Monday, August 6, 2007

First reflections on the August 5 by-elections in Lebanon

Muhammad al-Amin Itani won handily in Beirut in a by-election to fill the seat of Walid Eido, who was assassinated in June. Eido was a member of the March 14 alliance, which holds a slim majority of parliamentary seats. Itani's victory was anticipated. The voters in his Beirut district are strongly supportive of Fouad Siniora's government, and many are followers of the Moustaqbal--or Future--movement associated with the late Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri.

The real contest was in the Metn, the Christian heartland and the home base of the Gemayel family. In that race the contest was between Amin Gemayel (Jumayyil) and Camille Khoury, who is associated with the Free Patriotic Movement of General Michel Aoun. Amin Gemayel, of course, was President of Lebanon (1982-88). He is also the father of Pierre Gemayel, who was killed last November in a gangland-style killing. When he was assassinated, Pierre was the Minister of Industry in the Siniora government.

A victory the former President Gemayel would have been an important symbolic victory by the March 14 coalition and the Siniora government. U.S. policymakers were betting that the former president would win the by-election. The hope will be unrequited. In a close election, with a turnout of less than fifty percent, the victory in the Metn went to Camille Khoury and the Aounists.

Although the U.S.-supported government in Beirut holds a slim majority in the parliament, it does not enjoy the same level of support among the Lebanese public. As I have argued in various publications, and in a variety of interviews and presentations over the past year, the opposition enjoys broader support than the U. S.-supported government.

Aoun's blood foe is Samir Geagea, who heads the Lebanese Forces, which greeted the Camille Khoury victory with the headline (in Arabic): "Congratulations to Bashar al-Asad for the victory of Aoun...." Aoun’s adversaries see him as a Syrian wedge back' into Lebanon, much like the U S. does. No doubt. Syria is happy with the result in the Metn, but it is self-deceiving to imagine that Aoun's continuing support stems merely from his (now) cordial relationship with Syria.

The general sustains his following among Lebanese Christians because many of them are disgusted by the political system, and its endemic corruption, favoritism and inefficiency. They also share the general's scathing critique of the Siniora government. Whatever one's feelings about Aoun, and I have longstanding misgivings about the general and his judgment, there is no denying that he has sustained durable popular support in Lebanon. While his alliance with Hezbollah--which precedes last summer's war--has lost him some supporters, there is a structural coherence to the opposition alliance. Indeed, were general elections held now in Lebanon, the opposition would probably capture a majority of parliamentary seats.

I hope the U.S. Secretary of State will understand the importance of what has happened in the Metn by-election. Despite hearty U.S. support, the popular support of the Siniora government is far thinner than official rhetoric in Washington suggests. Taking into account defections and the August 5th election result, the government commands only a slim majority in the parliament.

This should suggest that it is now urgent to end the stalemate that has trapped Lebanon since Aoun and Hezbollah launched demonstrations to topple the government. They faded, but they have succeeded in immobilizing the government, and the economy for eight months

Meantime, as the continuing bloody battles in northern Lebanon illustrate, the political stalemate has not frozen the ability of extremist affiliates of al-Qaeda to set up housekeeping in parts of Lebanon. Nearly 130 Lebanese soldiers have died in the course of more than two months of tough combat in and around the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in the north (recall that the population of Lebanon is only four million, so the toll of military dead is immense).

It is crucial that the political stalemate end so the Lebanese government may turn its attention to the formidable dangers that confront Lebanon. The Bush administration has tended to view Lebanon in very black and while terms, as though our allies in the Siniora government were the "good guys" while Aoun, Hezbollah and a variant of other groups were the "bad guys Sorry, but it is just not that simple.

A Lebanese presidential election looms. Emile Lahoud. extended in office by Syrian diktat in 2004, is scheduled to leave office in November. The parliament is scheduled to convene to elect a president on September 25. A quorum of two-thirds is necessary for the election to proceed. A simple majority vote is necessary an to elect a president, once a quorum has assembled.

