Thursday, June 25, 2009

No one will weaken this turbulent priest

The barrage of verbal attacks organized by the opposition against Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir is worrisome. Sfeir's partisans are unlikely to close the airport road or assail opposition neighborhoods, but they should at least be aware that this concerted campaign, whatever the intentions behind it, mainly serves to discredit the one individual who has most consistently defended the Lebanese state and its sovereignty.

The opposition has been incensed with Sfeir for some time. His endorsement of a "centrist" bloc for Parliament was viewed by Michel Aoun as a way of strengthening both President Michel Sleiman and March 14 at his expense. Hizbullah agreed, and during the recent elections the party voted massively in Aoun's favor in the Jbeil and Baabda districts, where centrist candidates had the best chance of making a breakthrough.

It is the patriarch's statement on the eve of the elections that riled the opposition most, however, provoking a riposte from Hizbullah's secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. Sfeir said on June 6, "Today we are facing a threat to the Lebanese entity and its Arab identity, requiring alertness." This reference was seen by the opposition as a warning to Christian voters that Iranian influence in Lebanon would rise if the opposition won. Since then, a bevy of opposition politicians, many of them Maronites, have echoed Nasrallah in criticizing the patriarch. The latest reaction came on Monday from the vice president of the Higher Shiite Council, Abd al-Amir Qabalan, who asked for "clarifications" on the comment.

This request for clarification was amusing. Sfeir could not have been clearer. However, there remains some question as to whether the patriarch's words were as decisive as many believe. We don't do opinion polls on these things (a relief after the shoddy surveys of the pre-election period), but at best Sfeir only hardened doubts that Nasrallah and his Iranian sponsors had already created in Christian minds. Perhaps Qabalan should ask for clarification from Nasrallah about what he meant when he described May 7 as a "glorious day;" or from Nasrallah's deputy, Naim Qassem, when he said that Hizbullah would "arm, arm, and arm," regardless of what the United Nations said; or from Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who pointed out that an opposition victory "would change the situation in the region and would create new fronts for strengthening the resistance." Sfeir would not have had the impact that he did on voters had not these startling declarations been issued first.

The Aounists in particular have been hypocritical above and beyond their usual norm on Sfeir. For example, an Aounist candidate, at a private dinner before the elections, roundly complained that Nasrallah's "glorious day" speech would lose him and his colleagues the elections. But this week he was on television complaining about Sfeir's behavior, adding that he was shocked to see the way voters during his campaign stops were expressing their fears of an opposition victory. But if he was disturbed by what Nasrallah said, surely his voters could be as well.

Then you have to wonder about those Aounist parliamentarians who once made Bkirki their second home, particularly in the days of the Qornet Shehwan gathering. Today, not one of them can work up enough nerve to make a public statement in defense of Sfeir, for fear of annoying Michel Aoun. They say cowardice has no color, but in this case it's bright orange.

The patriarch merely confirmed the deep misgivings that an increasing number of Lebanese have about the opposition's project, which they see as a lot of empty wrapping around a very firm goal: defense of Hizbullah's weapons. Aoun has lost much ground in convincing Christians that he can stand up to Hizbullah, that his so-called change and reform program should be taken seriously, and that he can yet unite the Christians. A virus has entered the Aounist movement and it is slowly but surely making its way through the system, closing down the circuits.

Hizbullah is aware of this, which why Nasrallah, in his first post-election speech, suggested that the opposition still represented a numerical majority in Lebanon. The party had relied on Aoun to provide it with a Christian fig leaf for its weapons. Realizing that the general was losing ground among his coreligionists, Nasrallah shifted to a new game board, that of numbers. Even there, however, you could sincerely doubt his math, when there were no elections to speak of in Baalbek-Hermel and much of the South, and when the possibility of emigrants voting makes categorical arguments on majoritarianism dubious.

The premeditated effort to isolate the patriarch seems to be part of a broader scheme by the opposition to offset its mediocre election results. If the Christians are moving away from Aoun, then Bkirki becomes one of the poles around which they gather - the other being the presidency. And just as the opposition went after Michel Sleiman before the elections, they are doing the same with Sfeir today. Their goal is evidently to intimidate the holders of independent Christian power, so that Aoun, who is in urgent need of salvaging, can control more political space.

