Lebanon’s Crucial August 5, 2007 Election

Israel and the Welch Club Have Chosen the Reliable Amin Gemayel; Who Will the Lebanese Voters Pick?

Boston ‘s electoral sage and former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil’s famous quip about all politics being local notwithstanding, in Lebanon all politics appear increasingly international

With Lebanon ‘s first election since the 2006 July War presently scheduled within a few days, Sunday August 5, 2007 to be precise, pundits and observers are caught up in a frenzy of speculation. Some analysts go as far as to say that this by-election to fill the seats of the two recently assassinated Members of Parliament, Pierre Gemayel (son of Amin) and Walid Eido, will determine Lebanon’s foreseeable future and even whether Israel will be continue to exist much longer in the region.

his election is a little bit complicated and one or both of next Sunday’s by-elections could still be cancelled instantaneously if US Ambassador Feltman makes a phone call to PM Siniora and gives the order to abort. The call could some at any minute but if he does cancel it there will a strong reaction by opposition forces. One candidate running against Gemayel expects Feltman to cancel the Mount Lebanon Metn contest. As of submission time for this report, both races are still on.

The contest in the Mount Lebanon Christian District of Metn

The leading candidate in Metn, the more hotly contested seat in Sunday’s scheduled election, is former President Amin Gemayel He sees the by-election as a means to reclaim the seat of his slain son Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel. The Free Patriotic Movement [FPM] headed by MP Michel Aoun considers the by-election a means to measure its popularity (as part of the opposition led by Hezbollah) on the Christian political scene.

“It’s a referendum on Bush, Siniora, Hariri and Hasan Nassrallah” one Gemayal campaign worker opined.

“The issue is whether the opposition, led by Hezbollah and comprised of Christians, Shia and some Sunni, can defeat the widely perceived Saudi and Welch Club supported Hariri group, of which Gemayel is a part”, a documentary film maker from Australia, covering the campaign, noted.

According to a statement by one Beirut District Two candidate made on July 28, 2007, the Welch Club, through certain Saudi’ contacts, channeled 300 million dollars during the past few months to support the Majority Government and weaken Hezbollah. Part of that money is expected to fund the pro-government campaigns in the two districts.

Announcing his election less than two weeks ago on July 17, 2007 Gemayel, who gained status in the eyes of the public for his gracious comments at his beloved son’s funeral (in contrast to Samir Geagea and Wallid Jumblatt’s thinly disguised calls to hang Syria’s Bashar Assad and Lebanon’s Shia) quipped: ” Its not everyday in the Middle East that the father succeeds the son.” His audience chuckled for they were mindful that sons — Barshar (Syria), Abdullah (Jordan), Mohammad VI (Morocco), Gamel ((Egypt), Islam ( Libya), Abdullah (Saudi Arabia), and in countless other Middle East dynasties — succeeding fathers is indeed the norm.

Two day ago, Gemeyal told a Campaign rally of Lebanese Forces youth, many of whom were recently issued new US M-16s: (italicized text below courtesy of a FPM rival)

“My beloved ones, this electoral battle brought me back 30 years (when my younger brother Bashir let me join the Kathib Militia by waiving the required physical exam and stopped calling me wimp).

It returned me to the by-elections of 1970 in which we triumphed (my brother Bashir and my father Pierre rigged the vote and the US allowed us to get weapons , training and cash from Israel) with your presence here today and through this electoral battle, we are leading the battle of the youth (our only choice actually since the older generation has pretty much given up on the Christian militia idea).”

Gemayal continued: “Our national battle is interconnected (fight both Hezbollah and fellow Christians who support them). The Phalange Party students have always led the entire, lengthy struggles (kidnapping the first four hostages in the 1980’s-Iranian Diplomats) and executing them ) over decades (slaughters at Tel al Zaatar, checkpoint assassinations and disappearances, the massacre at Sabra-Shatilla, dozens of anti-Muslim death squads sent into Beirut over the years, killing Christian rivals, and collaborating with Israel).”

Even with the sympathy vote, the Metn District looks tough for the Bush administration even though it is 95% Christian (Maronite, Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholics is that order. There are probably only several dozen Shia in Metn) and former President Amin Gemayel is the favorite son.

One of the scores of misconceptions about Hezbollah found in the West is that it is a narrow Shia group. True its core in Shia, but its breath increasingly includes all Lebanese sects. Hezbollah was born with a vengeance following the 1982 Israeli invasion to resist the occupation, and since it has substantially expelled Israel, Hezbollah has become very main stream in many ways. Once Palestine is liberated or when the Lebanese army can defend Lebanon, Hezbollah’s hidden weapons will likely be given to the central government.

