Lebanon has lurched closer toward partition and the collapse of its national institutions with the failure of its Parliament yesterday to elect a new Speaker. ``Let us stop kidding the people,'' said the oldest surviving deputy, Kazem al-Khalil. ``The country is now finished. We have no institutions left in Lebanon. The house is collapsing around us, and we are arguing over the furniture.''
In September, Lebanon's Christian and Muslim members of Parliament were unable to elect a new president. That led to the formation of two rival governments. Now, the office of Speaker - the country's second-ranking official post - is also the subject of dispute.
This amounts to the worst internal political crisis since independence in 1943.
The Parliament was the only major national forum where Christian and Muslim leaders continued to meet and cooperate. It was thus seen as a vital symbol of national unity. Its paralysis is regarded as particularly worrisome because it is the Parliament which must fill the now-vacant presidency.
As with three fruitless presidential election sessions of Parliament, the attempt yesterday to elect a Speaker - or, more likely, to re-elect incumbent Hussein al-Husseini - was foiled when Christian deputies from east Beirut failed to show.
Only 26 deputies, all from mainly Muslim west Beirut and other Syrian-controlled parts of the country, attended, well short of a quorum of 39.
Those who did turn up asserted that Mr. Husseini should continue in office until it is possible to hold an election. But that move had already been challenged by the Christian hard-liners, who argued it was illegal and that the office should pass temporarily to the oldest legislator.
The ostensible reason for the Christian boycott was that Husseini had insisted on holding it at the previously disused old parliament building in Najmeh Square, just on the Muslim, Syrian-controlled side of the Beirut confrontation line.
The Christians argued that it was unsafe for them to travel there. But they also made it clear that they were disinclined to go out of their way to elect a Speaker - by tradition, a post held by a Shiite Muslim - when the Presidency had been allowed to fall vacant. The President is always a Maronite Christian.
Senior Christian leaders warned last month that if the unresolved presidential crisis was followed by a parliamentary split, the process of partition might soon become difficult to reverse.
Some Beirut analysts do not believe the process of partition is yet irreversible - provided the underlying problem can be resolved without much delay. They see that as the continuing rift between the Syrians, whose troops control nearly 80 percent of the country, and the defiant East Beirut Christians.
Despite intensive mediation activity by US and European diplomats, however, there is no sign of a thaw between Syria and the hard-line Christians, now headed by the military Prime Minister and Army Commander, Gen. Michel Aoun.
Obsevers say a major source of concern for the Syrians has been the evidence of growing ties between the East Beirut Christians and Iraq, Syria's main Arab adversaries.
Baghdad last week became the first Arab state to grant formal recognition to General Aoun's government.