Elections Pose Lebanon's Old Questions Anew

by Sateh Nourredine , Laurie King-Irani | published May 31, 2005

Watching a wave of peaceful protests compel the Lebanese government to resign on February 28, 2005, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli hailed the victory of a “Cedar Revolution” in line with, among others, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and “the Purple Revolution in Baghdad.” Ereli went on to claim that Lebanon’s spring of discontent, sparked by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri on February 14, proved President George W. Bush’s thesis that it is “the natural state of human beings to...want to be free.” On the streets of Beirut, though a lively striving for freedom was in evidence, the phrase “Cedar Revolution” never gained currency. In Lebanon, the months of protest, theatrical and musical performances, and all-night, left-right, Muslim-Christian political discussions, culminating in the massive demonstration of over one million people that overflowed Martyrs’ Square in downtown Beirut on March 14, were called “the independence uprising&rdqyi; (intifadat al-istiqlal).

Throughout this popular uprising, politicians and intellectuals in the broad-based opposition to the pro-Syrian government managed to navigate the dangerous shoals of identification with the Bush administration’s agenda, on the one hand, while skirting the perilous reef of alienating powerful domestic players, on the other. In fact, the opposition, including as it did prominent Maronite Christian, Druze and Sunni Muslim figures, conveyed a convincing impression to the outside world that the country had bridged old divides and even overcome the bitter legacies of the 1975-1990 civil war. The Maronites, long the most vocal opponents of Syrian influence in Lebanon, were joined not only by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, with whom they had reconciled in 2001, but also Sunnis furious about the killing of Hariri, for which they blamed Syria. Meanwhile, Hizballah, the primary political and ideological tribune of the Shiite Muslim community, brought counter-demonstrators to the streets to express “thanks” to Syria for its role in Lebanon, but also to echo calls for national unity. Local and foreign observers optimistically declared that Lebanon, once synonymous with destruction, violence and chaos, was now a success story, a country moving in the right direction against all odds. This impression was strengthened by the fact that Syrian troops left Lebanon in an orderly fashion by the end of April.

By May 29, the first of four successive Sundays of voting to elect a new Lebanese parliament and government, it was plain that the Syrian “presence,” though increasingly burdensome and unpleasant, was never the root problem. Rather, Syrian occupation was a symptom of deeper crises in the Lebanese political system. The celebrations of Syria’s departure in Martyrs’ Square rarely touched upon these crises, which center on questions of national identity, inter-communal conflict, accountability for wartime atrocities and nation building. The four-week elections will be a telling illustration of how the Lebanese will attempt to deal with these unresolved questions without an outside party to assist them—or to bear the blame if they fail.

While the elections are expected to empower the “anti-Syrian” opposition at the expense of the “pro-Syrian” loyalists who dominate the current parliament, divergent attitudes toward Syria are no longer the salient dividing line. The key word in Lebanese politics is no longer “independence,” but once again ta’ifiyya—the complicated and delicate system of power sharing among Lebanon’s 18 officially recognized ethno-confessional communities. Fifteen years of war followed by 15 years of Syrian occupation did not resolve or alter the basic structural and procedural problems posed by Lebanon’s confessional system of governance. Each development in the election campaign, including the low turnout at the first round of voting on May 29, served as a troubling reminder of this fact.

Two Rebellions

Not one, but two rebellions surged into Lebanon’s streets and dominated newspaper columns in the three months since Hariri’s assassination and the fall of the government. The first was embodied in the significant numbers of Lebanese who marched under the “Syria out!” banner. The other rebellion was not found in the significant numbers of Lebanese who thanked Syrian forces for helping Lebanon to constrain Israeli aggression in Lebanon and for guaranteeing relative calm in the country from 1990 until quite recently, thus allowing Lebanon to present a more attractive visage to foreign investors. Both demonstrations of popular feeling, in fact, showed that the whole country had accepted that the time for the Syrians’ departure had arrived.

The other rebellion was the recurrence of the same pressing questions after each demonstration. Who will rule Lebanon after the Syrian withdrawal? What kind of balance of power will be concluded between the different confessions? Upon Lebanon’s independence from French colonial rule in 1943, a National Pact established unwritten rules whereby the president is a Maronite Christian, the prime minister is a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of Parliament is a Shiite, while allocating parliamentary seats according to a sectarian calculus. Today still, 64 seats are reserved for Christians and 64 for Muslims, including the Druze. The 1989 Ta’if agreement that set the stage for the end of the civil war made only minor modifications to these allocations, without attacking the underpinnings and inequities of the confessional system. The question leading into the elections was simple: Would Lebanon continue to be governed by the provisions of Ta’if or by a new, as yet unconcluded, national pact? In the meantime, how “free and fair” can elections be in a country where parliamentary seats are divided 50-50 between Christians and Muslims, though this division in no way reflects current demographic realities?