What is needed now is a dialogue between government and opposition. The U S needs to stop blocking that dialogue. Otherwise, if the presidential election fails, we have a small hint in the Metn election of how Lebanon may split.

Fostering instability in Lebanon is not something the U.S. should wish to do right now.

Augustus Richard Norton, Boston University

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Generally I agree with your post, but to strengethen your argumetn further a couple fo points:

1) Itani ran unopposed, the opposition had no candiate.
2) IN the Metn the SIniora govt had the ex-president of LEbanon from one fo the most important christian political families running against an unknown....and still lost!

Richard said...

I lived in Lebanon in 1974-5, and have visited many times since. I am fascinated to hear that the Gemayels are still active in politics, even if they just become cabinet-members and get assassinated.

Amin is, and was, as President, an a**hole, and deserved to lose a local election, but Pierre Jr didn't deserve assassination.

Is his grandfather, Pierre, still alive? He ran the Falange, the only remaining openly fascist political party in western Eurasia.

I heard that he was captain of the Lebanese soccer team at the 1936 Olympics, where he met a certain Mr Hitler, and became a groupie.

If I'd known a little more about that little fracas at Ain Rummaneh in early 1975, I'd have left Beirut a bit earlier, and not spent all those nights sitting outside the door of our apartment block, holding an old Browning pistol, pretending to defend against marauding squads of old Pierre's Kataeb.

Richard said...

One more comment:

Have many people seen GWB's latest proclamation:

Executive Order: Blocking Property of Persons Undermining the Sovereignty of Lebanon or Its Democratic Processes and Institutions

see the full, astonishing stuff at:

http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2007/08/20070802-1.html

Watch what you say, Mr Norton, and keep an eye out for shifty characters around your house, armed with padlocks, AK47s and sheets of plywood for sealing up windows and doors.

I suggest you open an offshore bank account ASAP.

Alex said...

Rami Khouri, editor of the Star, said on the BBC this morning that the Camille Khoury victory obviously represents a success for the Aounists, but on the other hand the result represents a decline in the popularity of the Aounists compared to recently.

I was not sure how to take that. But then I am not in Lebanon.

In my book, defeating a former President of Lebanon, even by a small margin, is a great coup, and shows how far the March 14 alliance is from genuinely dominating Lebanon, in spite of all the propaganda and demonstrations.

arn said...

Shaykh Pierre died in 1983.

Itani was opposed in Beirut's second district, but he won going away leaving the pack behind. Reports indicated the Ibrahim Halabi was left high and dry by Hezbollah, since the party urged a boycott. Shi'i participation in the balloting was skimy.

Anonymous said...

The Lebanese Star's comments on this election really focused on low voter turn out for the Christian population as causing the electoral results. They state that it is a norm of the community not to participate in elections. Though they do not speculate on the causes.

In this election, I felt it may be exactly as you express: a reflection of apathy or frustration to the corruption of the system.

But, part of me has to reflect on electoral dynamics. In the US, it is often argued that low voter turn out is impacted by elections being held during the work week. Elections being held on a Sunday, would naturally lower Christian turn out for strict practitioners of this faith. Probably of more importance, the tradition of Sunday afternoon family visits would be a deterrent as well.

I have to wonder is there a particularly high level of apathy or another social factor?

arn said...

Elections in Lebanon are typically held on Sundays, so that would not be an issue. It is the day that most people are likely to have off, including Muslims.
In the Metn participation rates have sometime been very low, such as in 1992 when there was a boycott of the Syrian-manipulated election.
The level of participation in election was about normal. No doubt, there are voters who dislike both candidates, or simply were too busy to bother. Voter apathy is not unlike to the USA.
Even so, the fact that Aoun was able to win a seat in the stronghold of the Gemayel's, in an election there was some level of sympathy for the father of the assasinated Pierre Gemayel, and when a lot of was available to Amin Gemayel to "persuade" voters (vote buying is common in Lebanon), should be bracing for anyone heretofore persuaded that the Lebanese government enjoys broad support.
Then again, it is only one seat, but my assessment is that in a national election, the parliament would be won by the opposition, not by the government. This is why the government will never willingly call early elections.

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