Wed, Sep 01, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Syria's intervention in politics leaves Lebanese fuming


Lebanon's hothouse politics have been thrown into turmoil by Syria's insistence -- at a suddenly summoned special Cabinet meeting over the weekend -- that the president it chose for Lebanon stay in office past his constitutional term.

The outcome was not unexpected here, where Syria, with 20,000 troops still in the country, has called the final political shots since the end of the 15-year civil war in 1990. The vigorous local press has spent reams on hand-wringing analysis over the question of amending the constitution to keep President Emile Lahoud in office beyond the constitutional limit of a single six-year term, which expires in November. In the end, the result has generally been conceded to be inevitable.

The US has strongly expressed its opposition to the Syrian pressure, as has France, once the colonial power here.

But the swift and unexpected move to call the session on Saturday, which lasted only 10 minutes and approved the constitutional amendment for a three-year extension, stunned many here and provoked a widespread outcry. Parliament is expected to meet shortly to approve the extension.

"Plotted by night and carried out swiftly by day," the Maronite Christian patriarch, Cardinal Nasrallah Pierre Sfeir, a critic of the amendment, protested in his Sunday sermon. "Those directly involved were seized to express a view imposed on them and obeyed submissively."

The cardinal is the spiritual leader of the Maronites here. Under the longstanding division of political power in Lebanon, the president is a Maronite, the prime minister is a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of Parliament is a Shiite Muslim.

Much of the attention focused on the role of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a billionaire who has publicly opposed the constitutional amendment and whose long-running feud with Lahoud has often paralyzed the government.

But on Saturday, Hariri presided over the meeting and urged approval. Information Minister Michel Samaha quoted him as telling the Cabinet that "the situation in the region required special measures."

It was widely noted that Hariri's apparent change of heart came after he met Friday evening with the Syrian chief of military intelligence, Major General Rustom Ghazaleh. The intelligence chief functions as a kind of Syrian pro-consul in Lebanon.

The Druse chieftain, Walid Jumblatt -- whose three Progressive Socialist Party ministers cast the only opposing votes -- was so outraged he demanded that the memorabilia of his assassinated father, Kamal Jumblatt, be moved out of a museum at the presidential summer palace.

The leading daily An Nahar called the weekend meeting a "farce," and even the generally pro-Syrian As Safir called the decision "shocking."

The amendment needs a two-thirds majority of the 128-seat Parliament. But this does not appear likely now, given Hariri's stance.

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