Mideast Monitor: The Pivotal Role of Lebanon’s Armenian Christians

Mideast Monitor
Vol. 4 No. 1 July-August 2009

The Pivotal Role of Lebanon’s Armenian Christians

by Gary C. Gambill

Lebanon’s parliamentary elections demonstrated the growing political
significance of the country’s seventh largest ethno-sectarian community.
Due to a number of political and historical factors, Armenian Christians
lined up predominantly on the side of the opposition and helped propel
it to victory in Lebanon’s largest Christian district. The balance of
power in the next election cycle may well hinge on whether they stay
this course.


Although small numbers of Armenians have lived in Lebanon for hundreds
of years, most Lebanese Armenians are the descendents of refugees who
fled Turkish persecution during World War I. A second wave of Armenian
refugees came in 1939, after France ceded the Syrian territory of
Alexandretta to Turkey. Lebanese Armenians are concentrated in three
main areas: east Beirut; Bourj Hammoud, a suburb of the capital in the
district of Metn; and the town of Anjar in the Beqaa Valley.

The country’s only significant non-Arab minority, the Armenian Christian
community, not only preserved its distinctive ethnic and cultural
identity, religion, and language over the years, but also functioned as
the cultural and spiritual capital of the broader Armenian Diaspora.
There are dozens of Armenian schools in Lebanon. Haigazian University in
Beirut is the only Armenian institution of higher learning in the Diaspora.

Most Lebanese Armenians feel strong solidarity with the Diaspora, but
this conviction does not conflict significantly with their Lebanese
identity and exerts little direct influence on their domestic politics
today.[1] Armenians are somewhat unique among Lebanese confessional
groups in having no landed notability or traditional political
aristocracy, as destitution and forced migration proved to be a powerful
social equalizer.

The three main Armenian parties in Lebanon – Tashnag (by far the
largest), Ramgavar, and Hunshak – are branches of larger Armenian
Diaspora parties that pre-date Lebanon’s independence and their
ideological differences relate mainly to pan-Armenian issues. Tashnag’s
power derives in part from its organic relationship with the powerful
Holy See of Cilicia, one of two Catholicosates that represent Armenian
Orthodox around the globe. The Catholicosate left its original
headquarters in Echmiadzin, Armenia in 1058 and settled in Cilicia.
Although a new Catholicos was elected in Echmiadzin in 1441, the
Catholicosate of Cilicia kept operating from Turkey until it was forced
out in 1915 and settled in a suburb of Beirut. Armenian Catholicoi are
usually elected by a mechanism that involves delegates representing the
population, so Tashnag’s influence throughout the Diaspora has filtered
up into the ranks of the clergy, who in turn grant the party further
legitimacy among the relatively conservative Armenian community.

When the Soviet Union, with the endorsement of Hunshak and Ramgavar,
gained effective control over the Echmiadzin Catholicosate and threw
Tashnag officials out of Armenia, tensions among the rival parties led
to violent altercations and even assassinations in Lebanon (and
elsewhere in the Diaspora). Following the deaths of roughly a hundred
Armenians in Lebanon’s brief 1958 civil war, however, they began to
exhibit more communal solidarity and intra-Armenian violence has since
been relatively rare.

Under Lebanon’s communitarian democratic system, ethnic Armenians
receive a fixed number of parliamentary seats, presently six out of 128.
There is a widespread consensus that Armenians should vote as a bloc,
and more often than not the three main political parties have agreed
upon a common slate of candidates. They have tended to give electoral
support to governing elites, particularly the president, in exchange for
policies that advance Armenian communal interests. Prior to the outbreak
of civil war in 1975, the Tashnag-led Armenian bloc aligned with Pierre
Gemayel’s predominantly Maronite Christian Phalange party.

Armenian groups did not play an active role in the 1975-1990 Lebanon
war, despite efforts by the Phalangists and later the predominantly
Christian Lebanese Forces (LF) militia to pressure them into taking
sides. Unfortunately, this lack of protection contributed to a flood of
Armenian emigration that continued after the Syrians completed their
occupation of Lebanon in 1990. By some estimates, more than half of the
250,000-strong Armenian community left and never returned.

