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