Lebanese Parliament Fails to Pick President

In Lebanon, the parliament fails to agree on a new president. Observers fear political instability if the stalemate isn't resolved before the current president's term expires in two months.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We go now to a tense political situation in Lebanon. The parliament there failed to agree this week on a new president. And that's raised fears of what might happen if the stalemate isn't resolved before Lebanon's president term expires two months from now.

Many Lebanese say one of the worst-case scenarios would be a political collapse that leaves Lebanon with two governments: one, run by the U.S.-supported majority and the other by the Iranian and Syrian-backed opposition.

Such a scenario is reminding older Lebanese of a moment toward the end of Lebanon's long civil war - as Peter Kenyon reports from Beirut.

PETER KENYON: Hezbollah MP Ali Moqdad is one of those who talks openly about the possibility of two governments in Lebanon although he says no one wants such a result. Still, he says, if the majority coalition insists on electing its own president without opposition support, as some are threatening, the opposition might be forced to act.

Mr. ALI MOQDAD (Hezbollah Member of Parliament): Definitely, the opposition will take the role to protect our country. A second government, second president, really I don't know, but there are many scenarios.

KENYON: Political scientist Hilal Khashan at the American University in Beirut says, for some people, such talk brings back chilling memories of the bloody civil war that shattered Lebanon for some 15 years.

Dr. HILAL KHASHAN (Political Scientist, American University, Beirut): If we have an opposition government, then this would be a recipe for partitioning the country. So - I mean, the Lebanese will not forget - have not forgotten what happened in 1988 and what it cost.

KENYON: Memories of those days are plentiful at Beirut city café. The café is home to a crowd of a certain age - men and women who survived the civil war and had no desire to see another one.

Anwar(ph), a 59-year-old man with a trim mustache, served in the Druse Militia during the war. He remembers watching President Amine Gemayel's term expire in 1988 with no agreement on who should replace him. At the last minute, he turned to the army commander, like Gemayel, a Christian.

Mr. ANWAR (Resident, Beirut): (Through translator) At this time, Amine Gemayel, at the last quarter of an hour of his term as president, appointed Michel Aoun who is army commander.

KENYON: Aoun had a six-person cabinet - three Christians and three Muslims. But the Muslims immediately resigned, and the former government led by Muslim Prime Minister Selim al-Hoss refused to step down, governing affairs on the west side of Beirut. Across the infamous green line, the Christians were in charge of east Beirut.

Soon, says Anwar, there were two of everything - two armies, two bureaucracies, and a depressed and divided population. He takes a puff on a cigarette and considers the possibility of two governments in present day Beirut. Would it be as bad?

Mr. ANWAR: (Through translator) I think it's going to be far more difficult because before when we had two governments, we had clear geographical areas that were separated. Now, we don't have a clear geographic divide between the two sides. So in order for the two sides to show their force, there has to be a military battle so that they have to establish their areas. And that's why it's worse.

KENYON: At a nearby table, May Awwad(ph), a 58-year-old Christian professor of French literature, recalls daily life being fairly workable despite the two governments.

Professor MAY AWWAD (French Literature): (Through translator) You know, maybe two governments is better than no government at all. I'm not afraid of two governments. The only thing I am afraid of is of weapons and those that carry weapons.

KENYON: But beneath Awwad's we've seen worse than misdemeanor lies a quiet despair for a younger generation of Lebanese who don't know what it was like back then.

Prof. AWWAD: (Through translator) We, the older generation, we've been through it. We can handle it. I have two sons - one in Paris, one in London. And my son came a few days ago, and I was worried. And I just couldn't wait for him to leave. In fact, I made him leave earlier than when he wanted to. And now, I feel okay. It's not a life for them.

KENYON: At cafés across the city, people discuss what the future may hold, aware that their country's already starting to divide, in a way. Those who can afford to are leaving. Those who stay behind, sip their coffee and wait to see if the past will stay in the past, or if it will come back to haunt them.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Beirut.

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