During the 1990s, the three Armenian parties adopted much the same
political strategy as they did before the war. In the 1992 and 1996
elections, they reached agreement on a politically mixed, though
Tashnag-dominated, slate of candidates and forged coalitions with the
most powerful political barons in their respective districts. In Metn,
they joined forces with Greek Orthodox Christian leader Michel Murr, an
alliance that dates back half a century. They sided with late Prime
Minister Rafiq Hariri in his electoral stronghold of Beirut. These
alliances caused resentment among Christian opposition candidates who
ran against the electoral coalitions of Hariri and Murr.

Hariri had a falling out with Tashnag in 1998, when pro-Tashnag members
of parliament gave their vote of confidence to a new prime minister
favored by Hariri’s archrival, newly elected President Emile Lahoud.[2]
Consequently, prior to the 2000 elections Hariri demanded that Tashnag
commit its candidates to vote in line with his parliamentary bloc (not
the standard practice in Lebanon, where electoral coalitions are usually
fleeting). When Tashnag rejected these terms, Hariri picked lesser-known
Armenian candidates affiliated with Ramgavar and Hunshak, who pledged
and subsequently practiced unswerving loyalty.

In an effort to woo Armenian voters away from Tashnag, Hariri showered
charitable contributions on the Armenian community, while his Future TV
station began broadcasting a 15-minute Armenian language nightly
newscast. Because Armenian neighborhoods in Beirut were split into
different districts under the 2000 electoral law, Hariri was able to
ensure the election of four Armenian members of parliament who the large
majority of Armenians had voted against. Tashnag, which forged
ineffective alliances with Hariri’s enemies, captured only the Armenian
seats in Metn and Zahleh.

After the Syrian Withdrawal

Tashnag faced a difficult situation after the withdrawal of Syrian
forces from Lebanon in the spring of 2005, weeks ahead of parliamentary
elections. Once again, the late Hariri’s Future Movement swept the
elections in Beirut, though Tashnag retained control of Armenian seats
in Metn and Zahleh, held by Hagop Pakradounian and George Kasarji, by
aligning with Murr and Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM).

In August 2007, Tashnag again sided with Aoun and Murr in a
parliamentary by-election in Metn, which pitted former President Amine
Gemayel against Camille Khoury, a virtually unknown member of the FPM.
Although the Ramgavar and Hunshak parties supported Gemayel, the roughly
10,000 Armenian voters in the district cast their ballots for Khoury by
a margin of more than five to one, enabling the FPM to narrowly win the
majority Maronite district by 418 votes.[3]

The FPM victory led to an eruption of anti-Armenian sentiment among
March 14 politicians and press outlets. Minutes after the results were
released, Gemayel declared that he, not Khoury, was "the true Christian
representative," implying that Armenians were not true Christians.[4]
"Armenians are outside the Lebanese will" and "are here to create a
civil war," said Gabriel Murr on a popular Lebanese talk show
program.[5] The pro-March 14 daily L’Orient Le Jour proclaimed the
election result "a fake victory" in its headline the following day,[6]
while Hariri’s Al-Mustaqbal newspaper ran the headline "Two-thirds of
Maronites vote for Gemayel, their seat goes to Aoun by 418 votes."[7]

The Armenian community was deeply shaken by these slurs, which brought
back memories of Phalangist intimidation during the civil war. "No one
should allow himself to attack the honor of the Armenian community,"
said Bishop Aram I Keshishian, head of the Cilicia Catholicosate. "We
understand that some tense and sometimes harmful statements are
delivered during and after electoral battles, [but] we do not accept
unfounded accusations and offensive comments."[8] Tashnag leaders were
less understanding, accusing Gemayel of bigotry and racism.[9] Although
Gemayel was quick to proclaim his affection and respect for the Armenian
community, his refusal to apologize for his election night rhetoric
continues to irk many Armenians.

