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Lebanese Cabinet Votes to Extend President's Term in Office - 2004-08-28

Lebanon's Cabinet voted Saturday to amend the country's constitution to permit President Emile Lahoud to stay in office for three more years after his present term ends. The move faces strong opposition from numerous political and religious quarters.

A political storm is brewing in Beirut, in the wake of the Lebanese Cabinet's decision.

The country's parliament, which ultimately elects the president, still must ratify the decision, but experts say it is likely to pass because of strong support from Syria, the major powerbroker in the region.

Syrian President Bashar al Assad met with Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri on Thursday, and signaled Damascus's desire to keep President Lahoud in office for three more years.

Lebanon's current constitution does not permit a president to be re-elected, but the previous president also won a one-time constitutional amendment to renew his term in 1995, following Syrian intervention.

Jibrane Tueni, editor of Beirut's influential An Nahar Newspaper, sharply denounces the Cabinet decision to amend the constitution.

"What is happening, I think, is that they are trying to kidnap, to kill, to assassinate democracy in Lebanon," Mr. Tueni said. "They were trying to kidnap the Lebanese constitution, which is the only constitution in the Arab world, which respects democracy."

Numerous Christian political leaders also are unhappy with President Lahoud's policies, and especially his close ties with Syria.

Dory Chamoun, son of former Lebanese President Camille Chamoun and the head of the country's National Liberal Party, criticized Syria's perceived role in the decision.

"There was a sort of coup d'etat that was committed under the instigation of the Syrians," he said. "What happened today in the Council of Ministers is something, which is unconstitutional. They have no right to do it the way it's being done, and this is the whole story."

Mr. Chamoun claims that the prime minister backed down in the face of Syrian pressure.

"The Syrians have given their orders and the prime minister couldn't resist the Syrian orders, and he had to back down and to send the motion to the parliament," he said.

President Emile Lahoud, in office since 1997, is a staunch ally of Syria and is often criticized for adhering too closely to official Syrian positions.

Under terms of the constitution, Lebanon's parliament must meet between September 24 and October 24, to elect the president.