Campaign to unseat pro-Syrian president threatens to plunge Lebanon in chaos

BEIRUT — Buoyed by recent street protests, the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority is starting a big push to try to oust President Emile Lahoud, Damascus’ top ally in Lebanon. But they have limited tools — and their drive is already splitting the country and threatening to plunge it into chaos.

Although they seem to have international backing, they lack the political consensus at home — and the necessary votes in Parliament — to achieve this by their self-imposed deadline of March 14.

Lahoud, a former army commander elected by Parliament in 1998 for a six-year term, has refused to quit, saying he will stay on till the last minute of his tenure, in 2007.

He won a three-year extension of his term in 2004 under what was widely seen as Syrian pressure, and anti-Syrian groups are looking to reverse that.

Following a massive demonstration February 14, the first anniversary of the assassination of former premier Rafiq Hariri, the anti-Syrian coalition launched its campaign against Lahoud that could include strikes and street protests, and possibly a march on the presidential palace.

There are warnings of counterdemonstrations, which could lead to clashes. Lahoud on Monday warned that “security is a red line,” implicitly hinting at the use of force.

Highlighting the internal divisions, Michel Aoun, a Christian leader with a large representation in Parliament who split from the main anti-Syrian coalition, has come out forcefully against any violent overthrow of Lahoud.

“The call for street protests by the government … is a coup by one [government] institution against another institution,” he said, adding that he would hold the government responsible for any possible trouble and bloodshed.

The anti-Syrian coalition commands a slim majority in Parliament. Lacking the votes to shorten Lahoud’s term by amending the constitution, the coalition is planning two petitions in coming days that do not require a two-thirds majority: one stating that lawmakers were threatened by Syria to vote for the extension, another declaring the post vacant since the extension was illegal, then proceeding to elect a new leader.

“The issue of the presidency should be done with,” a determined Samir Geagea, one of the anti-Syrian leaders, told reporters Sunday. “It must be rescued from its current state,” the former Christian civil war militia leader added, noting that the president is isolated internationally and at home.

Anti-Syrian groups say Lahoud serves Syria’s interests, implicitly blaming him for a series of bombings and assassinations that killed three anti-Syrian figures, an accusation Lahoud rejects. Four generals, including the commander of Lahoud’s presidential guards and two of his intelligence aides, are charged with involvement in Hariri’s murder.

The anti-Syrian coalition says its cause is boosted by a 2004 UN Security Council resolution that called for presidential elections. They also point to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saying on Lebanese television last week that Lebanon would be better off with a new president who “looks to the future of Lebanon, not its past” as a nod for change.

The extension of Lahoud’s term through a constitutional amendment triggered a series of events that culminated with Hariri’s assassination. His death in a massive bombing was the catalyst for anti-Syrian protests and intensified international pressure that forced Damascus to relinquish control of Lebanon after nearly three decades.

But declaring the president illegitimate under the proposed petitions, some politicians say, could also cast a shadow on the legitimacy of the current government and the legislature, also picked under a sharply criticised Syrian era election law.

And if Lahoud refuses to budge, Lebanon could end up with two governments, as was the case during the devastating, 1975-90 Christian-Muslim civil war.

So the anti-Syrian coalition will have to win over other factions, such as Aoun’s 21-member bloc, and must have the consent of Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, the influential head of the Maronite Catholic Church. Under Lebanon’s sectarian division of power, the president should be a Maronite.

Sfeir, fearful of violence and a power vacuum that could threaten the Maronites’ hold on the post, has cautioned against removing the president through street protests and before an agreement is reached on a replacement.

“This alignment of one group against the other, as if an expected war is awaiting to be waged … does not bode well,” the widely respected patriarch said in a Sunday sermon. “It heralds imminent evil.” A group led by former premier Salim Hoss is proposing a way out: early parliamentary elections within four months, along with a pledge by the president to resign to give way for the new legislature to elect a new leader.

“This is democratic consensus, clean, constitutional and costless,” Issam Noeman, a former Cabinet minister from Hoss’ so-called “Third Force,” said on LBC TV Monday.

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