New Political Landscape


9 – 15 August 2007

A win for a Hizbullah ally in a by-election was another blow to US
plans for Lebanon, Lucy Fielder reports

Former general Michel Aoun’s victory in the weekend by-election north
of Beirut was a slap in the face for Lebanon’s US-backed government,
although he won by a hair’s breadth. The balance of power remains
roughly as before, but the poll was a test of the strength of Lebanon’s
two battling factions in the run-up to flashpoint presidential
elections in September.

This was also the first test of whether Aoun’s strategic alliance with
the Shia guerrilla group Hizbullah over the past year and a half had
cost him support, as his detractors believe.

Both sides claimed victory, at first literally, then symbolically as
the dust cleared and the official results were announced. Aoun led
by only 418 votes.

But nonetheless, victory it was. Aoun overcame considerable obstacles
to beat former president Amin Gemayel in his own constituency to win
the seat left empty by his son Pierre’s assassination in November. The
Phalange party and militia founded by his father is based in the family
seat of Bikfaya, a mountain village perched high above the capital.

Gemayel conducted an emotional campaign flanked by photographs of his
son and other "martyrs" from Lebanese Christian ranks. Anti- Syrian
politicians and columnists queued up to accuse Aoun of stepping into
a dead man’s shoes.

Despite Aoun’s war against the Syrians at the tail-end of the civil
war and opposition to Syrian interference until it withdrew troops
in 2005, he was dubbed Syria’s man because Damascus supports his ally
Hizbullah. This was particularly significant because the US-backed 14
March movement blames Syria for a string of assassinations in Lebanon,
including that of Pierre Gemayel.

A Sunni seat was simultaneously contested in Beirut, following MP
Walid Eido’s assassination in a car bomb in June. As expected, the
Future Movement of Saad Al-Hariri, which dominates the government,
held on to it with ease.

But this, too, was hardly a resounding victory. Turn-out was a meagre
19 per cent in the majority Sunni area, and the opposition didn’t back
any candidate. Hizbullah’s decision not to back anyone for the Sunni
seat was most likely aimed at avoiding stirring Sunni-Shia tensions.

Both by-elections played out according to parochial politics, but at
heart was the usual struggle for Lebanon, said Paul Salem, head of the
Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Centre in Beirut. "The Christians are
not the ones leading Lebanon, this was part of the stand-off between
the Sunni-dominated government, the Shia-led opposition and an array of
regional backers, the Iranians, the Saudis, the Americans and so on."

The elections passed more peacefully than expected, although two people
were treated for gunshot wounds in Metn. A wave of flags swept over
the mountains above Beirut while the army and security forces kept
rival groups apart.

The real drama began after polling stations closed, with both Aoun
and Gemayel delivering victory speeches and sending supporters to a
square east of Beirut to celebrate — divided by armoured personnel
carriers and soldiers.

Presidential hopeful Aoun’s win by such a slight margin showed a
significant drop in support from the 2005 election, shortly after the
Syrian withdrawal, when he commanded around 70 per cent of support
in Metn, Salem said. "Aoun can no longer claim to represent 70 per
cent of the Christians in the run-up to presidential elections," he
said. "That’s a chink in the opposition’s armour," he said, though
Aoun remains a strong Christian leader.

Salem said the low-turn out for Beirut’s second district was likely
because the victory of Future candidate Mohamed Amine Itani was a
foregone conclusion.

Karim Makdisi of the American University of Beirut said the poll laid
to rest the idea that Aoun no longer represented Christian voters,
despite the mobilisation of the "sympathy vote" for a bereaved father
and blatantly sectarian attempts to portray him as more a Shia and
Syrian choice than a Maronite one.

"Perhaps the most important outcome is that now the president cannot
really be chosen without at least Aoun’s approval. If he had lost,
14 March would just have been able to choose someone and push ahead
with their agenda," Makdisi said. Hariri and other anti-Syrian
leaders have threatened to appoint a president with the approval of
only half of the MPs, rather than the two-thirds quorum required by
the constitution. Public criticism even from prominent politicians
within 14 March ranks threw the attempt into doubt.

Although parochial and not a decisive blow, the Aoun by-election
combined with regional developments such as the Hamas victory in
Palestine and Israel’s failure to defeat Hizbullah last summer to
show that neo-conservative US foreign policy-makers cannot simply
impose their will, Makdisi said. "Aoun’s win will not stop the US and
Europe from vetoing someone they don’t like, but they’ll now have to
consult and go through the arduous campaign of finding a compromise
presidential candidate. Despite all the media and diplomatic support,
the US couldn’t even ensure their candidate’s by-election victory."

The defeat of the "House of Gemayel" was a nail in the coffin of
Lebanon’s traditional Maronite political class, Makdisi continued. The
Taif Accord that ended Lebanon’s 1975-90 Civil War transferred powers
from the once-strong Maronite president to the Sunni prime minister
and, to a lesser extent, the Shia parliamentary speaker. The war and
post-war period saw Lebanon’s traditional zuama landlord-leaders’ power
decline, especially among the Shia and Sunnis. Now, a new generation
of Maronites were also turning their backs on the past. "Gemayel
belongs to the old Maronite political class that rejects the idea
that its time is over," Makdisi said.

"This puts a dent in Gemayel’s resurgence as an elder statesman of
the Lebanese establishment."

Gemayel’s speech before the final results, with a silent Lebanese
Forces leader Samir Geagea at his elbow, was replete with gaffes. He
accused the Armenian Tashnag Party, which backed Aoun, of cheating and
called for the ballot in the largely Armenian quarter of Bourj Hammoud
to be cancelled. He himself had fared better "among Christians",
he said, accusing the Armenian party of trying to "impose its will
on the people of Metn" and implying the Armenians were neither proper
Lebanese nor true Christians. His ally MP Gabriel Al-Murr made similar
statements, and Hariri’s Mustaqbal newspaper concluded the next day
that Aoun had only won because of the Armenian vote, apparently
ignoring the fact that opportunistic alliances are a fixture of
Lebanese elections and helped propel the incumbents to power.

Gemayel’s comments drew a furious response from the Tashnag Party and
the Armenian clergy. "The irrational and heated statements delivered
by some Lebanese leaders are nothing but an outburst of anger that
showed the hatred they have been hiding for decades," Tashnag said
in a statement.

Gemayel committed a faux pas, says Karim Makdisi of the American
University in Beirut, but it was nonetheless an honest response from
the leader of the Phalange party, which participated in a number of
civil war massacres. "The Phalange is after all a very right-wing
Christian nationalist party that believes that the only real Lebanese
that count are the Maronites," he said.