The 2009 Elections

In the aftermath of the Metn by-election, March 14 leaders made
concerted attempts to woo the Armenian community away from Aoun, an
effort that would have been futile had it not been for the defection of
Michel Murr from the opposition in 2008. Last February, Murr formally
announced that he and Gemayel were forming a joint ticket in Metn and
hinted that he could persuade Tashnag to switch sides as well.

Over the next two months, Tashnag conducted negotiations with both March
14 and the opposition. While there were rumors of disagreement between
Tashnag Secretary-General Hovig Mekhitarian and Pakradounian over which
side to choose, it appears unlikely that a full-fledged defection by
Tashnag was ever in the offing. Tashnag’s goal is to build a unified
Armenian parliamentary bloc on par with what existed before 2000. Keen
on preserving his ties with Hunshak and Ramgavar, Saad Hariri insisted
on being able to name most of the Armenian candidates in Beirut.[10]
Aoun, on the other hand, was willing to give Tashnag the final say over
the selection of Armenian candidates. In fact, during the March
14-opposition talks that led to the May 2008 Doha Accord, he won
enormous acclaim from Tashnag by pressing for the establishment of an
all-Armenian electoral district in Beirut.[11]

Tashnag urged Hunshak and Ramgavar to join it in a united Armenian
front, but its rivals were squarely in the Hariri camp.[12] MP Serge
Torsarkissian of the Ramgavar party warned that an Armenian
parliamentary bloc dominated by Tashnag "would pose a danger to
Lebanon."[13] In addition to patronizing Ramgavar and Hunshak, Hariri is
widely believed to have financed the establishment of the Free Lebanese
Armenian Movement (FLAM), led by Nareg Aprahamian, a retired army general.

In late March, Tashnag officially announced that it would remain with
the opposition, albeit with two minor caveats. In the 8-seat Metn
district, Tashnag instructed its constituents to vote for Murr alone,
but not for the other candidates on his list. In exchange, March 14 did
not field a candidate for the district’s Armenian seat, allowing an
uncontested victory for Pakradounian. In addition, by prior arrangement,
pro-Tashnag candidate Arthur Nazarian and Hunshak candidate Sebouh
Kalbakian were elected uncontested in Beirut’s second district, in
conformity with the Doha Accord.

It is not entirely clear what reasoning lay behind Tashnag’s choice. It
is difficult to justify the decision purely in terms of narrow electoral
self-interest. Although two of its candidates won uncontested victories,
the other three – Freij Saboungian and Krikor Calouste in Beirut’s first
district, and Kasarji in Zahleh – faced difficult electoral battles (and
ultimately lost).[14] Had Tashnag aligned with March 14, it would have
had a strong chance of winning four seats.

Pakradounian called the decision to stick with Aoun "a response to the
[March 14] policy of marginalizing Armenians,"[15] and it is probably
true that Armenian resentment tipped the scales. Gemayel did not help
matters by publicly warning the party that he would run a "closed list"
in Metn (i.e. including an Armenian candidate), if an agreement could
not be reached with Tashnag. Aoun smartly avoided so much as a hint of
intimidation, and it paid off.

The election was fiercely contested, with both coalitions spending a
considerable amount of money on Armenian language media advertising. Due
to the opposition’s unexpected loss in Zahleh (alongside its expected
loss in Beirut I), Tashnag ended up with just two seats, in Metn and
Beirut II. Its support for Aoun was critical to the opposition’s capture
of six out of eight seats in Metn (Murr and Gemayel were the only March
14 candidates elected), though its formidable confessional mobilization
may have backfired in Zahleh by provoking Sunnis in the district to
close ranks, resulting in an opposition loss there. Nevertheless, as a
test of Tashnag’s leverage over the Armenian community and ability to
mobilize its supporters to adhere to delicate alliances, the election
can be regarded as a success for the party.

