Lebanon Today after Yesterday!

Newropeans Magazine, France
Aug 10 2007

Lebanon Today after Yesterday!

Written by Harry Hagopian
Friday, 10 August 2007

Last Sunday, I took a risk that is quite unusual for my political
temperament! I forecast in a live interview with a local radio news
programme that the relatively unknown Camille Khoury from the
opposition Free Patriotic Movement (familiar for its bright
orange-colours) would win the parliamentary by-election in the
largely [Maronite] Christian Metn district of Mount Lebanon (al-Metn
al-Shamali), just north of Beirut.

I also segued this prediction with another one whereby the candidate
running in a Beirut district, Mohammed Al-Amin Itani from the
Al-Moustaqbal Movement that is part of Sa’ad Hariri’s ruling
political majority, would also win overwhelmingly.
As things go, I was proven right in both cases and as such managed to
salvage my political instincts let alone reputation!

It would not be an exaggeration to claim that the result in Beirut
was never in doubt, since everyone knew that Itani would walk into
the seat of the late Walid Eido who was assassinated on 13th June –
although his murderers have not been identified or caught yet. But
the result in Metn, a Christian stronghold with beautiful hills,
stood at a knife’s edge until after the closure of the ballot boxes.
In this case, former president Amin Gemayel was running against
Camille Khoury to replace his son Pierre who was assassinated on 21st
November 2006 – although his murderers have neither been identified
nor apprehended too. As such, this particular by-election was a
critical – and defining – Christian head-on collision between the
Phalangist (Al-Kataeb) Party and that of the Free Patriotic Movement
led by former general Michel Aoun
Mind you, this by-election in Metn was not only an over-heated
exercise in democracy. In its essence, it pitted two visions, two
alternatives and as such two personalities. On the one hand, there
was Aoun’s Syria-friendly political movement that is in some sort of
loose alliance with the Coalition of the 8th of March (including the
two Shi’ite Hizbullah and Amal currents). On the other hand was the
Syria-unfriendly Coalition of the 14th of March (part of the ruling
majority headed by PM Fouad Siniora and including other Christians,
Druze and Sunni Muslims). In fact, the end-game of this rivalry was
not solely this by-election, crucial though it was for Lebanon.
Rather, it was viewed as a barometer that would determine who could
claim to assume the mantle of Christian leadership in Lebanon and
therefore represent the Christian ranks in the presidential elections
due to take place no later than 23rd November.