Some observers believe that the Siniora government will yet find a way to cancel the Metn election in the remaining days before the voters make their choice. US Ambassador Feltman it thought to believe it is better to leave the Meth seat empty rather than risk losing it to the pro-Hezbollah opposition represented by the Free People’s Movement led by Maronite Michel Aoun and supported by the Armenian Christian party Tashnag.

Three recent polls are worrying the Welch Club. One shows Gemayel losing Metn by 5,000 votes, another one shows him losing by 8,000 votes and the most recent one released today shows a 20,000 vote loss. The next couple of days will reveal if Feltman pulls the plug on this ‘new middle east democracy’ event.

The Welch Club reckons that if Gemeyal can win on August 5, they will immediately run him for President in September. According to one candidate running in the Beirut District on Sunday, it is common knowledge by political insiders in Lebanon that both Samir Geagea and Harb Boutros have been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars of Welch Club money not to seek the Presidency, giving Gemayel a walk.

Long time Gemayel famly friend Maronite Patriarch Butros Nasrallah Sfeir, (think Boston ‘s late Cardinal Cushing’s close relationshlip with the Kennedy family) “reconciliation is preferable to political battles.”

In last Sunday’s sermon, the Patriarch counseled the Chrlistian faithful that “Elections are a healthy and democratic practice in times of peace and prosperity. However, during times of crisis legitimate matters can be overlooked.”

To make sure his flock understood what was expected of them at the voting booth, his Eminence stressed that he ” hoped that mercy and harmony make their way into the hearts and minds of conflicting groups, especially because parliamentary seats being disputed belonged to people who have been assassinated by merciless criminals. ” (His congregation surely understood that he meant vote for Gemayal in Metn and Hariri’s choice in Beirut ‘s’ Second District).

Sfeir, increasingly nervous that his candidate may lose, suggested “the by-elections be postponed or a consensus concerning by-elections be forged [i.e., the pro-Hezbollah candidate drop out] and the democratic game can proceed when the mandate of the current Parliament expires in a little less than two years.”

Speaking during another campaign stop in the form of yet another Mass in Bikfaya to commemorate his slain son, Gemayel echoed Sfeir’s Sunday sermon, saying that in times of crisis “ethical options ought to be adopted.” He then took Communion.

Aoun slammed Gemayel as “a failure” as a politician, after Gemayel had criticized the former general’s alliance with pro-Syrian groups such as Hezbollah. Gemayel said he had done his best to avoid a battle in the Metn and accused Aoun of “closing all doors” to consensus.

Gemayel described the Metn by-election as a “battle for survival and a battle for Lebanon’s existence.” Aoun echoed the views of the Hezbollah led opposition when he said the Metn by-election was not a “competition over a parliamentary seat, but rather a battle against the violation of the Constitution.”

Aoun said on Friday that if Gemayel wanted to win the confidence of Metn voters “he ought to reconsider his political stands rejected by the majority of Metn people.”

A number of other politicians commented on the Metn by-election during the weekend. Former Prime Minister Salim Hoss on Saturday ripped the Gemayel-Aoun mud-slinging, saying that Gemayel was vulgar in his speech and “Aoun showed even more vulgarity.”

If Gemayel falters in the Metn election, he will be dropped like a bad habit. As for the Presidency of the Republic the Welch Club will likely keep Feltman on past his earlier scheduled departure date from Lebanon in order to help secure the Presidency for Nassib La Hood, who is closely related to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia since he married Abdullah’s favorite sister in law. (The good king has lots and lots of sisters-in-laws and it’s rumored that he truly loves them all).

Some Lebanese political pundits feel that Nassib could also get Syrian support for the Presidency since he started his career in their intelligence service. “The Wahabi-Christian union made in Heaven… er… Riyadh!” according to one campaign worker for Ibrahim Halabi, the People’s Party candidate (pro Hezbollah) in Beirut’s Second District.

The lean, hungry and sallow Samir Geagea, may be the greatest local beneficiary in the ruling bloc. If Gemayel loses, Geagea would draw all the voters who voted for Gemayel to his side and be undisputed leader of the Phlange party as well as its illegally rearmed militia, the Lebanese Forces. In case Gemayel wins, Geagea hopes Gemayel will remain MP Gemayel instead of President Gemayel.

Geagea also wins if opposition forces triumph in Meth because Gemayel’s loss would double because he would not be eligible to run for presidency on the one hand and his political career would fade.

On Monday evening there was some squirmishes between Geagea and Aoun campaign workers but no serious injuries occurred.

