Lebanon: The standoff continues

03 March 2006

t's tough at the top. Ensconced in the Baabda palace in Beirut, Lebanese President Lahoud faces growing calls for his resignation. Nothing new, perhaps - a similar clamour was heard back in September 2004 when Damascus successfully engineered a parliamentary vote granting the pro-Syrian Lahoud a three-year extension to his term. But this time the president finds himself isolated, and the voices outside the gate are getting louder.

The latest showdown came on 14 February, when hundreds of thousands of anti-Syrian demonstrators flooded Martyrs' Square in Beirut to commemorate the assassination a year ago of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. Tensions are running high. In the last year, Beirut has suffered at least 16 bomb attacks, including three assassinations. Several attacks have targeted pro-independence campaigners, but the bombers and their motives still remain unclear.

Leading the recent demonstration was the 14 March coalition, a mixed bag of politicians that includes Walid Jumblatt, head of the Progressive Socialist Party, Saad Hariri, son of the murdered prime minister and leader of the Future Movement, and Samir Geagea - former leader of the Lebanese Forces released from prison in August.

The politicians in the anti-Syrian coalition make for strange bedfellows. 'Geagea and Jumblatt were bitter enemies during the civil war but now they appear to share a common interest,' says a diplomatic source in Beirut. Lahoud for his part has accused his opponents of political opportunism and stoking sectarian tensions, adding that 'foreign powers allied to Israel' are behind the calls to oust him.

The coalition is seeking a constitutional amendment that would enable parliament to shorten the president's tenure, and it has given Lahoud until 14 March to step down. The date is significant - it was on this day in 2005, a month after the Valentine's Day assassination, that the 'Cedar Revolution' began to take root, with huge protests against Damascus' interference in Lebanese affairs leading to a withdrawal of Syrian forces in April.

But the campaign already faces an uphill struggle. 'There's no precedent for this,' says Oussama Safa, director of the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies. 'Lahoud's mandate runs until the end of 2007 - the constitutional text they are preparing will need an absolute majority, which right now they do not have.'

And even if the campaign were to prove successful, finding an alternative to Lahoud will prove difficult. One possible but highly contentious candidate is former civil war general Michel Aoun, who returned from exile in May last year following Damascus' withdrawal. Aoun joined forces with Hezbollah during the elections and can count on support from the army. 'It is possible that Aoun could become president, but I doubt whether Jumblatt, Hariri or Geagea would support him,' says the source.

External playersWhoever the new candidate might be, the role of international and regional powers in the evolving domestic political scene looks set to continue. On 23 February, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a surprise visit to Beirut as part of her five-day tour of the region. Pointedly, Rice met Prime Minister Fouad Siniora but not Lahoud. In an interview with a local news station, Rice piled on the pressure. 'The presidency should look for an independent Lebanon and not one that remembers foreign occupations and foreign interventions that were deeply rooted with the security forces,' she said.

For some, Rice's comments do not go far enough. 'What she [Rice] said was too little, too late,' says Safa. 'Most people want to go much further. The situation now is one of total paralysis - people just want to remove him [Lahoud]. The speeches at the Hariri demonstration showed just how far things have gone.'

Washington is still treading carefully, however. On her trip, Rice did not push for the immediate implementation of UN resol

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