Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora sought yesterday to calm mounting worries over the power vacuum intensifying Lebanon's yearlong political turmoil and pledged to work for a compromise president.
In his first comments since President Emile Lahoud stepped down without a successor, Saniora defended his government, saying it will continue to function according to the constitution.
"Our main goal in the coming stage, which we hope will not take longer than a few days, will be to exert all possible efforts ... to end this situation as soon as possible," Saniora said.
He spoke after a meeting with Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, the head of the influential Maronite Catholic Church yesterday. Under Lebanon's division of power, the presidency is held by a Maronite, and mediators had sought Sfeir's help in finding a figure for the presidency who would be acceptable to all sides.
Saniora dismissed a declaration by Lahoud before departing the presidential palace at midnight on Friday in which he handed over security powers to the army, saying the country is in a "state of emergency."
"There is no state of emergency, and there is no need for that. The army is doing its part in tandem with the other security forces," he 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" he said.
The capital was calm and shops opened for business yesterday as the nation awoke without a president, following a tumultuous day that intensified fears of street violence between supporters of Saniora's pro-Western government and the pro-Syrian opposition led by the militant group Hezbollah.
"Lahoud's term ends in a republic without a president," read the headline of Lebanon's leading An-Nahar newspaper. Another daily, Al-Balad, printed an empty photo frame on its front page, symbolizing the political vacuum.
The departure of Lahoud, a staunch ally of the Syrian regime during his nine years in office, was a long-sought goal of the government installed by the parliament's anti-Syria majority, which has been trying to put one of its own in the presidency.
Hezbollah and other opposition groups have blocked legislators from electing a new president by boycotting ballot sessions.
The fight has put Lebanon into dangerous, unknown territory: Both sides are locked in bitter recriminations, accusing the other of violating the Constitution, and they are nowhere near a compromise on a candidate to become head of state.
In the absence of a president, Saniora's government, which the opposition considers to be illegal, takes executive power under the Constitution. Saniora sought to ease Christian concerns at having their top position in the government vacant, saying "nobody can take the place of the president."
The army command refused to comment on the developments. Military chief General Michel Suleiman, has sought to remain neutral in the political chaos, and Lahoud's statement did not give it political powers.