Grumbles as Lebanon Heads into the Elections
Haret Hreik, South Beirut.
In Lebanon rapt attention is focussed on the probable, but not certain, June Parliamentary elections, variously described as “the most important in Lebanon’s history”, the event that will determine the outcome of the Arab peoples’ central cause Palestine”, whether Lebanon becomes “Iranistan”, or is turned over by Washington, to a regional power to administer.
The contest, just 12 weeks away, has tightened dramatically and it is commonplace to hear citizens list the names of the countries backing one faction or another with money, political influence or both.
Earlier predictions of a Hezbollah landslide have evaporated with the Party of God and its allies now playing scrappy defense in face of an intense US orchestrated political onslaught.
So far, no generally respected voter preferences polls have emerged in Lebanon, but Parliamentary insiders predict when the votes are counted as few as five seats may separate the US-backed March 14 ‘Majority’ and the Hezbollah-led Opposition. One just released 3/04/09 Now Lebanon poll showed that 89 per cent of likely voters believe the June election “is of pivotal importance” and “the most important in the modern history of Lebanon as a State.”
It is generally conceded that the next government will be formed by whichever side polls best in the mountainous Metn district, east of Beirut, traditionally the area that witnesses Lebanon’s “mother of electoral battles.” How Metn goes may come down to how the crafty Armenian Christians vote. According to Beirut’s Daily Star, it is these Christian swing voters in the middle of the political spectrum, who will be most susceptible to vote buying since hard core loyalist voters aren’t easily persuaded or trusted to cross over for cash.
The “unity” Cabinet had hoped to appoint an independent electoral monitoring commission as an election watchdog body but this plan collapsed over political bickering about how to choose the ‘non-aligned’ members. Hezbollah wanted the members appointed on a consensus basis but the March 14 team insisted on a majority vote, giving them effective control.
With Lebanese voters lacking confidence that the elections will be honestly run, the European Union and France, among others, have offered to help monitor the election. Both the majority and the opposition appear to welcome former President Jimmy Carter’s much experienced Election Monitoring Teams to come to Lebanon to increase public confidence in the election results.
Lebanon’s increasingly cosmic electoral battle pits two unlikely hombres against each other leading opposing electoral teams. Calling the shots for the pro-US Majority the election committee Chair, now that David Welch has retired, will be the former US Ambassador to Lebanon and currently Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, and former art major, Jeffrey Feltman. He will be sending in the play signals to the US fielded team via ‘secure’ communications and State Department video conferences. Lest his head coach position be doubted, on 3/04/09 the State Department announced that Feltman and Daniel Shapiro of the US National Security Council will visit within days Lebanon “to learn firsthand the conditions prevailing in the country … in terms of Washington’s continued support for the sovereignty and independence of Lebanon and its territorial integrity.” The two men will be in town “to support the holding of parliamentary elections smoothly and transparently and to confirm the continuation of the armament and training of the Lebanese army,” the report read.
For the Opposition, or the “home team” as some in Dahieyh prefer, it is former Chemistry Professor, Religious scholar, and Hezbollah’s number two, Naim Qassim. Sheik Qassim is said to enjoy the rough and tumble of electioneering and to have a knack for drawing schematic issue and voter district diagrams, maybe acquired from years with sketching element charts and diagrams in his chemistry classrooms. Qassim is credited with much of Hezbollah’s 17 years of ballot box success.
“Sheik Qassim is a terrific stump speaker with a great sense of humor. Not at all like the severe image his opponent’s project of him”, according to Dahiyeh resident, Human Rights Ambassador Ali Khalil who has known Naim Qassim since the 1980’s when he was his chemistry student.
Qassim summarized Hezbollah’s basic program to me, saying: “We seek to protect the country, to reject foreign tutelage, to solve economic issues on the basis that people have social needs, to end financial corruption, not to pawn the country to foreign firms, and equal development in all regions." Specifics will be announced very shortly, he added.
Qassim believes that neither March 14 nor Hezbollah Forces are capable of governing the country alone, adding that “If the opposition wins, Hezbollah wishes to form a national unity government." Qassim affirmed that opposition forces would run united in all districts in Lebanon with the hope of running a "fair and honest campaign”.
