SCOTT SIMON, host:
Lebanon is at a tense politically impasse. Parliament must choose a new president by November 24 when Syrian-backed President Emile Lahoud steps down. The pro-Western March 14th bloc has a slim majority, made more precarious by four assassinations since 2005. Hezbollah allies have boycotted parliament preventing the quorum required to hold the election.
David Schenker is a senior fellow in Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He served in the Department of Defense from 2002 to 2006.
Mr. Schenker, thanks very much for being with us.
Mr. DAVID SCHENKER (Senior Fellow, Arab politics, Washington Institute for Near East Policy): Good to be with you.
SIMON: And you were in Lebanon recently.
Mr. SCHENKER: About two weeks ago.
SIMON: Please talk about what these legislators are doing now to hold on to not only their majority but more to the point maybe their lives.
Mr. SCHENKER: It's an incredibly tense situation. You've had four assassinations since 2005. Recognizing the threat - most likely posed by Syria - these parliamentarians are holed up, many of them, in the residences of the Phoenicia Hotel in Beirut. And this is basically like an armed camp. You have to go through some security checkpoints to get in, metal detectors, escorted by armed guards. And it's very odd because they're really plush suites really, but the windows and the curtains are shut permanently so as to prevent snipers from taking body shots.
SIMON: Now, let me reverse this, this is not only to hold on with their lives, which, of course, is a high priority, but it's literally to hold on to the majority that they have.
Mr. SCHENKER: That's right. Because of the assassinations by the faction, another death by natural causes, what was parliamentary majority of the 72 seats out of 128 has shrunk to 68 out of 127. The fear is if these assassinations continue that the government majority will end - they will no longer be a pro-Western government. And Hezbollah and its Christian allies led by General Michel Aoun will take the majority and take over the government.
SIMON: Mm-hmm. Now, there, Hezbollah is boycotting parliament.
Mr. SCHENKER: Right. There are few, I think, to go to the parliament because essentially, if they show up at the parliament, there will be a quorum. If there's a quorum, which is two-thirds of the members, then they can take a vote. If they don't get to some agreeable candidate the way the majority interprets the constitution is that they can vote and elect a president by strict majority of 50 percent plus one parliamentarian.
SIMON: What's to prevent this impasse from lasting for years?
Mr. SCHENKER: Well, 10 days before the end of the election period on the 14th of November, parliament is supposed to convene by law, and so at that point there may be a vote. But everybody in Lebanon is now a constitutional scholar. The problem is that they don't have a supreme court in Lebanon to sort out the correct interpretation whether you need two-thirds or whether a simple majority will carry the day.
SIMON: This U.N.-backed tribunal that's trying to investigate the 2005 assassination of the former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, there are implications that this election or lack of election so far would have for that investigations?
Mr. SCHENKER: Sure. The thought among majority, certainly, is that if you have a (unintelligible) president, a president who is sympathetic to Syria, they will try to derail or delay elements of the tribunal. Of course, the Syrians are the leading culprits in the 2005 assassination. And already it seems the tribunal or the investigation is leaning towards fingering leading figures in the Syrian-Assad regime. If they do so, you can end up with a Libya situation with total international pressure and sanction. It would really literally shake the foundations of the regime potentially.
SIMON: Mr. Schenker, thanks very much.
Mr. SCHENKER: My pleasure.
SIMON: David Schenker, senior fellow and director of Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.