Lebanon's hard-line Christian leaders have once again demonstrated their defiance of Syria's political intervention. A Christian-urged boycott of parliament yesterday foiled an attempt by Syrian-backed Suleiman Franjieh, also a Christian and a former President, to gain another term in office. The session was abandoned after the required quorum of 51 members failed to show up.
The ensuing charges of Christian intimidation and Syrian meddling highlight the deep suspicion between, and within, Lebanon's Christian and Muslim, communities. Now in their 14th year of civil war, many Lebanese have bitter memories of Mr. Franjieh's first presidency, from 1970 to 1976. His incumbency, which saw the first two years of civil war, was regarded as so disastrous that parliament voted him out of office.
``Let them bring anyone, but not him - he'll just make things worse,'' says a cab driver in Christian east Beirut.
``If Franjieh comes, [Syrian President] Hafez Assad comes,'' an office worker said.
It was in 1976 that Syrian forces entered Lebanon and forcibly restored some semblance of order. Currently, Syrian troops control Beirut's mainly Muslim western and southern quarters, as well as eastern and northern Lebanon.
Christian leaders in east Beirut regard Franjieh as so closely allied to Damascus that he would threaten Lebanon's independence and the identity of its Christian community.
Samir Geagea, commander of the powerful Christian militia, the Lebanese Forces, expects an ``accord candidate'' to emerge after intensive consultations over the next few days.
Preceding months had witnessed intensive preparations - with American diplomats playing an important role mediating across the gap dividing the Christians from Damascus and the Muslim leadership of West Beirut.
Lebanese Forces and Christian political leaders in East Beirut say they had assurances from US mediators, including Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy, that the presidency would go to a ``consensus candidate,'' and that Syria would not try to impose its own man. Mr. Murphy visited Beirut and Damascus two weeks ago.
Response to yesterday's aborted vote may depend on how strongly Syria feels its role as Lebanon's powerbroker is being threatened, observers say. Opinion here is divided over how serious Syria is about backing Franjieh's bid for the presidency. Some see it as a maneuver in preparation for falling back on a more acceptable candidate. (By constitutional tradition, the President of Lebanon is always a Maronite Christian, while the Prime Minister is a Sunni Muslim.)
Some well-placed Lebanese observers believe that Syria's stance in Lebanon had been unsettled by fast-moving regional changes, notably the sudden decision by its ally, Iran, to call an end to the Gulf war, and Jordan's decision to shift full responsibility for the Palestinian question to the Palestine Liberation Organization. Syria has long vied for a controlling voice in Palestinian affairs.
``Having lost two important cards - the Gulf and the Palestinians - Damascus may have felt the need to attempt a stronger grip on Lebanon,'' said one source. ``They are also deeply worried about possible hostility from Iraq, now that the Gulf war is ending. They may feel that the Americans are taking them less seriously too, after the recent regional changes.''
The Lebanese Forces and other Christian political leaders in east Beirut accuse the Syrians of applying threats and pressures to persuade lawmakers from Syrian-controlled areas to attend yesterday's vote for Franjieh.
In turn, some of the 38 members who did turn up accused the Lebanese Forces of intimidating parliamentarians into staying away. Interior Minister Abdullah Rasi, a Christian allied with Mr. Franjieh, said the militia had detained at least two parliamentarians at its military headquarters. And eyewitnesses said the house of at least one other had been surrounded by militiamen.
If the tenacious northern warlord insists on his candidacy, Lebanon's political crisis could be further protracted. President Amin Gemayel's term of office is due to end on Sept. 23.