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Last Updated: Saturday, 4 August 2007, 18:53 GMT 19:53 UK
Stakes raised in Lebanese elections
By Christian Fraser
BBC News, Beirut

In the mountains above the Lebanese capital, Beirut, is the Christian heartland of Metn, where this weekend the stage is set for one of two crucial by-elections.

Dead MPs Pierre Gemayel (left) and Walid Eido
The by-elections are being held to replace two assassinated MPs

The local residents are voting to replace the MP Pierre Gemayel, a staunch critic of Syria, who was assassinated in November.

Standing to fill the vacant seat is his father, Amin Gemayel, leader of the right-wing Maronite Christian party, the Phalange.

The former president and his allies accuse Syria of orchestrating the killing of his son.

"This election is very important," says Mr Gemayel.

"Lebanon is at a crossroad. The people have to make a choice whether they want an independent and democratic Lebanon, or whether they want to vote for the opposition and a country ruled by Syria."

Christian divisions

For as long as anyone can remember in Metn, the Gemayel family and the Phalange have claimed the loyalty of the Christian community.

Founded by Mr Gemayel's father, Pierre, in 1936, the party was one of the main players in the bloody civil war that gripped Lebanon through the 1970s and 1980s.

Amin Gemayel
The splits worry me - only our unity can preserve the country and restore a major role for the Christians in Lebanon
Amin Gemayel

But the family's rule is now hotly contested and the divisions which are emerging between the different Christian factions are dangerous.

"The splits worry me," says Mr Gemayel. "Only our unity can preserve the country and restore a major role for the Christians in Lebanon."

"The divisions are dangerous for the future - and they are threatening too!"

Many say they will vote for the Gemayel family in sympathy, but there is sizeable support for the rival candidate, Camille Khoury.

Mr Khoury has been put forward by the other main Maronite Christian leader, Michel Aoun of the Free Patriotic Movement (FMP).

A lifelong critic of Syrian influence in Lebanon, the former army chief surprised many in 2006 when he made an alliance with Hezbollah, the Shia Muslim group which is backed by Damascus.

High stakes

Mr Aoun is keen to become the next president, and Hezbollah are thought to have pledged their support.

"In the past, our party and our leader, General Aoun, have been vocal opponents of Syria's influence in Lebanon," Mr Khoury says. "In fact, I am one of the people who protested - openly!"

Michel Aoun
Michel Aoun returned to Lebanon in 2005 after 14 years in exile
"I've stood in front of Syrian tanks waving my Lebanese flag - and remember we were the only Christian party that was not in power when the Syrians were here!"

Paul Salem of the Carnegie Middle East Centre says that while Mr Aoun might not be standing this weekend, this is a crucial election for him.

"This by-election is essentially a contest between the two major leaders within the Christian community," he says, "and to some degree will decide the issue as to who represents more strongly the Christian community."

Mr Salem believes victory is crucial for Mr Aoun.

"If he loses, he can no longer claim within the opposition that he can bring the Christians along with him," he says.

"It would put a major dent in his chances of becoming president."

That undoubtedly raises tensions and in the past week the anger has spilled out onto the streets, with the army called in to separate the two sets of rival supporters.

On Friday, Mr Aoun made a speech behind bullet proof glass. His candidate would only be interviewed by the BBC within the confines of his own office.

Fleeing the country

There are great fears the violence is set to escalate.

"The Christians are weakening each other," says Riyadh Kharraj, a Maronite who witnessed a clash between Aoun and Gemayel supporters earlier in the week.

A banner showing Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut
Hezbollah is not contesting the seats to spare sectarian tensions

"There is tension and there will be more if it is not resolved." the 54-year-old shopkeeper and Aoun supporter says.

In the other by-election, held in a mainly Muslim district of West Beirut, people are voting to replace Walid Eido, a Sunni Muslim anti-Syrian MP killed in a car bomb attack in June.

Hezbollah has decided not to contest the seat.

"These by-elections might have some influence on the race for the presidency," says Mr Salem. "But in the bigger picture, they are not of major significance."

"At the moment, Lebanon is stuck between the internal divisions within parliament and the pressures that come from the region."

"On one side are Syria and Iran - on the other the United States and Saudi Arabia. It is all part of the same regional tension that we see in Iraq, we have seen in Palestine."

For the past eight months Hezbollah supporters have been camped outside the Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's office refusing to leave until they get a new government of national unity.

Parliamentary business has been paralysed since November - many of the anti-Syrian MPs have now left the country in fear of their lives.

It is a crisis that splits Lebanon right down the middle, and the longer it continues the more dangerous all these splits will become.

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