Divided Christian Ranks Face Vote
LEBANON: PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS
LEBANON'S parliament met for the first time yesterday since June 1988 despite efforts by Christian Army commander Michel Aoun to dissolve parliament. Muslim and Christian deputies met at an airbase in Syrian-controlled northern Lebanon yesterday and ratified an Arab-brokered peace accord designed to end 14 years of civil war. The accord reduces the entrenched powers of the Christian minority. But the country was still without a president yesterday morning as frenzied behind-the-scenes political activity continued between parliament speaker Hussein Husseini and Lebanese Christian members of parliament in Paris. A quorum of 49 deputies is now needed to elect a president.
``We will hold the election somewhere in Lebanon before Nov. 7,'' a Christian deputy declared from Paris, in a reference to the deadline set by an Arab League accord.
Muslim deputies, hastily summoned from west Beirut Saturday to a Lebanese Army air base near the Syrian border, awaited arrival of the Christian deputies for the election to take place.
In a trial of force between the deputies and Christian Army commander Michel Aoun, who heads the interim military government, Speaker Husseini moved the site of the election from the ``green line'' dividing the Lebanese capital and controlled General Aoun's forces. This prompted Aoun to issue a decree at 4:30 a.m. Saturday dissolving parliament and plunging Lebanon into a constitutional crisis.
With Lebanon on the verge of partition and people of all faiths awaiting the outcome, political observers in both halves of the Lebanese capital contested the legality of Aoun's decision.
A majority of Christian politicians opposed the decision.
As-Safir, the left-leaning pro-Syrian Lebanese daily, quoted Muslim acting Prime Minister Selim Hoss, who heads the rival Syrian-recognized Lebanese government, as saying the dissolution was ``illegal, unconstitutional, and would be ignored.''
But well-known Lebanese deputy Raymond Edde, who opposes Syria's presence in Lebanon, declared from exile in Paris that Aoun did in fact have the right to dissolve parliament, although he only presided over an interim administration.
In Christian east Beirut Saturday, a general strike and mass demonstrations organized to defend Aoun's position galvanized 100,000 to 150,000 demonstrators. Teenagers set fire to tires at main intersections while large motorcades of supporters brandishing Aoun's picture and Lebanese flags sped through empty streets.
The Lebanese presidential election, called for in the National Reconciliation charter worked out in Taif, Saudi Arabia, last month, would put an end to Aoun's political role by theoretically reuniting the Lebanese government. Lebanon has been without a president since Amin Gemayel's term expired in September 1988.
But the danger of two Lebanese governments continuing to dispute the Constitution loomed large as Aoun called any election ``null and void.'' It would only result in the selection of a ``Syrian agent,'' he said.
The possibility of another military confrontation was also not excluded. A new government, duly elected and recognized by foreign nations could incite Syria and its militia allies to renew their siege of the Christian enclave.
One favorite in the impending presidential ballot was Phalangist Party leader and deputy George Saadeh, who also challenged the constitutionality of the dissolution. If the Phalangist Party and its military wing, the Lebanese Forces, were to recognize a new president, the move would leave Aoun even more isolated in any opposition to a new government.
The Taif agreement specifies that the Syrian Army, which comprises 33,000 troops in Lebanon, will withdraw to the Bekaa Valley two years after formation of a national unity government.
In the words of one moderate Muslim political figure in west Beirut, Syria was attempting to ``bulldoze'' the elections through, profiting from division in the Christian ranks to eliminate Aoun and settle an old score with the man who defied it.
``If Syria still clings stubbornly to Aoun's removal from the political scene,'' he said, ``it's to neutralize the general's demands for its own departure.''
``The population of west Beirut is fed up with the Syrians,'' says a young Shiite journalist. ``But the only way to get them [the Syrians] to leave is by reassuring them that no future Lebanese government will be hostile to Syria. General Aoun has done just the opposite and by doing so brought down the wrath of Syria on the Lebanese people.''