Syria's Thumb on Lebanon Puts A Squeeze on the People's Choice

Many Lebanese would dump President Hrawi. But Syria wants him in place to cut a deal with Israel

IN a country where decisionmakers solved their quarrels over the barrel of a gun for much of a 16-year civil war, many hoped that this year's presidential election would provide a chance for democracy to reassert itself.

But this fragile democracy is proving to be no match for Syrian intervention. Syria has maintained a large military presence in Lebanon since 1990, when it ousted Prime Minister Gen. Michel Aoun. Since then, it has been seen to control Lebanon with an iron grip.

Neither the public nor the majority of political leaders want to see President Elias Hrawi - elected in 1989 as a compromise candidate following months of warfare between Syria and Army commander Aoun - remain in office.

Despite the overwhelming disenchantment with Mr. Hrawi, Lebanon's parliament, feeling the heat from Syria, is preparing to change the Constitution on Thursday to extend Hrawi's term for another three years.

Although the 1989 agreement that put an end to Lebanon's civil war forbids reelection of any president, few feel the courage to stand up to Syria.

Syria worries that a new president may be too independent, and may not allow Syria to negotiate on Lebanon's behalf for a peace agreement with Israel.

"The potential fate of Mr. Hrawi," argues Mohammed Mishmoushi, editor of the pro-Syrian daily al-Saffir, "is definitely linked to the peace process between Syria and Israel. If there is no progress toward agreement between Syria and Israel, Syria will undoubtedly want to keep Hrawi in place because he is considered a faithful ally."

Growls of disappointment were audible from several candidates - ready to put their names before the 129-member Lebanese parliament - after Syrian President Hafez al-Assad said last Wednesday that an "accord exists among Lebanon's leaders to prolong Hrawi's term."

Syria's Army keeps Lebanese in line

"Lebanon has no government," grumbles former Christian member of parliament Albert Moukheiber, a man widely respected for his probity. "All the politicians are constantly being summoned to Damascus to be told what to do. Nothing is decided in Beirut anymore.

Mr. Moukheiber, who recently formed an unofficial opposition movement to the government, insists that Lebanon will remain subservient to Syria as long as it is permitted to keep its 35,000-strong Army on Lebanese soil.

But Lebanese politicians bristle at the idea of being told what to do. An anonymous survey of parliament members in the influential Beirut daily al-Nahar showed that a majority remains opposed to the idea of renewing Hrawi's mandate - should the vote be kept secret. But therein lies the catch: Syria seems to have convinced parliament speaker Nabih Berri to forgo a secret vote.

Syria's rubber stamp

Adding to the political upset, Brig. Gen. Ghazi Kenaan, head of the Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon, reportedly said - in remarks leaked to the Beirut press - that Lebanon's parliament was forced to rubber-stamp an extension of Hrawi's term in office.

While the news came as no surprise to the general public, the brutal frankness of the remarks reminded Lebanese that they still have little say in running their own country.

"Outside meddling in Lebanese elections is not unusual," says Nizar Hamze, chairman of the political science department at the American University of Beirut. "This year Syria seems set to be the main outside force in our presidential election, but in previous years, Egypt, France, and the United States have all played roles in determining the outcome of Lebanese elections."

Lebanese politicians risk being discredited even further should they extend Hrawi's mandate in defiance of public opinion.

A sense of anger is building among the public as the economy stagnates and corruption flourishes. The failure of reconstruction schemes to improve living conditions, and a growing malaise among Christians who feel left out of a political process dominated by Syria, also contribute to this feeling.

A recent opinion poll in al-Saffir newspaper revealed that a majority of Lebanese of all political and religious backgrounds preferred the election of Army commander Emile Lahoud, suggesting that after years of war and chaos, most yearn for a strong, independent candidate who appears to be apolitical.

Although the poll also revealed Hrawi to be unpopular with both Christians and Muslims, Christians were decidedly more intransigent in their demands to oust him. Maronite Christians - who dominated Lebanese politics from 1943 until war broke out in 1975 - are especially hostile to the pro-Syrian Hrawi, a Maronite.

The largest Christian political organization, the mostly Maronite Kataeb Party, has boycotted the political process since parliamentary elections in 1992. Its leader, George Saade, remains opposed to extending Hrawi's term. "The Lebanese public will not stand for the renewal of Hrawi's mandate," he insists.

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