Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Balloting by the Sea

Sheikhs jet to Beirut for the nightlife, Israelis walk out of the waves after the terrorists, and backpackers motor in from the Syrian border when they want a break from chasing the ghost of Lawrence of Arabia across the Arab world. But for Andre and I, two SAIS students to the core, the lure was politics. And D-Day was Sunday June 7 when polling booths on the mountains and by the sea would witness a rarity in the Arab world: a no-holds barred election to decide Lebanon’s political future for only the second time since Syria’s hasty exist in 2005.

Or at least politics is why I thought we were in Beirut for the weekend. My traveling buddy turned out to be more interested in hitting on Lebanese girls. And so our weekend ended up with two separate themes. Neither of which quite worked out according to plan.

Based on the portrayal of the elections in the New York Times and elsewhere, the vote would be decided by independent voters choosing between the pro-western incumbents or an opposition led by the militant Shia Hezbollah party. In other words, whether the region would tilt towards America and the moderate Sunni regimes or towards Shia Iran and its message of radical religious militancy was up for grabs in the Lebanese parliamentary elections.

The reality, from what I observed during my weekend in Beirut, is that the elections promised far less drama because democracy Lebanon-style is at once far more structured and corrupt than what we are familiar with in America. Far more structured because Lebanon operates according to an arcane confessional system that guarantees a certain number of parliamentary seats and government positions to the eighteen religious and ethnic groups that call the country home. And far more corrupt because so much money was pumped into Lebanon by Saudi and Iranian sources that no one I spoke with in Lebanon even pretended that financial support from their politician of choice was not a key factor behind their vote.

So when the western media suggested that the outcome depended on what independent voters thought of the opposing political platforms, they were fooling themselves. The only swing-vote of any interest was the split within the Christian community due to the attempt by former general Michel Aoun to buck tradition and pull Christian voters into his alliance with Hezbollah. But the only swing-vote of any real consequence was how effectively the two sides had spent their Saudi and Iranian millions to ensure their supporters came out in the right numbers on Sunday. As Andre observed, the elections were more akin to a face-off between politically savvy Mafiosa than an authentic display of republican democracy.

Andre and I witnessed this face of Lebanese democracy when we spent the morning of the elections in the ancient Phoenician town of Byblos. Known as Gebal in the Bible, the town is really known as the birthplace of the modern alphabet. I was hoping to see the Roman and Crusader ruins in addition to talking politics with the locals. But all the sights were closed for the election so I had to sate my curiosity with unraveling the Christian town’s political loyalties. Although the two traditional Christian party led by Samir Geagea and the Gemayel family were well represented in the colorful flags and banners that covered the town, the dominant hue was the orange of Michel Aoun’s upstart Christian party. Even when Andre and I met up with the main Armenian party at their beachside headquarters, all we heard was praise of Aoun.

Our last stop in town was Aoun party headquarters. After we declined an invitation to vote, Aoun’s supporters confided they were confident their side had the election in hand. It was hard not to share their enthusiasm. Until we returned to Beirut, of course, where the gleaming downtown reminded me of the Saudi financing and powerful Hariri influence that had rebuilt downtown Beirut and continued to dominate Lebanon. For all the enthusiasm on the ground in Byblos, I did not share their confidence that all that Saudi money would fail and swing the election towards the “pro-West” March 14 coalition.

Before we left Beirut and Lebanon, Andre and I spoke to a few more folks about the election. Seth, a high school friend of my brother, told us about the uneasiness that had gripped the capital over the last few weeks. A young soldier from the Bekaa valley spoke to us while he stood sentry over the rebuilt downtown district. After assuring us that his Hezbollah dominated hometown was safe for American tourists, he added that the army’s mission in Lebanon is “to protect the country from the politicians.” The young Syrian who shared our van ride back to Damascus would probably have agreed with the soldier’s cynicism about the Lebanese democracy. Like many Syrians, our traveling companion tried to persuade me that the Syrian political system is preferable to Lebanon because in Syria money is not wasted and corruption is reduced by avoiding the pageantry of sham elections.

I even heard an Egyptian perspective on the elections, courtesy of two wealthy young Egyptian tourists I ran into after Beirut had went into curfew on Saturday night. Like my Syrian friend, they preferred their own political system; which in Egypt consists of an authoritarian party and a proscribed Islamic opposition in the Muslim Brotherhood. Bear in mind that the Egyptians were hopping furious that Lebanon’s nightclubs had closed for an election. In Egypt, they assured me, elections were far too unimportant to lead the government to take such drastic measures!

My last stop in Beirut was outside the seaside hotel where Rafik Hariri was assassinated in 2005. Four years after his death, Rafik’s legacy continues to define the mission of the coalition led by his son Said Hariri. A leaked report that the international tribunal investigating his death had found evidence linking the perpetrators to Hezbollah was the major story in Lebanon all week (Nasrallah and gang were quick to blame the Zionist enemies as launching the story). Overlooking the poshest hotel in Beirut, where Jimmy Carter and others had set up shop to monitor the elections, stands a brooding stone likeness of the slain Lebanese leader. It was only fitting that having begun my visit to Beirut at the statues Hariri erected to the martyrs of the Lebanese Civil War, I concluded my visit at the statue to Hariri himself.

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