WASHINGTON, March 13 (UPI) -- It was late November 2007 when the already extended mandate of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud expired, the former president wished his staff at the presidential palace in Baabda good luck and goodbye, got into his armor-plated limousine and drove off into the night. Four months later and 16 attempts at staging elections to fill the vacant presidency, Baabda Palace remains unoccupied -- and Lebanon remains without a president.
To say the situation is precarious would be an understatement. Yet again it seems as though the Lebanese political parties have developed collective amnesia, brushing aside recent history. Electing to forget bitter lessons of a devastating civil war rather than electing a president, Lebanon's rival political and religious parties have started to rearm.
This is "a moment that is pregnant with incredible danger," Augustus Richard Norton, a faculty member in international relations and anthropology at Boston University, said during a discussion Tuesday at Georgetown University addressing the current political impasse affecting Lebanon.
Norton's experience in the Middle East spans nearly three decades. His fears of the conflict spreading were shared by two other scholars with similar knowledge of the area.
"Things are falling apart. The Lebanese system has lost -- that is if it really had it -- a rudder or steering wheel," said Michael C. Hudson, Saif Ghobash professor of Arab studies and international relations at Georgetown, as well as the author of numerous books on the Middle East.
Hudson sees "new axes of conflict" emerging in what he calls "the post-Taif period," referring to the city in Saudi Arabia where the terms putting an end to the 1975-1990 civil war were negotiated amid attempts to redistribute Lebanon's political cards to fall more in line with the country's changing demographics.
In grossly oversimplified terms, the 15-year conflict had pitted principally the country's Muslims, backed by the Palestinians, who at that time were still based in Lebanon, against the Christian militias.
"Now, the main axis appears to be Sunnis versus Shiites, rather than Muslims versus Christians," said Hudson.
The political cleavage amplified since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, as Hudson pointed out, gives the impression that there "now appears to be two Lebanons: a Lebanon of the March 14 group and a Lebanon of the March 8 group."
For those not familiar with the intricacies of Lebanese politics, the March 14 Movement comprises the sitting government headed by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who along with Saad Hariri, the son of the assassinated former prime minister, is the political heir of the murdered Lebanese politician; the Christian Lebanese Forces headed by Samir Geagea -- who is currently in Washington at the invitation of the George W. Bush administration and is expected to meet with the U.S. president this week; and Walid Jumblatt, who commands the loyalty of the majority of the country's Druze community.
On the other side of the political barricades is primarily the Shiite Hezbollah organization, backed by Iran and Syria; the less influential Druze rivals of the Jumblatt clan, and the followers of former Lebanese Army Commander Gen. Michel Aoun.
"Both are very different and we wonder which one is the real Lebanon," pondered Hudson.
But one of the virtues of the Lebanese has always been their ability to look at the bright side of very negative situations.
The divide in the Lebanese political landscape, explained Bassam Haddad, "clearly is not purely sectarian and definitely not purely religious." For Haddad, the director of the Middle East studies program at George Mason University and a visiting professor at Georgetown University, for the most part the conflict is not sectarian, "and so far this is one positive development in Lebanon."
If the prior civil war had divided the country along religious groups -- again this is oversimplification -- the current crisis is seen more as the flexing of political and military muscle between the United States and France on one side with Syria and Iran on the other. As Haddad elucidated, "it is difficult to talk about Lebanon without involving Syria."
Indeed, both sides have taken to accusing each other of placing the interests of foreign powers ahead of Lebanon's own national interest. The March 14 Movement has been branded as being too pro-American, while the March 8 Alliance is accused of fighting Damascus and Tehran's battles.
As Ghassan Tueni, a prominent Lebanese journalist and publisher of the country's major newspaper, noted of a previous conflict: "Lebanon is always the proxy battleground for forces from the outside."
So what comes next in the Lebanon political impasse? Probably more of the same: more paralysis, more waiting for miracle solutions and more blaming "the other side." This situation is guaranteed to continue until the country's political leaders attain greater political maturity and begin to place Lebanon's interests first.
Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times.