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Lebanon Today after Yesterday! - Parliamentary By-Elections
Last Sunday, I took a risk that is quite unusual for my political temperament! I forecast in a live interview with a local radio news programme that the relatively unknown Camille Khoury from the opposition Free Patriotic Movement (familiar for its bright orange-colours) would win the parliamentary by-election in the largely [Maronite] Christian Metn district of Mount Lebanon (al-Metn al-Shamali), just north of Beirut...

9 August   |   2007   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... I also segued this prediction with another one whereby the candidate running in a Beirut district, Mohammed Al-Amin Itani from the Al-Moustaqbal Movement that is part of Sa’ad Hariri’s ruling political majority, would also win overwhelmingly.

As things go, I was proven right in both cases and as such managed to salvage my political instincts let alone reputation!

It would not be an exaggeration to claim that the result in Beirut was never in doubt, since everyone knew that Itani would walk into the seat of the late Walid Eido who was assassinated on 13th June - although his murderers have not been identified or caught yet. But the result in Metn, a Christian stronghold with beautiful hills, stood at a knife’s edge until after the closure of the ballot boxes. In this case, former president Amin Gemayel was running against Camille Khoury to replace his son Pierre who was assassinated on 21st November 2006 - although his murderers have neither been identified nor apprehended too.  As such, this particular by-election was a critical - and defining - Christian head-on collision between the Phalangist (Al-Kataeb) Party and that of the Free Patriotic Movement led by former general Michel Aoun.

Mind you, this by-election in Metn was not only an over-heated exercise in democracy. In its essence, it pitted two visions, two alternatives and as such two personalities. On the one hand, there was Aoun’s Syria-friendly political movement that is in some sort of loose alliance with the Coalition of the 8th of March (including the two Shi’ite Hizbullah and Amal currents). On the other hand was the Syria-unfriendly Coalition of the 14th of March (part of the ruling majority headed by PM Fouad Siniora and including other Christians, Druze and Sunni Muslims). In fact, the end-game of this rivalry was not solely this by-election, crucial though it was for Lebanon. Rather, it was viewed as a barometer that would determine who could claim to assume the mantle of Christian leadership in Lebanon and therefore represent the Christian ranks in the presidential elections due to take place no later than 23rd November.

So Michel Aoun (who returned from exile in France in 2005 and proceeded at the time to win over 70% of the Maronite votes) was trying to show that he still represented the Christians of Lebanon, and therefore he also was the appropriate politician to succeed Emile Lahhoud, the incumbent lame duck president. He, and his unknown candidate, campaigned with a populist message eschewing what they called Lebanon’s sectarian feudalism. Amin Gemayel, on the other hand, was attempting to disprove that Aoun represented the legitimacy of the Christian stream (al-tayyar al-masihi) in Lebanon anymore and that he was not ipso facto the most suitable presidential candidate for the future of an independent Lebanon.

This is perhaps one reason why the electioneering process got at times harshly personal and intentionally injurious. However, now that the electoral dust has settled, Camille Khoury has won by the narrowest of margins. In fact, the Lebanese Ministry of Interior quashed all rumours of vote-rigging and indicated that Khoury had won with 39,534 votes whereas Gemayel had lost with 39,116 votes. In other words, he had won the seat with the merest 418 votes.

However, I would like to share with my readers a few conclusions I derive from those results:

