Friday, June 17, 2005

Blog interview: Ya Libnan - "The elections have driven the country back into a sectarian mindset" 

Lebanon, for many years overshadowed by other conflicts and controversies in the Middle East, has been much in the news over the past few months following the assassination of opposition leader Rafik Hariri, massive opposition protests, and the subsequent withdrawal of Syrian troops after three decades of occupation. Now, the future of Lebanon is being decided by its voters.

If you want to follow the events in Lebanon, a good place to start is Ya Libnan. Lebanese politics being rather Byzantine at the best of times, I decided to ask the website's editors to explain the current political situation as well as the prospects of the Cedar Revolution. Ya Libnan's editors asked to remain anonymous, in order to maintain a platform that promotes freedom of speech for independent Lebanese.

We, in the West, are used to one-day elections with the results known soon after. In Lebanon, the election has been staggered over four phases. Three of them have already taken place - can you tell us the results so far?

America is nine hundred times bigger in area and 75 times larger in population than Lebanon, yet you guys manage to have elections in one day. Lebanon needs four times longer. Voters are required to vote in their forefather's place of birth, so many citizens have to vote for politicians representing districts that they don't live in. If every voter traveled to their district for elections held on a single day, the country could shut down. The staged elections are prolonged and archaic; reform is urgently needed to overhaul the electoral law (See "Guide to reforming Lebanon's Elections").

So far elections have been held in Beirut, South Lebanon, Mount Lebanon, and Bekaa. One round remains, in North Lebanon on Sunday, June 19. 128 seats in the Parliament are up for election.

Beirut was swept by Saad Hariri, son of slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Hariri is a newcomer to the political scene, but despite his youth and lack of experience, he is widely expected to be the next Prime Minister. Hariri won all 19 seats contested in Beirut.

South Lebanon was dominated by an alliance between Hizbollah and Amal Movement, capturing all 23 seats.

Mount Lebanon proved to be the most competitive round of the elections so far. In his debut after returning from exile, Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement took home 15 of the 35 seats for Mount Lebanon. Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Anti-Syria Opposition, won the 20 remaining seats.

Aoun dominated in the Zahle district of the Bekaa region, winning 7 of the 8 contested seats, bringing his total to 21. The significance here is that Aoun has emerged from the elections as the undisputed Christian leader.

Once the final, fourth phase of the election is over, how do you see the overall political landscape in Lebanon? Where to now for the pro-democracy, anti-Syrian forces which gained such international prominence over the past few months?

Lebanon's new parliament will consist of leadership positions for Hizbollah, Hariri, Aoun, and Jumblatt. Essentially, Christians are supporting Aoun, Shiites Hizbollah, Sunnites Hariri, and Druze Jumblatt. This is a far cry from the scenes from Martyr's Square, where one of the prominent images was a Cross and a Crescent side by side. The elections have driven the country back into a sectarian mindset.

How well the various groups play together remains to be seen. Best case, they put their differences aside, and work towards reforming a sovereign and independent Lebanon. Worst case, we go back to sectarian politics, politicians continue to engage in corruption, and everything Lebanon united for on March 14th is thrown out the window.

The legendary Christian leader, General Aoun, who has recently returned from exile in France, has become the latest wild card in Lebanese politics. The man who had bitterly fought the Syrian occupiers for years has now aligned himself with pro-Syrian politicians - what are the implications for the local political scene?

Lebanon's anti-Syrian Opposition movement and Aoun failed to reach consensus on a unified political bloc. As a result, Aoun allied himself with staunch allies of Syria, the same politicians he frequently criticized while in exile. Many Lebanese believe that Aoun is just another Syrian puppet, helping Syria regain political credibility in Lebanon. His supporters feel that Aoun was forced into aligning with former foes in order to compete against the Opposition. On the other hand the Opposition claims that Aoun did not negotiate in good faith.

The move to align with corrupt, pro-Syrian politicians was surprising, particularly since Aoun claims to be a man of principle out to put an end to corruption. Aoun has stated that he no longer has any issues with Syria, since they have withdrawn from Lebanon. It's a little pre-mature to be patting them on the back, considering only weeks ago an anti-Syrian journalist, Samir Kassir, was assassinated in Beirut.

Aoun's desire to become the next president adds a conflict of interest factor, which has resulted in many conspiracy theories. One of these theories is that Aoun struck a deal with Syria, calling for Lahoud to serve his 3 year full term as extended by the parliament under Syrian pressure. In reward for supporting Lahoud, Syria will back Aoun as the next president. So far Aoun's behavior towards Syria and its Lebanese allies, his support for Lahoud and his announcement yesterday for his desire to be the next president keeps this conspiracy theory alive (See "Did Aoun strike a deal with Syria?").

The electoral alliance between Hariri and Hizbollah would have come as somewhat of a surprise to many people who remembered the big Hizbollah-sponsored counter-rally a few months ago. Just who exactly is still left on the pro-Syrian, pro-government side of politics and in what position will they be when the election is over?

Excellent question.

Round 4 of the elections is crucial in determining the parliamentary bloc sizes. The larger the blocs of Hariri, Jumblatt and other anti-Syrian movements are (Opposition) the better are the chances of having a government that is strong and independent.

If, on the other hand General Aoun repeats his successes, we are not sure in what direction he will be heading. His alliance with the pro-Syrians is a major cause of concern. However, Aoun promised "reform and change" in his campaign, so we remain hopeful that he too will pursue an independent course.

