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New alignments in Lebanese politics

Yusuf Dhia-Allah

The larger story from Lebanon’s June 7 parliamentary elections was neither the “defeat” of Hizbullah, as the Western media claimed, nor the resounding victory for the US-Saudi backed and financed March 14 movement. Its real significance lay in the fact that it may usher changes in Lebanon’s political landscape in ways that would have been unthinkable barely five years ago. A society divided along confessional lines whose electoral practices follow archaic divisions established decades earlier, the alliance between the Islamic resistance group, Hizbullah and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) led by the Maronite Christian, General Michel Aoun, the former army chief, will have far reaching impact on Lebanese politics. While the Hizbullah-FPM alliance did not secure the hoped-for majority in parliament, it has already shaken Lebanese politics in profound ways.On top of the agenda is the need to reform confessional-based politics and electoral divisions. There is near consensus to change the system of elections.A combination of direct contest between candidates and a system of proportional representation may help alleviate some of the anomalies that have frustrated the wishes of Lebanon’s majority despite going through the motions of elections. Political power is distributed based no a 1932 census; none has been held since as if Lebanon’s population has remained static since.It is not difficult to see why no census has been taken in 77 years; those that benefit from the established order will be forced to concede their privileges, a prospect they do not relish.

To appreciate the significance of the proposed changes, one must understand the existing political setup. Lebanese elections are pre-arranged because seats are allotted along confessional lines. There are 128 seats in parliament, the result of an accord reached in the Saudi city of Taif, in 1989. They are equally distributed between Christians and Muslims: 64 seats each. Prior to 1989, there were 99 parliamentary seats with Christians holding 54 seats and Muslims 45. The Taif accord was reached after months of turmoil in Lebanon.

There are other divisions as well. For instance, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim while the parliamentary speaker a Shia Muslim. The deputy speaker of parliament must be an Orthodox Christian and the army chief a Maronite. This division extends even to the deputy ministers’ level. This strange arrangement was arrived at through an unwritten agreement between the Maronite Christians and Sunnis in 1943 without any input from the Shi‘as, at the time the French colonialists’ were about to leave the country. At one level, the existing arrangement may be viewed as providing something for everyone to keep them happy but it can hardly be called democratic. If there were free and fair elections, most knowledgeable observers believe that Hizbullah Secretary General, Shaykh Seyyed Hassan Nasrullah would easily win. Yet, in the just concluded elections, Hizbullah got only 11 seats — the number it contested from among the Shi‘as’ total of 27, leaving the rest to other Shi‘a groups (Amal, for instance) and candidates.

Given in the table is a breakdown of seats both before and after the Taif Accord. In the just-concluded elections, the motley collection of parties called the March 14 movement led by Saad Hariri, the playboy billionaire, Saudi citizen and son of the slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, won 68 seats, two less than in the outgoing parliament. The Hizbullah-led coalition got 57 seats, one short of their earlier total. There were three independents that subsequently joined the Hariri camp for obvious personal gains. Thus, the parliamentary division remained virtually unchanged.

Weeks prior to elections, Western media reports tried to create mass hysteria in the event of a Hizbullah victory. It would wreck “peace” in the Middle East (what peace?), they warned; Israel would be threatened and Hizbullah may “start” another war, as if the 2006 war was launched not by Israel but Hizbullah. The Hariri-led alliance also indulged in crude sectarian jingoism: the opposition’s victory would mean Lebanon becoming a Syrian-Iran satellite; women would be forced to wear the black chador. Even the normally scantily-clad Christian women were frightened into swallowing this propaganda. The Hariri camp openly played up its alliance with the US, as if this was something to be proud of. One could hear echoes of the Pakistani President Asif Zardari’s claims that he is a close ally (in reality, a puppet) of the US. Like Pakistan, Lebanon, too, is deeply indebted; its debt ratio at 18 percent of the GDP is one of the highest in the world. And like Pakistan, most politicians are thoroughly corrupt.

