Posted by Joshua on Monday, August 6th, 2007
Camille Khoury, the unknown candidate backed by opposition leader Gen. Michel Aoun, beat former President Amin Gemayel in the crucial Metn by-election by a very narrow margin. Interior Minister Hassan Sabei, announcing the results at around 4:00 a.m. Monday, declared Khoury the winner by a 418-vote edge. He received 39,534 votes against Gemayel's 39,116. Turnout was 46 percent.
In another election in Beirut, pro-government candidate Mohammed Amin Itani easily won a Sunni seat in parliament that came open when lawmaker Walid Eido was killed in a car bombing in June. The opposition did not officially sponsor a candidate to contest Itani and Shiites were asked not to vote. As a result his opponent came a distant second with 3,556 votes as opposed to 22,988 votes for Itani. Turnout was low at about 19 percent.
How are we to understand the results of this vote?
Lebanon's Prime Minister Fouad Siniora claimed the results were a victory for democracy. In theory this should be good for America, but Washington does not see it as such, because the Bush administration wanted a March 14 victory. President Bush considers the March 14 coalition an ally in the contest for the Middle East, in which the West has pit itself against the "axis of evil" member, Iran, and its ally Syria.
General Aoun's party, the Free Patriotic Movement, or FPM, is allied with Lebanon's Shiite parties. They call for better relations with Damascus and an end to rule by Lebanon's traditional zaims. They also insist on new parliamentary elections before the deputies vote for Lebanon's new president, which should take place before late November when President Emile Lahood's term ends. Amin Gemayel's defeat by a relative unknown is significant because it will bolster opposition claims that the March 14 ruling coalition no longer represents public sentiment. This is the main justification for the opposition's refusal to hold presidential elections before a new parliament is elected.
Also, Amin Gemayel was not just any Maronite; he was Mr. Maronite. The Gemayel family dominated right wing Maronite politics for much of the 20th century. Pierre Gemayel, Amin's father, built the Kataeb, or Phalange paramilitary force in the 1930s. During the Civil War, the Phalange turned out to be the toughest Christian militia. It was commanded by Bashir Gemayel, Amin's brother. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 in alliance with the Phalange, Bashir was elected President, but was assassinated by a member of the SSNP before taking office. Amin Gemayel became president in his stead. A little over four months ago, Amin was invited to the White House to meet with President George Bush. This unusual invitation was interpreted by some to indicate that the Bush administration was sounding out Amin as a possible candidate for the Lebanese presidency. Amin's loss in the by-election will cast a long shadow over any possible run for the presidency in November. It would also seem to mark a nadir in the fortunes of the Gemayel clan.
The opposition painted the win as a rejection of Siniora's coalition. ''Metn democratically defeats Amin Gemayel and the (parliament) majority with him,'' the pro-opposition daily As-Safir said.
Associated Press began its story with "The government suffered a blow Monday when a little-known opposition candidate defeated a former president in a tense parliament by-election that showed the divisions among Lebanon's once-dominant Christians."
Amin Gemayel, the losing candidate, ran as the anti-Syrian. He suggested that those who would vote for Aoun were against Lebanon and tantamount to traitors. "Are all these political parties that support the Free Patriotic Movement doing so free of charge, just to please General Aoun? Or do they have other motives and are there other allies trying to regain the Syrian role on Lebanese soil?" He also argued that Syria had assassinated his son, Pierre Gemayel, whose parliamentary seat was being contested. Thus, a vote for his opponent was a vote for Syrian domination of Lebanon and for murder. It must be remembered that no evidence links Syria to the murder of Gemayel's son or the murder of Walid Eido. Lebanese authorities have produced, however, considerable evidence and testimony that both parliamentarians were assassinated by Lebanese extremist Sunni groups.
The March 14th's pro-Maronite strategy led Naharnet, a March 14 outlet, to take consolation from the results by announcing, "but the anti-Syrian runner [Amin Gemayel] reaped a vast majority of Maronite votes."
L'Orient le Jour claimed "les chrétiens non arméniens se prononcent clairement en faveur d’Amine Gemayel" and explained that because Aoun did not get 70% of the Christian vote, as he had previously claimed he would, he was in fact the loser as his bubble had burst. Its headline ran: Gemayel : Le scrutin du Metn a prouvé que le soutien de Aoun dans les régions chrétiennes est en net recul."
Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader, backed this interpretation, claiming, "Amin Gemayel has won the political battle. This is a political victory for March 14. The legend of Michel Aoun as the sole representative of the Christians is over. Michel Aoun has fallen politically despite all his alliances."
Aoun rejected that interpretation. He insists that he has a majority of Christian votes and backing from the majority of Lebanese.
Members of the Lebanese Forces, backer's of Amin Gemayel, accused Aoun supporters of being lesser or bad Lebanese. (Ouwet), a forum for Lebanese Forces members, posted the following on the day of the elections:
Who would have thought ?? Where are the 70% ya General ?? Where are the 20000+ votes u won with ??
8000 Armenians, at least 10000 to 15000 btw Murr and SSNP and naturalized voters …
This leaves the so-called General with barely 15000 votes !
Thank you Matn people for destroying this virus …
Thank you for proving Sheikh Pierre right …
Following the announcement of Gemayel's defeat, the same site responded with a poem:
So let me sum up the result of this election
You are miles from being the Christian selection
Holding hands with snoopies and baathies to vote
And some dead Armenians and a Syrian goat
Gemayel had refused to admit defeat until official results were announced and demanded a rerun of the vote in one mainly Armenian region where he claimed voter fraud.
Friday Lunch Club, a blog written by an Aoun supporter, was irate at the anti-Armenian language used in the election campaign. In his post entitled, Lebanon's Armenians face a new "verbal genocide," he explained that: "[Armenians] were called "intruders upon Lebanon's realities", "ghetto dwellers" and "ingrates." He concluded, "Lebanon's Armenians face an onslaught of M14 incitements."
Amin Gemayel later said that he did not mean to insult anyone, adding that ''Tashnak [the Armenian party] is a Lebanese party. No one doubts that.''
Greek Orthodox Lebanese also largely voted for Aoun and against the Gemayel clan's traditional domination of the Metn and Christian Lebanon. Michel Murr, a wealthy Greek Orthodox entrepreneur who was Interior Minister of Lebanon for much of the 1990s, threw his considerable support behind the Free Patriotic Movement. He dominates the Metn town of Btighrin and his son is married to President Emile Lahoud's daughter. The Lebanese based Syrian Social Nationalist Party also backs Aoun. It was founded by the Greek Orthodox Lebanese Antoun Saade and its membership is dominated by Greek Orthodox. The Greek Orthodox have chafed under Maronite domination since the founding of Lebanon.
The deep rootedness of the Maronite – Greek Orthodox rivalry was driven home to me when I visited the Wadi Nasara a few weeks ago. The Wadi Nasara, or Christian Valley, is the southern most region of Syria's coast that abuts northern Lebanon. It is the only region of Syria where Christians form a compact minority. The Greek Orthodox of the region have always looked more toward Tripoli than Damascus for education, employment, and religious leadership. I asked elders of the region, who had all been members of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party since their high-school days, why the French had not included the Wadi Nasara in Greater Lebanon when it was first cut out of Syria. They told me: "The Maronites of Lebanon did not want us. They were frightened that the Greek Orthodox might become the majority and rule Lebanon. They insisted we become part of Syria." Many Lebanese Greek Orthodox still look to Syria as a counter-weight to Maronite domination and disregard. Aoun has promised that he will end the time-honored domination of Lebanon's traditional zaims. This resonates with many Lebanese. The Gemayel clan is one of the most notable of the zaim households.
"The big winner today is Syria," said Michael Young, an opinion editor at the Daily Star, a Lebanese newspaper. Several days ago, Young wrote that Syria was working to undermine Aoun in order to divide and weaken Christians.
Syria is not the big winner of the elections, although it will be pleased by the results. The real winner was the Lebanese opposition. Michel Aoun has demonstrated that Christians and Shiites can ally to become an electoral force in Lebanon – one that can perhaps challenge the traditional Sunni-Maronite alliance that has dominated the Lebanese state for much of its short history.
This suggests that the US policy of insisting that only the March 14 coalition stands for democracy in Lebanon is misguided. As Lebanon's demographic composition changes and the coalitions this makes possible evolve, it will be a mistake if US policy does not evolve as well. Augustus Richard Norton has written a fine article explaining why the US should reconsider its one-sided policy, which will only continue to divide Lebanon.