20 November 2007

Lebanese parliament likely to delay vote

BEIRUT, Lebanon—Lebanon's parliament appeared likely Tuesday to postpone a key session to elect a president until later this week because the deeply divided factions have failed to find a compromise candidate.

Meanwhile, army and police reinforcements were sent to Beirut, fearing a volatile power vacuum.

Arab League chief Amr Moussa, in Lebanon to mediate between the rival parties, was downbeat, saying talk of postponement of the session "so far is true."

"It is not right to despair," Moussa said after meeting with President Emile Lahoud, whose term ends Friday night. "There is still hope, although there are still difficulties."

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri's office denied a decision had been made to postpone the session. "This is not true. ... If there is a change, it will be announced."

The new security measures came as Moussa and France's foreign minister continued their mediation, meeting separately with leaders of the U.S.-backed government and Syrian- and Iranian-supported opposition.

The two sides have been deadlocked for weeks over choosing Lahoud's successor.

They seem entrenched in their positions, despite guarded optimism in recent days that a consensus candidate could be chosen. Several politicians and newspapers also predicted the session would be postponed until Friday.

Failure to elect a successor to Lahoud could worsen Lebanon's year-old political crisis and bring about a power vacuum. This could lead to the formation of two rival administrations and increase the risk of street violence.

The uncertainty has worried the Lebanese, with many reportedly stocking up on food and putting daily life on hold to await the outcome of the mediation.

Education Minister Khaled Kabbani, who was mulling whether to suspend schools and universities as a precaution, said they would open as usual Wednesday. But he summed up the mood of the country.

"The Lebanese are confused about what's happening," he told Voice of Lebanon radio. "What should we tell them if there is no presidential election?"

In Beirut, random police and army checkpoints were set up Monday night, with troops searching cars and inspecting travelers' documents on major intersections and the suburbs.

About half of Lebanon's 4 million people live in the greater Beirut area.

Security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with standing government regulations, said the military and police were put on alert and leaves were canceled.

A total of 20,000 members of the security forces were covered by the security measures, 6,000 of them in Beirut itself, the official said.

Also, security at government buildings was reinforced and troops were also to be sent to Central Bank offices and other institutions.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he hoped Lebanon will overcome the political deadlock. He spoke after talks Tuesday in the Russian capital with visiting Saad Hariri, head of Lebanon's parliamentary majority.

In New York on Monday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern, saying he is "more cautiously optimistic" than when he visited Beirut last week.

If there is no election, Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's government would take executive powers under the constitution.

But Lahoud has said he would not hand over executive powers to the Cabinet, because he does not recognize the Saniora's government after the resignation last year of all five Shiite Cabinet ministers.

The militant Hezbollah opposition has called on Lahoud to take unspecified measures to prevent Saniora from taking power.

Possible scenarios reported in the media include Lahoud handing over power to the military chiefs or even declaring a state of emergency.

The army commander, Gen. Michel Suleiman, echoed the sense of urgency as he spoke to the troops ahead of Lebanon's Independence Day on Thursday and called on them to ignore the politics and "and listen to the call of duty."

"Any breach of security is national treason, and every weapon turned on the (Lebanese) ... is a treacherous one," he said. "The nation is at stake and you are its defenders. Do not be lenient and do not be inactive."-(elpasotimes)

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Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes, or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.