If that's the plan, it won't work. A declining Aoun is not about to regain popularity through the efforts of the one party, Hizbullah, that most scares Christians, and by assaulting traditional bastions of Christian authority. The Lebanese in general and Christians in particular are, by most accounts, tired of the polarized politics of recent years. On that terrain, Sfeir remains significantly more potent than Michel Aoun, for the patriarch best incarnates the longing for a temperate middle.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Lebanon may have missed going Iran's way

Michel Aoun's yawning emptiness was on display a few weeks before the parliamentary elections, when he was asked why he would not debate his Kesrouan rival Carlos Edde. "Who would translate," was Aoun's reply, as he sneered at Edde's Arabic. Yet Edde got the better of that round. He was among the first candidates to tar Aoun with an Iranian brush, one that critically weakened the general in Christian constituencies.

The aftermath of the presidential election in Iran shows that Edde was right to make the connection. With the regime of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad acting with great brutality to impose a doubtful election victory, we can legitimately ask, caveats notwithstanding, whether Hizbullah would not have used a win of its own to place a similar headlock on the Lebanese political system in the future. In that way, the party could have used its authority to predetermine the outcomes in next year's municipal elections and the 2013 parliamentary elections to guarantee a lasting majority for itself and its allies.

Some would insist this is doubtful. Hizbullah, far from wanting to force an Iranian-style system on the Lebanese, would have preferred to work from behind the scenes through its control over the commanding heights of the state. The party could have placed Aoun and other allies at the forefront of a new government, allowing Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah to get what he wanted without pushing too hard and provoking a domestic backlash.

There is some truth there, but it also seems too neat a picture. Ultimately, Hizbullah did not put so much money and effort into the elections merely to recreate the situation that existed before June 7. For Nasrallah, like for Ahmadinejad, if we recall the Iranian president's recent statements on Lebanon, the elections were supposed to bring about precisely what Hizbullah's secretary general spent weeks saying they would: a state structured around a paramount concept of "resistance," which would sanction Hizbullah's weapons in the context of an official national "defense strategy." There was in the party's actions a definite will to power - no less decisive than is Khamenei's and Ahmadinejad's defense of their power in the security-dominated, post-revolutionary Iranian order.

Once in office, Hizbullah would have regarded its victory as a mandate to turn state institutions around to implement its aims. Given its behavior in May of last year, and now that we know that Nasrallah, even in defeat, believes he represents a Lebanese majority, Hizbullah would likely have accelerated its takeover of the state. Aoun, given his limited means to counter such actions, would have ended up being a fig leaf.

In many respects Hizbullah is a Leninist organization, a vanguard party focused on implementing a revolutionary ideology. The revolutionary impulse has always been an essential part of Hizbullah's mindset, with the idea of "resistance" at its center. That's not to say the party is today seeking to introduce an Islamic Republic in Lebanon, as that would only undermine its broader objectives; for a revolutionary party to survive, it sometimes needs to make momentary compromises. But for the past decade and more, Hizbullah has pursued, with great clarity and steadfastness, the objective of making the principle of armed resistance against Israel, but also against the United States, the cornerstone of national policy both in Lebanon and the Middle East, whether through its own actions or those of likeminded groups. While this has served Iranian interests above all, it has also reflected an ideological worldview that can only truly see its finality in the context of a state - the institution best able to protect and develop the revolutionary impulse. Therefore, to assume that the party would not have taken advantage of an election victory to help fulfill that ideological commitment in Lebanon seems almost counter-intuitive.

Two things reinforce this conclusion. The first is that Nasrallah has never hidden his contempt for the Lebanese political system, nor his hubristic belief that he and his party can define a "better" Lebanon than the one we have today. That is one reason why he has been able so readily to exploit Michel Aoun, who, no less hubristically, if far less persuasively, also feels that he can change Lebanon to satisfy his preferences.

The second is that Nasrallah needs to alter the foundations of the Lebanese state in order for Hizbullah to survive. The secretary general knows very well that since the Syrian withdrawal in 2005, his party's future has rested on shaky foundations. A majority of Lebanese, and that includes Shiites, remains uneasy about the prospect of perpetual war against Israel. Yet without conflict Hizbullah could not survive, nor could it justify retaining its weapons; so the party needs to maintain the threat of conflict alive, just as it needs to more strongly anchor itself in the Lebanese state to ensure that such conflict, when it does come, will not unseat it from power. In this respect, Hizbullah sees things much in the same way as do its sponsors in Iran, particularly the Pasdaran, who have established a parallel authority in the Iranian state to guard against any possible counter-revolutionary urges from within the society.

