A Nervous Interlude

The Lebanese Army has taken control of the nation as an impasse over Lebanon’s presidency continues. Emile Lahoud, the Syrian-backed president until his term ran out yesterday, announced a state of emergency, which Prime Minister Fouad Siniora immediately repudiated. The Army, meanwhile, has taken a low-key approach to control, and Lebanon has mostly held its collective breath:

Lebanese factions failed to reach agreement on replacing President Emile Lahoud, whose term expired at midnight Friday, leaving Lebanon without a head of state for the first time since its 1975-90 civil war. Hours before stepping down, Lahoud ordered the already mobilized army to take control of security in the country.
Despite fears of strife between the country’s camps — divided over ideology, foreign patrons and their share of power — the deadline for replacing Lahoud, a 71-year-old former general, passed peacefully, with the army deployed across the uneasy capital since morning in jeeps and armored personnel carriers. The missed deadline appeared more of a symbolic moment for a faltering state, marking yet another institution paralyzed by the year-long crisis that has already circumscribed the work of the cabinet and parliament.
Lawmakers predicted the post could remain empty for as little as a week, until the 128-member parliament meets again, or until 2009, when parliamentary elections are scheduled. “What are we waiting for now?” asked Ayyoub Hummayed, an opposition lawmaker. “Nothing too difficult. The Holy Spirit, I guess, to inspire us with a solution.”

The uncertainty got amplified by the declaration of emergency. Lahoud insisted that the country would operate under those circumstances, but Siniora countermanded the order, arguing that the parliamentary government — his office — would run Lebanon until a president was elected. The US supported that position, and it is noted in the Lebanese constitution. Article 62 reads: “Should the Presidency become vacant for any reason whatsoever, the Council of Ministers exercises the powers of the President by delegation.”
So far, however, no one wants to challenge the delicate status quo. Any move to impose one view over the other would likely result in hundreds of thousands of protestors going into the street — and perhaps the outbreak of a new civil war. The Army and the Council of Ministers want anything but that, and they will likely cooperate for as long as it takes to elect a new president. Neither side has an interest in Lebanon falling apart, as a Hezbollah MP told the Washington Post.
How long will this impasse take? It could be as short as a week, or it could take until 2009, when new parliamentary elections are scheduled. If the impasse cannot be resolved, those two years will be a very long time indeed for all parties to the standoff to retain their reasonableness. With Hezbollah creating its own internal tension and Syria, Israel, France, and the US hovering on the outside, Lebanon could easily spin into chaos and war all over again if no resolution to the present political crisis is found.