The Lebanese constitution stipulates that the president, elected by parliament every six years and by law a member of the Maronite Christian community, may not serve two consecutive terms in office (a proviso intended to prevent office-holders from using their position to secure their own reelection). However, President Emile Lahoud does not want to leave office when his term expires in November and for nearly a year his supporters have been floating the idea that Article 49 of the constitution should be amended to allow for either an extension or renewal of his term.
If Lebanese parliament members were able to vote freely, a constitutional amendment would not even be under discussion. Lahoud's archenemy, Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, has a bloc of over 40 allies in the 128-member parliament (a result of the billionaire's profligate spending in the 2000 election cycle), while another political nemesis of the president, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, has a 14-member bloc. Since a constitutional amendment allowing Lahoud to stay in office would require the support of a two-thirds majority in parliament (and a two-thirds majority in the cabinet, which Hariri's allies can also defeat), it would not have a prayer of approval unless Syria, which continues to dominate the country militarily and politically, intervenes and instructs them to vote for it.
This has happened before. Several weeks prior to the end of President Elias Hrawi's term in 1995, the head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon, Maj. Gen. Ghazi Kanaan, arrived at a party attended by most of Lebanon's political elite and flatly announced that parliament must amend the constitution and extend Hrawi's tenure by three years. Parliament obediently convened later that month and overwhelmingly approved the extension of Hrawi's term. Prior to the election of Lahoud in 1998, Syria forced again forced parliament to override the constitution, which bars officers from entering public office directly from the military (Lahoud was then army chief-of-staff).
On the surface, the willingness of Lebanon's governing elites to set aside their own preferences and implement Syrian will doesn't appear to have changed. In late June, Beirut MP Nabil de Freij, a member of Hariri's parliamentary bloc, openly acknowledged that his bloc's ultimate position on the matter depended on Damascus, which has the "last word in the elections here." Until Syria makes its choice known, however, no one really knows what the reaction will be.
While Lahoud is a strong Syrian ally, Assad has remained tight-lipped on whether he will support an extension. Asked in a May 1 interview with the Arabic satellite news channel Al-Jazeera if he supports a particular candidate for the Lebanese presidency, Assad replied carefully, "Syria will support a non-sectarian president in Lebanon, a president for all the Lebanese people." The statement was deliberately vague. Opponents of Lahoud interpreted the statement as meaning that the next president should have broad-based support. The president's supporters saw it as code for an extension, since Lahoud is, if nothing else, non-sectarian (most members of his own sect loathe him). What wasn't vague about the statement was its implication that Syria would do the choosing. In this and other interviews, Assad did not give the perfunctory "whomever the people choose" reply that heads of state typically offer when asked about foreign elections.
Assad imposed this moratorium on discussing extension because he wants to keep his options open for as long as possible - it's easier to pass off a last minute decision as an outgrowth of Lebanese consensus if members of the governing elite haven't already staked out diametrically opposed positions. While Syrian decisions on such important matters have nearly always been announced at the eleventh hour so as allow no time for Lebanese opposition to coalesce, Assad has an even more pressing reason for keeping the "Syrian card" face down for as long as possible - the United States and France both want Lahoud out, so the Syrian dictator is waiting to see what concessions he can get in return for installing a more acceptable president. The fact that Syria's need to shore up its relations with Western governments weighs more heavily on its decision than local political considerations is significant. "The wind is blowing badly for Syria," the diplomat explained, "even its Lebanese allies sense its regional weakening."
The problem with Assad's strategy has been that mainstream Christian opposition figures in Lebanon don't fully observe Syrian guidelines on political expression. Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butrous Sfeir announced early this year that he opposes amending the constitution and most members of the mainstream Qornet Shehwan Gathering soon followed. This left Lahoud and his allies in a bind - staying quiet would allow opponents of extension to monopolize the public debate. However, responding to the criticism by publicly advocating extension would risk drawing Hariri and his more numerous allies into announcing their rejection of an extension. Blowing the lid off the debate would not only anger Assad, but would work against the president politically - once a large number of parliament members have expressed opposition to an extension for Lahoud, Syria would do better to choose someone else than to intervene on his behalf without any political cover.
So, until recently, the Lahoud camp remained tight-lipped on the question of extension, focusing instead on undermining the prime minister's credibility (conventional wisdom holds that Hariri will resign if Lahoud's term is extended, so Syria's choice boils down to Hariri or Lahoud - meaning that their political struggle is basically zero-sum). Hariri's crowning economic (and diplomatic) achievement - persuading the international community to bail out the debt-ridden Lebanese government at the November 2002 Paris II conference - was tarnished when Lahoud's allies later prevented him from honoring the conditions (primarily privatization) of the loan. In recent months, Lahoud's tactics appear to have gotten more unruly. In May, violence erupted between anti-Hariri protestors and Lebanese army units in the Shiite southern suburbs of Beirut, leaving six dead. Why Lahoud sent the military into this area (a highly unusual action, since Hezbollah controls the area) remains a mystery, but Hariri's allies believe he conspired with the Shiite fundamentalist group to stage the riots in hopes of persuading Syria that the prime minister is a liability.
