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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

The elections in Lebanon are a desperate tragicomedy

The all-male architects of the electoral law deliberately sidelined women in a country that claims to enshrine equality and modernity, writes Raghida Dergham

Government election officials carry ballot boxes ahead of the country's May 6 parliamentary election. Mohamed Azakir / Reuters
Government election officials carry ballot boxes ahead of the country's May 6 parliamentary election. Mohamed Azakir / Reuters

After tomorrow’s elections in Lebanon, there won’t be a sea change in the country’s political landscape. The sectarian system is deeply entrenched; the dismal electoral law it has produced has only rekindled more sectarianism and engendered selfish and opportunistic alliances and platforms. So-called civil society lost a golden opportunity after fragmenting due to a combination of narcissism, self-seeking ambition and inexperience.

Many civil society interlopers have proven to be no less corrupt than the traditional politicians they seek to displace. The ruling classes, meanwhile, have engaged in feudal-like tactics, trying to bequeath power to their children and bullying outsiders who pose a risk to the status quo.

Political parties and civil society groups have called for a large turnout in the first general election in nine years, during which parliament extended its own term three times. However, these elections are likely to make the country more sectarian, exclusive and aggressive because the electoral law, allegedly proportional, is a blueprint for sedition in a state vulnerable to the geopolitical disturbances taking place in its immediate neighbourhood.

The all-male architects of the electoral law also deliberately sidelined women, snubbing all calls to include a mandatory quota, instead choosing to prevent women from fully participating in decision-making in a country that claims to enshrine equality and modernity.

The elections in Lebanon would have been a comedy, were it not for the damage it could inflict on the democratic process there and its likely disappointing outcome by reproducing an even more sectarian and dynastical parliament.

Geopolitically, the elections are taking place amid major developments in the Israeli-Iranian dynamic in Syria, which has left the Lebanese holding their breath due to the implications for Lebanon. Indeed, Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside Iran and Bashar Al Assad in Syria, is also fighting the election in Lebanon with a view to gaining a stranglehold on parliament and the country by extension.

Hezbollah is a key part of the Israeli-Iranian dynamic and an essential component of Tehran’s project in the region. It can either keep things in check or trigger an escalation that could change the rules of the game between the two sides.

In recent years, despite the belligerent rhetoric, Israel and Iran have generally kept to the truce some believe has existed between Persians and Hebrews since ancient times, the two sides having never fought a direct war. In modern times, there has been what can be described as a natural armistice between Iran and Israel and mutual hostility to Sunni Arabs.

In the past few years, Israel did not object forcefully to Iran’s intervention in Syria alongside the regime. In Lebanon, a de-facto truce has been accepted with Hezbollah through UN resolution 1701, in the aftermath of the July 2006 war.

Nearly two weeks ago, Israel conducted a major strike against Iranian military assets in Syria, signaling it will no longer tolerate the expansion of Iran’s bases there. That marked a notable departure from that truce-like dynamic that governed their direct engagement, in conjunction with the US adopting a sharper tack against Iranian expansion in the Arab region. Even the Europeans are waking up to Iran’s incursions, despite their keenness to preserve the nuclear deal under pressure from Donald Trump. Next Saturday, Mr Trump will reveal his decision regarding the deal.

Recall that the nuclear deal was signed by his predecessor Barack Obama with Iran, opening a new chapter in the US relationship with the mullah regime that has reigned in Tehran since 1979. This shook the foundations of the strategic US relationship with the Arab Gulf nations and Egypt, which Mr Obama sought to substitute with new and improved relations with Tehran.

Mr Trump has instead resolved to reset the traditional alliance with the Arab countries and end the policy of appeasement of Iran.

These shifts will undoubtedly have implications for the Iranian project in the Arab region, from Yemen and Iraq to Syria and Lebanon.

Either Iran will get the message that the US honeymoon under Mr Obama is over, that the time has come to rein in the Revolutionary Guard Corps. Or it will decide that its project for regional domination is too precious to be sacrificed.

The first path, to reform, de-escalate and repair relations with the Arab world, would spare it from looming sanctions that would drain its economy and stir up internal unrest.

The second path, meanwhile, to wager on Mr Trump backing down and on European powers refusing to endorse new sanctions, brings many risks for Iran. But any reading of Mr Trump’s policy as empty threats would be mistaken. He might not tear apart the deal but if he sticks to it, it would result in an implicit agreement with European signatories on new strict sanctions on Tehran designed to address the flaws in the agreement and curb Iran’s expansionism.

Either way, this and the Israeli decision to contain Iran’s military presence in Syria will have implications for Lebanon and Hezbollah. The Lebanese no doubt understand this ahead of their elections. However, the dismal electoral law drafted by powerful bosses to undermine democracy and distract people from real issues through sectarian mobilisation, by cementing sectarianism and corruption, could have a heavy price and bring risks no less serious than the geopolitical ones looming over the country.