x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Lebanon poll no threat to status quo

Despite government claims that an opposition win on Sunday would amount to a militant Shia takeover, little is likely to change.

Election observers check a map of Beirut before deploying to electoral districts ahead of Sunday's parliamentary elections.
Election observers check a map of Beirut before deploying to electoral districts ahead of Sunday's parliamentary elections.

BEIRUT // As Lebanon's hotly contested parliamentary elections on Sunday draw closer, supporters of the current government and its allies in many western capitals continue to claim that an opposition victory would signal a takeover of the country by the armed militant group Hizbollah and its Shiite Muslim supporters. This seems unlikely. Hizbollah and the more secular Amal Movement, both strong supporters of armed resistance towards Israel, and allies of Iran and Syria, are contesting almost precisely the same number of seats in parliament as they have in the past two elections. And with Lebanon's electoral list system skewed towards protecting the major parties and minimising upset victories by independents, only a total shock would see them lose any of the roughly 35 races they are competing in this year. But often overlooked in statements by western leaders uncomfortable with this supposedly rising Shiite political power is that 35 seats would represent the status quo compared with the 2005 elections, when Shiite parties won the same number of seats. The change in 2009 versus 2005 would be in the alliance between the major Shiite parties and Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of former army chief Michel Aoun, which has significant popularity among Lebanon's Christian community. Mr Aoun's FPM will have to supply the approximately 30 seats the opposition needs, and it looks as though he has a good chance of delivering. Such a victory, which is certainly not assured as Lebanon enters the final days of campaigning, would mean the end of the so-called March 14 coalition of Sunnis, Druze and some Christians that formed the backbone of the 2005 Cedar Revolution. That uprising brought the current pro-western government to power and ended almost 30 years of Syrian hegemony over Lebanon's affairs. But it is not at all clear that an opposition win would represent a major power grab by Hizbollah and its allies, in light of their political dominance of Lebanon before 2005. Before the car-bomb assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister, in February 2005, Syria and its allies, including Hizbollah and Amal, dominated Lebanon's political scene. Although US officials and other western diplomats express reservations about Hizbollah coming to control Lebanon's nascent security services, before 2005, these institutions were controlled by the "four generals" held on suspicion of aiding the Hariri murder plot. Ultimately released for a lack of evidence, these officials reported directly to then-president Emile Lahoud, a Syrian proxy with close ties to Hizbollah and Amal. "The anxieties about an opposition win seem to revolve mostly around the latitude that it would ostensibly accord Hizbollah to strengthen its hold on certain key security-related posts within the Lebanese government," said Elias Muhanna, editor of Qifanabki.com, a favoured website for wonkish fans of Lebanon's political scene. Today, those critical institutions are controlled by loyalists managed by President Michel Suleiman, an independent with cordial ties to both camps. Although Mr Suleiman's working relationship with Syria and the militant Shiite parties might make the US administration uncomfortable, it is hard to see how this independence should not be considered an upgrade over Mr Lahoud and his predecessors in terms of US policies in the region. "The big difference is at that time, Lebanon was wholly a Syrian province," said Paul Salem of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Beirut. "The Americans lived with it until 2005 when the Syrians finally left. That was a big gain for Lebanon and for the American side of the international chess game in this region. Saying 'Oh no problem, we were there before' is not a positive from the American perspective." The Israeli government, which opposed pushing Syria from Lebanon for regional stability reasons, has led the heated rhetoric, implying that an opposition win would mean Hizbollah and the Lebanese government could be considered interchangeable in terms of targeting should another war arise. But the reality seems to be that an opposition victory would represent a win by Mr Aoun over his rivals in the Christian community more than representing any referendum on Hizbollah's policy of fighting Israel both in Lebanon and in the Palestinian territories. "I think people are worried about the repercussions of another Hizbollah-Israel conflagration. The Israelis have made no secret of the fact they would hold all of Lebanon responsible in the event of any actions by the resistance," Mr Muhanna said. But this was not Israel's policy towards Lebanon even before 2005, when Syrian and/or Hizbollah loyalists controlled virtually every official lever of the government, leading many Lebanese to suspect that Israel is itself campaigning against Hizbollah with threats of violence should the opposition win, a less than favourable way to promote democracy in a region already suspicious of such initiatives. Adding to the confusion is the clear sense that Mr Aoun seems to have far more interest in actually governing Lebanon than Hizbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, who commands a military wing that could easily seize power if he wished. Many Lebanese joke that with the strongest military in the country and its parliament seats secured, it seems unlikely that Mr Nasrallah would even want the job of running a complicated nation like Lebanon, preferring to focus on his group's own narrow goals of combating Israel. But the reality is that no one in Lebanon seems sure of what an opposition win or loss might mean for a country that just a year ago seemed on the brink of a sectarian civilian war between government and opposition supporters, and it is likely it will become clear only after the votes are counted, when a cabinet is formed. "It is over the top to say that an opposition win means Hizbollah has taken control of Lebanon, but we can't gloss over what it might mean," Mr Salem said. "My view is that it's not a huge deal if [the opposition] wins, but what is a huge deal is how the next government forms. The Americans have already said this is what they're looking at." mprothero@thenational.ae