Syria's ally stays on in Beirut

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"For the benefit of a third party," as Beirut's L'Orient Le Jour discreetly reported, Lebanon's 128-member parliament voted yesterday to tinker with the country's constitution and give President Elias Hrawi another three years in office.

The "third party", of course, was Syria, for whom Mr Hrawi - whose supposedly unextendable six-year term of office should be drawing to a close - has been a loyal, indeed a dutiful ally. And no fewer than 110 legislators voted to amend Article 49 of the constitution once they learned that President Hafez al-Assad of Syria wanted his faithful associate to remain. So at least we now know who runs Lebanon.

In the French mandate parliament building on the old front line, the men who say they believe in Lebanese democracy - all but a few - voted to give Mr Hrawi a one-off extension to his presidency in order that he could continue Middle East peace negotiations and the direction of Lebanon's post-civil war recovery. It was, to put it mildly, a foregone conclusion.

Keeping Mr Hrawi in the presidential palace at Baabda means that the billionaire Rafiq Hariri will remain as prime minister to oversee the $18bn (pounds 11bn) reconstruction programme and maintain the value of the hard-pressed Lebanese pound. Mr Hariri was the first to congratulate Mr Hrawi on his extraordinary good fortune.

But there were, as they say, dissenting voices. The elderly and unwell former prime minister, Selim el-Hoss, grimly reminded parliamentarians that they had been able to elect presidents five times during the "darkest circumstances" of the 1975-90 civil war - without changing the constitution.

Nassib Lahoud, a former Lebanese ambassador to Washington, who has presidential aspirations, described Mr Hrawi's three-year extension as "a blow to ... democracy". Mikhael Daher, who wished to become president in 1989, demanded a legal challenge to "the violation of the constitution", but was overruled by the Speaker, Nabih Berri.

In an age when an Arab leader can claim more than 99 per cent of the vote - Saddam Hussein springs effortlessly to mind - Mr Hrawi's extension appears as a mere trifling with the principles of democracy. But Article 49 was drawn up to prevent the manipulation of the presidency, and if it can be altered for one more three-year term for Mr Hrawi, why can it not be similarly amended in three years' time?

The article has been tampered with before - three times since 1927 - but throughout the civil war Lebanese politicians adhered to the rules - in spirit at least. It was this belief in the legal system that enabled the country to reconstitute itself once General Michel Aoun's rebel government had been crushed by Syrian firepower in 1990. The exiled general's supporters planned a demonstration against the amendment yesterday, but the protest was banned.

To search for the source of true power here, one has only to count the 20,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon, and the portraits of President Assad on walls and offices. Sister Lebanon and Sister Syria - as they call themselves in official speeches - are locked together in the sisterly embrace of a co-operation and friendship treaty that makes constitutional amendments a mere formality.