A Popularity Contest In Lebanon


Al-Ahram Weekly, Egypt
Aug 2 2007

A by-election in a Christian heartland this weekend will take the
pulse of Lebanon’s sparring factions. Lucy Fielder reports from Beirut

Sunday’s by-elections in Mount Lebanon and Beirut threaten to be
heated and messy, judging by this week’s cacophony of mud-slinging
and rhetoric from leaders and media representing Lebanon’s opposing
camps. At stake are two seats vacated by the assassination of MPs
Pierre Gemayel and Walid Eido, both from the ruling "14th March"

Most Lebanese see the vote in Metn, a predominantly Christian mountain
region north of Beirut, as a referendum on the relative popularity
of opposition Christian leader Michel Aoun and the "14th March"
ruling movement.

Former president Amin Gemayel is contesting the seat left empty when
his son Pierre was gunned down last November. Metn has been a safe seat
for the Gemayel clan for decades and the Phalange Party it founded in
the 1930s has its headquarters in the lofty village of Bikfaya. Pierre
Gemayel’s assassination is likely to rally "14th March" supporters
behind his father. Large billboards of Pierre have flanked Gemayel in
his rally speeches and Bikfaya held a mass commemorating its dead son
this weekend. Nonetheless, the polls’ favourite is Camille Khoury,
candidate for Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement.

Two factions have played tug-of-war with Lebanon since the
assassination of former prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri in February 2005
forced Syrian troops to withdraw. Prime Minister Fouad Al-Siniora’s
government and its supporters pull Lebanon towards an ever more
involved United States and accuse Syria of the string of assassinations
that have shaken Lebanon. At the other end of the rope, Hizbullah tries
to keep Lebanon in an eastern orbit with its allies Iran and Syria.

Polls predict the Beirut seat will stay with the Sunni Future Movement
of Hariri’s son Saad, who heads the "14th March" parliamentary
majority. A car bomb killed Hariri ally Walid Eido in June on
the seafront in Beirut and the favourite to replace him is Mohamed
Amine Itani. Of Lebanon’s major sects, the Sunnis are overwhelmingly
behind Hariri, the Shia behind Hizbullah, and the numerically small
but politically significant Druze minority follows "14th March’s"
Walid Jumblatt. Only the Christians are significantly divided.

Aoun’s alliance with Hizbullah endured Israel’s bombardment of Lebanon
and the ensuing internal blame- game — with a significant proportion
of Lebanese blaming Hizbullah for drawing Israel’s fire by kidnapping
two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border attack last July.

Most observers believe the axis has cost Aoun Maronite support but he
remains the single most popular Christian leader, ahead of far-right
Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, a "14th March" leader.

Abdo Saad, head of the Beirut Centre for Research and Information,
said a poll he conducted on Friday forecast a clear win for Aoun’s
Free Patriotic Movement. "But it’s not easy to predict in a volatile
area such as Metn, it could all change," he said. Twenty per cent of
Metn voters have no political affiliation and could go either way,
he said. And in shock-prone Lebanon, major upheaval before then is
always possible.

Saad said he was unable to release the results of the privately
commissioned poll, but the margin was clear. For Gemayel to change the
result, Aoun’s allies, MP Michel Murr and the Armenian party Tashnaq,
would need to renege on their promised support and the former president
would need to attract 70 per cent of independents.

"I would be surprised if the tayyar [Aoun’s FPM] didn’t win," he said.

Aoun and Gemayel traded insults this week and rival supporters kicked,
punched and beat each other with sticks on the streets northeast of
Beirut. Gemayel described Aoun as pro-Syrian and his alliance with
Hizbullah as an "alliance against nature", depicting the by- election
as a "struggle for Lebanon’s survival". Aoun responded by slamming
the former president as a "failure" as a politician. "Not you, nor
anything you boast of reaches to below my waist level," he said.

Aoun has contested the constitutionality of the election because Prime
Minister Siniora signed off on it after pro-Syrian President Emile
Lahoud refused. After a Free Patriotic Movement legal appeal against
the election failed, Aoun decided against a threatened boycott and
put Khoury’s name forward. However, he still portrays the contest as a
battle against the violation of the constitution. The constitutional
council was re-considering the validity of the election at the time
of writing.

Aoun would consider the cancelling of the election a victory as much
as winning the seat said Charles Harb, an American University of
Beirut psychology professor and political analyst. "But if Aoun wins
he’ll be able to say the candidates that Hariri is putting forward
lack credibility. It would put a serious dent in the ’14th March’
if Gemayel does not get re-elected in his own constituency."

A fierce battle for Lebanon’s presidency looms in September. Former
general Aoun has long had his eye on the post, traditionally reserved
for a Maronite Christian under Lebanon’s sectarian system. Gemayel,
who was president with US backing from 1982-88 at the height of the
war, may be planning to stand again. "This by- election will strengthen
the hand of the winner for the presidential elections," Harb said.

He described the relationship between Aoun and Gemayel as a "tumultuous
history" of "marriage ending in divorce". The two were allies during
Gemayel’s presidency, and in 1988 it was he who appointed Aoun, then
commander of the army, as prime minister, despite the Sunni claim
to that position. Parallel governments and Aoun’s doomed military
campaign against the Syrians were to ensue.

But the two have squared off in the political dispute of the past
two years.

Maronite divisions have rattled Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir,
who sees them as diminishing the clout of the traditionally powerful
sect. He urged his followers to unite this week and appeared to hint
that Aoun should bow out by pointing out the seats in question belonged
to assassinated MPs. He called for the by-election to be postponed or a
"consensus" MP found.

Khaled Saghieh wrote in the independent, pro- opposition Al-Akhbar
newspaper last week that the patriarchate usually pleaded for
"unity of the ranks" at times of electoral battle. It appeared that
the patriarch was "jealous" of the other major sects, which have
overwhelmingly adopted one opinion and one leader, he said.

"Thus, the Maronite patriarch came up with a special recipe that
includes democracy but without threatening the unity of the ranks.

What does this mean? It means simply that the Christian political
leaders have no role to play and the differences and disagreements
between them are secondary to the higher interests of the sect,
determined by the church and its master, the patriarch from Bkirki,"
Saghieh wrote.