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Lebanon is stuck in political deadlock as presidency remains vacant

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

People in Lebanon are losing hope that their leaders will ever get their act together. The presidency is vacant after a dozen failed attempts by the ruling parties to choose someone. Meanwhile, the country is still struggling to recover from the huge port explosion almost three years ago, and it's still mired in an economic crisis. But a lot of the international help it needs is held up by political deadlock. NPR's Ruth Sherlock reports from Beirut.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: The seafront promenade in downtown Beirut is where people from all walks of life come to let their children ride bicycles or to hang out with friends or to exercise.

Hi.

ROULA AL-HALABI: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: (Non-English language spoken).

AL-HALABI: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Roula Al-Halabi is the most glamorous jogger on this corniche. She wears mascara and gold-tinted blusher that shimmers in the sunshine. Her black hijab flows behind her as she runs.

AL-HALABI: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: "Of course, Lebanon's politicians should get it together and elect a president because the country is in freefall," she tells me. But she says this with little conviction. She's in her 20s and prefers not to think about politics.

AL-HALABI: (Through interpreter) Because if I did, I'd have a headache for no results. Those older than I have followed politics. They have voted, and they have gotten nothing out of it.

SHERLOCK: Lebanon's history, even before this crisis, is one of sectarian civil war, occupation and instability. Political parties from the country's different sects have long postponed voting or stalled on decision-making to try to get what they want. It took lawmakers over two years to select the last president who, according to the country's sectarian quota system, must be a Christian. The problem this time, after nine months with the job vacant, explains Mohanad Hage Ali, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, is the country simply cannot afford the delay.

MOHANAD HAGE ALI: The economy is not growing again. We're not seeing any recovery - any path to recovery. People are desperate.

SHERLOCK: The army can't even afford to pay salaries without cash assistance from the United States. And last month, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said Lebanon needs to, quote, "get the job done and choose a leader." The country needs a president for economic reforms to go ahead. This includes unlocking billions of dollars from the International Monetary Fund.

HAGE ALI: So that transition would set the country on a different course than the one that it's really on.

SHERLOCK: For now, state institutions are crumbling. Many civil servants have stopped going to work because the currency devaluation means that the fuel to get there costs more than their salary. Lebanon's parliament building, heavily guarded and encircled by rolls of barbed wire, stands mostly unused.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN HONKING)

SHERLOCK: Back on the seafront promenade in Beirut, I see a couple, maybe in their 60s, strolling arm in arm. Jon, the husband, speaks with me on condition that I only use his first name because in Lebanon you can be harassed or even kidnapped for criticizing some in power.

JON: Because I love so much and cherish my freedom.

SHERLOCK: Lebanon's politicians, many of them former warlords or tarnished by corruption and protecting their own interests, are, Jon tells me, the curse of this country, a plague.

JON: They are the plague, but they have the keys as well to solve the problem, to open the door. See, it's with them.

SHERLOCK: He and his wife have little hope their leaders will make the necessary decisions. And he refers to a song from the late Leonard Cohen.

JON: We're...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: No, no.

JON: ...Waiting for a miracle, you know?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: No, no, no.

JON: Do you know Leonard Cohen's song, "Waiting For A Miracle"? A miracle will do it.

SHERLOCK: Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAITING FOR THE MIRACLE")

LEONARD COHEN: (Singing) Baby, I've been waiting. I've been waiting night and day. I didn't see the time... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.