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News from Lebanon: Lebanese politics: A family affair

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  • Zafar Khan
    Lebanese politics: A family affair By Ahmad Ibrahim, Al Jazeera http://english.aljazeera.net/focus/lebanon2009/2009/05/2009527142833966266.html The upcoming
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 7, 2009
      Lebanese politics: A family affair
      By Ahmad Ibrahim, Al Jazeera


      The upcoming Lebanese general election offers an opportunity to observe a monarchical democracy in action as sons and daughter of slain leaders compete in June's election in unprecedented number.

      Nayla Tueni, 26 - the daughter of assassinated journalist and MP Gebran Tueni and granddaughter of current MP Ghassan Tueni - is standing in Achrafiyeh, also known as Beirut District One.

      Her maternal grandfather is former minster Michel Murr, whose own son Elias is now Lebanon's defence minster.

      Nadim Gemayel, 27, is also running for election in Achrafiyeh. Like Tueni, politics definitely runs in his family.

      Gemayel is the son of Bashir Gemayel, a former president-elect assassinated days before his swearing-in ceremony in September 1982.

      Meanwhile the younger Gemayel's cousin, 29-year-old Sami who is also the son of another former president, is standing for election in the Matn district of Mount Lebanon.

      All of the Gemayels belong to the Phalange Party.

      And voters, of their own free will, are rushing to usher in their parliamentary representatives on the basis of surname and, effectively, right of succession.

      So entrenched is this practice that it transcends regions, but it is especially predominent among Christians. Why?

      Lebanese democracy is one of the biggest myths in the modern Middle East.

      Since independence in 1943, there have been parties, elections and a parliament but another reality lies behind this apparent democracy.

      Dynastic tendency

      Political power, either within parties or as independent politicians, is largely transferred along hereditary lines. Political careers are passed on from father to son, husband to wife and brother to brother.

      This dynastic tendency in Lebanese politics is present in nearly every party to the point where it is virtually impossible to distinguish between loyalty to the party and loyalty to the family.

      Myths seem to be an indispensible part of the creation of the modern state. In the Middle East, most of the countries were created either by the forceful inclusion of small entities and principalities, or as the result of the disintegration of multi-national, multi-religious empires.

      And Lebanon was no exception.

      As a result of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent scramble by the victors of the World War One to divide up the territories between themselves, Syria and Lebanon were placed under French control.

      Except there was no entity called Lebanon before the French set foot in the region in 1920.

      There was a Mount Lebanon and the majority of its inhabitants were Maronite Christians - an eastern Catholic denomination. So a viable state had to be built around, and for the benefit of, those inhabitants.

      The fact that they were allies and co-religionists of France helped their cause.

      But a myth had to be created all the same, as the new country of Lebanon was both the result of the disintegration of an empire and the forceful inclusion of at least three small regions into a centralised state.

      Maronite influence

      The myth, of course, was the distinctiveness, uniqueness and superiority of the Maronite sect, its mythical past in Mount Lebanon and even its different ancestry to its neighbours.

      Maronites were Christians, Phoenicians, Mediterranean and liberal. Their neighbours were Muslim, Arab, Middle Eastern and illiberal.

      And from these ideas the Phalange party was formed. The Phalangists started out as a paramilitary youth organisation modelled along 1930s German National Socialist lines, as observed by the party's founder Pierre Gemayel.

      Studying this party is studying the history of Lebanon: it is the oldest of the Christian parties, and it has produced Lebanon's best-known dynasty.

      At 83, Joseph Abu Khalil, is one of the oldest members of the current Phalange party, having joined it at the age of 16.

      "Lebanon was established in 1920 as a Christian project, stemming from a Christian political ideology. The Phalange party is based on that, and is a defending force for it," he says.

      Karim Paqradouni, a former leader of the party and its past ideologue, echoes this sentiment: "The Maronites regard themselves as the founders of Lebanon, it was established by them, and for them. They can only see Lebanon through their religious sect."

