Security high for Lebanon president vote

Anti-Syrian lawmakers rattled by last week’s assassination of one of their colleagues took refuge in a heavily guarded hotel Monday, a day before the deeply divided parliament convenes to elect a president. 

Security forces put together an elaborate plan sealing off downtown Beirut to allow the lawmakers to move safely Tuesday from the hotel to the parliament building a half-mile away. 

Fears of an attack were high after Thursday’s slaying of pro-government lawmaker Antoine Ghanem. It fueled accusations by government supporters that Syria is targeting members of the ruling coalition, a claim denied by Damascus. 

Even without the tensions, the attempt to choose a successor to President Emile Lahoud by the time he steps down Nov. 24 was expected to be a struggle between the anti-Syrian government coalition, led by U.S.-backed Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, and the opposition, led by Hezbollah, an ally of Syria and Iran. 

The ruling coalition is eager to install one of its own to replace the pro-Syrian Lahoud, but the opposition has vowed to prevent that. Tuesday’s session, the first in the process, is unlikely to yield any results. The opposition is expected to boycott, denying the necessary two-thirds quorum. 

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who is aligned with the opposition, pressed ahead with his efforts to find a compromise. On Monday, he met with Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, the influential spiritual head of the Maronite Catholic minority. Under Lebanon’s sectarian-based political system, the president must be a Maronite. 

Berri told reporters afterward he was optimistic Lebanon would have a consensus president by Nov. 24. He said Ghanem’s assassination was a motivation for all “to reach a solution acceptable to everybody.” 

The Lebanese opposition says Ghanem’s assassination was intended to scuttle attempts to reach a compromise on the presidency. 

But government supporters accuse Syria of seeking to end the ruling coalition’s small majority in the 128-seat parliament — 68 seats to the opposition’s 59 — by killing off lawmakers. They warn of a “new war” by Syria to undermine Lebanon. 

Syria has denied any involvement in the car bombing of Ghanem on a Beirut street or in seven previous assassinations of pro-government politicians since 2005, including that of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. 

At least 40 pro-government lawmakers have moved into the landmark Phoenicia Hotel, which is surrounded by concrete blocks and security forces. Two police armored vehicles were posted on intersections across from the Phoenicia on Monday. 

Under a security plan starting Tuesday morning, the downtown area around parliament is to be sealed off to unauthorized vehicles, restaurants closed and traffic diverted to other roads. Security forces will ferry lawmakers between parliament and the hotel. 

Others will protect lawmakers coming from the airport, returning from other countries where they have gone for their safety, Michel Pharaoun, minister for parliamentary affairs, told Voice of Lebanon radio. 

If quorum is not reached, Berri was likely to set another session after the Islamic Eid al-Fitr holiday, which ends the holy month of Ramadan in mid-October, to allow both sides to try to reach a compromise. 

The stakes are high: Failure to compromise could create a power vacuum leading to more political chaos. 

The president, who is elected for one six-year term, has limited powers, but the post is seen as a uniting institution. 

The ruling coalition has threatened to just elect a president of their own with a simple majority, eager to install an anti-Syrian candidate and end one of the vestiges of Damascus’ decades-long political control of its smaller neighbor. Hezbollah and its allies have warned that they would not recognize a candidate elected in their absence and could elect a rival president. 

If the parliament cannot elect a president by Nov. 24, Saniora and his Cabinet would automatically take on executive powers. Some in the opposition have threatened that this could lead them to back another government they are urging Lahoud to appoint before he leaves office. 

That could result in two rival administrations, as occurred in the last two years of Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war, when army units loyal to two governments fought it out. 


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