It was political theater at its finest in Lebanon Friday.
After nine years in office, President Emile Lahoud stepped down from his post at the stroke of midnight without the legislature having named a successor. In fact, parliament never convened as the opposition parties spearheaded by Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement of Michel Aoun boycotted the ballot, preventing a quorum from being called. Since election of the president requires a two-thirds majority, neither the opposition nor the ruling March 14 Coalition led by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora can push through a candidate without the other being present.
Despite the constitutional requirement that authority be handed over to the prime minister should the presidency be vacated, Lahoud refused, stating that Siniora’s administration was "illegitimate and unconstitutional. They know that, even if Bush said otherwise."
He instead declared a "state of emergency" and transferred security (but not political) powers over to the Lebanese Army under the command of Gen. Michel Suleiman. Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri set November 30 as the next date for a scheduled vote, yet tensions remained high in Beirut as checkpoints were set up and the Army positioned to keep pro-government and opposition partisans off the streets.
The political stalemate has generated anxiety over the potential outbreak of violence in the capital or the somewhat more dramatic fear that two separate, rival governments will ultimately be established in a prelude to civil war.
"We have no choice but to have a consensus," said Saad Hariri, son of the late Prime Minister Rafic Hariri and parliamentary leader of the Future Movement of the March 14 Coalition.
How fitting such a statement was issued by the master of hypocrisy and double-dealing himself. Let us not forget it was Saad Hariri who paid the way out of jail and invited the Salafi militants of Fatah al-Islam into Lebanon, whom he then sought to use as instruments against Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah and Hezbollah (which most assuredly would have ignited a civil war, were if not for his plan to miserably backfire at the expense of hundreds of Lebanese and Palestinian lives in the debacle that was Nahr al-Bared).
More surprising than the present deadlock is the fact it has not come sooner, for the confessional nature upon which the Lebanese political system is based lends itself to do just that.
Under the unwritten National Pact of 1943 (the year Lebanon gained its independence from France), it was agreed that the President of Lebanon will be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim and the Speaker of Parliament a Shia Muslim. Up until the 1989 Taif Accords there was also a slight majority of parliamentary seats allocated to Christians over Muslims. Due to a higher birthrate and subsequent Muslim majority, such an apportionment naturally engendered ill-will and was one of the factors leading up to the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War.
The Taif Accords sought to rectify this to some extent, distributing the parliamentary seats equally between Muslims and Christians (which still over represents the Christians population) and made the prime minister answerable to the legislature instead of the president.
Remarkably, there has no official census in Lebanon since 1932.
By current estimates however, the largest plurality of all the confessional groups are the Shia Muslims. Although the post of Speaker is not an insignificant one, it is felt they have never been accorded "a fair shake" by the government in proportion to their numbers, hence the huge popularity of groups like Hezbollah among them.
It was Hezbollah after all who paid for homes in southern Lebanon and the southern suburbs of Beirut to be rebuilt after last year’s war with Israel. Yes, this has done with the help of Iranian money. Nonetheless, is it not telling that a non-Arab country did more to assist the largest section of the population than did the government or other Arab countries? Are the Lebanese Shia actually supposed to trust a government which called upon Hezbollah to disarm while their towns, villages and cities were being decimated by the Israelis? Can any Lebanese have confidence in a Prime Minister who hugged and kissed Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in spite of her refusal to call for a ceasefire?
A consensus candidate in the current standoff in Lebanon is needed, no doubt. But it is also high time a new census is taken, and let numbers speak for themselves.
RANNIE AMIRI is an independent commentator on the Arab and Islamic worlds. He may be reached at: email@example.com.