Election a tinderbox for Lebanon

Failure to choose a presidential candidate this week could result in the formation of rival governments. Also at stake: regional leverage for Syria, Iran, and the US.

Lebanon's grave political crisis peaks this week with feuding politicians in last-ditch negotiations to elect a new president, knowing that failure risks tearing the country apart.

Lebanon's parliament was scheduled to convene Wednesday to elect a new head of state. But with both camps apparently still far from a deal over a compromise candidate, the election was postponed until Friday. If no agreement is reached by midnight Friday – when the incumbent, the pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud, steps down – Lebanon faces the possibility of two rival governments being established, which many fear could result in bloodshed.

"I think we are in for an extended period of tense stalemate. There is no quick solution and that's unfortunate for Lebanon," says Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut.

Since the countdown to the presidential election began in September, Beirut has hosted a flurry of foreign diplomats and politicians seeking to mediate between the rival factions. The stakes are high, for what happens in Lebanon in the coming days will have ramifications throughout the Middle East.

If opposition wins, US will lose key toehold

Lebanon is a tiny sliver of Mediterranean real estate – two-thirds the size of Connecticut – and home to only some 4 million people. But its complex sectarian makeup and geostrategic position, wedged between enemies Syria and Israel, grants it a pivotal role in helping shape the struggle for control of the Middle East.

The Lebanese government is supported by the United States, France, and Saudi Arabia, which seek to disarm Hizbullah, the powerful Shiite party, and keep Lebanon within a pro-Western orbit – free from Syrian influence and an obstacle to Iran's regional ambitions. Also, Lebanon remains the one bright hope in the Bush administration's waning attempts to promote democracy in the Middle East.

The Lebanese opposition, spearheaded by Hizbullah, prefers to keep Lebanon aligned with Iran and Syria, distrusting US Middle East policy which it believes is fundamentally rooted in protecting Israel from its Arab foes.

If the opposition prevails, then Syria and Iran will have gained extra regional leverage at the expense of the US losing its Levantine toehold.

Writing in the pan-Arab daily Al Hayat on Saturday, columnist Mustafa Zein said that regardless of the outcome of the presidential election, Lebanon's sectarian leaders "will not relinquish their foreign commitments, which are the source of their strength in confronting one another, in war or in peace."

"Unfortunately, Lebanon will remain an arena that is open to everybody," he wrote.

In a bid to break the impasse, France has persuaded Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, the influential patriarch of the Maronite church, to submit a list of candidates from which the rival factions could select a president. Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing system decrees that the president must be a Maronite.

But neither camp is showing any sign of flexibility, to the evident frustration of French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who is in Beirut to help hammer out a deal.

"I would like to know who has an interest in chaos, who has an interest in the elections not taking place, who has an interest in making it even more complicated for the life of all the Lebanese," he told reporters Monday.

The anti-Syrian March 14 bloc, which holds a slim parliamentary majority, has warned it will elect a president from within its own ranks if the opposition refuses a compromise candidate. The opposition, however, has said that it won't recognize a March 14 president and has hinted it could set up a rival government instead, a move which would result in tumult and possibly violence.

"So we face security threats. Fine. I don't think we live in a safe country anyway. And I don't think we should lose our constitutional rights because of threats," says Mosbah Ahdab, a March 14 parliamentarian. Mr. Ahdab is one of more than 40 members of the March 14 block holed up in a heavily guarded five-star hotel in central Beirut. Four of their colleagues have been assassinated since the last parliamentary election in 2005. Visitors pass through metal detectors and are escorted to meeting rooms by bodyguards.

Hizbullah ready to act if no deal is made

Sources close to Hizbullah say that the Shiite party has been making preparations in the event that no consensus is reached, placing its cadres on high alert and drawing up contingency plans to keep main roads open between the Hizbullah-dominated southern suburbs of Beirut and Shiite areas in the south and east of Lebanon.

Ali Mokdad, a member of Hizbullah's parliamentary bloc, says he remains hopeful that a deal can be struck before the end of the week, but warned the opposition's reaction to the election of a March 14 president would be different from past antigovernment street protests.

"It will be a time for political action. The opposition will decide exactly what to do when the time comes," he says.

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