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Last Updated: Saturday, 24 November 2007, 15:11 GMT
Lebanon power vacuum sows confusion
By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Beirut

Anti-Lahoud gathering in Beirut, 23 Nov 2007
Lahoud's exit has been welcomed by some, but the future is uncertain
The Lebanese woke up on Saturday to a country without a president, with a bitter row raging about who is in charge.

Amidst all the confusion, two things look certain: the country is in a state of political limbo but there are no signs of a state of emergency, despite the warnings of outgoing pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud.

He issued a convoluted statement just a few hours before he left the presidential palace, with his family, surrounded by guards and to the sounds of a marching band.

Earlier in the day, rival anti- and pro-Syrian blocs in parliament had failed yet again to elect a successor after a fifth attempt, and a new session has now been scheduled for 30 November.

In the Lebanese capital, people seem to go about their business as usual, shops are open and one popular cafe was full of people having breakfast, sipping on cappuccinos and enjoying the sunny weather on the terrace.

A nearby farmers market was also abuzz with activity.

State of emergency?

Many Lebanese breathed a sigh of relief and even celebrated with fireworks the departure of a man they saw as the last remnant of Syria's influence over Lebanon.

For the Hezbollah-led opposition, Mr Lahoud was an ally who supported their right to bear arms against Israel.

Lebanese troops sit on armoured personnel carrier, 23 Nov 2007
It was unclear whether a state of emergency was in force
Soldiers are visible on the streets, but the army has been deployed in Beirut for a year now, since the start of the stand off between the government and the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority on the one hand and the opposition, backed by Syrian and Iran on the other.

Troop reinforcements had also been brought into the capital ahead of the scheduled vote in parliament to elect a president on Friday, a vote that never happened but there were no unusual troop movements overnight.

The presidential statement, which said that "conditions and dangers of the state of emergency existed on the ground" and entrusted "the security of the country to the army and put all armed forces at its disposal", was seized upon by the opposition.

Local television stations loyal to the opposition immediately flashed news captions on their screens saying a state of emergency had been declared, while members of the pro-Syrian bloc gave interviews confirming the state of emergency.

Meanwhile, media loyal to the government said this was not the case and interviewed members of the parliamentary majority and analysts who deconstructed the statement to back their claims.

The cabinet also dismissed the decree as meaningless.

According to the constitution the president cannot declare a state of emergency without the approval of the cabinet. With no successor for Mr Lahoud, the cabinet assumes executive powers and is entrusted with ensuring the swift election of a new president.

The vague statement was the parting shot of a controversial leader, a staunch ally of Syria, who had long warned he would not hand over power to Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, whose legitimacy he had contested.

If anything, the confusion reflected even further the deep divisions that have plagued Lebanon for some three years.

A statement yesterday from the prime minister's offices said the cabinet would continue to shoulder its responsibilities and exercise its full authority.

There has been no comment from the army so far but the cabinet said it has been co-ordinating with the army.

Christian fears

The presidential vacuum is viewed with worry by some of Lebanon's minority Christian community.

Lebanon is the only country in the Middle East with a Christian president, the post of prime minister is always reserved for a Sunni, while that of speaker of the House goes to a Shia.

But the presidential seat is now vacant for at least a week and there is no guarantee that the next scheduled session will produce a president.

In a move that was seen as an attempt to allay Christian fears, Mr Siniora paid a visit to the Maronite patriarch on Saturday.

On his way out he said no-one was trying to usurp the post of president and that he more than anyone else wanted an election.

He also said the patriarch had assured him of his support.

It is still unclear what the opposition might do next.

It has made threatening noises for a while and talked about taking to the streets with more demonstrations.

But it is expected that no-one will take any radical steps until after the US-sponsored Middle East peace meeting in Annapolis next week.

The crisis in Lebanon is widely seen as an extension of the regional confrontation pitting the United States against Iran and Lebanon's former powerbroker, Syria.

Progress in Annapolis might help break the deadlock in Lebanon over the choice of a president.

Until then, Washington has given its full backing to the cabinet of Mr Siniora, while Tehran has warned that Lebanon is close to civil war.

Celebrations on the streets of Beirut

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