Lebanon's Political Gridlock Delays Election
SCOTT SIMON, host:
Lebanon has been mired by political gridlock for the last year. And the situation has only gotten worse in recent months. Two main rival political blocs have been unable to overcome their differences to elect a new president.
NPR's Ivan Watson spent several weeks covering that deadlock, and he sends this postcard.
IVAN WATSON: Lebanon's civil war ended in 1991. But more than 15 years later, Lebanese politicians still look like they're living under siege. The former Lebanese army general, Michelle Aoun - now a key player in the country's opposition movement - operates out of a hilltop villa behind army checkpoints, tank barriers, metal detectors and bulletproof glass.
For years, the leader of the opposition, Hassan Nasrallah, has led his Islamist movement Hezbollah from a, quote, "undisclosed location." Lebanon's rival political barons have carved out constituencies among the country's 17 religious groups by helping themselves to weapons and money from foreign patron states. Then they've battled each other - sometimes with bullets; more recently, at the ballot box.
The only leader to be convicted of war crimes during the civil war era was the commander of the Christian Lebanese Forces militia, Samir Geagea, who spent 11 years in jail.
Mr. SAMIR GEAGEA (Commander, Lebanese Forces): It was a solitary confinement in a hermitically closed cell, underground. The cell was about six square meters in surface all-in-all. I was allowed one hour per day outside the cell.
WATSON: Geagea was charged with ordering the bombing of a church and plotting the assassination of several political leaders, including a prime minister who died when a bomb blew up under his seat on a helicopter.
After being amnestied in 2005, Geagea now lives on a heavily guarded mountaintop in a recently constructed stone and steel fortress, working out of a basement office with no windows. He denied that he or his fighters ever committed war crimes during the long civil war.
Mr. GEAGEA: They were normal acts of war. I mean, in war, people kill you and, unfortunately, are obliged to kill people. What do people do in war?
WATSON: Thankfully, for now, the large-scale fighting that tore the country apart in the '70s and '80s is over. But the culture of mistrust among the political elites and the fear of assassination are still very real. More than a half dozen prominent politicians and journalists have been murdered over the past two years. And last week, a top Army general was killed by a car bomb on his way to work.
Everyday, ordinary Lebanese can do little more than watch as armored convoys whisk Lebanese politicians from their fortified compounds to meetings, where they hold talks with other Lebanese leaders and foreign diplomats. After months of such meetings, the bitterly divided political elite has still not found a way to send the new occupant to the largest of the many fortified palaces in this small country - the presidential palace. It has been empty since the last president completed his term in November. Lebanon looks likely to enter 2008 without a head of state.
Ivan Watson, NPR News.