A Nation Of Mideast Hostages

Here's a Lebanese group snapshot, taken in the land where politics is an extreme sport:

In an elegant apartment building overlooking the Mediterranean, several dozen members of the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority are holed up under heavy security. The legislators are trying to stay alive long enough to elect a new president by a Nov. 24 deadline, despite an assassination campaign that has already killed several MPs who dared to challenge Syria and its ally Hezbollah, the Shiite militia.

A few hundred yards away, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is hunkered down in the Grand Serail, as his office is known. He doesn't budge, even though Hezbollah has demanded for the past year that he and his U.S.-backed government resign. Despite the crowds outside chanting for his head, he says he's serene. "Don't ever think that I will blink," Siniora says. It's a statement that might be Lebanon's national political motto.

In the streets surrounding Siniora's office are Hezbollah demonstrators. They've been here for months, as stubborn as Siniora. Though they wave Lebanese flags above their encampment, they are widely seen as proxy forces of Syria and Iran. They are demanding a "consensus" Lebanese president elected with a two-thirds vote, which would effectively give Hezbollah a veto. "The Syrians would prefer to keep the presidency vacant if they don't have a say," explains one prominent pro-Syrian politician.

In the hills above the city sits the current president, Emile Lahoud -- hunkered down like the rest. His successor was supposed to have been elected on Sept. 25, but the election has been postponed twice. The anti-Syrian majority may try to install a president with a simple majority vote, assuming that enough of its members remain alive. But in that case, the pro-Syrian Lahoud may declare the election invalid and appoint a caretaker government to replace Siniora.

The United States has checked this two-government scenario by making clear that it would impose financial and travel sanctions on anyone who joined a pro-Syrian breakaway -- a threat that Lebanon's prosperous politicians take seriously.

Poor Lebanon. This nation has the misfortune to be caught in the middle of all the feuds and contradictions of the Middle East. Arab vs. Israeli, Shiite vs. Sunni, Iran vs. America -- it all collides here. Let President Bush talk glibly about World War III, or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad assemble his version of a war cabinet, and the mess lands on little Lebanon's head.

"The trouble is that Lebanon has become an extension of the crisis in the region," says Charles Rizk, the Lebanese justice minister and a Maronite Christian who is a candidate for president. (Under Lebanon's sectarian formula, the president must be a Christian, the prime minister a Sunni and the speaker of parliament a Shiite.) "Someone has to blink in the last 10 days before the deadline," says Rizk. "If not, we are in a very bad situation."

Compromise does seem the only way out of this stalemate, but it's not easy when regional tensions have everyone at battle stations. Nabih Berri, the Shiite speaker of parliament, has urged that the next president be someone who is from neither the anti-Syrian nor the pro-Syrian camps. Lebanese politicians are in frantic meetings this week to discuss who might fit that description, with ambassadors and visiting emissaries helping to stir the pot. The problem with Berri's compromise formula is that it virtually guarantees a weak state at a time when Lebanon needs a strong one.

An example of how difficult it is to make headway here was last week's flap about U.S. military assistance. Senior Pentagon officials have been meeting recently with the Lebanese army to help it plan how to modernize its feeble force and spend $270 million in U.S. military aid. That got falsely blown up by pro-Syrian newspapers into a supposed plot to construct American military bases.

It's possible that the deadline for electing a new president will come and go next month -- and that Siniora will stay in the Serail, Lahoud will remain in Baabda Palace, the Hezbollah demonstrators will stay in the streets and poor Lebanon will remain paralyzed by the never-ending regional crisis.

Lebanon, this beautiful, tormented country, is on a slow slide toward being an ungovernable place like Somalia. This is wrong. Lebanon needs a president; it needs political consensus. It needs an end to this enfeebling stalemate. Lebanon has been a hostage too long.

David Ignatius