Not surprisingly, there was much grumbling about Tashnag among March 14
Christian leaders after the vote. Murr lashed out at his former ally,
accusing it of threatening his Armenian "friends" to prevent them from
casting their votes in his favor and suggested that the "massive"
Armenian turnout in Bourj Hammoud was the result of fraud.[16] Lebanese
Forces MP Antoine Zahra denounced Tashnag and accused it of behaving as
a "colony" in Lebanon, lacking "pure origin."[17] Such comments sparked
rebukes within the March 14 coalition from Prime Minister Fouad
Siniora[18] and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.[19]

Although formally part of Aoun’s Change and Reform bloc, Tashnag’s
pre-election flirtations with Hariri and Gemayel suggest that it will
keep its options open for a possible political repositioning. The party
has always been open to alliances with different Lebanese parties on the
condition that they acknowledge it as the major political representative
of the Armenian community. With the rest of the Christian community more
or less evenly divided, it will continue to play a critical swing role
and competition for its allegiance is likely to be heated.


[1] The most notable exception is their nearly universal insistence
that Lebanese government institutions officially condemn as genocide the
Ottoman Empire’s mass murder of Armenians nearly a century ago.
[2] Pro-Hunshak MP Yeghig Jerejian and Ramgavar-backed MP Hagop
Demirjian remained loyal.
[3] Khoury won roughly 8,400 Armenian votes, while Gemayel received
1,600. Al-Nahar (Beirut), 6 August 2007.
[4] "Rival Lebanese leaders claim by-elections as ‘victory’," The
Daily Star (Beirut), 7 August 2007.
[5] Quoted in The Metn Fallout, Nowlebanon.com, 14 August 2007.
[6] L’Orient Le Jour (Beirut), 6 August 2007.
[7] Al-Mustaqbal (Beirut), 6 August 2007. Italics added for emphasis.
[8] National News Agency (Beirut), 6 August 2007. Translation by BBC
[9] Ibid.
[10] "Tashnaq rejects Hariri’s proposal, confirms alliance with FPM
and Skaff," Nowlebanon.com, 1 April 2009. In exchange, Hariri was
reportedly willing to let Tashnag choose the Armenian representative(s)
in the cabinet. See "Outcome of Metn polls may hinge on Armenians," The
Daily Star (Beirut), 7 March 2009.
[11] "Analysts say Tueni will beat Aoun’s candidate in Beirut race,"
The Daily Star (Beirut), 19 March 2009. Aoun eventually managed to press
for an all-Christian district in Achrafieh featuring two Armenian seats
and bargain for an uncontested distribution of two other Armenian seats
in another district.
[12] Tashnag called for "the reactivation of the Armenian bloc, which
would include six deputies, one for each party, and the remaining three
will be assigned after consensus." "Tashnaq rejects Hariri’s proposal,
confirms alliance with FPM and Skaff," Nowlebanon.com, 1 April 2009.
[13] "Suleiman describes ties with Syria as ‘excellent’," The Daily
Star, 30 March 2009.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Lebanese Armenians and the ‘Madness’ of Political Alignment,
Al-Sharq al-Awsat English, 18 April 2009.
[16] Michel al-Murr, Nowlebanon.com, 17 July 2009.
[17] Zahra: Tashnag Armenian Party Behaves as Colony in Lebanon,
almanar.com.lb, 10 June 2009.
[18] "We are hearing increasingly that so-and-so made it parliament
because of the Sunni vote, or the Shia vote or the Armenian vote. What
is this language we are using? Are the Sunnis, Shia and Armenians not
Lebanese?" said Siniora on June 19. Nicholas Lowry, Armenians after the
vote, Nowlebanon.com, 19 June 2009.
[19] Jumblatt condemned those "who are describing the Armenians and
the Tashnag party as outsiders." Quoted in "Sfeir: Poll result averted
takeover by Iran, Syria," The Daily Star (Beirut), 12 June 2009.

© 2009 Mideast Monitor. All rights reserved.

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