Lebanon's former prime minister, Sa'ad Al-Hariri, said today that he would back Hezbollah ally Michel Aoun to become president, a step that may help resolve the country's political deadlock but which still faces considerable opposition.
"This decision comes from the need to protect Lebanon and the state and the people…but it is a decision that depends on agreement," he said in a speech, describing Aoun as "the only option left".
Lebanon has endured a protracted political crisis since parliament failed to elect a new president more than two years ago, paralysing government, causing a breakdown in many basic services and reviving fears of a slide back towards civil war.
However, Aoun will still face big obstacles towards his election as president by the country's parliament, including opposition from parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri, leader of the Shia Amal Movement which is also an ally of Hezbollah.
Four prominent members of Al-Hariri's Future Movement bloc in parliament, including former prime minister Fouad Siniora, told reporters they would not vote for Aoun. Telecommunications Minister Boutros Harb, an ally of Al-Hariri's from a different party, said the same.
Still, the endorsement by Al-Hariri, Lebanon's leading Sunni Muslim politician who has long opposed Aoun's Shia ally Hezbollah, represents an important step towards breaking the prolonged standoff between Lebanon's political leaders.
Al-Hariri hopes to become prime minister again if Aoun becomes president. Hezbollah, Lebanon's most powerful political player, released a statement welcoming moves to fill the presidency.
"In our discussions, we have finally reached common ground with General Michel Aoun … He does not want the state to fall, and neither do we," Hariri said, pointing to the political dangers facing Lebanon due to the civil war in neighbouring Syria.
Parliament will convene on 31 October for a session to elect the president, the 46th such sitting since the term of the last president, Michel Suleiman, expired in 2014, each of which failed to gain the two-thirds quorum needed for a vote.
Under Lebanon's power-sharing arrangement among its main sects, the presidency is reserved for a Maronite Christian, the premiership for a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament for a Shia.
Aoun, 81, is a former army commander who led one of two rival governments during Lebanon's civil war that lasted between 1975 to 1990 before the Syrian army forced him into exile. His main Christian rival for the presidency, Samir Geagea, endorsed him earlier this year.
Al-Hariri's decision comes despite his accusation that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad was behind his father's death, elder statesman Rafic Al-Hariri killed in 2005, and gave evidence to an international court trying Hezbollah members charged with involvement in the killing.