Michel Suleiman’s World Tour
Lebanon has had its share of lousy presidents over the year. Fouad Chehab was most likely in cahoots with the Zionists from early on to keep the Lebanese Army (which he led before becoming president in 1958) out of all Arab-Israeli war. Bishara al-Khouri (the first president after independence) was notoriously corrupt, his brother was nicknamed “Sultan Salim” and he may have developed Alzheimer’s during his waning years in the presidency. Camille Chamoun was brilliant but corrupt, having secret dealings with various intelligence agencies. Nobody profited from his name as he did, and he had one of the first Lebanese Rolls Royces to prove it.
Charles Helou was early on a Phalanges leader and was acutely sectarian in his outlook and policies. He also was quite weak as he lacked an independent popular base. Suleiman Frangieh was an illiterate and incompetent politician (who was wanted for an incident of shooting at a church in the 1950s) who bears a major responsibility in the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in 1975. He had tried to mimic Black September in Lebanon against Palestinian refugee camps (undoubtedly at the behest of Israel and the US and undoubtedly for a sum of money) in 1973 but when that failed, he basically allowed right-wing militias (Phalanges, Ahrar, and others) to help themselves to Lebanese army weapons depots. Amin Gemayel will be remembered as one of the most corrupt presidents ever: the one who was supremely responsible for the prolongation of the war.
So Michel Suleiman comes in a long line of incompetent and corrupt Lebanese presidents. He rose within the Lebanese army during the years of political domination by the Syrian regime. The chief of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, the ruthless Ghazi Kanaan, is solely responsible for the career of Suleiman. He plucked him from obscurity and made him commander-in-chief of the Lebanese army. Suleiman was loyal, obedient, and rarely expressed opinions of any kind. Western diplomats who remember him during the days express frustration at his silence and hesitancy. Suleiman wanted to be president and did not want to say anything that would displease his sponsors in Damascus.
Suleiman lacks a popular base despite his political ambition and despite his insistence on establishing a political dynasty through his son and his son-in-law. Suleiman came to the presidency as part of the Doha Understanding. Hezbollah supported him because he was discreetly supportive of them during his years in the Lebanese army, and the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, interviewed him for the job and approved him on behalf of the Arab regime system. The Hariri movement was suspicious of him at first, but then quickly benefited from Saudi sponsorship of the man. Suleiman at first championed the alliance between the “resistance, people, and the army”, as if the army or the people in general ever undertook tasks of resistance against Israeli occupation and aggression.
Suleiman became president and received the standard gift that every “elected” Lebanese president receives from the House of Saud. It used to be $5 million for the Maronite president and $20 million for the Sunni prime minister, but Mikati told the Saudi government that he – as a billionaire – does not need the money. Instead, he would like to be officially met by the king when he performs the annual umrah. But Mikati is yet to be met by the king since he became prime minister because he displaced Saad Hariri, Saudi Arabia’s chief tool in Lebanon.
Suleiman shows no signs of leadership or initiative. He will be remembered as the most widely traveled Lebanese president. Lacking any real power that the job bestows, Suleiman enjoys the pomp and trappings of his job. He loves to travel around the world with his wife and large entourage and be received as president of a small and insignificant country. And what is amusing about Suleiman is that he bills all his trips as “business trips.” So a visit to Bulgaria or Cyprus is advertised as an attempt to achieve peace for the region.
Politically speaking, Suleiman has been inching closer to the March 14 movement, coinciding with wide rumors about signs of enrichment for him and for his family, which is getting ready to participate in the next parliamentary election. There are talks of Saudi money and Suleiman has suddenly stopped invoking his own formula about “the resistance, the people, and the army.” And the man who was installed in the army by Syrian intelligence suddenly stopped talking with his Syrian counterpart. That must have pleased his new Saudi sponsors.
It is not that Suleiman has any role whatsoever in Lebanese politics. He is as influential as a female (or male) member of the Saudi shura council. But Suleiman enjoys the ceremonies of his job and it’s highly likely that he will – in the tradition of Lebanese presidents – try to serve another term. But his close association with March 14 in the last year, will ruin his chances.
It is true that Suleiman can’t play a political role because the Ta’if accords emptied the post of president from all its powers, and it is also true that the president lacks talent and intelligence. But even the role of what Theodore Roosevelt had called the “bully pulpit” has been squandered by Suleiman. But his son-in-law may win a seat in the new parliament and Suleiman will be more grateful than ever to House of Saud.