One problem the Israel lobby sees with Amin Gemeyal is that although he has been involved in Lebanese politics for nearly 30 years, he is still untested in a competitive election at the ballot box. Some in Lebanon call Amin the “professional inheritor” because he is said to have inherited his wife when her fiancé was killed; he inherited his seat in Parliament from his father Pierre; he then inherited the Presidency of Lebanon when his brother Bachir was murdered; next he inherited the leadership of the Phalange Party when his father Pierre died, and now he stands to inherit another seat in Parliament as a result of his son Pierre II’s murder.

To make matters worse for the Bush Administration candidate, MP Michel Murr and the Armenian Christian Tashnag Party expressed their support Monday for the FPM’s (pro-Hezbollah) candidate in opposition to Gemeyal. The FPM thus potentially secured a large bloc of the Metn’s roughly 32,000 Armenian votes and looks like it can win. The Metn electorate numbers 162,950 voters.

Murr also advised Christian parties against trading accusations regarding Pierre Gemayel’s assassination. Aoun hinted on Monday that the younger Gemayel’s assassins could be found inside the government. Many observers thought he was referring to Samir Geagea who has long had a complicated relationship with the Gemayels and other Christian groups. Geagea was convicted in five cases of massacring rival Christians. He was recently pardoned in the Civil War Amnesty of 2005 and seeks to lead the Lebanese Forces back to its Sabra-Shatilla patriotic glory when he functioned as militia intelligence chief and liaison with Israel ‘s Sharon, Etyan and Yaron as they watched from atop the old Kuwaiti Embassy as the Lebanese Forces slaughtered the defenseless camp inhabitants.

Beirut ‘s Second District

The other seat to be decided on August 5 is Beirut ‘s Second district. Recently it has been a March 14th/Future Party Sunni area, where during the 2005 elections 47% of the Sunni voters turned out, 34% of the Shia, and 10% of the Christians. The low Christian turnout was caused by the Armenians and Maronites who supported Michel Aoun, generally boycotting the election. The Second District Seat has been pro-Hariri since the 2000 election when the murdered Walid Eido first won it with the help of the murdered Rafic Hariri.

US ambassador Feltman will likely let this election go forward, even if he cancels Metn. Until Ibrahim Halabi (pro-Hezbollah) started making a real race of it a couple of weeks ago, the District was considered safe for the Hariri forces.

Hezbollah is not participating in the by-elections because they consider the Sinioira government illegal and President Lahoud has not signed off on the special election as required by Lebanese law. Nonetheless, every voter knows which candidate they would like to see win.

Beirut’s Second District campaign brings to mind Tammany Hall and Richard Daily Sr.’s Chicago. This weekend boxes filled with internationally donated food, clothing and household items, meant to aid last summer’s war victims but instead were stored in warehouses are being dusted off and Future Movement (Hariri) labels hastily pasted over the names of the donor NGOs and governments. These gift parcels are being handed out only to voters who support the US backed Siniora government and who are known to be pro-Hariri voters. Opposition and pro-Hezbollah voters will receive none of the July War donated relief parcels, even though Beirut’s Second District was not bombed by Israel .

“We need Jimmy Carter as poll watcher!”

Another Second District Pro-government electioneering technique, widely used in the 2005 election in Christian areas North of Beirut, and elsewhere, is the $100-$600 per vote bribe. Several campaign workers explained to this observer how the system works. Any voter willing to sell his vote goes to the Future Movement (pro-Siniora/Feltman government) campaign Headquarters. The voter picks up an Official Interior Ministry Ballot Envelope (which are illegally made available to pro-Government Future Movement Campaign HQ). Under Lebanese law the envelopes are only to be issued to the voter when s/he enters the polling station, picks up the blank ballot while being observed by squinting poll watchers. The corrupt Ministry employee(s) makes them available to Saad Hariri’s organization a week before the election. The voter is given an envelope by Hariri staff which the vote seller secrets on his person. When the voter goes to vote the election official gives the voter a ballot and envelope. Once in the booth, the voter marks his ballot and puts it in the Hariri envelope and seals it. The voter hides the other envelope in a pocket etc. The voter exits the voting booth and inserts it in the ballot box slot.

The voter then goes to Hariri HQ presents the other envelope proving he voted and is paid the bribe in cash. In District Two, where this practice will be most in play, there are 234 Vote Boxes used in 15-20 polling stations. Vote canvassers from the Lebanese Arab University advised this observer that typically 5-10% of Lebanon’s voters sell their votes .

This technique works best in close elections informed sources report because only about 5% of Lebanese voters are willing to sell their votes.

