Political crisis deepens in Lebanon
Political crisis deepens in Lebanon
By SAM F. GHATTAS, Associated Press Writer 7 minutes
BEIRUT, Lebanon - Lebanon's political tumult
intensified Friday as President Emile Lahoud said the
country is in a "state of emergency" and handed
security powers to the army hours before leaving
office without a successor. The rival, pro-Western
Cabinet rejected the move.
Lahoud's announcement created new confusion in an
already unsettled situation, which many Lebanese fear
could explode into violence between supporters of
Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's government and the
pro-Syria opposition led by the Shiite militant group
The departure of Lahoud, a staunch ally of the Syrian
regime during 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.
Lahoud was expected to step down when his term expired
at midnight, leaving the presidency vacant after
parliament failed again to convene earlier Friday to
vote on a successor.
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.
The capital was largely calm, save for some fireworks
from Lahoud supporters.
Lahoud's vaguely worded statement wasn't a formal
declaration of a state of emergency, but he enflamed
tempers with his reference to a "state of emergency"
"Because a state of emergency exists all over the land
as of Nov. 24, 2007, the army is instructed to
preserve security all over the Lebanese territory,"
the presidential spokesman, Rafik Shalala, said.
The constitution requires the Cabinet to approve any
state of emergency, and Saniora's government quickly
rejected the announcement.
"It has no value and is unconstitutional and
consequently it is considered as if it was not
issued," said a government spokesman, who asked not to
be identified because an official announcement had not
yet been made by the prime minister.
Later, a government statement said the Cabinet
"continues to shoulder its responsibilities and
exercise its full authority."
Shalala argued Saniora's position didn't matter
because his government was not constitutional the
position voiced by Lahoud and the opposition since the
Cabinet's five Shiite Muslim members quit last year.
Further complications awaited the expiration of
Lahoud's term at midnight. Under the constitution, the
government is supposed to take on the president's
powers if he leaves office without a replacement.
Lahoud had vowed not to hand his authorities to
Saniora and his reference to a state of emergency
might have been an attempt to escape doing so.
Saniora signaled earlier that his government planned
to assume the powers. His top ally, the United States,
said Friday that was the proper path.
"This is the procedure stipulated by the Lebanese
constitution, and will ensure that the government is
able to continue conducting its business without
interruption," State Department spokesman Sean
McCormack said in Washington.
Calling for the election of a new president "as
quickly as possible," McCormack said, "We urge all
Lebanese political groups to do their part to maintain
calm and promote security for Lebanon's citizens."
Opposition leader Michel Aoun warned the Cabinet that
"usurping the role of the presidency" would increase
its "illegitimacy." But he appeared to be trying to
ease fears of violence by adding that the opposition
would "calmly confront" the situation.
It was unclear if Lahoud sought to give the military
any powers beyond security measures.
The military command declined to comment on the
president's statement, but Suleiman, the military
commander, told his troops earlier in the week to
ignore the constitutional wrangling and "listen to the
call of duty."
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 when the majority tried to
convene a session to vote before Lahoud left office.
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
Leaders from each side had been pledging not to take
steps to provoke the other though Lahoud's
announcement raised the heat.
"We have no choice but to have a consensus," Saad
Hariri, leader of the anti-Syria majority in
parliament, said after the failed session. "It is not
in Lebanon's interest that the (presidential) palace
is left empty."
Another factor complicating the crisis was the
U.S.-sponsored Mideast peace conference next week.
Government supporters have accused Syria of using its
allies in Lebanon to block a deal on the presidency
until it sees what it gets in the conference. Damascus
wants the meeting in Annapolis, Md., to address its
demands for the return of the Israeli-held Golan
France on Friday called for patience to resolve
Lebanon's crisis but also chided Syria. French Foreign
Ministry spokeswoman Pascale Andreani said it's up to
the "Syrians, like everyone else, to remember that the
goal is not to hinder the process but to help it."