This past weekend, opening Hezbollah’s election campaign in the Bekaa Valley, Qassim pledged that “Hezbollah would encourage development by attending to the economical situation at all levels. We call for reinforcing the state’s role in combating monopolies and the huge public debt. We also call for building state institutions, provided that they are not used to serve the interests of only certain people or groups. We want the Resistance to pave the way for development and we want development to reinforce the Resistance,” noting that the party would campaign under a slogan of ‘resistance and development’. For us the word ‘resistance’ means the following concepts: Full independence and a rejection of foreign guardianship, even if it is camouflaged by so-called cooperation and coordination.”
Hezbollah is getting an ear full on the hustings
The Party is hearing plenty from the voters and their opponents:
With the Lebanese government, more than two and one years after the July War, still not fully delivering reconstruction aid, the whole country — but South Lebanon, the Bekas and Daheyh especially – ponder regular Israeli threats to ‘burn Lebanon’ again. Voters do not have much doubt that the US has already given the green light.
Many voters, who seem genuinely impressed with Hezbollah’s record of social improvements and its “clean” image, mention nagging doubts about its ‘foreign connections’. Disquiet over “the unknowns” and ‘foreigners’ is hammered home in March 14 campaign messages. Some voters mention that Hezbollah has yet to explain in detail its “major economic program”, which is much needed and anticipated. In the Bekaa Valley, which is strong for Hezbollah but by no means 100 per cent, one hears some criticism of Hezbollah for not delivering needed services, given the virtual absence of the Lebanese government in the area. For example, the cold and struggling families, in the Hermel area, north of Baalbek, are not happy. This is the area, including the villages of Brital and Tarayya, where the still admired Sheik Subhi al_Tufayli, Hezbollah’s spokesman (1985-1989) and the Party’s first Secretary-General (1989-1992) led the July 1997 “hunger revolution”. Sheik Tufayli, one of the three original founders of Hezbollah, viewed by some as too radical for the increasingly moderate Hezbollah, has been critical of Hezbollah for their participation in Lebanese elections and being too cozy with Iran. In villages around Baalbek one hears some grumbling: “I support Hezbollah and the resistance but we have very few government services of any kind out here and our families need electricity and jobs, not another war with Israel. Hezbollah needs to do more if they want us to vote for them”, a shop keeper near the Al Rayan Hospital north of Baalbek told me. “The Israelis bombed our house in 2006, killing my brother. We are not even Hezbollah supporters but neither they nor the Lebanese government has helped me rebuild. They don’t even shop at my grocery store. I only see Hezbollah if they come by to check that I am not selling beer. It is almost two in the afternoon and I have had only a few customers. Nobody around this area has any money to shop.” The “Lebanese Red” hashish growing region, North Baalbek-Knesseh-Hermel district, experienced the Lebanese army staging highly publicized arrests and confiscation raids in late December and early January. A survey of some of the growers by this observer found more hype than substance in ‘the raids’. “We knew in advance they were coming and ditched the stuff”, one grower in Kenesseh explained, adding, “but next time they show up our families will fight!”
Some of the families in the area rely on this ancient and cheap-to-grow cash crop, which aids the local economy significantly, and which the government has pretty much left alone since the July 2006 War. Hezbollah is blamed for not providing political cover and may lose some hashish growers votes. Hezbollah responds that, despite the history of hashish farming in the Bekaa, going back to Roman times, the party has religious, legal, and moral objections to drug cultivation and will not protect it.
Recent security problems with Hezbollah’s vehicle fleet supplier, rumored to be a “Party insider” has shocked many in Hezbollah since the confessed Israeli spy “was one of our own”. It is feared that the incident may affect the public’s perception of Hezbollah “as competent and in control” of the Resistance and weaken its reputation for reliability as a bulwark against US-Israeli projects.