      But Lebanon's other sects outnumber Maronites by about two to one. Therefore, the 'founders of Lebanon' have to struggle hard to maintain what many regard as their superior position as given to them by the French, their former colonisers.

      The Christian parties, and the Phalangists in particular, have taken it upon themselves to do just that. And so the political party became the representative of the religious sect. In turn, as the family is at the centre of every party, surnames came to represent each sect.

      It is a position that attracted the devotion of sect members and was cultivated by each of the political families.

      There are other factors behind Lebanon's reliance on what could be described as a modern-day feudal political system.

      Protecting traditions

      Sociologically, most communities living in multi-ethnic entities and with no experience of representative democracy there is a security dilemma.

      Fear that their particular traditions and culture will be overwhelmed and disappear altogether has allowed politicians to overplay the need for voters to back and enforce their particular sect's party - so ensuring their own survival.

      Historically, the centrality of the family is easily traced to feudal times when the overlord allowed peasants and their families the use of land in exchange for unquestioned loyalty.

      In more recent times, this social system has been translated into the current political set-up; the overlord has become a political leader, the peasants have become his constituents, and, instead of land, favours are exchanged for electoral loyalty.

      It follows, of course, that political candidates need to demonstrate they fulfil the requirements set down by this Lebanon legend by tracing their own ancestry.

      Suleiman Franjieh, a former president who hails from the northern Lebanese town of Zghorta, is an example of this phenomena.

      He has claimed to be a direct descendent of a crusader - his name translates as Frankish, the term used by Arabs to describe the Crusaders. Interestingly, his grandson, also named Suleiman, is contesting the coming elections in the same town.

      Moreover, the first community to have a long established ruling family were the former lords of Mount Lebanon: the Druze, whose religion is an offshoot of Islam.

      Their former peasants, the Maronite Christians, assumed this feudal tradition when they eventually outnumbered and overwhelmed their former overlords. Having such families denotes respectability and traceable tradition.

      So, when the election score sheets are counted at midnight on June 7, one obvious winner will be the decades-old fusing of politics, history, region and religion.

      It is unlikely this vote will unsettle the elected dynasties that continue to dominate Lebanon's monarchical democracy.

      Lebanon votes in general election


      Lebanon's citizens are going to the polls in a general election that will decide the shape of the government for the next four years and could see a Hezbollah-led coalition win a parliamentary majority.

      Long queues spilled onto streets near some polling centres in Beirut, the Lebanese capital, on Sunday, and some voters said they had been waiting for more than two hours to cast their ballot.

      The build-up to the elections has been calm, but security was tight on polling day with more than 50,000 soldiers and police deployed across the country.

      Some polls forecast a narrow victory for Hezbollah and its allies, including the Free Patriotic Movement, headed by Michel Aoun, a Christian leader and former military chief.

      The group is known as the "March 8" alliance.

      The US, which lists Hezbollah as a "terrorist" group, has linked future aid to Lebanon to the shape and policies of the government that replaces the current national unity cabinet.

      The West and other countries, including Saudi Arabia, back the ruling "March 14" alliance, which swept to power in 2005, following the murder of Rafiq al-Hariri, a former prime minister, in a massive car bombing in Beirut.

      It is led by Saad al-Hariri, Rafiq al-Hariri's son.

      Lebanon vote likely to shift power to Hezbollah


      Christian Vote Trump Card in Lebanon Polls


      With the sect-based electoral system making the election result a foregone conclusion in most constituencies, Christian votes will be the trump card in the Lebanese parliamentary elections on Sunday, June 7.
      "The election race is raging on only 30 seats in the Christian constituencies," Lebanese political analyst Ali Al-Ameen told IslamOnline.net.

      He said the Lebanese sect-based electoral system makes it known where almost 100 seats of the 128-member parliament will go.

      "The Sunni votes will go to the Future bloc (of Saad al-Hariri) while the Shiite votes will go to Hizbullah and Amal movement.

