Factions tiptoe into Lebanon's vacuum

Pro-Western, pro-Iranian sides tread lightly as president's term expires

November 24, 2007|By Borzou Daragahi and Raed Rafei | Borzou Daragahi and Raed Rafei,Los Angeles Times

Beirut -- Lebanon's shaky government veered into uncertain political terrain early this morning as midnight struck and its president's term expired without the naming of a successor.

Faced with a constitutional crisis, both the pro-Western government and the Syrian- and Iranian-backed opposition made competing claims to power, but both sides also ruled out the possibility of violence to resolve differences in the months-long dispute. The outgoing president declared a state of emergency, but the order was derided by many as having no practical effect.

"No political party in Lebanon has interests in having an explosive, chaotic situation," said Okab Saker, a prominent Beirut-based political analyst and commentator.

Yesterday, the country's deadlocked political establishment delayed for a week a critical decision on replacing the outgoing Lebanese president.

The Lebanese presidency is by tradition given to a Maronite Christian under the country's sectarian and religious power-sharing arrangement, but the Christian community is badly divided.

Unable to come up with a choice acceptable to both the Western-backed parliamentary majority and the opposition, parliament Speaker Nabih Berri rescheduled the meeting of lawmakers for next Friday.

Then, hours before his term expired, pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud declared that a state of emergency existed and said he was handing power to the military, an order termed as unconstitutional by forces loyal to the pro-Western alliance calling itself the March 14 movement. The military, they pointed out, already has responsibility for the country's security.

"Any measure he might announce is equal in constitutional and legal terms to zero squared," Farid Makari, deputy speaker of the house and a staunch March 14 supporter, told reporters before the emergency declaration.

For weeks, the political factions have been wrangling over the Lebanese presidency in what has become part of a broader battle for regional influence between Washington and Tehran.

Lawmakers and political analysts remained unsure as to who had the right to take up the president's limited duties. March 14 leaders said that under the constitution, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora would assume presidential powers, such as signing decrees and approving political hires, until a new president was named and a new government formed.

But the opposition, led by the Iranian-backed Shiite militia Hezbollah, said that it considered Siniora's government illegitimate and that Lahoud could decide who will take over his duties.

Opposition figures appeared ready to accept Siniora taking up presidential duties so long as his government kept a low profile during the power vacuum, and March 14 appeared ready to accept that the army maintains security. It remained unclear whether Lahoud's declaration of a state of emergency would tilt that balance.

"On one hand, the army's commander will ensure security on the ground without opting for a military seizure of power," said Saker, the political analyst. "On the other hand, Siniora's government will exercise its executive functions at a minimum level and refrain from making major decisions."

"It's true that the government exists on the ground," said Nawar Sahili, one of about a dozen Hezbollah lawmakers serving in parliament. "But they cannot make any major decisions. If they make any decisions in the following week, this will be very dangerous for the country."

Borzou Daragahi and Raed Rafei write for the Los Angeles Times.

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