September 19, 2007 -- EVER since it was driven out of southern Lebanon in last year's mini-war, Hezbollah has pursued a strategy aimed at replacing the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora with one in accord with the regional ambitions of Syria and Iran.
The strategy started with the withdrawal of Hezbollah ministers from Siniora's coalition Cabinet in the hope that this would force the premier either to adopt policies that Iran and Syria wanted or face the collapse of his government.
When that didn't work, Hezbollah allied with a faction of Maronite Christians led by ex-Gen. Michel Aoun to form a pincer to crack the Siniora government. Ideologically, Aoun and Hezbollah have nothing in common. But Aoun badly wants to become president and believes that only Iran and Syria can help him achieve that goal. Hezbollah, for its part, needs a Christian ally, if only to reject charges of sectarianism.
But the addition of Aoun to the anti-government plot failed to produce the desired result - so Hezbollah went for direct action. It deployed tens of thousands of professional protesters in the streets of Beirut to besiege government offices and paralyze the administration. Almost a year later, however, that tactic, too, has failed. The government continues to function while popular support for the Aoun-Hezbollah alliance has steadily eroded.
Other tactics have also failed. The targeted killing of ministers and parliament members, designed to deprive Siniora of a majority, failed to bring down the government. Then came a bid to provoke a civil war by unleashing Fatah al-Islam, a radical armed group linked to Al Qaeda, near the Sunni heartland of Tripoli. Several weeks of fighting killed almost 1,000 people -including most of the insurgents. But the revived Lebanese army remained loyal and proved that it was willing and able to defend the democratically elected government.
All this has weakened the Lebanese economy by keeping away tourists and foreign investors. But the economic collapse desired by Hezbollah and Aoun didn't materialize. The international community came to the rescue with generous packages of loans and grants. It was clear that the powers interested in a stable Middle East weren't in a mood to allow Tehran and Damascus to impose their scheme and use the country as part of their power game in the region.
Throughout this yearlong tug of war, Hezbollah and Aoun had one key card to play: President Emile Lahoud. Before its troops were forced out of Lebanon in 2005, Syria forced through an extension of Lahoud's term; in return, he has done all in his power to help Tehran and Damascus win in Lebanon - refusing to sign bills passed by the parliament and withholding the presidential assent from key bureaucratic and diplomatic appointments. Yet Lahoud's efforts to derail the government have also failed.
Lahoud's term of office, including the three-year bit added to it under Syrian pressure, ends in November. Under the Constitution, the process of choosing a new president starts Sunday and should be completed within two months. Under an unwritten convention, the president must belong to the Maronite community but cannot be elected without the support of a majority of parliament.
Two points are already clear:
* Aoun, who abandoned his lifelong opposition to Syrian domination in the hope of getting the presidency, is unlikely to achieve his goal. His Iranian and Syrian allies have already decided to betray him by offering a compromise on what they term a "consensual candidate." And Aoun's fellow Maronites regard him as a maverick more concerned with his own interest than that of Lebanon's beleaguered Christians.
* The national coalition that backs the Siniora government has the majority required to choose the next president without the Hezbollah-Aoun axis.
But before that simple-majority rule becomes operational, the parliament must first fail to agree on a consensus candidate. This is why Tehran and Damascus have started maneuvers aimed at imposing a consensus candidate - that is to say, someone not committed to the democratic coalition's political agenda.
Lahoud has suggested that the army chief-of-staff, Gen. Michel Suleiman, be chosen interim president for three years. That would keep Lebanon in a state of uncertainty well into the year 2010, the date that Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has fixed as one marking the "total defeat" of the U.S. strategy to bring democracy to the Middle East.
There is, however, no chance that Lahoud's idea would fly, if only because it violates the Constitution. So Lahoud has flown a second kite by suggesting that he should stay in place until after a new general election chooses a new parliament.
Lebanon's anti-democratic forces have other tricks up their sleeve. One idea is that the parliament should name its oldest member as president. Another is to choose a technocrat, someone like Central Bank governor, Riad Salamah.
Sadly, some in the U.S. State Department appear to be tempted by such ideas and have even tried to persuade the Europeans, especially the resurgent French, to consider a compromise.
There is, however, no logical, constitutional or political reason to allow the Hezbollah-Aoun axis and its allies in Tehran and Damascus to escape the consequences of their defeat. Having cynically tried to break the will of Lebanon's democratic majority and put the nation's future at risk in the interest of the Islamic Republic's regional ambitions, they must not be allowed even a half-victory.
To be sure, the axis has threatened to paralyze the legislature by withdrawing its faction and even to physically bar access to the parliament building. But neither tactic should succeed: Three previous presidents were elected outside the parliamentary building - and one of them won the presidency simple majority of the parliamentarians present.
Under the Constitution, the present parliament has the duty of choosing a new president, thus ensuring the continuity of the state before a new general election is called. The democratic majority should agree on a list of two or three candidates for the presidency and submit it to the parliament - with whoever secures a simple majority being declared president.
The Western democracies and the Arab states interested in an independent Lebanon should support whoever wins. Any attempt at helping the putschist minority escape the consequences of its miscalculations would be a betrayal of Lebanon's democratic aspirations.