      "Now, the win of any of the contenders is pinned on how many each party will get Christian votes in the predominantly Christian constituencies."

      About 3.26 million Lebanese will go to polling stations early Sunday to elect members of the new parliament from between candidates of the West-backed coalition and the Hizbullah-led bloc.

      Muslims make up 60.4 percent of voters while Christians account for 39 percent.

      Sunnis have the largest number of registered voters with 27.2 percent, followed by Shiites with 26.7 percent and Maronite Christians with 20.9 percent, according to the Interior Ministry voter list.

      Sunday's vote will be monitored by 2,200 national observers and 250 international monitors, including monitors from the European Union, the Carter Center, the Arab League and several countries.

      Under the provisions of the 1989 Taif Accord, which paved the way for the end of Lebanon's civil war in 1990, the parliamentary seats are allocated on a 50:50 basis between Muslims and Christians.

      The seats are further divided between all of Lebanon's 18 officially recognized religious sects.

      Hard to Tell

      Analysts agree that it is hard to tell who will win over the Christian votes.

      "It will be a bones-breaking race," political analyst George Alam told IOL.

      Alam believes that last-ditch deals will tilt the balance in favor of the ruling Sunni bloc-led coalition.

      He cited the withdrawal of two opposition candidates from Jbeil constituency in western Lebanon for candidates of the Sunni-led coalition.

      "In another constituency, there is a noticeable Sunni voting bloc and they usually cast ballot for the March 14 coalition," he said, using the name of the Sunni bloc-led coalition.

      Analysts, however, opine that Lebanon is heading into a new political showdown, regardless who will be the winner.

      "Lebanon will see a new crisis, starting by the formation of the new government," Alam said.

      "If the party that would win majority in parliament failed to take into account the sectarian balance in the country, Lebanon would return again to the same crisis that occurred two years ago."

      Lebanon fell into a political crisis after the withdrawal of Shiite ministers from the government.

      The crisis led to a six-month vacancy in the presidential seat and triggered sectarian clashes that killed more than 100 people.

      But the crisis was solved after the Lebanese rivals reached an agreement in Doha under which army chief Michel Suleiman was elected president.

      Robert Fisk: The mysterious case of the Israeli spy ring, Hizbollah and the Lebanese ballot


      Spying is as familiar in Beirut as it was in post-war Vienna – there's even a giant "Third Man"-type ferris wheel here – but the events of the last few days are growing more mysterious by the hour. Over the past two weeks, a special unit of Lebanon's Internal Security Force (ISF) has been arresting a clutch of Lebanese allegedly working as spies for Israel.

      There are least 21 men and one woman under interrogation and the ISF has been regaling us all with the highly sophisticated Israeli communications equipment found hidden at their homes.

      Those detained include a local journalist in the Bekaa Valley and a senior officer in the Lebanese army, a man who was wounded by Islamist gunmen at the battle of Nahr el-Bared in 2007. They've even picked up a retired general and his wife. Colonel Maurice Diab is a much respected soldier, although military officers say that questions were first raised some time ago when he was sent for training to the United States on a government grant but in a photograph taken on the course could be seen standing next to uniformed Israeli officers. He lives in the north Beirut coastal suburb of Antelias, although other arrests are spread across eastern Lebanon and the border village of Rmeish.

      So far so good. But it is becoming increasingly obvious that some of the "intelligence" behind these detentions – and more than 50 people in all have so far been questioned – came from the Shiite Hizbollah, who are, of course, Syria's and Iran's best friends in Lebanon. This comes just a couple of weeks after four senior pro-Syrian Lebanese security officers were released from jail after being held on suspicion of helping to plan the assassination of ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri and 21 others in 2005. So are the intelligence authorities in the country back to their old tricks of hooking up with Hizbollah?

