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Ivan Watson talks about the political crisis in Lebanon on Morning Edition

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Impasse over President Sparks Crisis in Lebanon

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Ivan Watson talks about the political crisis in Lebanon on Morning Edition

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And another key Mideast nation is in political crisis, a crisis that is worsening today. Lebanon's parliament was to elect a new president. But a short ago it postponed that vote until next week to allow more time for lawmakers to reach consensus on a new head of state. And that has people worried that there could be new violence in Lebanon.

NPR's Ivan Watson joins us on the line from Beirut. And Ivan, this is just the latest delay in electing a new president. What is the problem?

IVAN WATSON: The problem here, Renee, is that the Lebanese president is usually a consensus figure. He's not voted in by a popular vote, but through backroom negotiations and horse-trading between the various political barons and clan leaders from Lebanon's many rival sectarian communities.

And today, despite intense international pressure and a mediation effort led by the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, these Lebanese leaders just can't come to an agreement on a compromise candidate for president. So today, after a short meeting in parliament, they announced that they would delay the vote for another week until next Friday while they try to hammer out an agreement and find a consensus candidate to appoint to the post of president.

MONTAGNE: When Lebanon's long civil war ended, it seemed like there was some hope, and this was in 1990. Years later now, Lebanon seems to have descended into quite a political crisis.

WATSON: Exactly. And as one Lebanese politician has put it, the country's been riding an earthquake ever since the former prime minister, Rafik al-Hariri, was assassinated in Beirut in 2005. What you have now are two main factions that are at odds. They have basically paralyzed the Lebanese state for the past year. You have a Western-backed coalition which holds a tiny majority in parliament, despite a series of mysterious assassinations that have killed four of its parliament members. And on the other side you have an opposition movement which is led by Syria and Iran's ally, Hezbollah. And that opposition movement has boycotted parliament meetings for the past year and held a sit-in in downtown Beirut aimed at toppling the Western-backed coalition's prime minister from power.

MONTAGNE: And what happens now?

WATSON: Well, the sitting president, Emile Lahoud, is expected to step down at midnight tonight. The top official in the opposition camp, Ali Hamdan, an adviser to the speaker of parliament, he told me that to avoid the power vacuum his block was willing to allow authority to pass temporarily to the hands of the Western-backed cabinet of ministers until a new president can be elected.

So there are signs that despite these bitter divisions and all this mudslinging that I was hearing in the parliament today, that both sides are still willing to negotiate, that they want to avoid a confrontation that could spill out into the streets. And just in case, downtown Beirut is totally blocked off by Lebanese soldiers and police right now. The atmosphere is tense. And any Lebanese person you talk to is just sick and tired of this political crisis. They're basically begging their leaders to please come to some kind of an agreement.

MONTAGNE: Ivan, thanks very much.

WATSON: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Ivan Watson speaking to us from Beirut.

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