Then again Lebanon is not Iran. What Hizbullah would have liked to achieve is not necessarily what it could have achieved. Had it tried to take over the state, the party would have met resistance, provoking civil unrest, if not outright civil war, because that is how Lebanese society reacts when its sectarian rules are broken. But as the events of May 2008 showed, Hizbullah can be recklessly indifferent to these rules. So, when the Lebanese voted against the opposition on June 7, they voted not only against the possibility of being ruled by Hizbullah; they also voted against an equally unpleasant alternative: sectarian conflict.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Understanding the Der Spiegel Upheaval

The article published in Der Spiegel accusing Hizbullah of being behind the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, appears to use conceivably correct information to arrive at a conclusion the article itself never really substantiates: namely that "it was not the Syrians, but instead special forces of [Hizbullah] that planned and executed the diabolical attack." At most, the article declares that Syria "is not being declared free of the suspicion of involvement," but that "President Bashar Assad is no longer in the line of fire."

The author, Erich Follath, tells us what French journalist Georges Malbrunot already did in an August 2006 article for the daily Le Figaro. Malbrunot, like Follath, reported that the investigation of telephone intercepts after Hariri's killing revealed that one of those involved in the crime had broken protocol by calling a friend outside the circle of assassins. This mistake led Lebanese investigators to discover that the alleged assassin had ties with Hizbullah.

Malbrunot did not name the person, but Follath does. He may be Abd al-Majid Ghamlush, he writes, whose "recklessness led investigators to the man they now suspect was the mastermind of the terrorist attack: Hajj Salim ... considered to be the commander of the 'military' wing of Hezbollah ... [whose] secret 'Special Operations Unit' reports directly to Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah."

The differences between Malbrunot's article and Follath's are essential. In his article, Malbrunot cited "someone close to Saad Hariri", as well as "a source close to the [Internal Security Forces]" who evidently had information on the telecommunication intercepts. At the time, the investigation of the intercepts was headed by ISF Captain Wissam Eid, later killed in a car-bomb attack in January 2008. Significantly, however, the Hariri source did not believe that Hizbullah had carried out the Hariri assassination on its own initiative. "Who had the capacity to bring the equivalent of 1,200 kilos of TNT into Lebanon", the source asked, before answering: "Syria, a Lebanese security service working with it, and Hizbullah." The direction of Malbrunot's article was that the operation was Syrian, but that Hizbullah may have somehow been brought into it.

Follath's informants appear to be different. He says his information comes from sources "close to the tribunal and [was] verified by examining internal documents." In other words Follath's source appears not to be an employee of the tribunal, but someone who has contacts with it and access to documents the tribunal is working with. That leads to suspicion that the sources are Lebanese who, to corroborate their information, showed Follath Lebanese documents from, or on, the Eid investigation, copies of which must also be in the possession of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon - hence the vague formulation "internal documents."

Who would leak such documents, and why, remains to be seen. It seems improbable that this was done by a pro-Hariri source to affect Lebanon's upcoming elections. After spending four years accusing Syria, the Hariri camp is not about to exonerate Damascus for uncertain electoral gains. The broader conclusions reached by Follath are his own, however, and are poorly argued. Nothing in his piece allows him to make the jump and push the burden of responsibility for the killing on Hizbullah. There appear to have been at least two "circles" participating in the crime; that Hizbullah members were, let's say, in the second circle, which presumably was involved in shadowing Hariri, does not necessarily mean they were in the first circle, which supervised the actual assassination, whether directly or through a suicide bomber. Eventually, the Hariri tribunal may tell us the specifics of how Hariri was eliminated, but Follath's article never even makes it clear which circle Ghamlush was in.

If Hizbullah did plan and execute the attack, a theory long discussed in Lebanon, it is virtually impossible to envisage that the party would have taken this action without receiving prior Syrian approval to do so. In fact, it is virtually impossible to envisage that it would have taken such action without Syrian direction to do so - direction that only Bashar Assad, given the centralized nature of Syria's regime, would have signed off on.

