18 November 2007

Lebanon enters decisive week in presidential crisis

BEIRUT - Lebanon enters a decisive week Monday as the term of President Emile Lahoud is set to expire with political leaders still unable to agree on his successor despite intense international pressure.

As foreign dignitaries converge on Beirut ahead of a planned vote in parliament on Wednesday, many fear the pro-Western ruling coalition and the Syrian-backed opposition may miss a final November 23 deadline to elect a new president, plunging the country into chaos.

There is also concern that the dispute could lead to two rival governments, echoing the final years of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war when two competing administrations battled for control.

"We need a miracle because the political leaders are so far apart, it is hard to imagine that they would agree on something," said Ousama Safa, head of the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies.

"But even if they elect a new president, the paralysis will continue because there will still be the issue of the make-up of the new government," he said.

The crisis has three times forced the postponement of a parliament session to elect successor to pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, and there are fears that the last-ditch vote on November 21 could meet the same fate.

The deadlock has prompted foreign dignitaries, including UN chief Ban Ki-moon and the foreign ministers of France and Italy, to visit Lebanon in recent weeks for talks with Lebanon's feuding leaders.

Maronite cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, who heads Lebanon's largest Christian community from which the president is chosen, injected fresh momentum into the search for a solution on Friday, when he drew up a list of candidates.

French charge d'affaires Andre Parant, whose country is leading international efforts to end the crisis, said Sfeir submitted the list on Friday to parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri and parliament speaker and opposition leader Nabih Berri.

The names on the list has not been revealed, but Beirut newspapers said they included politicians from both feuding camps, in addition to independent technocrats.

Safa said Lebanon will continue to suffer instability as regional tensions were expected to continue over the next year, "so a technocrat may be elected president because he would not scare or threaten anyone."

"It will be a president for crisis management," he said.

A two-thirds majority is required for a candidate to be elected by parliament in a first round of voting. In the event of a second round, an absolute majority suffices.

The parliamentary majority, with 68 MPs in the 127-seat house, has threatened to go ahead on its own with a presidential vote if no consensus candidate is found.

Lahoud himself has threatened to appoint an interim military government if no agreement is struck, raising fears of civil conflict in the multi-confessional country.

"If a new president is elected by a simple majority, (the opposition) may take to the streets, grab some ministries," Safa said.

"But this is a very costly option for everybody. There will not be civil war because it is not in anyone's interest, but there may be clashes and incidents here and there that would keep the country in instability," he said.

Lebanon has been mired in political crisis, with pro- and anti-Syrian camps engaged in a power struggle since the 2005 assassination of Saad Hariri's father, former billionaire prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

Hariri's murder triggered international and domestic protests that forced Syria to end 29 years of military domination in Lebanon.

The Western-backed government has been paralysed since the opposition, which includes factions backed by Syria and Iran, withdrew its six ministers from the cabinet in November last year.-(afp/ktimes)

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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.