To these questions there have been no clear or widely satisfactory answers. For three months, Lebanon’s citizenry has expressed itself eloquently and peacefully in the streets of Beirut, all the while lacking a truly integrated and national political agenda. Hence, the passion and solidarity exhibited during the Martyrs’ Square demonstrations and the counter-demonstrations of Hizballah have not translated into a coherent campaign platform for either the forces of opposition to the lame duck government or the forces that stayed out of the “independence uprising.” The demonstrations of March and April addressed one set of problems. The fractious and circus-like politicking witnessed before elections have provided indices of others.

Fragile Reconciliations

For some time after the “independence uprising” forced the government to step down, it looked as if elections to replace it might be delayed. President Emile Lahoud’s attempt to appoint the resigned Omar Karami as interim prime minister failed, with Karami unable to assemble a cabinet after a month of trying. When Najib Miqati was finally installed as caretaker prime minister, he pledged that his government would open the polls by the end of May and secured a month-long extension of the current parliament’s term to allow the contests to take place over four weeks. The next controversy concerned the rules that would govern the elections. Lebanon’s last parliamentary contests, in 2000, were run according to a law drafted under Syrian tutelage to gerrymander electoral districts in favor of allies of Damascus. The 2000 electoral law divided Lebanon into 14 constituencies that do not always conform to the boundaries of the country’s five provinces. Hizballah and Amal, the other major Shiite party, were two beneficiaries of the redrawn districts, but so was Druze chieftain Jumblatt, who at that time was still in Syria’s corner.

Upon parliamentary approval of his cabinet, Miqati said that “our hands are extended to agree on any election law,” but, in the end, no amendment to the 2000 law was debated by the legislature. Christian opposition parliamentarians, backed by Maronite patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir as well as others, mounted a vociferous campaign to subdivide the provinces into 24 districts (qada’), so as to give greater representation to the country’s smaller communities. Other factions in the opposition had their own criticisms of the 2000 law, but they were not willing to postpone the date of elections to allow time for complex redistricting negotiations that might wind up reducing their political power. Cracks in the “anti-Syrian” opposition began to appear, with Jumblatt and others siding with the “pro-Syrian” parliamentary speaker, Nabih Berri of Amal, in tacit support for the 2000 law. Washington and Paris, meanwhile, were open about their preference that elections be held on time, without delay, and based on whatever electoral law was readily available. On May 7, shortly after writing a letter to Parliament expressing worry that the 2000 law could be divisive, Lahoud decreed that it would suffice after all.

In urging the Lebanese to hold elections as quickly as possible, against the wishes of some of the protagonists in the independence uprising, Washington and Paris were clearly moving to avoid a political vacuum in Lebanon, which could have dangerous regional consequences. The United States and France were also reluctant to provoke the Shia, especially Hizballah, which controls the border with Israel in the south. Nor did anyone want to upset other “pro-Syrian” factions in Lebanon, who will occupy between 35 and 40 of the 128 seats in the next parliament.

Electoral Equations

The initial round of voting in Beirut on May 29 will not set the pattern for other parts of the country. Turnout was a surprisingly low 28 percent, in part because several candidates were running unopposed. Most voters who went to the polling stations seemed only to be expressing an emotional reaction to the assassination of Hariri. The lists of Hariri’s son Saad, who inherited the leadership of his father’s Mustaqbal Party, wound up sweeping all 19 seats in the three Beirut districts. In one curious electoral alliance, the younger Hariri enlisted Solange Gemayel, widow of the assassinated Bashir Gemayel of the Lebanese Forces, to run for office in the Ashrafiyya district of East Beirut. Gemayel, like eight other candidates on Hariri’s list, ran unopposed. But Hariri was unable to lure all the Christian opposition leaders, who decided instead to focus on the battles in their strongholds, or simply to boycott the vote in the capital as an objection to the electoral law. The debacle of the formerly “pro-Syrian” forces in Beirut will surely have a psychological impact on their standing in the next parliament, but the fortunes of other major allies of Syria before the withdrawal, such as Hizballah, Amal and traditional families in the north, mainly the Franjiyyas and the Karamis, will be better.

Partly as a result of keeping the 2000 electoral law, the “Resistance, Liberation and Development” lists fronted by Hizballah and Amal will dominate the electoral game in the south and in the Bekaa Valley. Here, too, the alliances have been odd. The lists presently include a member of the Lebanese Baath Party and the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party—both of which would have been classified as very “pro-Syrian” before the withdrawal—but also the late Hariri’s sister Bahiyya, who is running for the slot reserved for a Sunni in the Sidon-Zahrani district. Hizballah and its former rival Amal were also more nimble than others in organizing electoral lists to compete in areas where there will be real competition, including regions once considered Christian strongholds. When all is said and done, Hizballah may emerge just as strong in the new parliament as it was in the old.