Some of the volleys being fired at the Hezbollah-led opposition as the election approaches:
The FBI has renewed its scare tactic anti-Hezbollah warnings with Director Mueller claiming in the Kuwaiti daily Al Rai for 2/25/09, without offering any evidence, that Hezbollah was a “ proven terrorist group over the years and that’s why we keep our eyes open on them inside the U.S”. According to Mueller, San Diego and Seattle, cities with a significant pro March 14 Lebanese population (as opposed to say, Dearborn Michigan with many presumably pro Hezbollah Shia) could be targeted in a fashion similar to last month’s Mumbai attacks. One critic said Mueller wants to encourage anti Hezbollah expat Lebanese to return to Lebanon to vote in the election. Mueller declined to answer a question concerning the recent disclosures that the FBI infiltrated with paid informants and agent provocateurs U.S. mosques who had participated in law enforcement outreach efforts over the past decade. Days earlier (2/13/09), the new U.S. Intelligence Chief Dennis Blair offered the profound observation that “Hezbollah is a "multifaceted and disciplined" organization combining political, social, paramilitary, and terrorist elements and might consider attacking American interests because “we judge that armed struggle remains central of Hezbollah’s ideology and strategy”. According to a just released (3/3/09) RAND Corporation study, Hezbollah is receiving $20 million annually from proceeds of pirated films in the tri-border area of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. Without offering proof or material evidence, the report warns that a terrorist connection “could increase in the future”. Middle East envoy George Mitchell has been more rational and moderate in his statements using the code language generally employed by American officials visiting the region: “The United States supports Lebanon’s independence, sovereignty, democracy and peaceful elections”. Meaning the US supports the March 14 team.
Saad Hariri, leader of Lebanon’s anti-Syrian parliamentary majority, this week upped political pressure on voters contemplating voting for Hezbollah by declaring that his Future Movement would shun a unity government if Hezbollah and its allies win. The implication is that unless the US backed majority wins the balloting, the Hariri Empire fortune may no longer be available to help Lebanon. In the same statement Hariri repeated the Majority mantra that a victory for the Hezbollah-led coalition would accelerate the Iranian takeover of Lebanon. Hezbollah has repeatedly stated that win or lose, it will join a unity government and seek consensus. Saad Hariri’s announcement lends credence to current rumors that he has had enough of Lebanese politics and wants to join his family who have been forced out of Lebanon to live in safer surroundings abroad.
Will the Hezbollah-led Opposition fracture as the US flirts with Syria?
Since Hezbollah entered Parliament by winning eight seats in 1992, it has sometimes clashed with its Shia Party ally, Harek Amal. Among other reasons was that each Party preferred that its own loyalist stand for election in the same Shia district.
This may happen again this spring with an intra-coalition struggle taking place in Jezzine, north of Nabiteyeh. In 2005, Amal and Hezbollah split the Christian seats, two to one respectively, but now Christian Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun is allied with both parties and plans to run Christian candidates there. Some have speculated that Hezbollah may support the FPM candidates which would weaken Amal. Amal leader Nabih Berri objects and has defended his party’s right to maintain both local seats it won in 2005. In the past, Syria has mediated among March 8 ‘allies’ in order to settle internal rivalries. It may do so this year in the event that the two Shia parties can’t work things out.
The political alliance between Hezbollah and Amal is based largely on electoral convenience. Presumably Washington knows this and if Syria and Iran split so may Hezbollah and strongly pro-Syrian Amal. One of the current political ironies in Lebanon is that the strongly nationalist Shia Hezbollah, will, if necessary, defend Sunni and Christian Lebanon against Syria should it become necessary given the present rapidly shifting currents in the region. This widely held supposition may bring Hezbollah some Sunni anti-Syrian election support from those who believe Hezbollah’s statements that it is “Lebanese first and last”. While Hezbollah welcomes aid from several quarters in its struggle to liberate Lebanese and Palestinian territory from Israeli occupation, Hezbollah’s ultimate loyalty is to its own country, Lebanon.
While a great number of civil and international wars have been fought over the demand that Church and State be separated, in Lebanon, it’s the opposite. This country actually risks civil war before the June election if a serious movement forms advocating the apostasy of separation of Church and State.
Lebanon’s Maronite Cardinal Patriarch Boutros Sfeir, who regularly reminds the country that “the Patriarchy rises above all conflicts because it unites all the Lebanese," rarely finishes a sermon without making barbed political pronouncements on behalf of his favored Maronite Christian flock. Last month, following a meeting with US Ambassador Michele Sisson his Holiness announced at their news conference that: "If power shifts to March 8 Forces and March 14 Forces ceased to have power, mistakes would be committed that would weigh historically on the national fate.” The Patriarch added that “deep divisions among Christians were reflecting negatively on the fate of the Christians in Lebanon," and warned that "Christians alone from among other sects in the country do not control their differences." Sfeir criticized the presence of armed groups outside state control. "Every self-respecting state must be responsible for the arms within it," he said, taking another swipe at Hezbollah while ignoring the fact that the three main Chrilstian Militias in Lebanon are increasingly well armed.