  • Although Aoun’s select candidate won the election, Aoun’s hopes to be the undisputed presidential candidate representing the Christian Lebanese constituency have suffered a severe - well nigh fatal - blow. In fact, having garnered a huge number of Christian votes in 2005, he has now scraped through with the barest majority. And although this is a majority that wins a democratic election, it is not a majority that validates any claim that he and his movement can now represent the Christian stream in Lebanon. Rather, as things presently stand for Aoun, his oft-erratic attitude toward other Christian leaders let alone his almost megalomaniacal belief in his own exclusive attributes as sole saviour of Lebanon, have been downgraded quite devastatingly. He has probably lost the endorsement of Hizbullah as possible future president, and I tend to disagree with ex-minister Wi’am Wahab, head of the Lebanese Unification Movement, when he claims that Aoun is the ideal successor to Lahhoud. Besides, Aoun has also lost the claim to be the most powerful Christian political and cultist personality in Lebanon, and has severely mauled his chances for the presidency. In fact, his mere participation in the elections somewhat ironically meant that he recognised the legitimacy of his nemesis PM Fouad Siniora since the call for those elections was made by a decree from Siniora’s government but lacked the signature of the presidency.
  • Amin Gemayel lost his attempt to reclaim his son’s seat. However, he attracted the majority of Maronite votes in Metn (conservative estimates give him at least a respectable 57% of those votes), and as such can lay a claim co-equal to that of Aoun for representing the Christian street. But I am unsure that his presidential prospects have not been dashed as well as a result of this bruising and indecisive election.
  • In this fracas à deux between two political personalities - representing two antithetical forces - desperate to carve a way for their own ambitions as much as for the future direction of Lebanon, the losers by proxy are regretfully the Lebanese Christians. Weakened already by years of emigration and thwarted dreams, their polarity has been compromised further and they are now in search of a new leader and a new voice. The next president will still be a Maronite Christian according to the Constitution, but it could possibly be an independent candidate who is allied to neither of the two coalitions. After all, given the results, it would be a travesty for the whole Lebanese people if any outside forces engineered the choice of the next president.
  • The Armenian vote was decisive in Khoury’s victory. In fact, the statistics show that 8400 Armenian votes went to the victor, against 1600 for the loser. However, even this trend is not straightforward. In fact, the predominant Armenian political force that allied itself with Aoun for purely parochial calculations is the Tashnak party that is usually the most disciplined and organised of Armenian political parties. However, it surprised many Armenians that the Tashnak representative and party would jump awkwardly headlong in their support for Aoun’s candidate and therefore go against a long tradition of supporting the state. Notwithstanding, 19% of Armenians defied official exhortations by voting against the official choice.
  • The Maronite Church - spearheaded by its ageing but revered patriarch - showed once more that its influence over its Maronite candidates is increasingly less concrete. This is the continuation of a waning influence of the church in Lebanon, and removes further the ecclesial power over Lebanese political events. In fact, HB Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir distinctly failed in his numerous mediation efforts between Aoun and Gemayel. An admission of his limited horizons was highlighted in his Sunday sermon when he called on "our children to practise their legitimate right in electing who ever they deem fit to represent them in parliament. This is a national duty."
  • However, despite all those worrying trends about the elections, and despite the fact that this fragile result was as much a consequence of the votes coming from the moutajanissin (Syrian individuals who had acquired Lebanese citizenship and were bussed into Lebanon to cast their votes) as it was from the supporters of Michel Murr, one thing remains clear. Lebanon is arguably the only country in the Arab world today that adheres to any exercise in democracy. So both the government and the opposition can be proud mutatis mutandis that they flew the banner of democracy despite all the prevailing ill-winds and the opportune pressures of the moment.
  • Finally, both sides should also be proud that the results did not deteriorate into street battles and ugly squabbles but were taken on board with a telling sense of responsibility that shows a growing political maturity with an awareness of the stakes and risks ahead. With awareness come responsibility and ultimately leadership.

Lebanon is today facing many perils. Alliances are being forged hither and thither, but regardless of those alliances - whether direct or by proxy - it is again the ordinary, resourceful and mercantile Lebanese people who are sadly paying the price of a country whose choking confessionalism is inexorably jeopardising its sense of identity. I hope that Metn will serve as another wakeup call for all Lebanese parties. In their defence of their own Lebanese positions, they are painstakingly - perhaps even sincerely - splintering bit by bit a country that was once the envy of the world. No wonder then that grassroots groups and networks recently launched Khalas (Arabic for enough), a campaign aimed at encouraging the feuding sides to resume national talks in an effort to end the ongoing political impasse.

Robert Fisk, a journalist who does not mince his words but whose observations are almost always relevant, concludes his latest article Mistrust fuels cycle of violence in Lebanon by suggesting that Lebanon lives ‘in the constant penumbra of civil war’. Much as I can see where Fisk is coming from with this dire warning, I hope that Lebanese politicians of all persuasions will pause long enough to heed to this danger and give it a wide berth - by stopping to pander to other parties’ interests and by focusing instead on what is truly good for an independent Lebanon that stands as proudly as its cedar trees.

Am I defining an illusion, or conjuring up a nightmare? The answer lies not necessarily in Lebanon alone.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2007   |   9 August


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