Lebanon: Once More to the Brink

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Joseph Barrak / AFP / Getty

Lebanese deputy and leader of the March 14 Block. Saad Hariri (C), is surrounded by bodyguards as he walks outside the parliament building in Beirut

Lebanon has entered a perilous and unprecedented constitutional vacuum following the departure midnight Friday of the pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud, with no elected successor. The two rival factions — the Western-backed March 14 block, which holds a thin parliamentary majority, and the pro-Syrian opposition, spearheaded by the militant Shi'ite Hizballah — are locked in a tense standoff, both waiting for the other to make the first move.

Lebanese troops and armored vehicles have deployed at key junctions in Beirut in case the tensions spill over into factional violence. "It's a very delicate moment in the country," said Sateh Noureddine, a columnist for Lebanon's As Safir daily newspaper.

The long-simmering crisis peaked Friday when parliamentarians failed to elect a new head of state to replace Lahoud due to a lack of the required quorum. Despite weeks of back-room negotiations and intense international mediation, the feuding politicians have been unable to find a suitable successor acceptable to both sides. Parliament is scheduled to convene again on November 30 for another attempt at electing a president.

With a vacuum looming, Lahoud, in a final act as president, charged the army with enforcing law and order, claiming that "risks of a state of emergency" prevailed over Lebanon. Lahoud, like the opposition, has refused to recognize the legitimacy of government since all five Shi'ite ministers walked out of the cabinet a year ago. But the office of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora swiftly responded by saying that Lahoud's move was unconstitutional and that the army would continue to follow the instructions of the government. So far, the leaders of both factions appear unwilling to risk further escalation in their dangerous game of brinkmanship.

The March 14 block has refrained from fulfilling a threat to elect a president drawn from its own ranks if no consensus candidate was found. The opposition has warned that it would not recognize a March 14 president and would consider such a move a "coup." Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center, said that if March 14 tried to elect a president, Hizballah would try to stop them physically from meeting. "That means road blocks and men with guns and that means other men with guns and that's very dangerous," he said.

But the opposition appears no more willing to allow an already fraught situation to deteriorate any further. Wiam Wahhab, a senior opposition figure, told TIME that opposition supporters were prepared to take to the streets if the March 14 block attempts a unilateral move on the presidency, but doubted such an outcome. "I don't think they will dare try this, unless the Americans have a benefit from it in which case we will have another problem," he said.

The political crisis in Lebanon is seen by many as a microcosm of the regional power struggle between the United States, Iran and Syria. Some analysts here believe that the Lebanese impasse could be broken if Syria is given a prominent role at the forthcoming peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland, to revive Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. Syria, which backs the Lebanese opposition, says it will only participate in the conference if the Golan Heights, Syrian territory occupied by Israel since 1967, is included on the agenda. If Syria's demand is met, Damascus could use its influence over the opposition to accept a compromise on the Lebanese presidency.

Though Arab nations as a whole have agreed to show up in Annapolis on Tuesday, it is not yet certain whether Syria will be among them. Thus, the Annapolis conference could end up having a greater impact on keeping the peace in Lebanon than on reaching peace between Israel and the Palestinians.