Follath provides motives for the assassination that are laughable. He says that Hizbullah got rid of Hariri because his "growing popularity could have been a thorn in the side of the Lebanese Shiite leader Nasrallah. In 2005, the billionaire began to outstrip the revolutionary leader in terms of popularity." Hariri also stood for what Nasrallah hated, Follath continues: close ties to the West and to moderate Arab regimes, as well as "an opulent lifestyle, and a membership in the competing Sunni faith."

This is nonsense. Those who had an overriding motive to kill Hariri were the Syrians, because his expected successes in the summer 2005 parliamentary elections, so soon after passage of Resolution 1559 by the Security Council, would have seriously threatened their hold on Lebanon. Successive reports by the United Nations commission investigating the crime repeated that hypothesis, which has never been challenged.

Follath, intentionally or unintentionally, is being used to draw the light away from Syria by casting it on Hizbullah. However, all the evidence that has filtered out from the UN investigation, as well as circumstantial evidence, leads in the direction of a principal mastermind: the regime in Damascus, regardless of who was implicated in the crime to guarantee everyone's silence. It was only Syrian participation that could have pushed the Lebanese security agencies, then completely dominated by Syria, to corrupt the crime scene; it was only Syrian participation that could lead a Lebanese security chief to distribute the video of Ahmad Abu Adas claiming responsibility for the crime; and it was above all Syrian insistence after 2006 that pushed Hizbullah and Amal to block the creation of the tribunal through Lebanese state institutions.

Recall this crucial exchange in April 2007 between UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Assad in Damascus. The Shiite ministers had left the government, and there was talk of establishing the Hariri tribunal under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Ban asked Assad to support the tribunal. Instead, Assad replied that Lebanon was a country of instability, which "will worsen if the special tribunal is established. Particularly if it is established under Chapter VII. This might easily cause a conflict that would degenerate into civil war, provoking divisions between Sunnis and Shiites from the Mediterranean to the Caspian Sea ..."

Echoes of Assad's message permeate the Der Spiegel article, which implicitly asks whether the truth about who killed Rafik Hariri merits a Sunni-Shiite war. The Damascus conversation was leaked by a UN source to the daily Le Monde, and stands as a telling document. For why would Assad have been so worried about a tribunal passed under Chapter VII authority had Syria been innocent of Hariri's elimination?

If Follath was given documents from or on Wissam Eid's investigation, that means someone may also be trying to discredit Eid's work by generating such a furor now over the accusation against Hizbullah, that it will be very difficult in the future to use the disclosures in such a way that they won't be tainted by politics. The article may also imply that Eid, unlike the UN commission, actually did his work properly, and that someone is worried about the results. Who showed the "internal documents" to Follath, and are they the same people who might have earlier revealed to Eid's killers that he was on to something?

These questions will continue to remain unanswered, and the tribunal process will continue to be open to manipulation, for as long as the Special Tribunal for Lebanon does not come out with a formal accusation. We are witnessing the consequences of a slipshod UN investigation since 2006. The prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare, may have lost control of his case, and those who leaked to Der Spiegel could well be pushing for its complete collapse.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Berri will return, but don’t make it easy

With the elections over, the next battle is over the speakership of parliament. While there will be irate statements about whether Nabih Berri should be re-elected, the reality is that likely he will be. Berri doesn’t deserve it, but Syria wants him, and after its humiliation at the hands of the Iranians in the elections, and given the Saudi-Syrian rapprochement, Damascus’ demands will be heeded and the speaker made speaker once again. The real question is under what conditions he is brought in.

Some in March 14 are leaning toward the choice of putting up a candidate of their own, evidently Okab Sakr, against Berri, at least in the early rounds of voting. According to Article 44 of the constitution, to be elected on the first and second ballot, a speaker needs an absolute majority of parliamentary votes; only on the third ballot can he or she be elected by a simple majority. It’s not a bad idea to make Berri sweat, and putting him through three rounds of balloting before he gets elected, aside from the fact that it will affirm the post is not his private reserve, is also a way of imposing conditions with respect to how the speaker runs the legislature.

There are those in the majority, such as Walid Jumblatt, who will advise against this. The Druze leader has for several months tried to use his relationship with Berri to calm Druze-Shia tensions, and perhaps also to create the nucleus of a centrist bloc friendlier to Syria. That idea was shot to pieces by the election results, as most of the centrists, and the man who would have been their reference point, President Michel Sleiman, were humiliated by Hezbollah – and behind the party, of course, by Iran. Syria and Iran are not on the verge of a rift, but the Syrians would have liked to bolster the position of their allies and friends in Lebanon relative to Hezbollah. Instead, they saw Hezbollah and Iran block that scheme, as Shia and Armenians voted massively in favor of Michel Aoun, against a number of their traditional and possibly future allies.

