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Lebanon's Elections: From Global "Showdown" to Local Reality

Related Post: Lebanon and Iran Elections - It’s All About (The) US


UPDATE --- IT'S ABOUT (THE) US: For Michael Slackman of The New York Times, it's not a question of Washington shaping the Lebanese outcome: "Political analysts...attribute it in part to President Obama’s campaign of outreach to the Arab and Muslim world." You can slap the Obama model on top of any election to get the right result: "Lebanon’s election could be a harbinger of Friday’s presidential race in Iran, where a hard-line anti-American president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, may be losing ground to his main moderate challenger, Mir Hussein Moussavi."

Simon Tisdall, normally a shrewd observer of international affairs, trots out the same simplicities in The Guardian of London: "It's possible that watching Iranians will be encouraged in their turn to go out and vote for reformist, west-friendly candidates in Friday's presidential election. Lebanon may be just the beginning of the 'Obama effect'."

Juan Cole has posted a more thoughtful assessment, even as he opens with the reductionist and sensationalist declaration, "President Obama's hopes for progress on the Arab-Israeli peace process would have been sunk if Hezbollah had won the Lebanese elections.")

My immediate reaction to the results of Lebanon's elections, in which a "March 14" coalition of largely Sunni Muslim and Christian groups including Saad Hariri, the son of the slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, maintained a Parliamentary majority (71 of 128 seats) over a "March 8" coalition of largely Shia Muslim and Christian groups including Hezbollah?


Not surprise at the result, even though many observers expected the Hezbollah coalition, which also included the Shia party Amal and the Christian party led by former President Michel Aoun, to take a narrow majority of seats. The balance of the result came in a handful of seat in largely Christian areas, and those groups in March 14 were able to mobilise their supporters more effectively than their counterparts in March 8.

The surprise instead came as I read, in American and British media, the sometimes vapid, often reductionist, possibly counter-productive framing of the outcome: "Pro-Western bloc defeats Hezbollah in crucial poll", "a Western-backed coalition...thwart[ed] a bid by the Islamist Hezbollah party to increase its influence". "a hotly contested election that had been billed as a showdown between Tehran and Washington for influence in the Middle East". Even one of the best "Western" analyses of the result, Robert Fisk's assessment in The Independent, was converted through an editor's headline to "Lebanese voters prevent Hizbollah takeover".

Anyone reading these headlines could be forgiven for concluding that the March 8 group consisted solely of "Islamist" Hezbollah, even though it fielded only 11 candidates (all of whom won) put forth by the coalition. Conversely, the March 14 bloc needed no further identification beyond "US-backed". The New York Times account did not even bother, apart from one phrase buried deep in the article, to explain what "March 14" was. It was enough to depict in the opening paragraphs "a significant and unexpected defeat for Hezbollah and its allies, Iran and Syria" and "Hezbollah itself — a Shiite political, social and military organization that is officially regarded by the United States and Israel as a terrorist group".

The post-election reality is likely to be far more mundane though important, not for US and British interpretations of "Hezbollah v. US (and Israel), but for the Lebanese people. Since the assassination of Rafik Hariri in June 2005 and Syria's withdrawal from the country, Lebanon --- with a fascinating but often frustrating political system trying to hold together Sunnis, Shi'a, and Christians --- has struggled to maintain a working national government. After months of effective suspension, a "National Unity" Cabinet with former General Suleiman as President was finally agreed in 2008. Members of the March 8 bloc held 1/3 of the Cabinet seats and a veto on proposed legislation.

The nominal March 14 majority does not resolve that situation. As Robert Fisk observes, "The electoral system – a crazed mixture of sectarianism, proportional representation and 'list' fixing – means that no one ever really "wins" elections in Lebanon, and yesterday was no different." So today Lebanon returns to the issue of whether that system will be maintained. While not making an explicit commitment, Saad Hariri said all parties must "give a hand to each other and have the will to go back to work". Hezbollah leader Sheikh Nasrallah, conceding defeat, offered conciliation: "We accept the official results in a sporting spirit. I would like to congratulate all those who won, those in the majority and those in the opposition."

The first post-election issue is likely to be whether the March 8 groups will retain their Cabinet veto. Withdrawing it risks a breakdown of "unity" and a return to the pre-2008 suspension of Government; maintaining it limits the scope for legislation and precludes the demand, put forth by Israel and the United States, for the disarming of Hezbollah's militias. And even before that, there is the question of who becomes Prime Minister: according to Al Jazeera, US officials prefer current PM Fouad Siniora to Hariri.

No doubt the veneer of Lebanon's result as a critical step in the Middle East peace process will continue for a few days, as. The Wall Street Journal declared, "The push back of Hezbollah is seen as providing President Barack Obama more diplomatic space to pursue his high-profile Arab-Israeli peace initiative." The reality, however, is that this image of Lebanon --- and beyond that, the Hezbollah v. US-Israel-peace-loving countries narrative --- is more pretext than substance, especially with the post-2005 Syrian pullback. I suspect that the issues that preoccupy most Lebanese are internal rather than external, and the space to deal with those political and economic matters would be welcomed.

So the danger is not that a Lebanon led by Hezbollah, and behind Hezbollah its "masters" in Iran, will emerge to challenge Israel and the US. Instead, the political knife cuts the other way: external rhetoric of the Hezbollah danger, a rhetoric which can always be escalated not to advance the regional peace process but to block it, would simply add to the internal tensions as Lebanon tries to find a stable political leadership in a time of great economic and social change.

So, as the Middle Eastern road show returns to more established venues --- George Mitchell in Israel and possibly Syria this week, a Hamas delegation including Khaled Meshaal going to Cairo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promising a major foreign policy speech --- here's a proposed follow-up for the headline writers on Lebanon.

Leave It Be.

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    EA WorldView - Archives: June 2009 - Lebanon's Elections: From Global "Showdown" to Local Reality

Reader Comments (1)

"Hezbollah leader Sheikh Nasrallah, conceding defeat, offered conciliation: “We accept the official results in a sporting spirit. I would like to congratulate all those who won, those in the majority and those in the opposition.”

If there is a victory to be had from the elections, it's that right there. I'd call it "the Clinton effect," in reference to both Secretary of State Clinton, and her brilliant turn from loss into cooperation, and to President Clinton, who has been very vocal on the promotion, and difficulties, of democracy.

Nasrallah's congenial acceptance of defeat is an extremely positive sign that perhaps the true democratic ideals of the United States are not only still strong, but also still viable on the global stage.

Bill Clinton on "Losers"

June 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterUJ

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