Prime Minister Fuad Saniora assured his country Saturday that the military was in control of the streets while lawmakers struggled to overcome a political crisis that has left the country without a president.
The army made clear it will stay out of politics, emerging as the country’s best hope for stability.
Beirut remained calm Saturday and shops opened for business following a tumultuous day that intensified fears of street violence between supporters of Saniora’s U.S.-backed government and the opposition led by the Shiite militant group Hezbollah and backed by Syria and Iran.
After months of trying, the two rival camps were unable to agree on a compromise candidate to succeed pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud who stepped down Friday night, leaving a political vacuum.
In his first comments since Lahoud left office, Saniora defended his government, saying it will continue to function according to the constitution. In the absence of a president, Saniora’s cabinet, which the opposition considers illegitimate, takes executive power under the constitution.
“Our main goal in the coming stage, which we hope will not take longer than few days, will be to exert all possible efforts ... to end this situation as soon as possible,” said Saniora.
He dismissed a declaration by Lahoud, who before departing the presidential palace at midnight Friday said the country was in a “state of emergency” and he was handing over security powers to the army.
“There is no state of emergency, and there is no need for that,” Saniora said. “There is absolutely no need for any Lebanese to be concerned about the security situation. The army is doing its work and is in full control of the situation on the ground.”
Party tries to end Syria dominance
The departure of Lahoud, a staunch ally of Syria during his nine years in office, was a long-sought goal of the government installed by parliament’s anti-Syria majority. The government has been trying to put one of its own in the post and seal the end of Syrian dominance of Lebanon.
International pressure and mass protests after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in 2005 after 29 years. Many in Lebanon blamed Syria for Hariri’s killing but Syria denied it.
Hezbollah and its opposition allies have been able to stymie the government’s hopes by repeatedly boycotting parliamentary votes for a new president, as they did Friday afternoon, leaving it without the required quorum.
Pro-government Christian leader Samir Geagea accused Syrian-backed Hezbollah of obstructing the election.
“We will not let Syria control again Lebanese politics no matter what happens,” he warned at a news conference.
Opposition Christian politician Michel Aoun warned against the cabinet taking over the role of the presidency.
The fight has put Lebanon into dangerous and unknown territory. Both sides are locked in bitter recriminations, accusing the other of breaking the constitution, and they are nowhere near a compromise candidate.
Army has kept nation together
So far, the 56,000-member military has successfully kept this tiny, fractious country together, surviving one crisis after another since the February 2005 assassination of Hariri.
On Saturday, army chief of staff Maj. Gen. Shawki al-Masri visited the Presidential Guards at Baabda Palace near Beirut and said the army command will strengthen security measures when needed as it “did in the past years.”
The army will face a tough challenge maintaining the peace in the coming days and weeks amid the sectarian-charged atmosphere and persistent reports of proliferation of small arms among individuals and political parties.
In the past two years, the army has emerged as a neutral force, protecting and separating pro- and anti-Syrian groups and maintaining order during angry protests and funerals. In January, the army imposed a curfew to quell Shiite-Sunni clashes that killed 11 people.
Army commander Gen. Michel Suleiman has ordered his soldiers to ignore politics and “listen to the call of duty.”
But the open-ended political crisis raises the question of how long the under-armed and over-stretched army can continue to hold.
Experts say the army will be united unless Lebanon endures major sectarian violence — especially fighting between Sunni and Shiite Muslims — over an extended period.
“Then it will start to fracture,” said retired Lebanese army general Elias Hanna.
He said the conditions today are different from those at the onset of the 1975-90 civil war, which pitted Christians against Muslims and saw the military splinter along sectarian lines. Unlike then, Lebanon political tensions are now fractionalized more along Sunni-Shiite lines, with Christians divided.