BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanese soldiers marched in formation and helicopters flew overheard in a military parade in central Beirut Tuesday headed by the newly elected president, the first such celebration in two years, to mark the country's Independence Day.
Armored vehicles and tanks rolled down a major thoroughfare in downtown Beirut, soldiers on horseback marched to military tunes, and a choir performed national songs while organizers released balloons in the colors of the Lebanese flag.
President Michel Aoun watched from a grandstand, sitting between his new prime minister designate, parliament speaker and head of the caretaker government.
Later in the day, the four leaders received well-wishers at the Presidential Palace in nearby Baabda. Premier-designate Saad Hariri withdrew from the receiving line briefly so as not to greet the Syrian ambassador. Hariri is an outspoken critic of the Syrian government, which has backed his political rivals in Lebanon.
Lebanon's parliament elected 83-year-old Aoun, a former general, as president last month, ending a two-and-half-year deadlock that left Lebanon without a president. The breakthrough, which ended months of a government paralysis, enabled the Tuesday celebrations and raised hopes that a new Cabinet can also be assembled by Tuesday.
But Premier-designate Hariri said he is still facing obstacles bringing together a line-up that balances Lebanon's delicate sectarian-based political system. "The one obstructing is known. Ask him," Hariri told reporters as he left the presidential palace Monday.
Hariri didn't name names, but local media has reported the struggle between Hariri and Aoun on one side and powerful Shiite parliament speaker Nabih Berri over the government line-up. At stake is the distribution of the most powerful portfolios, including the Defense Ministry. The political parties are also bickering over amending the current election law which divides seats among the different religious sects. The current parliament has failed to amend the law, and has extended its mandate twice amid criticism. New elections are scheduled for May 2017.
According to the agreement that brought an end to the 15-year civil war in 1990, Lebanon's president must be a Maronite Christian, the premier a Sunni Muslim and the parliament speaker a Shiite. The government must reflect each sects' respective power, an often daunting task that is worked out mostly in backdoor bargaining among the country's traditionally fragmented politicians.
Meanwhile, the civil war raging in neighboring Syria for nearly six years has highlighted the fault lines in Lebanon, as different groups have allied with rival sides in the conflict. Many fear the spillover from Syria would undo years of relative stability in this country of 4.5 million.
A Christian leader and strong ally of the Shiite Hezbollah group, Aoun was elected by parliament as president on Oct.31, after Hariri endorsed him, ending the longstanding deadlock between the old-time foes. Hariri is a longtime critic of Hezbollah's support for the Syrian government in that country's ongoing war. The militant party has sent thousands of its members to fight alongside the government's troops.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, a close ally of Hariri and opponent of Syria's government, recently halted a $3 billion arms deal with Lebanon, a decision linked to the kingdom's tensions with Iran. Iran and Hezbollah support Syrian President Bashar Assad.
In an Independence Day speech Monday evening, Aoun urged Lebanese to protect their unity against the region's instability.
"The tension in the region caused fissures in national unity, and the Lebanese started to feel that their stability is endangered, particularly given the limitation of the armed forces capabilities in the face of imminent dangers," Aoun said. "In this situation, reinforcing national unity becomes of extreme necessity and a priority."