The Cosmic Anthropology of Lebanon’s Elections
by Rami G. Khouri Released: 10 Jun 2009
BEIRUT -- We can draw many lessons from the Lebanese parliamentary elections Sunday, which saw the selection of a new parliament reflecting almost precisely the same distribution of seats among the country’s two main political groupings as the pervious parliament (68 seats for the Hariri-led March 14 movement, 57 seats for the Hizbullah-Michel Aoun-led March 8 group, and three independents). Here are my conclusions about what happened and what it means:
1. The elections were important, but inconsequential. Why an individual, a party, or an ethnic-religious group decides to vote for one side or the other is endlessly fascinating and constantly evolving. It is also totally meaningless in Lebanon’s case, because the whole is more important than its parts. Power, governance and decision-making in Lebanon are defined by the crushing imperative of consensus-based rule, which means that any combination of majorities and minorities will always need to achieve consensus on major national decisions; drivers change, but the engine of this bus does not.
2. After Turkey, Lebanon becomes the second Muslim-majority country in the Middle East that can boast holding elections combining logistical efficiency with political credibility, including some surprise results that could not be predicted. Three cheers for Lebanese parliamentary elections.
3. None of this really mattered much, however, because the balance of power in Lebanon (as in the entire Arab world) is not really anchored in parliament, but in power relations that are negotiated elsewhere. The most important political contest in Lebanon happened in May 2008, not June 2009. Hizbullah and its armed allies won that brief battle on the streets, and power-sharing contours in Lebanon have been defined ever since. This is ugly stuff -- young men shooting RPG’s at each other in the city and mountain villages -- but in the Middle East the modern exercise of power, like the condition of most Arab statehood, consistently has been a messy endeavor.
4. The elections generate validity and credibility, not ideological triumph. The March 14 movement affirmed that its core values reflect those of about half the population of Lebanon -- though precisely what those values are remains slightly imprecise. Much of the movement’s success reflects its opposition to the March 8 forces that include backing from Syria, Iran, Islamists and others in the region who are often critical of the United States, Israel and conservative Arabs. We always knew that March 14 represented many Lebanese; now we also have proof that it is resilient and strong. But we do not know what it represents in ideological terms other than opposing the Hizbullah-Aoun alliance.
5. We have seen again that tribe triumphs policy. The massive turnout of Sunni voters seems to have been one of the decisive reasons for the March 14 victory. This is perfectly normal and legitimate; but it tells us more about the anthropology of blood ties among the human species than it does about the contestation of power in a modern society. Faced with a do-or-die scenario, March 14 and its Sunni core rose to the electoral and tribal challenge.
6. Swift-boating is universal. Just as George W. Bush defeated John Kerry in 2004 by tarnishing him as a coward in the Swift boat incident in Vietnam decades ago, March 14 successfully frightened many voters with its theme that a Hizbullah-Aoun victory would dry up Saudi and American financial support for Lebanon and bring the economy to a grinding halt.
7. All politics in Lebanon is local, regional, global and cosmic. March 14 won and March 8 did not do as well as the pre-vote polls predicted because of a neat convergence of: a) local identities (Sunni, Shiite, assorted Christians, Druze, Armenian) battling to claim their share of the national pie in parliament, b) regional Arab players (mainly Saudi Arabia and Syria, and Egypt slightly) exerting their influence through their respective Lebanese partners and proxies, c) non-Arab regional and foreign forces (Iran, the United States, France, Israel) also backing their favorites, and, d) cosmic forces in the form of the Maronite church hierarchy constantly advocating for righteousness among voting Lebanese that would accurately mirror God’s will on Earth.
8. Key regional and global players started speaking and negotiating with each other in the past year, rather than using threats and subversion as their main form of engagement, which lowered regional tensions and thus prompted some Lebanese to see their future as one of calm, security and prosperity. It is a mistake to see the election results as mainly an American triumph or Iranian defeat, though elements of those views are relevant. Unraveling the distinct local, regional, global and cosmic strands of this election offer a better conclusion than a simplistic United States vs. Iran approach.
9. Fatigue matters. Some independent or undecided Lebanese voters clearly remembered the 2006 war, the 2007 Gaza war, and the May 2008 fighting in Lebanon, and did not want to put the country on a permanent diet of confrontation, bickering, resistance, warfare and destruction. March 14 successfully presented itself as the antidote to perpetual war.
10. The relative decline of Michael Aoun’s movement, while the Hariri-led, Sunni-based Future Movement and Shiite-anchored Hizbullah both held their ground or improved, suggests that tribes and triumphant armed movements will always out-perform one-man shows. Aoun is a historic phenomenon that may or may not persist. Shiites and Sunnis competing to preserve their communal power will be forces in Lebanon for a long time.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.