Because of his efforts to sabotage Hariri's economic recovery program and his close cooperation with Hezbollah, Lahoud has long been viewed with distaste in both Paris and Washington. Hariri, in contrast, is a personal friend of French President Jacques Chirac (in part, it is rumored, because of his illicit contributions to the latter's political campaigns) and enjoys close contacts with American officials (he has visited Washington numerous times, while Lahoud has never even been invited).
In recent months, the United States and France have put considerable pressure on Assad to allow a constitutional presidential succession in Lebanon and Chirac has encouraged European governments to do the same. Following the third meeting of the EU-Lebanon Cooperation Council in Brussels on February 24, the European Union issued a press release saying that it "will closely follow the presidential elections to be held in Lebanon later this year," adding that "full respect for constitutional rules, and free and fair elections at regular intervals, are a key feature of democracy." At a joint press conference in Paris on June 5, US President George W. Bush and French President Jacques Chirac made coordinated statements of support for Lebanese sovereignty. "We have expressed renewed conviction and belief that Lebanon has to be ensured that its independence and sovereignty are guaranteed," Chirac declared. His use of the term "ensured" was seen in the Lebanese media as implying that external pressure should be brought to bear on those who compromise this sovereignty. Bush added that "that the people of Lebanon should be free to determine their own future, without foreign interference or domination."
Just two days after the Bush-Chirac press conference, Assad publicly pledged not to interfere in the choice of Lebanon's next president. "We will support any president that comes through a consensus among the Lebanese," he told the Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai Al-Aam. "The decision on extension is Lebanese. It does not belong to the president of Syria."
Rather than calming the political storm in Lebanon, Assad's neutrality pledge intensified it. Taken at face value, the Syrian pledge would effectively bar Lahoud from continuing in office because Hariri's allies are powerful enough to defeat any proposed constitutional amendment. For this reason, the prime minister and his allies quickly sought to portray the pledge as having been intended at face value. Speaking to reporters during an official visit to Bulgaria on June 9, Hariri said that Assad's statement was a "call on potential presidential aspirants in Lebanon to come forth and declare their political programs." Within a few days, two Maronite politicians - Western Beqaa MP Robert Ghanem and Batroun MP Boutros Harb - did exactly that, joining MP Nayla Mouawad as the only candidates in the race.
The Lahoud camp struck back on June 11, when the head of the Lebanese branch of Syria's ruling Baath party, Assem Qanso, declared that he supports extending or renewing Lahoud's term in office. Because of Qanso's close ties to both Syrian intelligence and the president, his statement was widely seen as an attempt to "dilute" Assad's neutrality pledge. The Hariri camp and the mainstream Christian opposition loudly protested. Al-Nahar newspaper, whose editor, Gibran Tueni, is a staunch critic of Lahoud, reported that Qanso "received a harsh scolding from Syria" after making his remarks, but no one was really sure whether it was the Lahoud camp, or Syria itself, that was trying to "dilute" Assad's pledge. Qanso later issued a clarification, saying, "I do support an extension or renewal for President Lahoud, but my position is not an echo to what Syria wants." However, he added that "anyone who opposes Lahoud after his term is extended or renewed would then be an opponent of Syria." The most plausible interpretation is that Assad wanted to temper the impact in Lebanon of his neutrality pledge (which was clearly made as a result of external pressure) without actually retracting or qualifying it himself
The Opposition Unites
Until recently, the political struggle between pro-Hariri and pro-Lahoud factions of the governing elite was viewed with ambivalence by pro-democracy opposition groups in Lebanon. Although mainstream Christian opposition figures objected to an extension, they also feared the prospect that Hariri would win out and secure the election of a weak president (like Hrawi). While a number of leftist factions have been at the forefront of opposition to the Syrian occupation in recent years, they have tended to view the prime minister as being worse than Lahoud because of his anti-labor economic policies and greater role in institutionalizing corruption in the political class. The two main nationalist groups - the Free National Current, led by Michel Aoun, and the Lebanese Forces (LF), led by the jailed Samir Geagea - have viewed the prime minister and president as equally pernicious outgrowths of Syrian hegemony.
On June 17, however, opposition leaders from across Lebanon's intricate political and sectarian spectrum gathered together and issued the most broad-based and uncompromising anti-government challenge the Arab world has seen in many years. "The current authority is a threat to Lebanon's future . . . we the undersigned are seeking change, a peaceful change by democratic means," read what is now known as the Beirut Declaration. Although not explicitly stated, the "democratic" change called for in the declaration means above all the replacement of Lahoud in November. The organizers of the Beirut Declaration had originally planned to unveil the document at a prominent Beirut hotel on June 20, but the owners of the venue backed out at the last minute, claiming to have come under pressure from the intelligence services (which Lahoud controls). Instead, the declaration was released at a hastily arranged news conference at the Press Federation.
