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Presidential Battle Threatens to Derail Postwar Recovery

May 18, 1995

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ When Elias Hrawi was elected to replace a slain president in 1989, he took a job few even dared to seek.

But five years into relative peace _ Lebanon’s longest period of calm in two decades _ Hrawi’s supporters are lobbying for him to stay on longer than his term permits.

The campaign has divided the political establishment, crossing sectarian lines, and threatens to derail the country’s fragile recovery from the 1975-90 civil war.

Hrawi’s six-year term expires in November. For him to extend that or win re-election would require Parliament to pass a constitutional amendment after it convenes May 22.

The pro-Hrawi lobbying may have remained behind the scenes, but it has been strong enough to touch off a chorus of disapproval from opponents.

Hrawi’s staying beyond his term could plunge Lebanon into ``a state of confusion and discontent,″ warned former Parliament Speaker Hussein Husseini.

Husseini, a Shiite Muslim, said a new head of state was needed to bring about national reconciliation.

Husseini was instrumental in Hrawi’s election Nov. 24, 1989, two days after President Rene Mouawad was assassinated by a car bomb after only 17 days in office.

Beirut’s leading newspapers already have come out against lengthening Hrawi’s tenure.

Talal Salman, publisher of the leftist As Safir newspaper, called it ``an infringement on the principle of the transfer of power and democracy.″

The president’s supporters are campaigning for ``continuity,″ crediting the president with restoring state authority that was eroded during the civil war.

Prime Minister Rafik Hariri has praised Hrawi, calling his time in office an ``era of security, political and financial stability.″

Hrawi recalled recently that when he took office nearly a year before the war ended, Lebanon was ``a jungle, no country, no republic.″

Now there is a functioning government and a reunited army. Most private militias have been disarmed.

Holding the nation’s highest office entails risks for both ruler and populace.

Two of five presidents elected during the civil war were assassinated. The worst rounds of fighting took place when Parliament failed to elect a president in 1988-89, resulting in dual governments.

Hariri’s half-Christian, half-Muslim Cabinet has not come down on one side or the other of the issue. Most ministers been mum on the issue.

Hariri reportedly threatened to quit if Hrawi goes. The billionaire businessman’s departure could undermine his $14 billion national reconstruction program.

Former prime ministers Salim Hoss and Omar Karami, Sunni Muslims who served under Hrawi, are against renewal or extension of the president’s term. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a Shiite, is believed to oppose Hrawi.

Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, patriarch of the 1 million Maronites, Lebanon’s largest Christian sect, is also believed to be cool to the idea.

Cabinet and Parliament are packed with supporters of Syria, the undisputed power in Lebanon. The Syrians have said they will not intervene among allies, but Damascus’ last-minute word is expected to be decisive.

Even those who favor amending the constitution are split on whether just to allow extension of the president’s term or to drop a ban on senior civil servants running for president.

Dropping the ban could help army commander Gen. Emile Lahoud, for the presidency is traditionally held by a Maronite Christian like himself.

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