So Michel Aoun (who returned from exile in France in 2005 and
proceeded at the time to win over 70% of the Maronite votes) was
trying to show that he still represented the Christians of Lebanon,
and therefore he also was the appropriate politician to succeed Emile
Lahhoud, the incumbent lame duck president. He, and his unknown
candidate, campaigned with a populist message eschewing what they
called Lebanon’s sectarian feudalism. Amin Gemayel, on the other
hand, was attempting to disprove that Aoun represented the legitimacy
of the Christian stream (al-tayyar al-masihi) in Lebanon anymore and
that he was not ipso facto the most suitable presidential candidate
for the future of an independent Lebanon.
This is perhaps one reason why the electioneering process got at
times harshly personal and intentionally injurious. However, now that
the electoral dust has settled, Camille Khoury has won by the
narrowest of margins. In fact, the Lebanese Ministry of Interior
quashed all rumours of vote-rigging and indicated that Khoury had won
with 39,534 votes whereas Gemayel had lost with 39,116 votes. In
other words, he had won the seat with the merest 418 votes.
However, I would like to share with my readers a few conclusions I
derive from those results:
– Although Aoun’s select candidate won the election, Aoun’s hopes to
be the undisputed presidential candidate representing the Christian
Lebanese constituency have suffered a severe – well nigh fatal –
blow. In fact, having garnered a huge number of Christian votes in
2005, he has now scraped through with the barest majority. And
although this is a majority that wins a democratic election, it is
not a majority that validates any claim that he and his movement can
now represent the Christian stream in Lebanon. Rather, as things
presently stand for Aoun, his oft-erratic attitude toward other
Christian leaders let alone his almost megalomaniacal belief in his
own exclusive attributes as sole saviour of Lebanon, have been
downgraded quite devastatingly. He has probably lost the endorsement
of Hizbullah as possible future president, and I tend to disagree
with ex-minister Wi’am Wahab, head of the Lebanese Unification
Movement, when he claims that Aoun is the ideal successor to Lahhoud.
Besides, Aoun has also lost the claim to be the most powerful
Christian political and cultist personality in Lebanon, and has
severely mauled his chances for the presidency. In fact, his mere
participation in the elections somewhat ironically meant that he
recognised the legitimacy of his nemesis PM Fouad Siniora since the
call for those elections was made by a decree from Siniora’s
government but lacked the signature of the presidency.
– Amin Gemayel lost his attempt to reclaim his son’s seat. However,
he attracted the majority of Maronite votes in Metn (conservative
estimates give him at least a respectable 57% of those votes), and as
such can lay a claim co-equal to that of Aoun for representing the
Christian street. But I am unsure that his presidential prospects
have not been dashed as well as a result of this bruising and
indecisive election.
– In this fracas à deux between two political personalities –
representing two antithetical forces – desperate to carve a way for
their own ambitions as much as for the future direction of Lebanon,
the losers by proxy are regretfully the Lebanese Christians. Weakened
already by years of emigration and thwarted dreams, their polarity
has been compromised further and they are now in search of a new
leader and a new voice. The next president will still be a Maronite
Christian according to the Constitution, but it could possibly be an
independent candidate who is allied to neither of the two coalitions.
After all, given the results, it would be a travesty for the whole
Lebanese people if any outside forces engineered the choice of the
next president.
– The Armenian vote was decisive in Khoury’s victory. In fact, the
statistics show that 8400 Armenian votes went to the victor, against
1600 for the loser. However, even this trend is not straightforward.
In fact, the predominant Armenian political force that allied itself
with Aoun for purely parochial calculations is the Tashnak party that
is usually the most disciplined and organised of Armenian political
parties. However, it surprised many Armenians that the Tashnak
representative and party would jump awkwardly headlong in their
support for Aoun’s candidate and therefore go against a long
tradition of supporting the state. Notwithstanding, 19% of Armenians
defied official exhortations by voting against the official choice.
– The Maronite Church – spearheaded by its ageing but revered
patriarch – showed once more that its influence over its Maronite
candidates is increasingly less concrete. This is the continuation of
a waning influence of the church in Lebanon, and removes further the
ecclesial power over Lebanese political events. In fact, HB Patriarch
Nasrallah Sfeir distinctly failed in his numerous mediation efforts
between Aoun and Gemayel. An admission of his limited horizons was
highlighted in his Sunday sermon when he called on "our children to
practise their legitimate right in electing who ever they deem fit to
represent them in parliament. This is a national duty.
– However, despite all those worrying trends about the elections, and
despite the fact that this fragile result was as much a consequence
of the votes coming from the moutajanissin (Syrian individuals who
had acquired Lebanese citizenship and were bussed into Lebanon to
cast their votes) as it was from the supporters of Michel Murr, one
thing remains clear. Lebanon is arguably the only country in the Arab
world today that adheres to any exercise in democracy. So both the
government and the opposition can be proud mutatis mutandis that they
flew the banner of democracy despite all the prevailing ill-winds and
the opportune pressures of the moment.
– Finally, both sides should also be proud that the results did not
deteriorate into street battles and ugly squabbles but were taken on
board with a telling sense of responsibility that shows a growing
political maturity with an awareness of the stakes and risks ahead.
With awareness come responsibility and ultimately leadership.
Lebanon is today facing many perils. Alliances are being forged
hither and thither, but regardless of those alliances – whether
direct or by proxy – it is again the ordinary, resourceful and
mercantile Lebanese people who are sadly paying the price of a
country whose choking confessionalism is inexorably jeopardising its
sense of identity. I hope that Metn will serve as another wakeup call
for all Lebanese parties. In their defence of their own Lebanese
positions, they are painstakingly – perhaps even sincerely –
splintering bit by bit a country that was once the envy of the world.
No wonder then that grassroots groups and networks recently launched
Khalas (Arabic for enough), a campaign aimed at encouraging the
feuding sides to resume national talks in an effort to end the
ongoing political impasse.

Robert Fisk, a journalist who does not mince his words but whose
observations are almost always relevant, concludes his latest article
Mistrust fuels cycle of violence in Lebanon by suggesting that
Lebanon lives `in the constant penumbra of civil war’. Much as I can
see where Fisk is coming from with this dire warning, I hope that
Lebanese politicians of all persuasions will pause long enough to
heed to this danger and give it a wide berth – by stopping to pander
to other parties’ interests and by focusing instead on what is truly
good for an independent Lebanon that stands as proudly as its cedar

Am I defining an illusion, or conjuring up a nightmare? The answer
lies not necessarily in Lebanon alone.

Dr Harry Hagopian
International Lawyer & Political Analyst