Lebanon Fails to Elect New President

By Anthony Shadid and Alia Ibrahim
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 24, 2007

BEIRUT, Nov. 24 -- Lebanese factions failed to reach agreement on replacing President Emile Lahoud, whose term expired at midnight Friday, leaving Lebanon without a head of state for the first time since its 1975-90 civil war. Hours before stepping down, Lahoud ordered the already mobilized army to take control of security in the country.

Despite fears of strife between the country's camps -- divided over ideology, foreign patrons and their share of power -- the deadline for replacing Lahoud, a 71-year-old former general, passed peacefully, with the army deployed across the uneasy capital since morning in jeeps and armored personnel carriers. The missed deadline appeared more of a symbolic moment for a faltering state, marking yet another institution paralyzed by the year-long crisis that has already circumscribed the work of the cabinet and parliament.

Lawmakers predicted the post could remain empty for as little as a week, until the 128-member parliament meets again, or until 2009, when parliamentary elections are scheduled. "What are we waiting for now?" asked Ayyoub Hummayed, an opposition lawmaker. "Nothing too difficult. The Holy Spirit, I guess, to inspire us with a solution."

Samir Franjieh, a lawmaker allied with the government, added: "Politically, we can wait. We have a problem: The people are fed up. But politically, we can wait."

The confrontation is between two camps with roughly equal support and influence in the country of 4 million. On one side is a U.S.-supported coalition that claims its name and legitimacy from a series of protests that culminated March 14, 2005, and helped end Syria's military presence here. On the other is a coalition that joins followers of a Christian retired general, Michel Aoun, with Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim group supported by Iran and Syria, and followers of Nabih Berri, the parliament speaker and a Syrian ally.

Weeks of mediation, led by France, have subscribed to a time-honored notion in Lebanese politics, that there should be "no victor, no vanquished." But to many, the eventual choice of a president will reflect the camps' relative strengths.

A sense of foreboding was apparent in Lebanon as the Friday deadline approached. But it became clear during the day that both sides had agreed not to escalate the crisis that led to sectarian clashes in Beirut, the capital, in January. Pro-government lawmakers gathered at the parliament, where a spokesman for Berri announced the week-long delay, the fifth time the vote has been postponed. But they did not go ahead with threats to use their slim majority to elect a president. Lahoud, meanwhile, stepped down without appointing a rival government, a scenario that many feared could bring more civil strife.

"I am worried, but it's a controlled worry," Mohammed Kabbani, a pro-government lawmaker, said after the session was postponed. "I'm worried things may drag on for a long time, and if they drag on for a long time, you never know what will happen."

Last week, opposition figures threatened to take to the streets if government allies elected a president on their own. Friday, at least publicly, they were more conciliatory.

"I'm really not concerned," said Nawar Sahli, a Hezbollah member of parliament. "The situation is stable now, and no one has an interest in things falling apart."

Before leaving office at midnight, in a brief decree read on Lebanese television by a spokesman, Lahoud entrusted security to the army, perhaps the country's most popular institution, saying Lebanon faced the elements of a state of emergency. With the country in a constitutional limbo, Lahoud's use of the phrase caused confusion over what exactly that entailed, and his opponents accused him of posturing.

Under the constitution, power is supposed to pass to the cabinet of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. Both Lahoud and the Hezbollah-led opposition have called that cabinet illegitimate since Hezbollah's ministers and their allies resigned from it last November, depriving it of Shiite Muslim representation. In his decree, Lahoud pointedly said the army would answer only to a cabinet that was constitutional. But opposition lawmakers said Friday that they would not oppose the cabinet fulfilling stopgap duties for now.

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