      This is not an idle question, because Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah's chairman, is now demanding that Lebanese "collaborators" of Israel be executed. Mr Nasrallah, it should be remembered, is the man who kicked off a war with Israel in 2006, in which more than a thousand Lebanese were killed, and then called it a "divine victory".

      He enraged many Lebanese even more last week by describing the Hizbollah's temporary armed takeover of West Beirut last year as a "glorious day", even though dozens of Lebanese were killed.

      Indeed for Sunni Muslims and a good many Christians, Mr Nasrallah – who appears on a giant Big Brother screen at Hizbollah rallies, speaking from his various hiding places – is talking as if he is the president of Lebanon rather than the actual office holder, the ex-general Michel Suleiman. Add to this the growing belief that the Lebanese opposition, whose backbone is Hizbollah, might win next week's national elections, and the arrest of an Israeli spy network takes on a much darker complexion.

      The Israelis have indeed been trying to re-recruit some of their former Lebanese collaborators in order to re-establish their intelligence service there after their debacle in the 2006 Hizbollah war. The best sources say that some of these men worked for Israel before the Israeli army left Lebanon in 2000 and that several of them turned the Israeli offer down flat while others actually informed the Lebanese authorities of the approach from Israel and may even have snitched to them on the identity of the men and the woman who have just been arrested.

      Now the Americans are gently warning that if Hizbollah and its chums, including the Christian former General Michel Aoun, win the elections, it will have to "re-examine" its aid package to Lebanon which includes substantial, though largely out-of-date, equipment for the Lebanese army. "Why are you worried?" Mr Nasrallah asked another of his interminable rallies last week. "Iran and Syria can give equipment to the Lebanese army."

      The pot has now been further stirred by an incendiary and highly contentious article in Der Spiegel. It reported that the UN Tribunal set up in the Hague to find ex-prime minister Hariri's killers – the same tribunal that ordered the four generals released two weeks ago – is focusing on Hizbollah as the potential murderers. A lie, says Mr Nasrallah, an "Israeli plot". The tribunal says it gave no such information to the German magazine. And sure enough, Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak has now warned the world that if Hizbollah and its allies win the elections, Israel will have "greater freedom of action". Not without more spies it won't.

      Israel's intelligence performance in 2006 was lamentable. It turned out that Hizbollah had actually got their hands on Israel's own aerial photo-reconnaissance pictures of Lebanon, clearly showing which of Hizbollah's bunkers had been identified and which had not. If this latest spy network is real, the Israelis are not going to do much better next time round.

      Lebanon's Palestinian refugees


      In 1948 hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled from or forced to flee their homeland in the wake of the creation of the state of Israel.

      While some were forced out by armed Israeli militias - perhaps the most notorious being the Irgun and Stern gangs - others fled in the belief Arab armies would defeat those Jewish forces fighting for independence and that they would then be able to return home.

      There are thousands of Palestinian refugees across the globe, many of whom settled in neighbouring Arab countries including Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Not to mention those Palestinians classed as refugees within the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

      However, of all the Palestinian refugees in the Arab world, it is those who have taken shelter in Lebanon who have suffered the most.

      According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) the international body set up to ensure the welfare of Palestinian refugees, the highest percentage of Palestinian refugees who are living in abject poverty reside in Lebanon.

      There are about 400,000 officially registered Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, or approximately 10 per cent of the population. Just under half of the refugees continue to live in camps.

      The issue of "naturalisation" of Palestinian refugees has often been used as a political card in Lebanon, a small country built on a delicate confessional balance.

      Due to the sensitivity of the issue, there has been no official census in Lebanon since 1932 that could determine the number of Christians and Muslims of various sects.

      Mostly Sunni Muslims, the Palestinian refugees are seen as a potential boon to Lebanese Muslim political aspirations, especially Sunni ones.

      Civil war

      And indeed, when the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was based in Lebanon between 1972 and 1982, it threw its lot behind the Muslim-dominated leftist forces that were engaged in civil war against the Christian-led right.