This leads us back to Berri. Pity the speaker. Initially, he thought that he might have some room to vote against Aoun in Jbeil and Baabda, even as he was engaged in a fight with the general in Jezzine. In the end, however, Berri was made to order his supporters to vote for Aoun in the two constituencies, while also being trampled in Jezzine. So degrading a situation could only have been imposed by Hezbollah, and an educated guess says the party put Berri’s speakership on the line as pressure.

So now Berri has to satisfy both March 14 and Hezbollah, which means that both will delight in loading him down with demands. The majority should be careful. Berri is wily and any effort by March 14 to humble him would be used by the speaker to rally support to his side. The rationale for not bringing the speaker back on a first round of balloting must be carefully explained and justified. The most convincing argument is that, while the religious sects are reserved positions in the state, that does not mean they alone are entitled to choose who represents them.

In the same way that the Maronites do not on their own choose the president, or the Sunnis the prime minister, it is unacceptable that the Shia parties should be entitled to decide on Lebanon’s speaker. If Berri is to be re-elected as head of the parliament, he should be made to explain to all the parliamentary groups why he deserves to be so. He should outline some sort of legislative program; and he should commit himself to calling for a vote of confidence in his performance in two years’ time.

The latter idea is an unconstitutional innovation. According to Article 44, every second year of a parliamentary term, in its first annual session, parliament can withdraw its confidence from the speaker by a two-thirds decision. What March 14 might want to consider is to make Berri commit himself in his legislative program to return to parliament in 2011 and ask for a vote of confidence. The speaker is, of course, entitled to reject this, but if he is desperate enough to regain his post, and if he has to prove his bona fides to the majority, an unofficial pledge on his part may well be achievable. It would have moral rather than legal implications, but it may help keep Berri in line in the coming two years.

It’s funny how, in mentioning Taif, critics of the accord frequently complain that it has handed all power to the Sunni prime minister. Yet it’s Nabih Berri who has been immovable in the past 17 years, showing that the most enduring power in the country may yet lie with the Shia speaker. Berri has squandered his responsibilities for far too long to be given a free ride onto the parliamentary podium. Let him convince us, first, why we should trust him with so high a station.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Lebanon's elections: an early inquest

The elections of 2009 ended with multiple contradictory messages, never surprising for Lebanon. Perhaps most importantly, however, it was a voting process with genuine stakes, characterized by genuine competition in several constituencies. How refreshing when regional elections are, typically, bland referendums stage-managed by despots.

The election will be remembered because of the erroneous predictions surrounding it. A flagrant one, offered up in this space with much conviction last week, is that confused Christian voters would mix their candidate lists. Precisely the opposite happened, as electoral blocs, and even independents - confused not a bit - placed their lists in ballot boxes relatively unchanged. This showed that the power of political leaders and parties to bring obedient voting blocs to the polls was greater than ever; that independent Christians for the most part voted on the basis of conviction, in this case against Michel Aoun and Hizbullah; and that Lebanon remains divided between two broad coalitions, so that the elections, while revealing a fundamental shift away from the choices of the opposition, also little changed the broad power balance in the country.

The election was a convincing victory for March 14, proving that the coalition could gain a decisive majority without depending on so-called independents; and could do so on the basis of a law favoring the opposition. Saad Hariri will be the next prime minister, putting an end to speculation about when he might take office. He has a mandate and maneuvered astutely in the pre-election period, tiptoeing through minefields to satisfy most of his partners. He also managed to co-opt his potential Sunni rivals, thereby consolidating his hold over the community after a period when this was in doubt. This will not only boost Hariri's credentials in Saudi Arabia and the wider Arab world; it signals that he has finally extracted himself from the May 2008 debacle.

Hariri's main allies, Samir Geagea and Walid Jumblatt, have quite different readings of the results. Geagea gambled in some regions, but ultimately expanded his representation, between party members and non-party candidates he supported. He still remains well behind Aoun in terms of his parliamentary share, but he ran a well-organized campaign, increasing his political weight in relative terms, and showed that he was a player in key constituencies like Zahleh and Beirut. This was always mainly about the 2013 elections for Geagea and his preparations for the post-Aoun period, since the general will be almost 80 in four years, if he lives. In that sense the Lebanese Forces leader achieved most of his goals.

