Lebanon: Once More to the Brink

Lebanon has entered a perilous and unprecedented constitutional vacuum following the departure midnight Friday of the pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud, with no elected successor. The two rival factions — the Western-backed March 14 block, which holds a thin parliamentary majority, and the pro-Syrian opposition, spearheaded by the militant Shi'ite Hizballah — are locked in a tense standoff, both waiting for the other to make the first move.

Lebanese troops and armored vehicles have deployed at key junctions in Beirut in case the tensions spill over into factional violence. "It's a very delicate moment in the country," said Sateh Noureddine, a columnist for Lebanon's As Safir daily newspaper.

The long-simmering crisis peaked Friday when parliamentarians failed to elect a new head of state to replace Lahoud due to a lack of the required quorum. Despite weeks of back-room negotiations and intense international mediation, the feuding politicians have been unable to find a suitable successor acceptable to both sides. Parliament is scheduled to convene again on November 30 for another attempt at electing a president.

With a vacuum looming, Lahoud, in a final act as president, charged the army with enforcing law and order, claiming that "risks of a state of emergency" prevailed over Lebanon. Lahoud, like the opposition, has refused to recognize the legitimacy of government since all five Shi'ite ministers walked out of the cabinet a year ago. But the office of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora swiftly responded by saying that Lahoud's move was unconstitutional and that the army would continue to follow the instructions of the government. So far, the leaders of both factions appear unwilling to risk further escalation in their dangerous game of brinkmanship.

The March 14 block has refrained from fulfilling a threat to elect a president drawn from its own ranks if no consensus candidate was found. The opposition has warned that it would not recognize a March 14 president and would consider such a move a "coup." Paul Salem, director

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