WASHINGTON, Nov. 26 (UPI) -- The deadline set by the Lebanese Constitution for the country's Parliament to elect a new president expired at midnight Friday. No consensus was reached, and the departing president, Emile Lahoud, handed the task of insuring Lebanon's security to the army. He called it a "temporary measure." But in Lebanon temporary measures have a bad habit of being more than temporary.
To better grasp what is happening in Lebanon today requires a quick recap of the country's history.
After Anglo-French forces captured Syria from the Ottoman Empire in 1918, France was given a mandate over that part of the Middle East while Britain found itself administering Palestine, Trans-Jordan and Iraq.
Partially due to its geographic location as a major crossing point in the center of the eastern Mediterranean, since ancient times Lebanon has had to deal with foreign invasions and occupations. Throughout its history Lebanon has come to be occupied -- though never quite dominated -- by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Armenians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Ottoman-Turks, French, and more recently by the Syrians and Israelis.
France granted Lebanon independence in 1943, but in retrospect, it's difficult to judge if Lebanon was ever truly able to practice its independence, either from Syria or the West. Syria still harbors hopes to reclaim the territory that was tied to Damascus during a brief chapter in history. Since 1943 Damascus has repeatedly refused to exchange ambassadors with Lebanon on the basis that the two countries are too close to merit the exchange of diplomatic legations -- somewhat of a lame argument considering that sharing a border has never prevented dozens of other countries around the world from exchanging ambassadors.
If France and more recently the United States have been engaged in internal Lebanese political affairs -- some would call it interfering in internal affairs of another country -- that is because Lebanon once again got caught in the crosshairs of political bickering by larger, stronger nations that have decided to fight their wars mostly by proxy and on Lebanese soil. And the naivete and short-sightedness of Lebanon's politicians permits this outside interference to occur.
A prime example is the way Iran has become drawn into the quagmire that is Lebanese politics, using its proxy militia, Hezbollah, to counter the pro-Western government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.
In the interim, the Lebanese have learned to wait and wait and wait. Lebanon has become the country where the temporary has taken on a new meaning. Here, days are drawn out into weeks, weeks become months, and months stretch out into years.
As Paul Khalife, a correspondent for Radio France Internationale, stated in his report from the Lebanese capital the morning after Lahoud left the presidential palace at the end of his mandate, assigning the security of the country to the Lebanese army on a "temporary" basis, that "temporary" risks becoming more than that.
Said Khalife: "In 1948 the Lebanese were told that Palestinian refugees flooding by the thousands over the border into southern Lebanon and beyond would only remain in the country 'temporarily.' Sixty years later, with their numbers inflated to 400,000, the Palestinian refugees now scattered over a dozen different camps from the north of the country to the south are still 'temporarily' in Lebanon. Today they make up 12 percent of Lebanon's population."
At the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990, tens of thousands of refugees were told they could return within a short while to their villages in south Lebanon; in fact it took 18 years to make that a reality.
The Saudi-sponsored Taif Accords in 1990, which put an end to the civil war, included a clause that called for the immediate withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon. That took 13 years to materialize. The Lebanese presidential election, which has been postponed five consecutive times, was to take place at the latest Saturday, Nov. 24. This date, too, has been postponed by another week.
As the French radio correspondent pointed out, "The Lebanese have come to realize that in Lebanon only the temporary is permanent."
(Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times.)