Jumblatt, predictably, did well in the Chouf and Aley, but suffered two major setbacks in terms of his more general strategy. He lost the Druze parliamentarian Ayman Choukair in Baabda (after having left a seat open for Talal Arslan in Aley), shrinking his bloc, and he did so at the hands of an alliance of Maronites and Shiites, signaling they could choose the Druze representative in the district in the future. If this was not bitter enough a pill for Jumblatt to swallow, it was compounded by the fact that he had banked heavily on his opening to the Shiites and his alliance with the speaker of Parliament, Nabih Berri, to help Choukair win. That quaint idea collapsed as the Shiite community voted en masse in favor of Aoun. This proved the real limitations of Jumblatt's rapprochement with Berri, which both viewed as the embryo of a centrist bloc friendlier to Syria.

Michel Aoun once more managed a paradox. He came out of the election stronger, amid signs that his popular Christian support is in discernible decline. He will control the largest single Christian bloc in Parliament, and this he will use as leverage to continue insisting that he is the preeminent Maronite representative, particularly in his rapport with Saad Hariri and the Sunni community. However, his win margins were noticeably smaller than they were in 2005; he needed the Shiite vote to win in several Christian-majority districts; and a large number of Christians voted explicitly against him, showing that he continues to have zero capacity to unite the community. There was also something deeply symbolic in the rejection of Jebran Bassil in Batroun and Issam Abu Jamra in Beirut, both leading figures in the Free Patriotic Movement.

Hizbullah cannot be displeased with the results. It was always a win-win situation for the party anyway. The majority lead held by March 14 is roughly what it was four years ago, and with Hariri as prime minister, Hizbullah feels it will be able to put a credible Sunni face on the defense of its armed "resistance." The party also senses, rightly or wrongly, that it has greater leverage over Hariri with him in the government than outside it. Hizbullah wagered heavily on Aoun and that wager ultimately paid off, to the extent that Aoun owes the party. He will say that he broke Nabih Berri in Jezzine, Walid Jumblatt in Baabda, and President Michel Sleiman in Jbeil, but he won't admit that this was thanks to Hizbullah.

Most significantly, the election results were a setback for Syria. They allowed Hizbullah to maintain its autonomy from the Syrians, who had hoped to use the elections to reassert themselves in Lebanon with regard to Iran. While no one should seriously expect an Iranian-Syrian rift in the foreseeable future, the Syrians would have dearly liked to confirm that Lebanon is more theirs than Tehran's, particularly in the context of their possible negotiations with Israel and an opening to the United States. This failed, as those on whom the Syrians had pinned their hopes - Michel Sleiman, Nabih Berri, Michel Murr, and those in their circle - all emerged as the great electoral losers. Lebanon's Parliament will be friendlier to Syria than the previous one was, but it won't by any stretch be Syria's Parliament. And irony of ironies: the Assad regime will now have to look toward Saad Hariri, not Sleiman, as the conduit for their normalization with Lebanon - normalization the Saudis will certainly encourage - which should grant Hariri greater clout in shaping that relationship.

What happens next? There is a consensus in March 14 that the opposition should not be handed veto power in the government, and Michel Sleiman, stung by Aoun's challenge and what Hizbullah did to him, may come down on the majority's side here. That's a good thing. We're in for weeks of bargaining over a government, but there is a lasting message in these elections: March 14 was written off too soon by too many people. It may not be the most impressive of coalitions, but it represents Lebanon's real temperate center - with its life force neither perpetual resistance nor perpetual resentment. Lebanon benefits from its victory.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Lebanon's opposition faces a hard climb

With three days left until Lebanon's parliamentary elections, it's difficult not to get caught up in the predictions game, even though the dangers of that were apparent in 2005, when Michel Aoun turned most forecasts to mush. This time, however, things appear to be different.

It is almost certain that Aoun will emerge with the largest single Christian bloc in Parliament, whether alone or with allies such as Sleiman Franjieh and maybe Elie Skaff. However, the general's aspiration to have the largest parliamentary bloc ever, as he recently stated, seems a very difficult wager to win. Even if Aoun does well, he will not do well enough to hand the opposition a majority, bearing in mind that a great deal can and will happen on Sunday that will shape the final outcome, given that this is the first time the Lebanese vote in a single day.