Meanwhile, the Lahoud and Hariri camps continued their tit-for-tat departure from the Syrian-imposed moratorium on discussion of extension during the last week of June. Former Parliament Speaker Hussein al-Husseini issued perhaps the starkest rejection of extension yet by a major political figure, declaring that "these fantasies are an attempt to change the system, undermine the essence of the [1989 Taif Accord] settlement and lay the groundwork for civil war." A day later, former Interior Minister Michel Murr, Lahoud's in-law and father of current Interior Minister Elias Murr, declared that the constitution will be amended in September to allow for a prolongation of the president's tenure. Hariri struck back the next day by declaring, with equal confidence, before the 10th Arab Investment and Capital Market Conference in Beirut that "at the end of the day, Lebanon has a democratic system, and there is a rotation in authority. There is no person with a post that doesn't eventually change."
On July 2, Health Minister Suleiman Franjieh - one of Syria's closest allies in Lebanon - dropped a bombshell. "I, Suleiman Franjieh, oppose the extension," he declared, adding that press leaks by "extensionists" claiming that Syria supports Lahoud's continuation in office after November 23 "are merely smoke bombs." While acknowledging that an extension of Lahoud's term is possible, Franjieh called it "the option with the least chances."
The defection of Franjieh, who is known to have presidential ambitions and gets along with Hariri, appears to have weakened the Lahoud camp. On July 4, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah expressed doubts about the viability of extension. "Some people keep telling us that it is necessary to amend the constitution in order to resolve our problems. But we all know that the issue is more complicated than that." Nasrallah said.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration is sending clear signals to Lebanon's governing elite that it opposes extension. Rep. Ray LaHood (R-IL) , a congressman of Lebanese descent who frequently communicates the administration's views during his trips to Lebanon, met with Hariri on July 10 and told reporters: "Our country, the US, thinks it is absolutely critically important . . . that there not be an amendment . . . the elections must be carried out." Although US Ambassador Vincent Battle has not publicly expressed the administration's position on the matter, he offered a revealing hint as he rose to depart from a dinner held in his honor on July 12. Urged by the guests to stay longer, he replied with a smile: "la tamdid" (no extension).
It appears that United States and France intend to push even more aggressively for a constitutional presidential succession in the months ahead (Syrian and American officials will reportedly meet in Rome in late July to discuss the issue). This presents Assad with a vexing Catch-22: if he caves into the pressure, he will effectively relinquish some of Syria's authority over Lebanon and allow the West to make further inroads into the country's political process; if he doesn't, Syria will further isolate itself internationally and alienate most of Lebanon's governing elite.
 Technically speaking, the prime minister can prevent the cabinet from even considering an amendment because he alone has the constitutional authority to call cabinet meetings.
 The London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat published the following account of the incident: "Kanaan then raised his hand, saying that the vote would take place by a raising of hands and would not be secret . . . Everyone looked as if they had just been through a cold shower . . . The party broke up early. Presidential hopefuls departed with their wives, one complaining of tiredness, another saying he had a headache." Al-Hayat (London), 2 October 1995. See also "Syria wants Lebanese legislators to extend Hrawi's term for three years by a show of hands," Mideast Mirror, 2 October 1995.
 "MP: Politicians lack courage to speak up on mandate," The Daily Star (Beirut), 26 June 2004.
 Al-Jazeera Satellite TV (Qatar), 1 May 2004 (Federal News Service translation, 5 May 2004).
 The Daily Star (Beirut), 22 August 2003.
 "MP: Politicians lack courage to speak up on mandate," The Daily Star (Beirut), 26 June 2004.
 "Lebanon's presidential race starts, with the Syrian card face down," Agence France Presse, 15 June 2004.
 Statement by the European Union on the third meeting of the EU-Lebanon Cooperation Council, Brussels, 18 February 2004. Italics added for emphasis.
 Remarks by President Bush and President Chirac in a Joint Press Availability, The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 5 June 2004.
 Al-Rai Al-Aam (Kuwait) 7 June 2004.
 Al-Nahar (Beirut), 10 June 2004.
 Al-Nahar (Beirut), 15 June 2004.
 Naharnet.com; The French daily Le Monde published the entire text of the five-page declaration on June 21.
 "Lahoud's term in the spotlight," The Daily Star (Beirut), 16 June 2004.
 "The Syrian leadership's treatment of Lebanon . . . has allowed the destruction of all attempts at rebuilding the state, has emptied its institutions of their effectiveness and transformed them into meaningless instruments at the service of material and political ambitions," the MDL declared in its first official public statement in February 2004.
 Naharnet.com (Beirut), 23 June 2004.
 "Hariri: Investors should ignore bickering," The Daily Star, 25 June 2004.
 Al-Nahar (Beirut), 3 July 2004.
 The Daily Star (Beirut), 6 July 2004.
 "US congressman opposes amending the constitution," The Daily Star (Beirut), 12 July 2004.
 Al-Nahar (Beirut), 14 July 2004.
 "Damascus gives opinion on presidential elections in September," The Daily Star (Beirut), 13 July 2004.