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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 September 2007, 10:45 GMT 11:45 UK
Votes and assassinations in Lebanon
By Jim Muir
BBC News, Beirut

The Lebanese parliament failed to elect a new president again this week - and after nearly a year of political deadlock, the deadline for a handover of presidential power is fast approaching.

A Lebanese Army soldier stands guards in front of the Lebanese Parliament
The Lebanese parliament building is surrounded by tight security
By Lebanese standards, this presidential election has been relatively normal. So far, that is, because there is still a very long way to go, and plenty of potential for it to go spectacularly wrong.

At least it is being held - again, so far - where it should be: in the parliamentary chamber in downtown Beirut.

That is still something of a novelty in recent decades.

It is hard to forget my introduction to Lebanese presidential elections, way back in May 1976.

The first phase of the civil war was in full swing. The downtown area where parliament was, had been smashed and paralysed by the fighting. The battlefront now ran right through that area, dividing mainly Christian east Beirut, from the mainly Muslim west.

So the MPs had to meet at the Villa Mansour, a gracious residence taken over as a temporary refuge.

We had to throw ourselves down behind walls for shelter, as mortars suddenly came crashing down
Its appeal was that it lay close to one of the main crossing-points on the confrontation line, near the national museum, so people could get to it from both sides.

A narrow quorum duly turned up. But somebody did not like what was going on.

Hanging around outside, we had to throw ourselves down behind walls for shelter, as mortars suddenly came crashing down into the immediate area, scattering dust and fragments. There must have been a message there.

But it did not make much difference. Elias Sarkis, the former governor of the central bank, was duly elected, to the din of exploding shells.

Under siege

Six years on, and it was time for Mr Sarkis to stand down. The situation had changed radically.

Israel had invaded, and was even besieging west Beirut. This time, the election was held in an army barracks in east Beirut, with Israeli troops holding the ring.

A file photo of Bashir Gemayel
Bashir Gemayel was assassinated before he could take office
The only candidate was the feisty young Christian militia leader, Bashir Gemayel, who had thrown in his lot with the Israelis.

MPs were rounded up at gunpoint and herded in to make up the quorum.

I remember hearing gunfire outside as the voting went ahead.

Bashir Gemayel was duly elected. But somebody did not like that, either.

Just three weeks later, before he could take office, he was crushed to death in the ruins of his Phalangist Party headquarters, demolished by a massive explosion.

The most immediate consequence, just a few days later, was the massacre by Christian militiamen of hundreds of Palestinian refugees at the camps of Sabra and Shatila.

Bashir's brother Amin - less controversial and more conciliatory - was elected relatively smoothly, to take his place.

Peace agreement

Fast forward again.

It is 1989, and Lebanon is divided.

There are two prime ministers and no president, because when Amin Gemayel had to stand down a year earlier, it proved impossible to elect a successor.

Elias Hrawi
The election of Elias Hrawi ushered in a decade when most of Lebanon fell quietly under Syrian sway
But under Arab pressure, a peace agreement is finally reached at Taif, in Saudi Arabia, and the way was clear for another election.

And what a strange one that was. Because Beirut was still very unsafe, MPs and journalists were bundled into special planes and flown up to an abandoned air strip in the far north of the country.

There, this time with no violence in the background, Rene Muawwad was duly elected. But once again, somebody did not like that either.

Just 17 days later, he too was blown up in a huge car bomb explosion back in Beirut.

And another exceptional election followed two days later.

This time it was held under tight security at a hotel in the town of Shtaura, in east Lebanon, near the border with Syria.

The election of Elias Hrawi ushered in a decade when most of Lebanon fell quietly under Syrian sway. It allowed a period of intense reconstruction, although many underlying problems remained unresolved.

The only normal election in recent times - in 1998 - saw the current, pro-Syrian incumbent, Emile Lahoud, voted in with near unanimity. This included many who have since turned against him and the Syrians.

For things have changed, again.

The gulf between the Western-backed, anti-Syrian government and the opposition, supported by Syria and Iran, is enormous
Syria was obliged to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in 2005, under international pressure and a wave of Lebanese outrage following the assassination of the former Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri.

But Syria's power and influence here simply cannot be ignored.

With their ally Iran, and through Lebanese factions such as Hezbollah and its allies, the Syrians have enormous assets. As a result, the political process is deadlocked.

'Turmoil and tension'

Until the meeting on Tuesday, parliament had not convened for nearly a year.

The prime minister has to reach his office through a back entrance, since the government building is besieged by Hezbollah tents.

Map of Lebanon showing its capital Beirut
That deadlock is now focused on how to replace the Syrian-backed president when his term expires in November.

It is a deadline that will not go away. The gulf between the Western-backed, anti-Syrian government and the opposition, supported by Syria and Iran, is enormous.

And their outside patrons have the whole region in the grip of turmoil and tension, with fears of worse to come, especially between the US and Iran.

So anything is possible in the coming weeks here. Dialogue and agreement, division, war.

If the Lebanese are very lucky, this could turn out to be a normal election.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday 27 September 2007 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Lebanon
18 Sep 07 |  Country profiles
Lebanon politics mired in murder
21 Nov 06 |  Middle East
Political ghosts haunt Lebanese poll
04 Jun 05 |  From Our Own Correspondent

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