Lebanon: Security stepped up as election prospects dim

Tensions in Beirut rise as presidential elections face another delay.

lahoud 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
lahoud 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Extra army and police troops were sent to the Lebanese capital Tuesday to guard key roads and government sites as prospects appeared to dim that the country's embattled parliament would convene to elect a new president. Meanwhile, France's foreign minister and the Arab League chief continued their mediation here, meeting separately with leaders of the US-backed government and Syrian- and Iranian-supported opposition. The two Lebanese sides have been deadlocked for weeks over picking the next president. Parliament was supposed to convene Wednesday to start the voting. But the session itself was unlikely to take place as the rival factions seemed entrenched in their positions, despite guarded optimism in recent days they could reach a consensus candidate for the post. Several politicians and newspapers predicted the session would be postponed till Friday. Failure to elect a successor to President Emile Lahoud, whose mandate ends Friday night, could worsen Lebanon's year-old political crisis and bring about a power vacuum. This in turn, could lead to the formation of two rival administrations and increase the risk of street violence. The uncertainty has worried the Lebanese, with many reportedly stocking up on food and putting daily life on hold to await the outcome of the mediation. Education Minister Khaled Kabbani said Tuesday he was mulling whether to suspend schools and universities as a precaution. "The Lebanese are confused about what's happening," he told Voice of Lebanon radio. "What should we tell them if there is no presidential election?" Army and police sent reinforcements to Beirut, where random checkpoints were set up Monday night, searching cars and inspecting travelers' documents on major intersections and the suburbs. About half of Lebanon's 4 million people live in the greater Beirut area. Security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with standing government regulations, said the military and police were put on alert and leaves were canceled. A total of 20,000 members of the security forces were covered by the security measures, 6,000 of them in Beirut itself, the official said. Also, security at government buildings was reinforced and troops were also to be sent to Central Bank offices and other institutions. Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa was downbeat Tuesday. "It is not right to despair," he said after meeting with Lahoud. "There is still hope, although there are still difficulties." In New York on Monday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern, saying he is "more cautiously optimistic" than when he visited Beirut last week. If there is no election, Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's government would take executive powers under the constitution. But Lahoud has said he would not hand over executive powers to the Cabinet since he does not recognize the Saniora's government after the resignation last year of all five Shiite Cabinet ministers. The militant Hezbollah opposition has called on Lahoud to take unspecified measures to prevent Saniora from taking power. Possible scenarios reported in the media include Lahoud handing over power to the military chiefs or even declaring a state of emergency. Army commander, Gen. Michel Suleiman, echoed the sense of urgency as he spoke to the troops ahead of Lebanon's Independence Day on Thursday and called on them to ignore the politics and "and listen to the call of duty." "Any breach of security is national treason, and every weapon turned on the (Lebanese) ... is a treacherous one," he said. "The nation is at stake and you are its defenders. Do not be lenient and do not be inactive."