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Entries in Saad Hariri (2)


Lebanon's Elections: 10 Essential Lessons

lebanon-flag1I was going to write a follow-up on some of the ridiculous US-based analysis of Monday's Lebanese elections. Thomas Friedman, for example, passed ludicrous and headed towards appalling in his Wednesday column in The New York Times, while that paper's editorial board reduced the outcome to "a solid victory over Hezbollah...[and] a major setback for the militant group’s supporters in Iran and Syria".

On second thought, however, best to be positive. I think this evaluation by Rami Khouri, written for Agence Global and Middle East Online, is outstanding, not only in its reading of the results but its attention to the near-future: "None of this really mattered much...because the balance of power in Lebanon (as in the entire Arab world) is not really anchored in parliament, but in power relations that are negotiated elsewhere."

The Lessons of Lebanon's Elections

We can draw many lessons from the Lebanese parliamentary elections Sunday, which saw the selection of a new parliament reflecting almost precisely the same distribution of seats among the country’s two main political groupings as the pervious parliament (68 seats for the Hariri-led March 14 movement, 57 seats for the Hizbullah-Michel Aoun-led March 8 group, and three independents). Here are my conclusions about what happened and what it means:

1. The elections were important, but inconsequential. Why an individual, a party, or an ethnic-religious group decides to vote for one side or the other is endlessly fascinating and constantly evolving. It is also totally meaningless in Lebanon’s case, because the whole is more important than its parts. Power, governance and decision-making in Lebanon are defined by the crushing imperative of consensus-based rule, which means that any combination of majorities and minorities will always need to achieve consensus on major national decisions; drivers change, but the engine of this bus does not.

2. After Turkey, Lebanon becomes the second Muslim-majority country in the Middle East that can boast holding elections combining logistical efficiency with political credibility, including some surprise results that could not be predicted. Three cheers for Lebanese parliamentary elections.

3. None of this really mattered much, however, because the balance of power in Lebanon (as in the entire Arab world) is not really anchored in parliament, but in power relations that are negotiated elsewhere. The most important political contest in Lebanon happened in May 2008, not June 2009. Hizbullah and its armed allies won that brief battle on the streets, and power-sharing contours in Lebanon have been defined ever since. This is ugly stuff -- young men shooting RPG’s at each other in the city and mountain villages -- but in the Middle East the modern exercise of power, like the condition of most Arab statehood, consistently has been a messy endeavor.

4. The elections generate validity and credibility, not ideological triumph. The March 14 movement affirmed that its core values reflect those of about half the population of Lebanon -- though precisely what those values are remains slightly imprecise. Much of the movement’s success reflects its opposition to the March 8 forces that include backing from Syria, Iran, Islamists and others in the region who are often critical of the United States, Israel and conservative Arabs. We always knew that March 14 represented many Lebanese; now we also have proof that it is resilient and strong. But we do not know what it represents in ideological terms other than opposing the Hizbullah-Aoun alliance.

5. We have seen again that tribe triumphs policy. The massive turnout of Sunni voters seems to have been one of the decisive reasons for the March 14 victory. This is perfectly normal and legitimate; but it tells us more about the anthropology of blood ties among the human species than it does about the contestation of power in a modern society. Faced with a do-or-die scenario, March 14 and its Sunni core rose to the electoral and tribal challenge.

6. Swift-boating is universal. Just as George W. Bush defeated John Kerry in 2004 by tarnishing him as a coward in the Swift boat incident in Vietnam decades ago, March 14 successfully frightened many voters with its theme that a Hizbullah-Aoun victory would dry up Saudi and American financial support for Lebanon and bring the economy to a grinding halt.

7. All politics in Lebanon is local, regional, global and cosmic. March 14 won and March 8 did not do as well as the pre-vote polls predicted because of a neat convergence of: a) local identities (Sunni, Shiite, assorted Christians, Druze, Armenian) battling to claim their share of the national pie in parliament, b) regional Arab players (mainly Saudi Arabia and Syria, and Egypt slightly) exerting their influence through their respective Lebanese partners and proxies, c) non-Arab regional and foreign forces (Iran, the United States, France, Israel) also backing their favorites, and, d) cosmic forces in the form of the Maronite church hierarchy constantly advocating for righteousness among voting Lebanese that would accurately mirror God’s will on Earth.

8. Key regional and global players started speaking and negotiating with each other in the past year, rather than using threats and subversion as their main form of engagement, which lowered regional tensions and thus prompted some Lebanese to see their future as one of calm, security and prosperity. It is a mistake to see the election results as mainly an American triumph or Iranian defeat, though elements of those views are relevant. Unraveling the distinct local, regional, global and cosmic strands of this election offers a better conclusion than a simplistic United States vs. Iran approach.

9. Fatigue matters. Some independent or undecided Lebanese voters clearly remembered the 2006 war, the 2007 Gaza war, and the May 2008 fighting in Lebanon, and did not want to put the country on a permanent diet of confrontation, bickering, resistance, warfare and destruction. March 14 successfully presented itself as the antidote to perpetual war.

10. The relative decline of Michael Aoun’s movement, while the Hariri-led, Sunni-based Future Movement and Shiite-anchored Hizbullah both held their ground or improved, suggests that tribes and triumphant armed movements will always out-perform one-man shows. Aoun is a historic phenomenon that may or may not persist. Shiites and Sunnis competing to preserve their communal power will be forces in Lebanon for a long time.

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.