After 13 years of intermittent civil war, Lebanon was thrown into a new uproar Tuesday when Suleiman Franjieh, a former president with close ties to Syria, announced that he will be a candidate in the country's presidential elections, scheduled for this week.
Conservative Christian leaders announced that they would take political and military steps, if necessary, to block Franjieh's selection as the next president. A boycott of the vote in Parliament seemed likely to delay the election, which is set for Thursday.
Speaking to reporters at his northern enclave of Ehden, Franjieh said he is determined "to take the responsibility and end the unbearable crisis and save the country and its people," according to news reports monitored in Cyprus.
Term Expires Next Month
Franjieh wants to succeed President Amin Gemayel, whose six-year term of office expires next month. Gemayel is barred by law from seeking a second consecutive term.
Franjieh is a 78-year-old Maronite Catholic who served as Lebanon's president from 1970 to 1976. It was during his term that the country exploded into civil war, a conflict that still divides the people.
In 1976, Franjieh also was responsible for inviting a so-called Arab Deterrent Force, principally the Syrian army, into Lebanon to keep the Christians from being overwhelmed by Palestinian guerrillas. But the Syrians, with more than 30,000 troops stationed in the country, have stayed on as the primary power broker in Lebanon, earning Franjieh the eternal enmity of a large segment of the Christian population.
A spokesman for the Lebanese Forces, a Christian militia coalition, said Franjieh's candidacy could "lead to the disintegration of the country, taking it back to an atmosphere of war."
Son Murdered in 1978
Loathing between Franjieh and the Lebanese Forces dates to 1978, when militiamen of the Falangist Party, which then dominated the Lebanese Forces, attacked Franjieh's home in Ehden and murdered his eldest son, Tony, Tony's wife and their 3-year-old daughter, as well as 30 bodyguards.
The Falangists and the Lebanese Forces were led at the time by Bashir Gemayel, who was assassinated in 1982 a few days before he was due to be sworn in as president. His brother, Amin, a member of Parliament, was then elected.
The successive elections of the Gemayels were front-page news in the West, after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the dispatch of U.S., British, French and Italian troops to Lebanon as peacekeeping forces.
Since then, the peacekeepers have withdrawn, the Israelis have been forced to pull out in the face of repeated attacks by Muslim fundamentalists and Syrian troops, formerly deployed in northern and eastern Lebanon, have extended their presence to West Beirut and the southern suburbs of the capital.
Although the militia anarchy that once plagued Beirut has largely disappeared, Lebanese of various stripes had been counting on a strong presidential candidate to unify the country and restore the nation to its former economic prosperity.
Another candidate for the presidency is Roger Edde, a lawyer who has spent the civil war years traveling outside the country, principally in the United States and France.
Still another, who is believed to have enjoyed informal U.S. support in the talks leading up to the election, is Maj. Gen. Michel Aoun, the commander in chief of the Lebanese army.
Army on Alert
Aoun placed his army on alert Sunday in the wake of threats by the Falangists to sabotage the election if a president is forced on Lebanon by foreign powers.
Under an unwritten 1943 agreement among the country's major religious factions, the president of Lebanon must be from the country's Maronite Christian community, as is the armed forces commander. The premier is drawn from the Sunni Muslim community, and the speaker of Parliament is a Shia Muslim.
Syria, a Muslim country, has been promoting a package of political reforms that would redistribute power in the country in a way more in line with the current demographics, in which the Shias form the largest single group.
Christian leaders charge that the proposed Syrian reforms would give Damascus a lasting say in the running of the country and would permanently shrink the influence of Lebanon's Christian community, the largest in the Middle East.
The presidential election takes place in Parliament, a largely inactive group of 99 members chosen in 1972. Since that year, 22 members have died, and President Gemayel's seat was not filled upon his election, leaving just 76 votes to be cast.
A two-thirds majority is needed in the first round of voting. If no victor emerges, the next ballot will be won with a simple majority.