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Profile: Gen. Michel Suleiman, Lebanon's 12th President

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michel suleiman and lebanese singer haifa

Lebanese singer-sensation Haifa drapes herself in a silhouette of Michel Suleiman, the new Lebanese president.

Luciana via Flickr

Why Michel Suleiman Is Relevant:

Michel Suleiman was elected 12th president of Lebanon on May 25, 2008. His election, by the Lebanese Parliament, ended an 18-month constitutional crisis that had left Lebanon without a president and brought Lebanon close to civil war. He is a respected leader who led the Lebanese military. He is revered by the Lebanese as a uniter. Lebanon is riven by many divisions, most notably between anti- and pro-Syrian camps.

Early Life, Current Personal Status :

Michel Suleiman, also known as Michel Sleiman, was born on Nov. 21, 1948 in Aamchit, a small town near the Mediterranean coast of Lebanon, some 23 miles north of Beirut, the capital city. He was born into a Christian Maronite family. Fluent in French, English and Arabic, he holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in political and administrative sciences from Lebanese University. is married to Wafaa Suleiman. They have three children.

Suleiman’s Philosophy:

Suleiman believes the 61,400 soldiers in Lebanon’s military should maintain strict political neutrality “and listen to the call of duty.” Suleiman’s evolution from an instrument of Syrian occupation to a spokesman for Lebanese independence shows him to be adept at reading power shifts, anticipating popular sentiment and balancing competing interests to his advantage. He can be ruthless, as he showed in his merciless crushing of Fatah al-Islam militants in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared in 2007. He can also be an artful, subtle compromiser, patient and keen on waiting for his opportunities.

Questions About Suleiman’s Past:

General Suleiman was commander of the Lebanese Army in 1998 by Syria, when Syria occupied Lebanon and called the shots there. Suleiman’s brother in law, Gebran Kuriyyeh, was official the spokesman for the late Syrian president Hafez Assad, father of Basher Assad, who has been president since 2000. During Suleiman’s tenure as head of the military, many Lebanese were reportedly arrested on Syrian orders and tortured by the military. Suleiman’s praise for Hezbollah during Hezbollah’s war with Israel was overt. Suleiman oversaw deployments of Lebanese military units in Hezbollah territory following the 2006 war.

Standing By As Hezbollah Powers Up:

Further questions about Suleiman’s power and independence were raised in May 2008 when Hezbollah’s militants invaded West Beirut. The Lebanese government had challenged Hezbollah’s secret telecommunication network and surveillance cameras in southern Beirut. Hezbollah not only refused to dismantle the network but went on the offensive, essentially showing up the government as weak to ineffective. Protecting its own unity at the expense of the government's legitimacy, the army stood by, intervening only to quell sectarian battles between Sunnis and Shiites—but not challenging Hezbollah’s illegal acts.

Positive Aspects of Suleiman’s Past:

Though appointed by Syria to be the army’s chief in 1998 after a solid military career, Suleiman grew increasingly independent and non-partisan over the years, earning the respect of most factions in Lebanon, including the Western-backed, anti-Syrian "March 14 Coalition" of Sunni Muslim and Maronite Christians. When hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets following the assassination of Sunni Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, most likely by Syria's hand, Suleiman refused to deploy the Lebanese army to quell protesters, earning more respect from the Lebanese.

What a Suleiman Presidency Averted:

Most Lebanese are grateful for the election of Suleiman in part because it ended Gen. Michel Aoun’s hopes of becoming president. Aoun, who led the Lebanese military in the waning days of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) and into a brutal internecine war between Christians, made an opportunistic alliance with Hezbollah, whom he had formerly denounced, in hopes of ensuring himself a path to the presidency. Aoun, a thuggishly disposed strongman with an ego to boot rather than a statesman, is not trusted by most Lebanese. Suleiman in comparison appears both magnanimous and statesman-like.

Challenges to Suleiman’s Presidency:

Suleiman’s power is limited. Lebanon’s power-sharing structure grants the presidency to a Maronite, like Suleiman, but the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, the Speaker of Parliament must be a Shiite, and Parliament’s 128 seats must be divided evenly between Christian and Muslim seats. The president cannot act by fiat. Also, the agreement that ended Lebanon’s constitutional crisis and brought Hezbollah into the political fold again, backing Suleiman as a compromise choice, grants Hezbollah veto power over major decisions of the Lebanese government. Suleiman is, potentially, at the mercy of Hezbollah’s whims.
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