators in the Chiyah-Mar Mikhael area, resulting in the deaths of eight Hezbollah supporters.

These were the first serious clashes between the two parties since the 1990s.

In the period that followed, Hezbollah launched a campaign against Gen. Sleiman, blaming him for the Chiyah-Mar Mikhael clashes. The army chief’s reputation as an independent-minded leader continued to grow, especially in the eyes of the March 14 camp and their Western backers.

This was due in large part to his willingness to stand up to Hezbollah when necessary.

Under Hezbollah pressure, Sleiman was forced to apologize and authorize the prosecution of officers and army servicemen accused of opening fire on demonstrators.

Sleiman made a secret visit to the Beirut southern suburb of Harat Hriek, Hezbollah’s stronghold, where he offered condolences to Hezbollah officials.

Despite this, the March 14 camp endorsed Sleiman as its presidential candidate.

Tensions in Lebanon continued to escalate as the country was caught in a power struggle between the Washington-Riyadh alliance and the Damascus-Tehran axis.

Contributing to the instability was the presidential vacuum since November 2007, when Lahoud’s term came to an end.

In an effort to reach a presidential compromise, Egypt’s Mubarak regime advocated for Sleiman’s election as president. Egyptian Intelligence Services head Omar Soleiman played a key role in this campaign.

Meanwhile, a Lebanese ministerial delegation traveled to the United States to attend an international congress and learned about the progress of the Egyptian initiative.

One of the ministers present at a meeting with then-US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told L’Orient-Le Jour that the Lebanese delegation asked for her perspective on the situation in Lebanon.

“Efforts are underway to elect a president soon,” Rice reportedly said.

“Will it be Michel Sleiman?” the Lebanese delegation asked.

According to the minister, who did not wish to be named, Rice responded, “Who is Michel Sleiman?”

“The agreement [that was still in the works] is about electing the army chief as president — a compromise that would satisfy all the stakeholders,” Rice ostensibly added.

It was clear to the Lebanese ministers that what Sleiman represented was more important to Washington than his name or personal qualities.

‘No’ to Hezbollah

The roadmap leading to the army chief’s election was thus drawn. However, it seemed that the plan could not be implemented without security tensions that would justify the approach.

Sleiman already knew several regional powers approved of his accession to the presidency, but he still needed a green light from the March 8 camp.

Sleiman faced a greater test on May 7, 2008, when pro-Hezbollah gunmen clashed with pro-March 14 gunmen in West Beirut and the Druze-Christian area of Chouf.

Sleiman took advantage of this opportunity to win the favor of Hezbollah. The army remained on the sidelines of the clashes, allowing pro-Hezbollah gunmen to disarm pro-March 14 gunmen, effectively taking control of parts of the capital. The army did insist upon “red lines” that were not to be crossed.

Soldiers were deployed to Tarik Jdideh, a Sunni stronghold affiliated with the Hariri camp, to inform Hezbollah operatives that they were prohibited from entering this neighborhood.

All of these actions ultimately allowed Sleiman to gain the confidence of all parties involved.

In the Qatari capital of Doha, Arab and international actors’ efforts to reach a compromise in Lebanon were ongoing. The election of Sleiman as head of state would be the culmination of these efforts.

After Sleiman’s election, there was a renewed effort to balance Lebanon’s political landscape, which was backed by regional and international powers. His presidency also marked the revival of the Syria-Saudi Arabia (S-S) formula, which aimed to improve relations between Damascus and Riyadh.

In July 2010, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia visited Lebanon, accompanied by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who was visiting the Baabda Palace for the first time since the Syrian army withdrew from Lebanon.

Notably, after Sleiman came into power, then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy initiated efforts to establish diplomatic relations between Lebanon and Syria, for the first time since the independence of the two countries.

However, the regional agreement fizzled out, and the axis of the mumanaa [resistance], led by Tehran and Damascus, managed to overthrow the government of Saad Hariri in early 2011. Two months later, the Syrian uprising broke out, which had serious consequences in Lebanon, where political polarization between those who support the Damascus regime and those in favor of the opposition was rekindled.

Meanwhile, Sleiman gradually distanced himself from both the Syrian regime and Hezbollah.

In June 2012, the president had all the Lebanese stakeholders gathered at a conference of national dialogue to adopt a text that would become known as the Baabda Declaration.

This declaration provided for a policy of distancing Lebanon from the conflict in Syria and, more generally, from the politics of the region.

Hezbollah initially supported the Baabda Declaration, considering that at that time, the number of Lebanese Sunnis fighting alongside the Syrian opposition was greater than the number of Shiites who backed the Assad regime.

However, under Iran’s influence, Hezbollah’s direct involvement in Syria would increase significantly and become more public.

As a result, Hezbollah would turn against the Baabda Declaration and relentlessly sought to undermine it.

This did not sit well with Sleiman, who in the last two years of his tenure took an increasingly strong stance against Hezbollah.

In a well-known speech, the president referred to the Hezbollah’s signature slogan “army, people, resistance” — the golden formula, as the party called it — as a “wooden formula.”

This story originally ran in French in L’Orient-Le Jour, translated by Sahar Ghoussoub.

Michel Sleiman’s journey to the presidency, which he assumed on May 25, 2008, began three years before, during the mass demonstrations that started March 14, 2005, which led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon the following month. At the time, Sleiman was the army chief of staff under President Emile Lahoud and refused to order his troops to clash with demonstrators who were...