Political Crisis Deepens in Lebanon

Published on
by
The Associated Press

Political Crisis Deepens in Lebanon

by
Zeina Karam

BEIRUT, Lebanon - Lebanon awoke to a republic without a president Saturday amid mounting worries over a power vacuum that has intensified the nation's yearlong political turmoil.1124 02

The capital was calm and shops opened for business as usual the morning after a tumultuous day that saw President Emile Lahoud depart without a successor after announcing he was handing over security powers to the army.

Lahoud's final announcement saying the country is in a "state of emergency" was rejected by the rival, pro-Western Cabinet of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora.

The government rejection created fresh confusion in an already unsettled situation, which many Lebanese fear could explode into violence between supporters of Saniora's government and the pro-Syria opposition led by the Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

"Lahoud's term ends in a republic without a president," read the headline of Lebanon's leading An-Nahar newspaper. Another daily, Al-Balad, printed an empty photo frame on its front page, symbolizing the political vacuum.

The departure of Lahoud, a staunch ally of the Syrian regime during his nine years in office, was a long-sought goal of the government installed by parliament's anti-Syria majority, which has been trying to put one of its own in the presidency.

Hezbollah and other opposition groups have blocked legislators from electing a new president by boycotting ballot sessions, leaving parliament without the required quorum.

The fight has put Lebanon into dangerous, unknown territory: Both sides are locked in bitter recriminations, accusing the other of breaking the constitution, and they are nowhere near a compromise on a candidate to become head of state.

The army command refused to comment on the developments. The military, under its widely respected chief, Gen. Michel Suleiman, has sought to remain neutral in the political chaos, and Lahoud's statement did not give it political powers.

Even before the president's vague announcement, the military was in place to guard against the two sides' supporters taking the conflict to the streets. On alert for days, hundreds of soldiers stood with tanks, armored personnel carriers and jeeps in the area around the downtown parliament building as well as on roads leading into Beirut.

Lahoud stepped down when his term expired at midnight.

Before getting into his car to go, he blasted Saniora's government, calling it "illegitimate and unconstitutional. They know that, even if (President) Bush said otherwise."

In the capital, some 2,000 government supporters gathered in a Sunni Muslim neighborhood cheered his departure, setting off fireworks, beating drums and shouting, "Lahoud Out!"

His departure left the presidency vacant after parliament failed again to convene earlier Friday to vote on a successor.

Lahoud's vaguely worded final statement, two hours before midnight enflamed tempers with his reference to a "state of emergency" in Lebanon.

The constitution requires the cabinet to approve any state of emergency, and Saniora's government quickly rejected the announcement as "worthless."

Saniora signaled earlier that his government planned to assume the powers. His top ally, the United States, said Friday that was the proper path.

The anti-Syria camp has sought to capture the presidency to seal the end of Syria dominance of Lebanon, which lasted for 29 years until international pressure and mass protests forced Damascus to withdraw Syrian troops in 2005.

Hezbollah, which is an ally of Syria and Iran, and its opposition allies have been able to stymie the government's hopes by boycotting parliament, as they did Friday afternoon.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who is aligned with the opposition, scheduled another session for Nov. 30 to give the factions more time to try to find a compromise candidate - something they failed to do in weeks of talks mediated by France's foreign minister and others.

© 2007 The Associated Press.

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