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Lebanon's Political Stalemate Lingers


Since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, February 14, Lebanon has been in political turmoil, with massive street protests, no working government and a series of bomb attacks in predominantly Christian neighborhoods. A lingering political stalemate could threaten general elections, due in May.

Lebanon's political leaders have been talking - either directly or through envoys - but, so far, without concrete results.

Prime Minister Omar Karami has called for a unity government and threatened to resign again, if he is unable to form one. Opposition leaders are still rejecting his offer and saying he should get on with organizing elections to be held on time.

The government and its supporters argue that the opposition is jeopardizing the upcoming elections by refusing to join a Karami government that could then prepare the vote.

Opposition lawmaker Samir Franjieh rejects that notion.

"This is not true. They can form the government they want," he said. "They have the majority in the parliament. And, they have to assume their responsibility. What we want is a democratic and free election."

Opposition politicians and many average Lebanese blame Syria and the pro-Syrian Lebanese government for Mr. Hariri's assassination - an accusation both authorities have denied.

Emile Lahoud
The opposition has backed away from initial demands for pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud to resign. But, Mr. Franjieh told VOA there are still other demands, including the resignation of senior security chiefs and uncovering the truth about Mr. Hariri's death.

"We want an international investigation," he said. "We want the withdrawal of the Syrian troops. We want also the real democratic possibility to speak - our basic rights."

The just released United Nations report on the Hariri assassination is likely to embolden the opposition to press its demands. The report calls for a full international inquiry and accuses the Lebanese authorities of negligence and the Syrians of having at least indirectly contributed to the death of the popular former prime minister.

Lebanon's Shi'ite Hezbollah faction prefers to be seen as staying out of the fray, but has met with both sides of the political divide. Sheikh Mohammed Katharani is a member of Hezbollah's political bureau and tells VOA the politicians are being stubborn.

Sheikh Katharani says, in particular, the opposition's refusal to sit at the "roundtable of negotiations" and to form a national unity government is creating a political void and could lead the country to a catastrophe.

There are increasing concerns about the lingering political crisis and fears of instability, especially should the elections not take place on time or be flawed.

Political analyst, Professor Sami Baroudi of Beirut's Lebanese American University, says the current stalemate is serious.

"Any postponing of the election will definitely add fuel to the political situation," he said. "And, equally important, the economy may not be able to handle this lengthy period of waiting, uncertainty and not knowing the direction in which the country is heading."

But, Professor Baroudi says the government should be careful about blaming the opposition for any postponement because that could backfire.

"Everyone will basically say you [the government] are not holding the election because you're afraid about losing power," he said. "So, they [the government] are really in a weak position. They know that if they hold the election according to schedule, they're going to lose many, many seats in parliament. How many, we don't know. And, at the same time, postponing the election will definitely further undermine the legitimacy of the existing regime. So, they are in a quandary."

Behind the scenes, there has been some political haggling. Christian factions want some of their former leaders released from prison or returned from exile. Hezbollah has gotten assurances from a prominent Druze leader that the opposition will not push for the militant Islamic group to be disarmed - at least not at this time.