BEIRUT, Lebanon – Lebanese lawmakers amended their constitution to keep pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud (search) in office, boldly reaffirming their loyalty to Damascus and defying a U.N. resolution calling for presidential elections.
A day earlier, the United States and France succeeded in pushing a resolution through a divided U.N. Security council resolution calling on the Lebanese Parliament to not skip a presidential election and to pressure Syria to loosen its grip on Lebanese politics.
Although the U.N. (search) resolution has no enforcement clause, the parliamentary action — viewed here as a challenge to Washington, the driving force behind the resolution — could also put Lebanon on a collision course with the Security Council.
In a show of hands, legislators voted 96-29 in favor of a constitutional amendment needed to allow Lahoud, whose term expires Nov. 24, to stay in power until 2007.
Lahoud's longtime rival, Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (search), introduced the measure, abruptly dropping his objection under pressure from Syria.
"This is a sad scene and a black day in the history of Lebanon," said opposition lawmaker Nayla Moawwad, a former first lady.
But legislator Mohammed Raad, who leads the nine-member bloc of Hezbollah, the Lebanese guerrilla group which the United States regards as terrorist, said the vote was "to support Lahoud and to reject the policies of the American administration in the region."
The amendment to the constitution, which bars the president from seeking a second consecutive term, allows for a one-time exception to enable Lahoud to remain in office. An election would have been a rarity in the Arab world, where leaders change only by death or forced removal from office.
Supporters of 68-year-old Lahoud, a former army commander, began celebrating even before the session was over, with gigantic fireworks lighting the night sky and guns being fired into the air. Pictures and banners supporting the president appeared on street walls.
Opponents drove around suburban neighborhoods, waving Lebanese flags and placards that read 1559 — a reference to the U.N. resolution, while security forces were deployed around downtown Beirut's parliament building, sealing off entire blocks to prevent protests.
Lahoud pledged to work with his opponents, saying in a statement Saturday that his "hand and heart were open to everyone without exception." He also said he would strive to bring about "an atmosphere of reconciliation and forgiveness."
Lahoud and the billionaire Hariri have struggled over power for years, differing — sometimes publicly and heatedly — on almost all political and economic issues. Their power struggle has paralyzed a country already beset by economic difficulties.
Thursday's Security Council resolution declares "support for a free and fair electoral process in Lebanon's upcoming presidential election" and rejects "foreign interference or influence," a reference to Syria, which Washington and Paris see as being behind the constitutional amendment to keep Lahoud in office.
The measure was adopted with only the minimum nine yes votes required. For it to pass, main sponsors America and France had to drop a threat "to consider additional measures" if the resolution wasn't implemented and referred to withdrawal of "all remaining foreign forces," dropping the direct reference to Syria.
Still, the resolution sends a strong message from key European countries which are close friends of Syria, namely Spain, France and Britain.
Syria sent troops to Lebanon in 1976 to help quell a year-old civil war which raged on for 14 more years. The troops have remained, and Lebanon's government has repeatedly said that the presence of the Syrian army has been a stabilizing factor since the war ended in 1990. Syria has since become the supreme power in Lebanon, often mediating among feuding politicians.
Lebanese Foreign Minister Jean Obeid described the U.N. resolution as "out of place," but said Lebanon will work with the world body and other countries to "right the course and confront the results" of the resolution.
The Lebanese Cabinet approved the constitutional amendment last week and sent it to Parliament, saying regional instability — citing Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict — made it necessary for Lahoud to stay at the helm.