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The Lebanese elections and the Middle East geopolitics 5/2/09

Whether we like it or not, we have to acknowledge that Lebanon’s fate is intimately tied to geopolitical events in the Middle East. For many years, Lebanese thinkers and various supporters of Lebanon have pleaded, privately and publicly, with Lebanese leaders and politicians to talk to each other and reach reasonable agreements in order to shelter Lebanon from the dangerous risks that have continuously threatened the region. To date, nobody appears to have the ability to find a pathway that may result in true Lebanese unity, sovereignty and stability, during these difficult times. Very few leaders may nevertheless be watching for the right moment to take the risks that may have a reasonable chance to make such noble goals attainable. 

For the moment, hope and expectations are put on the backburner while awaiting the results of the parliamentary elections scheduled early in June of this year. While the “1960 electoral law” is slightly better than the “2000 Law”, the difference may not be significant enough to produce a truly representative new parliament. Most predictions seem to preview very close balance between the March 14 and March 8 groups, with any majority for one side or the other being very thin. Further, despite a sincere effort on behalf of the authorities in charge, to secure a free and fair election, the results will nevertheless be tainted by the effects of the Doha agreements on some districts’ demarcation and the formation of candidates’ lists. There is also concern about the residual problems of feudalism, confessionalism and the corrupting effects of money. We hear credible rumors about money flowing into Lebanon from Saudi Arabia in favor of one side and from Iran to support the other. Plane tickets are apparently being offered to expatriate voters in districts where the polls suggest tight races. Further, four years after the Syrian forces left Lebanon and after Syrian recognition of Lebanon was formalized by the establishment of diplomatic relations, we still hear of pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian candidates. In fact all that is needed is pro-Lebanon candidates who seek excellent relations with the world community starting with the Arab brothers and most importantly, with Syria. There may be elements in Lebanon who would wish the Syrian military presence will return because they benefited in the past from such presence. However, the geopolitical atmosphere that invited Syria into Lebanon has changed dramatically. The United Nations and all major players on the world scene have clearly stated their support for Lebanese independence and sovereignty and the Syrian administration have repeatedly stated their lack of any desire or willingness to return their forces to Lebanon. 

While it may no longer be possible to change or improve the electoral law at this stage, and we may have to live with the candidate lists formed by imperfect techniques, it may still be possible to improve the electoral atmosphere. Assuming, hoping and wishing that calm and moderation will prevail throughout the electoral process, the new parliament and the government that will emerge will have to react and adapt to a geopolitical atmosphere that is becoming more complicated, more difficult and more dangerous. There is talk in international circles about the emergence of a new hard line anti-western front consisting of Iran, Sudan and Erithrea confronting a moderate pro Western Arab group consisting of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. Somehow the newer analysis seems to be leaving Syria alone, despite of its alliance and friendship with Iran. The Iranian nuclear issue remains unresolved and may heat up due to the policies of the new Netanyahu government. The judgment against the Sudanese President presents an implementation challenge and does not solve the Darfur problem. The expanding war in Afghanistan and the instability in nuclear armed Pakistan present additional risks. 

On the other hand we are hearing about a new American Embassy in Syria for which the search for the land and the construction plans may already be in progress. The course that President Bashar Al Assad has followed since he succeeded his father and his policy statements make such news no surprise. While Syria may remain loyal to its friendship and alliance with Iran, there is no reason why it could not display leadership in seeking and mediating accommodations, which may benefit all parties in the Middle East and make Syria’s stated policy of seeking a complete and fair peace between Arabs and Israelis more likely to succeed. The accession of the Obama administration to power in the US with its stated openness to dialogue, and the arrival of the new hard line Netanyahu government in Israel, necessitate bold new moves to avoid the abyss and give peace a chance. Nobody is in a better position than Syria to lead in formulating the necessary bold policy adjustments. Therefore what is the benefit for Lebanon that politicians may characterize themselves or their opponents as pro-Syrian or anti-Syrian? It is sufficient and best to be pro-Lebanese and friends or brothers of Syria and allow Lebanon to partner in the anticipated new bold initiatives, rather than become a chip at the table of negotiations. 

It would be naïve to forget the issue of the International Tribunal and its effects on the minds of Lebanese politicians depending on their convictions. Anti- Syrian politicians reached the conclusion, since February 2005, that Syria at its highest level of government was responsible for Prime Minister Hariri’s assassination. Yet after four years, we still do not know how much progress has been made towards the elucidation of the truth. While there may be consensus that the Lebanese security services and Syria which had major responsibility and control of security in Lebanon, can not be absolved from at least the indirect responsibility of failing to protect Prime Minister Hariri, accusations that the Syrian regime planned and executed the terroristic bombing will need convincing proofs which have not surfaced so far. Further, if the Tribunal finds some Syrian elements responsible of collusion or participation in the heinous crime, many strongly believe that the Assad regime will subject the perpetrators to whatever severe punishment justice necessitates. 

It would be therefore wise on the part of all Lebanese politicians to allow justice to take its course. They should also focus their campaigns on addressing the issues that preoccupy the vast majority of the Lebanese people and will affect Lebanon’s future stability and prosperity, no matter what happens in the Middle East: 

1. The defense strategy which will allow consolidation of the power of the State without offending or provoking the resistance that was credited for liberating the south.

2. Economic policy that promotes stability and encourages Arab and foreign investments, without offending or disappointing the Arab and Western States that have bailed Lebanon again and again with their grants and bank deposits.

3. Moderate initiatives that will reassure both prevailing political ideologies, making the obstructing or securing one third in government for either group, unnecessary

4. Reassuring the various confessional groups with policies that will serve as an effective antidote to fanaticism and extremism.

5. Offering and promoting policies that would promptly return Lebanon to its ideal role as a heaven for the dialogue of civilizations and a Mecca for conflict resolution.

6. Presenting real reform ideas that could clean up the Lebanese political system, starting with separation of ministerial appointments from parliamentary positions.

7. Commitment to formulating a new electoral law based on the smaller district (preferably single district) or the relativity principle.

8. Specific development issues applicable to given districts, such as water dams, alternative energy projects, solutions for current electricity problems, touristic projects, etc.

9. Proposing ideas about responding to expatriate demands, starting with the specific plan that would allow those with current Lebanese citizenship to vote in their respective embassies.

10. Stating that the post Doha formation of the current government was a one time emergency process. In future governments there should be a return to the Arab initiative that allocated ten ministers to the President in the case of National Unity governments. The opposing political groups can divide the remaining twenty according to the electoral results.

Although the expectation from the election is limited at best, given the regressive electoral law, there is no reason why the electoral campaign can not be progressive. Nevertheless, it is sincerely hoped that the campaign would not evolve around being for or against a given Arab or foreign country. Such can only entrench the belief that external money is flowing in to influence the results. We also hope we will stop hearing about pro and anti-Syrian coalitions and the focus will be on being pro-Lebanese and seeking solutions for some or most of the problems confronting the Lebanese people and their leaders.


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