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Lebanese Whines

Aug
10
2007

Lebanon is known for its wines. The Bekaa Valley produces some truly excellent vintages. But what’s the favorite wine of the Gemayel political dynasty? “Michel Aoun won the election with Armenian votes, waaaaah!” (Say it out loud, it’s funnier.)

The reason for such angst is the pro-Syrian opposition forces won a special election in the mostly Christian district of Metn on Sunday, dealing a blow to the pro-American government of Fuad Siniora and its political coalition in parliament. The opposition, which includes the Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah, ran Camille Khoury, a political unknown loyal to the renegade Maronite Christian Gen. Michel Aoun, of whom I wrote last week. Khoury beat former president Amin Gemayel, head of the powerful Gemayel political dynasty with power reaching back generations.

Aoun’s man won by only about 400 votes in a mixed district. Voters included a lot of Christians, a few Sunnis and Shi’ites and a fair number of Armenians. Busloads of Syrians who had been naturalized as Lebanese citizens during the Syrian occupation were driven in from Damascus to vote for Aoun’s candidate as well.

Aoun predictably heralded it as a major win for his anti-U.S. alliance and used the victory to claim a boost in his political standing. Only he is able to unite Lebanon by crossing the sectarian border fences that have mentally cantonized this place, he said. Only he can smash the feudal system of leaders that run Lebanon from their various strongholds.

Puh-leeze. The general won with fewer votes than George Bush did in 2000, so a little humility would be in order here. The Maronite Christians voted overwhelmingly for Gemayel. In part it was out of sympathy for a grieving father (He was running to fill the seat left by the murder of his son, Pierre, who was killed in November last year.) Others voted for him because they were loyal to the Gemayel clan. And yet others voted for him — and I suspect this is by far the largest segment — because they’re disgusted by Aoun’s alliance with Hezbollah.

Of course, the United States has gotten in on the action. On Aug. 1, President George W. Bush signed an executive order freezing the assets of any person or group in the United States trying to undermine the stability of Lebanon. “Political and economic instability in that country and the region … constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States, and I hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat,” the order said. It’s aimed squarely at Syria, Hezbollah and their allies in Lebanon — and that includes Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement. I have no idea if this order scared any of Aoun’s people from voting for him — he commands a bit of a personality cult — but there’s little doubt that was the intention.

It may have been unnecessary though. Aoun’s support among the Christians has been dropping since January, undercutting his claim that he is the rightful leader of the Christians — not Gemayel or Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea. The March 14 camp, which is pro-Western and currently holds the government, has spun up the fact that he lost Christian support and has lashed out at the Armenians (who have been Christians since A.D. 301) in ugly statements verging on racism. Gemayel went so far as to accuse them of vote-rigging and warned that Tashnag, the Armenian party, would regret their support of Aoun. By his statements, he also implied that the Christian votes are the only ones that really count, so while Khoury won the seat, the pro-government partisans say, it’s a hollow victory for Aoun because they won the Christian vote.

The key to understanding Aoun is understanding his ambition. The general wants to be president above all else. If he had won the election decisively, he might have improved his political standing. As it is, he lost votes among the Maronites – for whom the presidency is constitutionally reserved in Lebanon – and just squeaked out a win. With the government’s slim majority in parliament reduced even further now and Aoun’s claim to Christian leadership in tatters, I’d say it’s a bit of draw.

So after a bitter campaign with threats of violence and apocalypse, nothing has changed on the ground in Lebanon. The country is still split, the presidency is still up for grabs and both sides in this power struggle for control of this little patch of land still have their fingers on their respective triggers. We’ll go through this all over again in September when the president is selected by a deeply divided parliament.

If Lebanon is ever going to get over its distrust and hatred held by the 18 different religious communities recognized here, the country needs a unifying figure. Unfortunately (or possibly fortunately), neither Gemayel, with his Christians-first emphasis, nor Aoun, with his objectively pro-Syrian agenda is that man.

Share  Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 4:00 AM | Permalink

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