BEIRUT - Prime Minister Fouad Siniora sought to assure the Lebanese people yesterday that the military is firmly in control of country's security, and said his Cabinet had assumed executive powers in the absence of a president for the first time in nine years.
Siniora and his anti-Syrian allies said their aim was to see presidential elections held as soon as possible. The opposition, led by the Shi'ite Muslim group Hezbollah, says it too wants quick elections, as long as there is a consensus candidate among members of Parliament.
Emile Lahoud's presidency expired at midnight Friday, shortly after Parliament failed to elect a successor acceptable to both the majority and the opposition. Before relinquishing his post, Lahoud ordered the army to take charge of security, saying the country faced elements of a state of emergency.
Siniora denied there was an emergency and said the army had already been put in control of the country's security.
The political void appeared to have no immediate impact on the streets of Beirut, where shops and cafes opened and traffic circulated freely yesterday.
The 56,000-member military has remained neutral during a series of political crises in Lebanon, but some analysts have said it could splinter if the country encounters serious sectarian violence.
Yesterday, the army chief of staff, Major General Shawki al-Masri, said the army command will remain out of the political struggle and strengthen security measures as needed, the Associated Press reported.
"When the presidency is vacant, the powers of the presidency devolve to the Cabinet . . . which is the legitimate and constitutional Cabinet," Siniora told a news conference after meeting the Maronite Christian patriarch, Nasrallah Sfeir.
"Our natural concern is to work on how to . . . complete the presidential election," he said.
But the opposition says the country no longer has any legally sanctioned executive. It has considered the government illegitimate since pro-Syrian ministers resigned last year.
"Our position on the illegitimacy of the government has not changed," said member of Parliament Ali Hassan Khalil, an aide to the Shi'ite Parliament speaker, Nabih Berri.
"The way out is to quickly elect a new president who will preserve security and law and order," Khalil said.
Anti-Syrian majority leader Saad al-Hariri said in a statement: "I pledge to all Lebanese . . . to work with the utmost effort to set matters right and to arrive at the election of a new president for the republic in the fastest possible time."
Hariri, who accuses Syria of assassinating his father, former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, in 2005, said most Lebanese were jubilant at the end of the Lahoud era, which he called "the symbol of Syrian patronage over government."
The dispute over a successor for Lahoud reflects the regional conflict between the United States and its allies on one side and the alliance between Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah on the other
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who led mediations in the dispute for much of last week, told a news conference in Paris he expected positive developments in the next few days.
"I hope . . . that in the coming week a solution will be proposed that will make it possible to have appeasement, a new government, development," he said, but did not elaborate.
"I am not sure that there are periods of tension coming. Perhaps some small incidents but I do not believe that there will be very serious tension," Kouchner added.
When Parliament failed on Friday to elect a president before Lahoud's term ended, Berri postponed the vote for the fifth time and set Nov. 30 as the date for another attempt.
The delay means the presidency, always held by a Maronite Christian under Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing system, will be vacant for at least a week.
Key members of the majority, including Hariri, kept the political temperature down on Friday by saying they remained in favor of finding a consensus candidate for the presidency.