      However, the PLO, under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, resolutely rejected the idea of Lebanon becoming a state for the dispossessed Palestinians.

      While those Palestinians resident in Syria and Jordan, for example, do not enjoy the benefits of full citizenship, they do have access to education, healthcare and employment.

      Conversely, Lebanon stands accused of not being the gracious host to the Palestinians that Arab tradition dictates.

      Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Palestinian refugee camps were under stringent Lebanese security control. For instance, travel from one camp to another was restricted and even reading newspapers in public was banned.

      Today, Palestinians in Lebanon continue to suffer from draconian measures which the Lebanese state claims are there to prevent them from becoming permanent guests.

      As recently as 2005, Palestinian refugees were banned from taking up employment in 70 professions. Today, the number of restricted professions stands at 20 and includes senior medical, legal and engineering careers.


      While these restrictions were recently eased, applicants must have a valid work permit and membership of the appropriate professional representative body. Both are beyond the financial means of most Palestinian refugees.

      A major bone of contention for Lebanese nationals has been the fact that armed Palestinian groups continue to thrive in the refugee camps.

      Many Lebanese believe the presence of armed Palestinians on Lebanese soil is a potential flashpoint and point to the clashes at the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in Northern Lebanon as a case in point.

      Between May and September of 2007, Nahr al-Bared was the scene of a brutal conflict between the radical Fatah al-Islam group and the Lebanese army.

      However, Nahr al-Bared was an exception to the rule, with the major refugee camps such as Ain al-Helweh falling under a shared sphere of influence among Fatah, Hamas and other Palestinian groups with strong grassroots support.

      Indeed, the Palestinians themselves point out that their own security fears and a history of violence - including wholesale massacres - perpetrated in the camps is a major reason why Palestinians continue to bear arms.

      In 1976, Lebanese Christian militiamen overran the Tal al-Zaatar refugee camp in East Beirut and massacred or expelled all of its residents.

      Six years later, Israeli forces facilitated the entry of Lebanese Christian militiamen into the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in West Beirut. That massacre claimed the lives of about 800 residents of the camps.

      Camps War

      Between 1985 and 1989, Lebanon was the scene of what became known as the Camps War, when Pro-Syrian militiamen from Amal, a Lebanese Shia movement, and anti-Arafat factions laid siege to Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut and the South.

      Palestinian refugees suffered grim atrocities, and according to journalist Robert Fisk, the Camps War was worse than the Sabra and Shatila massacre.

      Today, on the eve of parliamentary elections, Palestinians in Lebanon are conveniently forgotten.

      The battle lines have been drawn and they are along strictly Lebanese lines, with each political faction hurling accusations at each other and bringing into play the regional and international influences of Washington, Tel Aviv, Tehran and Damascus.

      But many analysts point out that Lebanon ignores the plight of the Palestinians on its territory at its own peril.

      Walk into Lebanon's largest Palestinian refugee camp, Ain al-Helweh, at midday and you are struck by the number of school age children in the streets, many going to and from their UNRWA schools as they cannot attend state schools.

      Palestinians in Lebanon are also banned from seeking state healthcare, owning property and even bringing in building materials into the refugee camps.

      However, the future of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon will be among the first items on the agenda of Lebanon's new parliament.

      The Sabra Shatila Foundation, after consultation with human rights organisations including International Lawyers Sans Frontieres and members of Lebanon's legislature, will table a draft law in parliament which promises, in the words of the foundation, to: "erase, in one vote, decades of illegal and immoral treatment of more than 10 per cent of Lebanon's population".

      The draft text reads: "Be it enacted by the Chamber of Deputies ... that all Palestinian refugees in Lebanon shall immediately acquire, receive and enjoy the full faith and credit of all civil rights possessed by Lebanese citizens except citizenship or naturalisation."

      The alternative can only mean that Lebanon's refugee camps will be a hotbed for further frustration and disappointment for their residents, and could well prove to be a fertile breeding ground for future extremism.
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