The fact that the outcome of so many contests was predetermined has directed the attention of many Lebanese to deeper issues than the partisan affiliation of candidates. In the weeks leading up to May 29, several politicians, mainly Muslims, quietly broached the very sensitive issue of inter-communal power sharing. Now more than two thirds of the population, by some estimates (there is no official count), many Muslims are asking for a new division of seats in parliament with the Christians, or at the very least a new commitment to the Ta’if agreement that helped end 15 years of internecine fighting. A key request is for transfer of additional powers from the hands of the Maronite president to the council of ministers led by the Sunni prime minister. The Ta’if accord had already transferred several powers out of the president’s purview. On the Christian side, the patriarch Sfeir has set forth a clear demand that Christian representatives in Parliament should be elected exclusively by Christian voters. As it stands, the Muslim voters of a given district vote to fill the Maronite, Greek Catholic and other Christian slots that may exist in their district as well as the Muslim ones. The same is true of Christians voting for Muslims.

Meanwhile, one cannot ignore the ideas sparked by the voluble Gen. Michel Aoun, who led an interim military government from 1988 and launched a disastrous and bloody “war of liberation” against Syrian forces in 1989. The general returned from his Parisian exile in mid-May and immediately entered the electoral fray, sallying forth among his old rivals spouting a populist rhetoric that runs counter to the economic polarization the country has experienced over the last two decades, and raising questions about deconfessionalizing the political system. Aoun’s agonistic personality and broad-brush approach to political and social realities has earned him a small but passionate following. It is notable that he has stated that he does not want to be considered a member of a Christian list, or to be advancing Christian lists. During the Beirut balloting, the general’s partisans distributed leaflets calling on Lebanese not to participate in the “appointment” of parliamentarians at the polls, though, in keeping with the circus-like atmosphere of the election season, the general’s Free Patriotic Movement may still field candidates in districts where they think their chances are better. Aoun’s impact on the elections is likely to be minimal, but his rhetoric may reverberate in Lebanon’s political scene, especially since many of his supporters are young people.

Old Questions

Are Lebanon’s first elections of the post-Syrian era fated to be simply an expression of revenge against Damascus? Everyone knows that voting against Syria does not necessarily mean voting for the Lebanese national unity felt by many during the March-April demonstrations, much less a new, overarching national identity. Meanwhile, the presence on the ballot of many candidates who have, in effect, already won their seats, has sown cynicism and probably helped to depress voter turnout so far.

The elections will probably result in the removal from Parliament of several Sunni, Christian and Druze politicians who were close to Damascus. Many expect that a further major symbolic blow to Syria will come in the fall, when the new parliament will have the chance to remove Lahoud as president. Other than that, the elections will not bring much change to the underlying political structures of the country. There are few signs that the mobilization among the different confessions precipitated by the electoral law fight and other disputes will be over soon. The elections already represent a clear divergence from the shows of unity in the streets of Beirut during the three months after the assassination of Hariri. The Sunnis, Druzes and Christians who were marching and chanting together against Syria are already facing, once again, the very old Lebanese problem of what kind of national pact should be put on the table. The Shia will soon be asking old questions about their share, but in the context of a new regional environment in which Shiite politics are quite different than they were three decades ago.

Not least, Lebanon’s new parliament will be faced as well with deciding the future of Hizballah as a political, social and military force in the southern suburbs and in the south of the country, where many still fear Israeli aggression as much as they fear an unfair deal that will cut the Shia out of key political and economic sectors. An institutional order unto itself, Hizballah remains a major political force to reckon with after the Syrian withdrawal, even if that withdrawal has exposed Hizballah’s militia to renewed demands that it disarm in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1559. US, French and other international pressures are only some of the reasons why the issue of Hizballah’s disarmament will be contentious.

While it is indisputable that the “independence uprising” and the Syrian departure have allowed Lebanese to acknowledge that the civil war is finally over, few Lebanese would contend that the impact of the long war has truly dissipated. The Lebanese people are still facing the challenge of establishing a state that transcends confessionalism. Azmi Bishara, a prominent Palestinian member of the Israeli Knesset, captured the dynamic upon leaving Beirut after paying his condolences to the Hariri family and meeting with a wide range of Lebanese political figures. Bishara was dismayed to discover that Lebanon, despite mounting a dramatic and media-savvy movement for sovereignty, remains a country whose political system lacks formal definition, whose cosmopolitan politicians are rooted in a feudal era despite speaking a post-modern language, and whose greatest problems emanate not from external enemies but rather from chronic internal structural imbalances. Lebanese do indeed “want to be free,” but freedom from Syrian occupation has prompted a poignant acknowledgement of the continued constraints on Lebanon’s quest to define itself.

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