When the results came in, there was a palpable sigh of relief. The media’s tone also changed: Hizbullah had been “defeated”, they gleefully chortled. Both claims were false, as the numbers above show. What was conveniently glossed over was the massive vote buying by Saudis at the behest of the US. Saudi Arabia paid millions of dollars — some reports mentioned as much as $30 million — to Lebanese expatriates to fly them to Lebanon to vote for March 14 candidates. Several hundred people of Lebanese origin were flown from Canada alone, according to CBC television and Globe and Mail newspaper. Had Iran, for instance, flown in pro-Hizbullah Lebanese, there would have been pandemonium. The election would be denounced as a sham and such vote-buying would perhaps even have resulted in demands for annulment. When the fraud is perpetrated by pro-Western groups, it is glossed over. This is what Western democracy is all about.

The March 14 victory, however, may not last long. At present, its 71 seats include eight Druze members. Their leader, Walid Jumblatt recently had a three-hour meeting with Seyyed Hassan Nasrullah. There were rumours that Jumblatt might switch loyalty. If his eight members withdraw from the March 14 alliance and join the Hizbullah-led coalition, referred to as the March 8 alliance, the parliamentary figures would change dramatically. The March 14 group would be left with 63 seats while the March 8 strength will increase to 65. This may also lead the three independents to join the March 8 alliance giving the latter 68 seats in parliament, thus securing a comfortable majority. In the murky politics of Lebanon, this is quite possible. At present, the Hariri camp is talking up a national unity government. This is clearly a stop-gap measure given Hariri’s deep reliance on his Saudi, American and French patrons that loathe Hizbullah because of its refusal to surrender to the zionists. Besides, Hariri’s Sunni supporters ran a very negative campaign against Hizbullah during the elections while the Christians in his camp made no effort to hid their hostility to Aoun branding him a “traitor” for not only aligning with Hizbullah but also going against the wishes of the patriarch, Nasrallah Sfier. The Christian patriarch threw his weight behind the Hariri camp urging his Chrisitan flock to protect their “interests”, clearly implying that it was only possible by voting for the Hariri alliance.

The Christians, however, are not a monolithic bloc, much as Sfier may believe. There are deep divisions within the Maronite community. For instance, Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces, a Christian militia that Aoun’s forces fought against in 1989, are extremely antagonist to each other as are the Phalangists of former president Amine Gemayel, and the Qornet Shehwan Gathering, a group of Christian intellectuals close to Sfeir. Relations between Aoun’s party and the patriarchate are also strained, since the FPM’s charter aims to “separate politics from religion to facilitate the establishment of a secular state”. Should this come to pass, the patriarch would lose much of his clout, a prospect he clearly does not relish.

For Aoun, the Hizbullah alliance has brought other rewards as well. In 1989, when he headed the Lebanese army, he fought against Syrian forces in Lebanon. Since Syria’s withdrawal in 2005, there has been a political realignment. Now, through Hizbullah, Aoun’s reconciliation with Syria is sealed: last December he made a triumphant visit to Damascus and met President Bashar al-Assad several times. This was preceded by his visit to Tehran on October 13 when before leaving he condemned “Lebanon’s subservience to Riyadh and the US administration”. This strategic visit, at Iran’s invitation, was unprecedented for a Maronite political leader.

Aoun’s FPM also has deep differences with the Hariri camp over the regional situation. With the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, he believes that defending national integrity no longer depends merely on opposing Syrian interference, but all foreign interference, including from the West and Saudi Arabia. Aoun’s supporters see the situation clearly. “For years now the threat has come from a Sunni fundamentalism that is extremely hostile to Christians, a fundamentalist ideology funded by Saudi petrodollars,” said one FPM member. “So we have to unite with the Shi‘a but also with non-sectarian Sunni. I prefer Iran – a country with intellectuals, elections and some rights – to Saudi Arabia, where women aren’t even allowed to drive.”

The Hizbullah-FPM alliance is seen as a seismic shift in Lebanese politics. It may prove a harbinger of major changes. Already, it has created a situation where a national Maronite movement can explicitly support Hizbullah’s right to keep its weapons, in the context of the Lebanese-Israeli conflict: “Bearing arms is not an end in itself, but a noble and sacred means that is exercised by any group whose land is occupied, on the grounds of political resistance”. The Aounists are calling not only for a strong, secular, regulatory state but also a new relationship between Christians and Muslims.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 38, No. 5

Rajab 08, 14302009-07-01

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