Middle East

Lebanon Fears Violence Amid Stalled Transition

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President Emile Lahoud has put the army on alert as the country's rival political parties continue to wrangle over selecting his successor. Some in Lebanon fear a power vacuum that could result in violence.


The president of Lebanon, Emile Lahoud, is due to resign at midnight tonight in Beirut after completing his term in office. But thanks to a dispute between Lebanon's two main political factions, there is no one in line to take over the job. Just hours before he's due to step down from office, Lahoud declared a state of emergency and handed over security responsibilities to Lebanon's top army general.

NPR's Ivan Watson is in Beirut. And Ivan, what exactly did the outgoing President Emile Lahoud have to say today?

IVAN WATSON: It was actually his spokesman who read the statement. And it basically declared a state of emergency. And it called on the army to take over security responsibilities for the country, and then said that, at some point, the army would submit all of these measures to a cabinet of ministers, which would be legitimate according to the constitution.

BLOCK: When the president declares martial law, is that, declares a state of emergency, is that the equivalent of declaring martial law?

WATSON: Well, Melissa, the political elite in this country is deeply polarized. But the one thing that members from both main factions seem to agree on in conversations with me is that this will not amount to a Pakistan-style security crackdown or martial law. However, that's where the agreement ends. There are different interpretations depending on who you talk to - whether or not Emile Lahoud, the outgoing president, even has the authority to declare a state of emergency or give the military any additional responsibilities. And that's a sign of the potentially dangerous political power vacuum that this small country is lurching towards right now since the political elite here has been unable to come up with a successor to take over the presidency.

BLOCK: Yeah. And the Lebanese parliament appears to be at an impasse there. Today, the parliament said it was going to postpone the election of a new president by another week. What's going on?

WATSON: Well, there is a deep divide here. And it's been going on for more than a year. You have a Western-backed coalition in the parliament. It holds a tiny majority after four of its members were assassinated over the past year. And it's been in a standoff against an opposition movement which is led by Syria and Iran's ally, Hezbollah. Now, in Lebanon, it is parliament which appoints the president. And traditionally, this post goes to a Maronite Christian.

And usually the political barons of this country, the big political families, they participate in a lot of backroom dealings and horse-tradings to come up with a consensus candidate. But these two factions are so polarized right now that they just can't come up with a compromise. So today, the speaker of the parliament, he delayed the presidential election for yet another week to give both sides more time to negotiate. And both sides said they want to avoid a confrontation.

BLOCK: Ivan, Lebanon has also been the focus of a lot of intense international diplomacy, foreign diplomats trying to broker a deal, but not getting very far. What are those foreign governments saying now?

WATSON: Well, we've already had the U.N. secretary-general calling for calm, calling for both sides to follow the constitution here. The U.S. State Department has issued a statement, saying that the presidential authority should now temporarily go to the Lebanese cabinet of ministers, which is led by Washington's ally, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. And that would be temporary until a new president can be elected.

The problem is, is that the Hezbollah-led opposition declares Siniora's cabinet unconstitutional. A top official in this opposition movement, he says that President Lahoud's final decree will effectively make the army chief, Michel Sulaiman, the top general here, a, quote, "partner to Siniora until a president can be elected." That, of course, is already being disputed by members of Siniora's staff. Amid all of these tensions, Melissa, I must add that the Lebanese army and police have been deployed in force throughout Beirut today to try to make sure that no internal conflict spills out into the streets amid all of this tension.

BLOCK: Okay. That's NPR's Ivan Watson in Beirut. Ivan, thanks very much.

WATSON: You're welcome, Melissa.

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