Grass Roots Campaigning

In addition to brochures, posters plastered on every street, honking cars with Lebanese flags out the windows, radio and TV spots (the latter are against the law unless all candidates are given equal free time — but the law is increasingly ignored) and sound trucks, this election features some none too subtle slogans and billboards. The Hariri financed Future Movement has as its slogan for Beirut:

“Beiurt is a Red Line” …among its meanings is No Shia are welcomed because this is strictly a Sunni area.

Another pro-government billboard shows just 4 tombstones to remind voters of the four murdered MPs from Beirut.

The opposition has countered these billboards with their own saying “lack of electricity is a red line” and “lack of clean drinking water is a red line”, inadequate health care and poor schools are a red line.”

In the Metn district on July 31, 2007 the Gemayel forces issued a last minute slogan aimed at weakening Aoun’s FPM candidate: ” This election is about a dead body,” i.e., Amin’s son Pierre.

Issues the voters want to discuss

Several foreign observers as well as Lebanese campaign workers have commented on the seeming lack of local issues. Known in the Middle East for their political sophistication and knowledge of what’s happening in the region the local electorate in this by-election appears more interested in discussing the following national/international issues:

* whether the Siniora Government conspired with the Bush administration to prolong the destruction of Lebanon during the July war;

* why the Bush administration is now sending weapons to Lebanon for the Siniora government (for use against Hezbollah?) when a year ago they refused military aid to Lebanon while they were rushing arms to Israel for the same purpose;

* why the American Embassy is touting the 25% increase in military aid to Israel knowing the weapons will likely be used again against Lebanon;

* why the US government was planning to build a mega-Embassy on the property it bought in 2005 for $22 million near the Baabda Presidential Palace where some say it planned to control Lebanon’s president while spying on nearby Hezbollah. According to State Department spokesman Sean McCormick, on July 7, 2007, the State Department suspended the project after Feltman advised Washington that Hezbollah controlled the Baabda region and could cut the roads to the Embassy whenever it wanted. McCormick’s reasoning seemed a little bizarre since any number of groups could do the same thing with the roads leading to the current Embassy site, indeed various salafists have been suspected of monitoring the Embassy.

* why the US Embassy refuses to order the Israelis to stop their violations of Lebanese airspace and deliver landmine and cluster bomb maps so the numbers of civilians being killed and wounded from unexploded ordnance will decrease.

* Conditions in Iraq are an issue as more Iraqi refugees come to Lebanon in very bad straits. Lebanese truly care about other Arabs despite their attraction to French culture. Reports that one out of every seven Iraqi’s have fled the US invasion with Oxfam Reporting this week that there are also more than 2,000,000 internally displaced Iraqis, and that 60% of the Iraqis registered to receive food and water are not getting it, and that more than one-third of the Iraqi population is in urgent need of aid.

* As the summer heat draws citizens to the beaches, last summer’s oil spill is an emotional issue because the Lebanese coastline remains heavily polluted from last year’s Jiyyeh oil spill and cleaning efforts have not achieved the desired result, according to two environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on July 25.

The ominous new information was issued by the NGOs Green Line and Byblos Ecologia on the first anniversary of Israel’s bombing of the Jiyyeh power plant, which dumped about 15,000 tons of crude oil into the Mediterranean.

“The beaches are still very toxic,” said Richard Steiner, a conservation specialist from the University of Alaska. “The oil spill is more toxic than other known spills.” He concluded that Lebanon ‘s rocky beaches were still heavily polluted, with much oil still embedded in the rocks. While sandy beaches fared better, Steiner said some oil remained under the sand and on the sea bed. Steiner collected samples from 120 kilometers of shoreline.

Ali Darwish, president of Green Line, also bashed the government and the ministry.

“Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has never addressed this issue. It doesn’t mean anything to him. We hold this government and its leader responsible for this crisis,” said Darwish. “Israel is to blame for this disaster, along with the US, which funded and supported the war. The fact that the government did not take any measures and remained silent makes it an accomplice in this crime, and it should be held accountable.”

Steiner, however, held Israel absolutely accountable for the oil spill, stressing that international procedures hold the party that causes an oil spill responsible.

“Israel continues to refuse to accept responsibility,” said Steiner. “A reimbursement fund must be established, and the only way to do that is through a Security Council resolution,” he added.

At the moment it appears increasingly likely that Lebanon’s election will happen on August 5. If it does the results will be carefully analyzed to divine Lebanon ‘s future as well as the international winners and losers

Franklin Lamb is author of the recently released book Syria’s Endangered Heritage: An International Responsibility to Preserve and Protect. He is currently based in Beirut and Damascus and reachable at fplamb@gmail.com. Read other articles by Franklin.