The pro-Syrian President of Lebanon, Emile Lahoud, has been defiant in completing his un-constitutional third term. The controversial constitutional amendment which Syria imposed upon Lebanon back in November 2004, lead to Rafik Hariri's resignation as Prime Minister, alignment with the anti-Syrian Opposition, and ultimately to his assassination.

Following the murder of Samir Kassir, Lahoud was defiant when asked if he would resign if the new parliament voted him out. He stated that even if al 128 members voted him out, "I am not going to leave no matter what. They have to count on that."

Will Hizbollah accept a democratically elected parliament that has anti-Syrian, pro-independence majority?

Hizbollah will have to work with the majority. In an effort to promote unity, and guarantee success in the polls, Hizbollah allied with the anti-Syrian Opposition. Despite their alliance, members of the Opposition, including Jumblatt and Hariri, have repeatedly committed to disarmament negotiations.

There is no question that Hizbollah earned the admiration and the loyalty of the majority of the Lebanese for liberating the south. However it is critical that Hizbollah remain pro-Lebanon. Dual allegiance will no longer be tolerated by the majority. Hariri said in an interview, "Hizbollah needs to think Lebanese. If it wants to get involved in the political life, it has to give up some things."

In recent past, countries like Syria (directly) and Iran (via Hizbollah) were exerting considerable influence on Lebanese politics. What is the situation right now?

Syria's withdrawal of troops from Lebanon was a major milestone. Reports of continued intelligence presence in Lebanon have been popping up, and then Samir Kassir was assassinated weeks ago. The fact of the matter is, whether or not there are Syrian forces or intelligence in Lebanon, the pro-Syrian representation in politics remains strong. (See "The Syrians have gone. But have they?").

Since the end of the civil war in 1990, Lebanon has lived under an uneasy peace, which at least has allowed some reconstruction to take place and saw the return to some normalcy. Beirut was, of course, once known as Paris of the Middle East, and Lebanon as the most progressive country in the region. How do you see your country's prospects in the near future?

The key to a successful Lebanon is national unity. In the past 15 years, progress was made when political and religious differences were put aside. I'm optimistic that Lebanon will continue to move in the right direction. Lebanese people are bright and resilient, but sectarianism was engrained in every one of us through the civil war, by "the Old Guard politicians". Moving away from the divisions created by the civil war requires leadership that can guide the country towards a bigger and better future.

In recent weeks, several of the politicians were quoted using language reminiscent of the civil war, such as referring to predominantly Christian "East Beirut" and predominantly Muslim "West Beirut". Such behavior only drags Lebanon backwards, and exemplifies the dire need for a fresh set of politicians, not those involved in the civil war.

To an outside observer, Lebanon seems forever split between Christians and Muslims, Sunnis and Shias, pro- and anti-Western forces, with a myriad of smaller sects and groups thrown into the mix. Does Lebanon have a long-term future as one state?

Lebanon has been a melting pot of religious sects for hundreds of years, kind of like America. Many elder Lebanese reminisce about their youth, when all the religions co-existed in peace, including citizens of the Jewish faith. The division interjected by the civil war is complex, but I have no reason to believe Lebanon cannot return to a stable state where many religions co-exist. Any hope of achieving such unity requires a leader who represents more than just their own religion. Rafik Hariri, while he certainly had his critics, gained the respect and support across the religious spectrum. If Aoun follows up on his "reform and change program", he may be able to gain the support of the Lebanese. The question is, will Aoun be able to implement such a reform program, if his allies are people like Michel Murr, considered to be one of the most corrupt politicians in Lebanon. It remains to be seen whether these alliances were short term for the election only, or long term (See "Will the new government complete the political revolution?").

March 14 called for a united Lebanon. The Lebanese people are tired of old politics and will march again in millions if needed. The Cedar Revolution may have been hijacked, but is not dead.

Assuming that Hariri's allies will be able to form the next government, what is Lebanon's foreign policy likely to be vis-a-vis countries like the United States, Israel, Syria, or Iran? Any major realignments on the cards, or will there be no perceptible difference?

Whichever group wins will be friendly to the west and to the rest of the world. Prior to the civil war, Lebanon has always pursued a friendly foreign policy. The Opposition has repeatedly expressed the importance of a revived foreign policy. In a recent AFP interview, Aoun committed to developing an "independent foreign policy", which may be an indication that his pro-Syrian alliances primarily served the purpose of winning elections.

The first item in foreign policy will be future relationship with Syria. A friendly relationship as equals between Lebanon and Syria is mutually important. Establishing embassies in both Damascus and Beirut will be the first item on the Agenda. Lebanon wants to make sure Syria respects its sovereignty and independence.

As with regards to Israel, the 10452 Square Kilometer (Area of Lebanon) was adopted as a slogan by all the factions. This means that Lebanon would insist on withdrawal of Israel from occupied Shebaa farms. These farms are of little use strategically to Israel, and serve as a destabilizing factor for both Lebanon and Israel, making it prudent that Israel withdraw from these farms as a goodwill gesture towards the new government. This action by Israel will help the new government in its efforts to disarm Hezbollah.

Hezbollah has emerged as a strong political entity and cannot be ignored. They will play a major role in the shaping of the new government and its policies. We have to accept this as a fact of life.


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