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The Cedar’s Ashes

Bilal El-Amine
Date Published: 
May 21, 2005

All eyes in Lebanon right now are on the parliamentary elections scheduled to start at the end of May and run for 3 weekends, ending sometime in mid-June. A lot has happened since they were declared, a period of dizzying flux followed immediately as each camp moved to claim its piece. Only recently has it become clear where things are going, who are the winners and losers, and why. And given Lebanon’s, lets say, diverse political landscape, it’s enough to make your head spin. Lebanon, to virtually all here, has now passed from Syrian rule to what people here politely refer to as “international oversight” (i.e., Lebanon now answers to Washington and Paris). The US ambassador is quite active these days—there isn’t a politician that he doesn’t visit these days (except of course Hizbullah, although even that is in the offing from what I’ve heard—the US has invited Hizbullah’s current minister for talks in New York). As with Syria before, all the major decisions now are being made in consultation with Lebanon’s new masters. The main contention domestically over the elections centered on the size of the electoral district (either the larger muhafaza or the smaller qada’ ). As with all politics here, the split runs right along the Christian-Muslim fault line dividing Lebanon’s myriad religious sects. The smaller the district, the more likely that Christians will get candidates that represent them and are not beholden to Muslim lists and voters that would dominate in the larger districts. The “opposition/loyalist” polarization that followed Harriri’s assassination with dueling mass demonstrations withered and Lebanon’s political bosses returned to business as usual. The Christian parties—and most intensely, the Maronite Patriarch—resisted the current election law (known as the “2000 Law”) but surprisingly failed, given how unpopular it is. The US and France insisted strongly and repeatedly that “the elections must take place on schedule,” knowing full well that this can only result in the 2000 Law prevailing. The seemed odd at first as the existing law was written by the Syrians in 2000 to shore up their Lebanese allies. Later, the Machiavellian Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, revealed that he was told by both the US and France that they favored the current law. Apparently, they had calculated that the larger districts would more effectively remove Syria’s last remaining allies in the Parliament. This may very well mean that the US is hedging its bets on Lebanon’s Christian right—a natural and historic ally of the West—and leaning toward collaborating and maybe even supporting the Harriri-Jumblatt center, who are likely to form the largest bloc in the new parliament. Sometimes the Lebanese tend to forget that most of the big decisions in their country are made by outside powers, so they debated the law ferociously. Christian parties threatened to boycott the elections, but the decision had already been made and when it was revealed that this is what the US and France wished, the hubbub died quickly. The main parties made adjustments to their slates to appease the Patriarch, adding noxious candidates to their list from the notorious (rightist) Lebanese Forces. What has not been worked out however is what to do with the returning general Michel Aoun and his insurgent Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). This is being negotiated now and should be resolved soon. The Aoun “tsunami,” as Jumblatt called it, never materialized—all sides colluded to isolate him. The Christian old guard felt threatened by him while the Muslim opposition kept their distance—or perhaps as one commentator here said, they saw in him a new “Christian dynamism” that must be contained and chose the weaker Christian right candidates because they can control them better. It is true the Aoun, who faced off with the Syrians 15 years ago and lost, represents a new, less sectarian current among Lebanon’s Christians and genuinely wants to reform the Lebanese state. But he has proven to be politically clumsy, prone to bursts of anger and fits of grandeur. His insists that it is largely due to his efforts that the Syrians have left Lebanon, that he is the real opposition, and that Harriri and Jumblatt played a minor and accidental role at best. In fact, many factors have led to the Syrian withdrawal and no one is buying Aoun’s bluster. His movement has also made, in my estimation, serious errors by raising Aoun to the status of a political boss (za’im in Lebanon), thus replicating the very political dynamics they so oppose. What is surprising about the way the “cedar revolution” has turned out so far is that it did not restore Christian power as I expected it would, and the sizeable vacuum left by the Syrians is being filled by the Muslim powerhouses of Jumblatt and Harriri (once considered in the opposition camp) in an alliance with a (loyalist!!) Amal-Hizbullah electoral steamroller in the Shia South and Western Biqa. When you consider that Jumblatt controls the southern section of Mt. Lebanon while the Harriri list completely dominates the capital Beirut, the Christians are left to fight over a minority of seats in the North and the rest of Mt. Lebanon. All the international meddling, along with the endless maneuvering by local politicians, has made a mockery of democracy in Lebanon. The papers have already declared that 9 candidates are uncontested, with perhaps up to 2/3 (if not 3/4) of the parliament returning after the elections. And despite all the talk of a new generation of shabab reshaping Lebanon, the very same youth cannot even participate because the voting age remains at a prohibitive 21. Women, over half the population, will at best be represented by 4 women in parliament. Most are now resigned to treating the coming parliament as transitional and desperately hope that in the next round of elections they will have voice.