Here's a simplistic view of the electoral situation. The opposition starts off with 33 guaranteed seats, between what it is bound to gain in the South (minus Sidon), Beirut II, and Baalbek-Hermel. That means that in predominantly Christian areas, Aoun and his allies would need to gain at least 32 seats in order for the opposition to earn a parliamentary majority. If we take each district from Zghorta down to Baabda and east to Zahleh, even excessively optimistic assessments of electoral results in favor of the opposition indicate that those 32 seats remain elusive.

For example, let's assume the following results. If Franjieh and his allies win all three seats in Zghorta, Salim Saadeh wins a seat in Koura, Aoun sweeps the three seats in Jbeil and the five seats in Keserwan, wins five seats in the Metn, four seats in Baabda, one seat in Beirut I, and, through Skaff, three seats in Zahleh, the opposition would still need seven seats to win a slight legislative majority. Aounist projections are for sweeps everywhere, but that is highly improbable for several reasons.

First, the mood in the Christian community has changed in the past four years, so that the likelihood of the electorate voting complete lists is less than it was in 2005. Aoun retains a solid and mobilized core of voters, however it is not they alone who won him his victory four years ago; rather, it was nonaligned Christian voters angry with the quadripartite agreement between Walid Jumblatt, Saad Hariri, Nabih Berri, and Hizbullah, and sustained in their anger by the Maronite church.

A second reason is that Aoun may have committed a fatal blunder in earning the enmity of Michel Murr, as well as that of President Michel Sleiman and Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir. Sleiman can play a key role in tilting the vote in some districts through the army, and this in the most legal ways possible; meanwhile the church has subtle forms of sway over the electorate, much legitimacy, and a pulpit to get its ideas across.

However, it is Murr who perhaps poses the most direct threat to Aoun. Lebanese elections are only partly about ideas at this late stage. Ideas matter, but interests and hardnosed calculations will play a more critical role in determining what happens this year. When it comes to services, Murr is among the strongest players on the scene. Both in the Metn and Baabda, the economic lungs of Mount Lebanon, where business and industrial enterprises are concentrated, his clout comes through his ability to facilitate a multitude of essential administrative and legal procedures for his electorate. Murr has spent years placing people in the bureaucracy, local administrations, and the judiciary, and will call in his chips in the Metn as well as in Baabda and Beirut I, where his son in law, Edmond Gharios, and granddaughter, Nayla Tueni, are candidates.

It would also be a mistake to dismiss the prospect that, even at the last moment, Murr will be unable conclude an under-the-table deal that takes a bite out of Aoun's alliance with the Armenians, the backbone of the general's victory strategy in the Metn and Beirut I. Ultimately, Murr realizes, the Armenians see little interest in finding themselves out on a limb alone with Aoun, fighting against Murr and the Phalange Party in the Metn, and by extension on adversarial terms with Sleiman.

A third reason is that Aoun's alliance with Hizbullah continues to worry a great majority of Christians. Aoun made a colossal gaffe this weekend in Batroun when he said that if an opposition-led government could not get money from the West, then it could always go to China. The statement got laughs, and Aoun did not say it with very much seriousness. But a politician cannot be flippant about such things. His remark alarmed many people because it seemed an admission that a government over which Hizbullah has influence will spell trouble for Lebanon in its relations with traditional economic partners and funders in Europe, the Gulf countries, and the United States. Most Lebanese would regard any form of financial or cultural isolation from these places as catastrophic.

Add that to the recent statement of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in which he said that an opposition triumph in Lebanon would mean the opening of a new front against Israel, and you have several ingredients that might fuel Christian panic. Aoun has shown a notable ability to drive the community against its own history, profiting from its sense of decline, but there are hard limits to that game.

What all these factors may lead to, however, is not so much a devastating loss for Aoun, than a fragmenting of the Christian vote. Aoun did well in 2005 because his electorate voted complete lists; today, voters are much more likely to mix their lists, choosing candidates from both sides based on both loyalty and welfare. This means that Aoun will bleed support, and while he will probably not suffer a major setback (even if we cannot rule that out) since his electorate is motivated, he should come up short on an opposition victory. We'll see Sunday who has egg on his or her face.