Lebanon in Turmoil Ahead of Vote for President

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The murder of another Lebanese lawmaker heightens tensions in Beirut ahead of an upcoming presidential election. Lebanon is a democracy with deep divisions. The election is seen as a test of strength between U.S. influence and the Iran/Syria alliance.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

The assassination of another lawmaker has pushed Lebanon deeper into political crisis, just as parliament gets set to convene to elect a new president.

Supporters of Lebanon's ruling coalition blame Syria for the killing. Damascus denies the charge. Lebanon's current president is Emile Lahoud, a longtime ally of Syria. His term ends in November.

But as NPR's Deborah Amos reports, it is far from certain that parliament will be able to agree on a successor.

DEBORAH AMOS: No arrests have been made in the murder of lawmaker Antoine Ghanem in an explosion that killed him and seven others. But most Lebanese are certain of one thing. The massive car bomb was intended to influence the presidential campaign, and it will deepen the split in this country, says political analyst Rami Khoury.

RAMI KHOURY: I think we're in the crisis already. I think Lebanon is into crisis management. And it's amazing that the country hasn't collapsed or the economy hasn't collapsed.

AMOS: Lebanon's two major political factions have powerful foreign backers. The United States supports the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, made up mostly of Sunni Muslims and Christians. Iran and Syria back the opposition led by Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim movement in alliance with the maverick Christian leader.

The divide is so deep it seeps into everyday life. Hezbollah's fervent supporters have been camped out in the heart of Beirut for 10 months, demanding the resignation of the government.

Within shouting distance, there is an organic farmers market, serving the Lebanese who can afford to pay top dollar.

Unidentified Man: Well, I'm making honey now.

AMOS: The market is another example of the divide between rich and poor, a divide that's growing here, too.

Khamal Marzuk(ph), organizer of the market, describes his country with bitter humor.

KHAMAL MARZUK: Well, we wanted to illustrate a word the dictionary, this word is schizophrenia. Can anyone do better?

AMOS: Domestically, the presidential battle is a test of Lebanon's split personality, but Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group says foreign allies of the opposing factions have raised the stakes - looking after their own interests rather than Lebanon's.

PETER HARLING: What's being played out in Lebanon right now is more or less a conflict between the U.S. and some of its allies in the region and in Lebanon on the one side, and on the other side, an axis, as the U.S. would say, made out of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria and Iran.

AMOS: Advertising executive Ili Huri(ph), who crafts the political messages for the U.S.-backed Siniora government, says he's convinced Syria and Iran are trying to dictate who becomes Lebanon's next president.

ILI HURI: It's either their president or bye-bye Lebanon.

AMOS: He believes the assassinations targeting anti-Syrian lawmakers and journalists are all part of that campaign.

HURI: This is by force. It's whether Iran or Syria are going to twist Lebanon's arm to get their own president in or stop the presidency from happening. And I'm worried that they're willing to go as far as it takes.

AMOS: But analyst Rami Khoury says the opposition makes similar charges.

KHOURY: The U.S. is stalking this process very much, this confrontational politics, just as the Syrians and the Iranians and the Saudis and the Israelis, everybody else, I mean, nobody's guilt-free. Everybody here is culpable.

AMOS: The only good news, says Khoury, Lebanon's political leaders are still talking ahead of the parliament meeting next week.

KHOURY: They're still negotiating and trying to make deals, which is good. And they're fighting over a consensus candidate for president, you know, they're not fighting over who's going to be the dictator, so there's some elements of hope in there. We shouldn't necessarily see it as all bad.

(SOUNDBITE OF PANS CLANKING)

AMOS: One of the few things Lebanese agree on is food, which means Hussein Baruq's(ph) customers come from all over Beirut. His specialty is ful, a breakfast porridge of beans, tomatoes and cumin, which he mixes himself.

HUSSEIN BARUQ: Family business - my grandfather and my father.

AMOS: This restaurant is in Beirut's southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold. Baruq wants his leaders to go for a compromise president. He wants them to soften the divide.

BARUQ: At the end of the day, this game has got to over, you know, because we got to live. That's the way you build a country.

AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News.

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