Election Leaves Lebanese Christians Deeply Divided


Kuwait Times, Kuwait
Aug 7 2007

BEIRUT: The deadlocked struggle between the pro-US government and
mainly Shiite opposition deepened after a tense parliamentary election
showed a sharp divide among Christians, a key swing bloc.

That deadlock was reinforced when pro-government candidate Amin
Gemayel, a former president and the head of one of Lebanon’s most
powerful Maronite Christian families, conceded defeat Monday by a
mere 418 votes in Sunday’s election in the Christian stronghold of
Metn north of Beirut.

The victor was little-known Kamil Khoury, who was backed by the most
prominent Christian leader in the pro-Syrian opposition, Michel Aoun.

Khoury took 39,534 votes to Gemayel’s 39,116. The result "reaffirms
the existing stalemate," said Rami Khoury, an analyst with the Issam
Fares think tank at the American University of Beirut. "It shows
a very polarized Christian community." Sunnis are the base for the
ruling coalition, which opposes Syrian influence.

Shiite Muslims, led by Hezbollah, overwhelmingly back the pro-Syrian
opposition. Neither side has been able to decisively lure the
Christians, around a third of Lebanon’s 4 million people, to their
camp. Many fear the deepening stalemate may lead to the formation
of competing governments if it is not resolved before the race to
replace pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, whose term ends Nov. 23.

Under Lebanon’s division of power among its sects, the presidency must
be held by a Maronite Christian chosen parliament. Now, no Maronite
leader can boost his bid among lawmakers by claiming to represent the
entire community. Prime Minister Fuad Saniora’s backers are hoping
to finally put in place an anti-Syrian figure in the presidency to
strengthen their power. They rose to control the government after
Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon in 2005, ending Damascus’
decadeslong control of Lebanon.

But the political struggle with the Hezbollah-led opposition has
sapped the anti-Syrian movement’s power and paralyzed the government.

Gemayel’s loss is a setback for his potential as a candidate. Aoun
has said he will stand for the presidency. But the slimness of Kamil
Khoury’s victory Sunday damages his patron Aoun’s attempts to present
himself as the top Christian politician. "Aoun is still a formidable
figure but cannot really present himself as the leading Maronite
figure anymore.

That’s probably the single most significant element in the election,"
said Rami Khoury, the analyst. Gemayel, 65, was running in his
home district with an implicit endorsement by the powerful Maronite
patriarch. He was seeking to replace his son, Pierre Gemayel, who
was gunned down in November in an attack that government supporters
blamed on Syria. Gemayel got more of the Maronite vote than his rival-
75 percent, according to press reports. But Aoun’s candidate made up
for it by winning other Christians’ votes.

Gemayel supporters blamed his loss on the large ethnic Armenian
community in the Metn district and said Kamil Khoury was not
representative of the Maronites, who form a majority in the district
and are the largest Christian sect in Lebanon. Armenians are largely
Catholic or Orthodox Christian. Another election Sunday was to replace
lawmaker Walid Eido, a Sunni Muslim who was killed in a June car
bombing there. A pro-government candidate, Mohammed Al-Amin Itani,
won that race easily.