Lebanon's reluctant but dutiful premier

IN most countries, politicians long to become prime minister. In Lebanon, Prime Minister Selim Hoss views his recent appointment as more of a curse than a privilege. ``I announced my resignation from this government twice in three years,'' Mr. Hoss pointed out during an interview in his west Beirut home. ``In both cases, I was dragged back. I am not free to go. I did not want the premiership, I did not want it at all.''

It is hard to blame Hoss for his reluctance to head Lebanon's fractured Cabinet. His reappointment to the premiership came after the last prime minister, Rashid Karami, was assassinated on June 1.

A scholarly-looking man with an infectious laugh, Hoss was trained as an economist and worked in private banking until he was appointed prime minister for the first time in 1976. Hoss is a Sunni Muslim, and he has no militia to protect him or to add muscle to his calls to reform Lebanon's ``confessional'' political system, which distributes government posts among communities on the basis of religion. There has been more than one attempt on Hoss's life in Lebanon's 12-year civil war. A 1984 attack killed his driver and two bystanders, but left Hoss unharmed.

Today, his apartment is encased in steel mesh designed to deflect shells, and his windows are made of one-way glass to prevent potential assassins from aiming at him from neighboring buildings. Hoss, who also serves as education minister, foreign minister, and labor minister, runs all four ministries almost entirely from his apartment. He rarely ventures outside and then only on unannounced trips in heavily guarded motorcades.

Hoss takes on the premiership at a time when the full Cabinet has not met for 16 months, some 7,000 Syrian troops are the only force maintaining order in mostly Muslim west Beirut, the government deficit is staggering, and the Lebanese pound is selling at a record low of 135 to the US dollar. The Lebanese people are scrounging for food in the streets, tension is on the rise again between the western (Muslim) and eastern (Christian) sections of Beirut, and inflation is rampant.

Small wonder, then, that even the perenially optimistic Hoss despairs of being able to pull Lebanon back together.

``Lebanon's crisis has become self-perpetuating,'' Hoss says. ``It has formed into an entity all its own. It has its institutions, its generation, its manners, and values. There are the militias, the illegal radio stations, illegal television stations, illegal taxes - these are the institutions of the crisis. When I grew up..., it was unimaginable that someone who liked your car would simply take it, that someone who liked your apartment would break in and squat in it. That happens all the time now.''

Mr. Karami's killing deepened Lebanon's ongoing political crisis and raised suspicions about the Lebanese Army, Hoss says. He has been among the most vocal Sunni leaders demanding that Christian President Amin Gemayel purge the Army of those who allowed a bomb to be planted on the helicopter carrying Karami. The helicopter took off from a military base and flew through Christian-held territory. Rightist Christians were open critics of Karami and had been urging Mr. Gemayel to accept Karami's resignation from the premiership.

``Karami's assassination created a problem which is insurmountable,'' Hoss says. ``There is no measure you can consider to rebuild the state or weld together the two parts of Beirut without a direct, effective role for the Army. Now that the assassination has been perpetrated in the lap of the Army, you just can't talk about a role for the Army unless the Army is purged.''

Syrian-sponsored talks among leaders of the various Muslim factions seeking a way out of Lebanon's seemingly endless crisis stalled after Karami's assassination and will not be resumed until someone is punished for the murder, Hoss says.

He acknowledges that past political assassinations or attempted assassinations in Lebanon almost always have gone unpunished, but insists that public feeling about the Karami killing is so high that ``if you want the Army, you have to purge it. If you don't purge it, there is no solution for Lebanon.''

The insistent Muslim demand that someone in the Christian-dominated Army be held accountable for Karami's death puts beleaguered President Gemayel in a difficult position. To meet that demand could mean infuriating his own power base - the Army and the Christian militias that dominate east Beirut. The President's response until now has been to await the result of two military investigations and one judicial inquiry.

Asked how long he would be willing to serve as prime minister under the circumstances, Hoss says he hopes his tenure ``will be as short as possible.'' Until Karami's murder is solved, Hoss says, ``there won't be any Cabinet meetings.'' In the meantime, he will continue to preside over a nonfunctioning Cabinet in a crumbling nation.

``I don't think about assassination,'' he says in response to a question. ``Why do you remind me?'' he jokes.

Then, more soberly, he acknowledges that the risks he is taking ``are a nightmare for my family. But what can you do? I do this out of a sense of public responsibility. You can't just let the country go down the drain.''

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