Who needs a president?

Observations on Lebanon

As Hillary and Obama slug it out in the Democratic primaries, wits in Beirut have been remarking that the United States will probably acquire a new president before Lebanon does. Now that a surge in Arab and European diplomacy has failed to stop the 17th deadline for electing a new leader from slipping by, this seems ever more plausible.

How is the Middle East's most volatile country coping? Beneath the elegant Ottoman archways of the Grand Serail, the prime minister's residence, which became the seat of executive power after President Émile Lahoud left office without a successor last November, the atmosphere is growing increasingly bunker-like.

Surrounded by barbed wire and reinforced concrete, and accessible only through military checkpoints, the Serail has been dubbed Beirut's Green Zone. Fearing assassination, most pro-government ministers have relocated their offices here. Employees are forbidden from standing near the windows in case of sniper attacks. If they were to venture over, they would look down on a tent complex occupied by opposition protesters beyond the barbed wire. During breaks aides speculate, only half-jokingly, how long the Serail could hold out in the event of an attack.

The stand-off between the government and the Hezbollah-centred opposition began 17 months ago, when the opposition withdrew its ministers from the coalition government over what it claimed was unfair allocation of cabinet seats. Government allies say that Hezbollah has been ordered to prevent the government from functioning in order to save its ally Syria from a tribunal on the assassination of the ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri, in which the regime has been implicated.

Although a mutually acceptable presidential candidate has been found in General Michel Suleiman, the opposition refuses to support his appointment until it is promised more representation in government.

Sixty miles off Beirut's seafront, two specially despatched US warships provide a less-than-subtle reminder of the wider issues at stake. Lebanon's paralysis is a symptom of the stalemate in the struggle for supremacy in the Middle East between Iran, which supports Hezbollah, and the US, which supports the government. Neither side seems to want to back down or bring it to a test of strength - yet.

In the Serail, meanwhile, the rump government tries to go about the business of running the country. On the surface, the power vacuum doesn't seem to have had much of an impact on everyday life. The bars and cafes of Beirut's Gemayzeh district were full for the first time in a long while on a recent Easter break. "You wouldn't think this was a country without a president, would you?" asks Mazan, a 28-year-old sales executive, grinning with typically Lebanese insouciance as the waitress brings over mojitos. "Lebanon always survives."

The state has never played a very active role here, and the Lebanese have learned not to rely on it for public services, most of which are provided by municipalities and community organisations.

But the show can't go on indefinitely. There are things only a functioning government with a recognised head of state can do, particularly regarding the economy. Lebanon's post-conflict assistance programme with the International Monetary Fund, for example, which is about to expire, cannot be taken to its next stage. "The political stalemate is delaying key reforms," rues Nassib Ghobril, head of research at Byblos, one of the nation's biggest banks.

Lebanon urgently needs economic reform. The worldwide hike in food and fuel prices has hit it hard, because its political instability has scared off investors. "It is a catastrophe. People are having to work more and more hours for less and less money," says Ziad, a taxi driver from Tarik el-Jdideh, one of the poorest Sunni areas in Beirut. "People have had it up to here with it. It's going to come: Shia, Christian, Sunni, Druze." He flicks his fingers apart with eloquent ambiguity.

One measure that could have eased the burden on people like Ziad - privatisation of the telecoms industry (the state-contracted companies currently running the sector charge the highest rates in the region) - has been put off until a new president can authorise it. Such pressing matters remain undealt with, not so much because of constitutional obstacles, but because the government feels it lacks legitimacy.

As one insider puts it: "They don't want to be seen to be abusing power in a crisis situation."

With each passing week, as Tehran and Washington deliberate their next move and prices rise in Tarik el-Jdideh and a few more metres of barbed wire are added to the perimeter of the Serail, Lebanon slips a fraction further out of anyone's control.

One man, who didn't want to give his name, sits all day on a plastic chair on the main street in Tarik el-Jdideh, arms folded, as if waiting for something. He gave up waiting for work a long time ago.

"Now," he explains, "I'm waiting for a war."