Whatever the US Embassy thought of the Patriarch’s dictum ex cathedra, his rival Lebanese Christians were not happy and quickly cried foul. The pro-Hezbollah Christian leader of the Free Patriotic Movement Michel Aoun replied that Patriarch Sfeir does not speak for the Christians on matters of politics, adding, "Christian society is democratic and the Patriarchs stance is well known to be with the March 14 Forces and he is not a centrist. This means he is against the opposition."
Former pro-Syrian Prime Minister Omar Karami assailed Sfeir criticizing religious authorities that intervene in politics. "Religious authorities should not get involved with alleyways of politics and any clergyman who becomes a party to politics should be criticized," Karami said.
At the ready to defend Patriarch Sfeir was a Member of the March 14 Forces’ General Secretariat Michel Moawwad , who following a meeting with Samir Geagea this week went before the microphones to wonder “why Iran, and not Bkirki, (the seat of Cardinal Sfeir) “is allowed to interfere in domestic affairs.”
"Is the Faqih ruler allowed to meddle in Lebanese affairs while Bkirki is not allowed to interfere in politics?", Moawwad asked earnestly with his palms upturned and his gaze toward Heaven. Moawwad’s comment was intended to remind voters that Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khameini, successor to Ayatollah Khomeini, has both religious and political authority and is also the spiritual leader of Shia Muslim Hezbollah. Hezbollah did not reply to the provocation, but their allies, the rival Maronite Christian block, quickly demanded to know “Where was the Patriarch when Christians were being slaughter by Christians during the civil war”? And why weren’t they excommunicated while now it (the Patriarchy) wants to practice this measure against those Christians who give a different opinion and support the (Hezbollah led) Opposition”?
Former President and leader of the Phalange Party, Amin Gemayel followed with an accusation that the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition was undertaking "a scheme to build a state in which Beirut is replaced with Tehran, Tripoli with Damascus and Bkirki with Brad." He was referring to the Syrian village of Brad, which is located north of Aleppo and is the burial place of Saint Maroun. "Loyalty to Lebanon is worthless without loyalty to the state," he stressed, adding that the June election represents “a choice between God and sovereignty or foreign tutelage."
Not wanting to be left on the sidelines, the March 14 ‘Majority’ has now called on the U.N. to pressure Israel to pay compensations for the July war.
In a letter presented to U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon via Lebanon’s permanent representative to the U.N. Nawwaf Salam, Lebanon informed the international body of Israel’s repeated violations of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701. In the letter, Prime Minister Fouad Saniora had demanded compensation from Israel for the "unimaginable losses" to the nation’s infrastructure and praises US generosity. But opposition supporters are more inclined hold the US responsible since with the US arms and green light Israel could not have attacked Lebanon and hence the US should join Israel in paying for the destroyed.
According to the Lebanese government, 32 "vital points" came under attack in Israel most recent aggression, with some 109 bridges, 137 roads and 137 factories targeted by Israeli air strikes. Thirty UN positions came under "direct attack," added the report, resulting in the death of internationally "protected personnel." A number of medical facilities and private homes also came under fire, as did the world heritage sites of Tyre and Byblos. But Israel has never heeded repeated requests for compensation including the demand from UN Secretary-General Key Moon Ban that Israel to pay $1 billion in compensation, mainly for damage inflicted on the Lebanese coastline following Israel’s bombing of an oil reserve. The attack, considered to be Lebanon’s worst ever environmental disaster, released 12,500-15,000 tons of fuel oil into the Mediterranean Sea, polluting two-thirds of Lebanon’s coastline and killing already endangered marine life. It also affected nearby countries like Syria, Cyprus and Turkey.
The US to ‘stick by’ Lebanon
The US Embassy announced on 2/27/09 that the US will provide Lebanon with UAV "Raven" unmanned aircraft to help “boost border control and combat terrorism across Lebanon and to strengthen Lebanon’s abilities to maintain internal security, defeat terrorism, protect the Lebanese borders and ensure the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1701." (read: confront the Lebanese Resistance while ignoring Israel’s invasions of Lebanese airspace and continued occupation of Lebanese territory in violation of SGR 1701 ). This latest aid announcement follows dollops of assistance over the past few years, most of which is of little use to the Lebanese public. Rather, it is aimed at presenting an image of the US “long term and durable friendship” as the Embassy here announced last Friday, and strengthening Lebanon’s ability to become “sovereign and independent” when in fact no such aid will come to Lebanon without first being vetted by Israel.
