Something has to give if Lebanon is to prevent the current crisis of having two rival governments from turning into permanent partition of the country. The crisis was created when outgoing President Amin Gemayel formed a new Christian-led Cabinet Thursday to serve as a transition government until the divided parliament could agree on a new president. Lebanon already had a Cabinet led by a Muslim acting premier, and the two are now vying for control of government ministries.
Despite the lurch towards partition, the chances of bridging the gap between Christian and Muslim factions are not being ruled out.
Political analysts say a solution depends on breaking the deadlock between Syria, the power broker in Lebanon, and the defiant Christians of east Beirut. Either must be willing to agree to a presidential candidate acceptable to the other.
Gen. Michel Aoun, prime minister in the new Cabinet, said on Saturday that he plans to send an envoy to Damascus to put his case to the Syrians.
``We are not a military regime,'' he said. ``We are a transitional government, with a mission to smooth the way for the election of a new president. I have no designs on power.''
Surprisingly perhaps, Damascus itself has not yet committed itself to a position of high-profile hostility towards General Aoun's caretaker government, apparently preferring to keep all of its options open.
In the past, Aoun is believed to have had good if discreet relations with the Syrians, as well as enjoying support from the United States.
There are also hopes in Beirut that American diplomats may soon resume their mediation efforts between Damascus and the Christians in east Beirut, despite their earlier failure.
Meanwhile, Lebanon's rival governments are going their own ways. The Lebanese bureaucracy has been thrown into confusion by conflicting orders and warnings issued by the competing administrations.
Particularly exposed to this tug-of-war is the foreign ministry, whose officials are being ordered to put the cases of both governments. So far, they seem to have attempted to comply with both sets of instructions.
Even more in the firing line are the Central Bank and the Ministry of Finance, which have to fund government purchases and expenses.
The Central Bank is located in west Beirut, and is believed to hold some 70 percent of the country's gold reserves. It is not yet clear how it whether it can resist pressures to be used as a weapon in the battle for control, and officials are both anxious and confused.
By unwritten constitution, Lebanon's president is a Maronite Christian, and the prime minister a Sunni Muslim. Hard-line Christian leaders in east Beirut admit they refused to let Gemayel hand his powers to a Cabinet headed by a Muslim who, they say, is under constant pressure from the Syrians. Syrian troops control the east and north of the country, as well as west and south Beirut.
The parliamentary deadlock over the election of a new president was based on the same Christian suspicion of Syrian intentions. The hard-liners in east Beirut, with the Lebanese Forces militia chief, Samir Geagea, to the fore, accused the Syrians of trying to impose one of two presidential candidates - former president Suleiman Franjieh, or Christian parliamentarian Mikhail Daher - on the country.
But Mr. Geagea now believes that the current situation may in fact spur a solution.
``The supposedly magic date of Sept. 23 [when Gemayel's term expired] has come and gone without a new president, but nothing has really changed,'' he said in an interview.
Geagea added: ``They tried to use the partition scare to put pressure on us. But Lebanon has been partitioned for 15 years between areas free of foreign influence, like east Beirut, and those occupied by the Syrians. What greater partition could there be?''
``All that has happened is that things have become clearer now. I think the time and situation have become more suitable for new negotiations aimed at a realistic and serious solution this time - not one based on Franjieh or Daher,'' he said. ``The best way at present is the resumption of US-Syrian contacts. I hope that in the very near future, a new president will be elected.''
On the other side of town, the Muslim prime minister, Dr. Hoss, also hopes for an early solution involving the election of a new president and formation of a unified government.
``What has happened does not mean partition,'' he said. ``We believe in the unity of Lebanon, and we are going to do everything we can to preserve it. Our government is a caretaker for a limited period of time until the elections are conducted. We hope it won't be long before this is achieved.''
``We are avoiding any major decisions, such as introducing new members into our Cabinet [to compensate for three Christian ministers who pulled out], because we are hoping that this very peculiar situation will not last for long,'' he said in an interview.