Meanwhile, the United States told visiting Lebanese Army Commander General Jean Kahwaji it will provide the military with "Raven" unmanned aircrafts to help "boost border control and combating terrorism" across Lebanon, the US Embassy in Beirut said on Friday. The embassy said in a statement that Kahwaji and top US officials discussed Washington’s "continuous assistance to the Lebanese Army aimed at strengthening the military’s abilities to maintain internal security, combat terrorism, protect the Lebanese borders and ensure the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1701." Kahwaji met on Thursday with US Central Command Commander David Petraeus and the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, who held a dinner banquet in his honor. The statement said Washington’s assistance to the Lebanese Army "remains a cornerstone of US policy on Lebanon." It added that the Lebanese military "plays a vital role in maintaining law and order, preventing cross-border smuggling and ensuring that the government is the sole political and military authority in Lebanon."
The embassy concluded that Kahwaji’s visit confirms that "the US-Lebanese ties are strong and durable." The ‘strong and durable” label is small potatoes for many Lebanese who noticed that on the same day Hilary Clinton’s stated that “the US-Israel relationship is unshakable whatever type of government emerges following the recent Israeli elections”. Will the same apply to Lebanon following it elections, enquiring minds want to know.
Michele’s color coded Push Pins
If an observer is keen to quickly grasp what, where, and how US electoral aid is entering Lebanon its best to overlook the many unfulfilled promises and assurances by more than a dozen US officials since the July 2006 War. Much more instructive would be to have a look at the Push Pin Wall Map on the office wall of the US Ambassador in Beirut. When visitors come to chat, and she is in a good mood, the Ambassador Michele Sisson will show off her fine Wall map of Lebanon with more than 150 brightly color coded pins poking in it. The push pins represent where the Ambassador has visited, where specific US Aid projects are committed, launched, or are contemplated. Really special Lebanese visitors may warrant their hometown getting pricked with a “special Red, White and Blue “friend of the USA push pin.”
A glance at the Ambassador’s map shows where US support (read: political activity) exists or is contemplated. Notably the clumps of bright push pins in the areas where the Majority is entrenched — Beirut, villages East and North of Beirut, up in the Tripoli/Akkar area and midway South around the coastal town of Saida.
Only a few shallowly embedded, wobbly, pins will be seen in Hezbollah areas like South Beirut, South Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley where the poorest, most bombed and targeted by US Military aid to Israel live. The first time visitor to Lebanon should be excused for mistakenly assuming that these upsh pinless areas are uninhabited wasteland.
For many Lebanese, the problem with the push pin map is that while it includes ‘aid’ projects, admittedly useful, the type and amount is so feeble that many Lebanese view it the gifts as ‘feel good’ without addressing basic economic problems such as electricity, jobs and agriculture. Many are insisting that the US and Israel pay reparations for more than 40 years of their country being bombed by US weapons are preparing another push pin Wall Map to be presented to the Embassy to help in US aid projections. It shows the locations where US artillery shells and bombs of different sizes have killed and wounded Lebanese since the 1970’s and where reparations are needed but have yet to be offered.
When the polls close for what will the votes count?
It appears that Lebanon may be cascading deeper into the abyss of deadly sectarianism.
Lebanon, sad to say, remains an oligarchy more than a democracy, much of it locked in a choke hold by tribal chiefs, mafia like leaders, and a primogeniture system wherein defective sons are often handed the reins of power by flawed fathers or grieving widows. Not much of a place to raise your children as more and more realize, and many who can, leave for opportunities elsewhere. Absent a political tsunami to churn up new matrix political strata, whence healthy growth could spring, Lebanon’s immediate political future looks bleak with formation of the next parliament perhaps eerily similar to the current one under the existing electoral framework.
The country appears to be glancing backward at beckoning Cyrenes from the 1975-90 civil war, not forward to a future as a real country for its people, gifted as they are, in so many ways.
FRANKLIN LAMB is doing research in Lebanon and can be reached at email@example.com.