Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Metn By-Elections

First, Some Canadian Cheddar

For the past two to three years a trend has emerged in some American (and more generally, western) media outlets that has sought to (over-)compensate for those news agencies' complacency and/or complicity in taking their nation(s) to war. As it relates to Lebanon this trend has consisted, for the most part, in the application of a Seymoure-esque narrative, usually peddled by the same Baath regime PR-reps that fed Hersh his spoonfuls of disinformation, painting the current government as weak and unpopular, barely holding on to power save for the grace (or lack thereof) of a Bush administration intent on pushing its plan for a New Middle East, no matter what the cost!

It is a narrative that is perfectly suited to emerging social and political trends amongst those journalists' domestic audiences, but which, sadly, has nothing to do with realities on the ground in Lebanon.

Nevertheless, it is through this narrative that I re-entered the world of Lebanese politics (after a much needed month-long holiday) through my morning copy of Toronto's Globe and Mail and the words of that paper's invariably misguided Middle East correspondent, Mark Mackinnon.

It doesn't take Mr. Mackinnon long (try the first word) to submerge his readers into a world made up of "The wobbly government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora" taking "another body blow yesterday" as "the controversial Gen. Aoun [is immediately made] the favourite to win a presidential election" after his candidate's narrow win in last Sunday's Parliamentary by-elections.

Notions made almost laughable were it not for his paper's significant readership and the propagation of the false narrative that articles such as these have on that readership.

Never mind the "body blow" to the General's presidential hopes dealt to him by the very community he claims to represent, with close to 2/3 of Christian Maronite and just over 1/2 of all Christian votes going to his candidate's opponent. Never mind also that this "wobbly" government is made up of a cross-denominational coalition which continues to hold a significant majority in the country's Parliament. The narrative must be maintained!

And speaking of Parliament, Mr. Mackinnon doesn't fail to allude to that institution's dis-functionality, insisting, however, on leaving out the source of that dis-functionality in the country's pro-Syrian Speaker of Parliament who broke with tradition (and the constitution) earlier this year and refused to convene the legislative body, lest it pass and approve national bills unpopular with his puppet-masters in Damascus.

But most damaging to Mr. Mackinnon's respectability as a competent analyst of the Lebanese political scene is his insistence throughout the article on establishing the vote as a show of majority-Christian support for Hizballah and its weapons.

Perhaps if Mr. Mackinnon had at least taken the time to talk to any of those Metn residents who since their 2005 vote for Aoun's FPM had changed their votes to ones for his opponents, he might have been able to come to conclusions reached by almost anyone else who has followed the fumblings of the Orange General over the past two years: That it is Aoun's alliance with Hizballah, along with the proven impotence of the "Memorandum of Understanding" and the overall political cover provided to that group in its continued subversion of the Lebanese state, that have eroded his popularity and rendered him, once again, a destructive idiot useful only to Damascus.

Such notions, however, have a hard time fitting into Mackinnon's view of the world or, rather, the marketability of this view. No, Mr. Mackinnon is more interested in rehashing the Orange political machine's emaciated arguments about "emotions" winning the day (or in this case, losing it) than in seriously reviewing the role Syrian influence played in garnering Aoun's candidate with enough votes to narrowly beat out Gemayel. Votes the regime provided both through the local Baath and SSNP offices it directly controls, and through the votes with which its influence is less direct, such as the Metn's Hizballah-loyal Shiite vote and the pro-Syrian-establishment-loyal Armenian-Tashnag vote. Votes numbering in the thousands.

Instead, Mackinnon almost manages to erase these allegations of Syrian interference through a cursory and almost derisory remark at the bottom of his very forgettable piece, concluding his article with the following line:
"Neither Mr. Gemayel nor his allies took defeat gently yesterday...Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblatt, two key backers of Mr. Siniora's government, charged that Syria had somehow played a role in the by-election." (emphasis mine)
But Mackinnon is not alone in the world of foreign correspondents desperate to transform Lebanon's realities into yet another "evidentiary" piece in their fight to redeem their uninhibited acclamation of their own governments' plans to invade Iraq. Fellow blogger Tony Badran (or Anton Efendi) adds to his ongoing genuiszzz series documenting a number of journalists' failed forays into Middle East (and more specifically, Lebanese) politics and their own attempts at pushing the narrative. His is an excellent blog, with every post well worth the read.


Jebneh Baladieh (3amol ma3roof)

Meanwhile other writers, perhaps more seasoned and certainly better informed, have taken careful note of the election results. Writing in his latest Dailystar op-ed, Michael Young carefully analyzes the election results and their implication on the upcoming presidential race (and no Mr. Mackinnon, Aoun was not immediately made the favourite). Briefly, a man as divisive as Aoun - both on the communal intra-Christian level as well as the inter-sectarian national level - can never and should never be President.

Young also correctly identifies the Armenian Tashnag party's political miscalculation in heeding the calls from Baadbda (or Baabdat) and Bteghrine (on behalf of Damascus, of course), and entering into a head-on confrontation with their Metn Maronite co-habiteurs:
Tashnag committed what could become a historic mistake. The party may have partly been playing hardball with Saad Hariri, in order to get the Armenians two seats back in Beirut in the 2009 elections. But what their support for Khoury effectively did was trash two principles the Armenians always adhered to in the past: siding with the Lebanese state, whatever the cost; and maintaining good relations with a majority of Christians.
But while the Tashnag may have felt they had a score to settle with the March 14th camp, we can be certain that this score would have been easily put aside had it not been for those calls - be they directly from Damascus or through Baabda and Bteghrine.

Certainly, Amine Gemayel's choice of the Tashnag as the target of his electoral frustrations, along with statistical reports of votes by sect, should provide some degree of clarity. And they do, kinda. If it is indeed true that each candidate received approximately 50% of the Sunni vote, as some news services have reported, then it can only be concluded that these votes, made up almost exclusively of newly-nationalized Syrian citizens (historically used - and nationalized - by the Bteghrinator for the sole purpose of bolstering pro-Syrian votes in his native Metn) were equally split by Michel el Murr in order to guarantee him continued good standing with both the Syrians and the Gemayels - including the rest of the March 14th crew.

And so, with the imported Sunni votes shared among the candidates, the Shiite votes solely owned by Nasrallah (and therefore going to Aoun), and what emerged as an outright win for Gemayel among the Christians of the Metn, we are left with the remaining block of votes directed by an Armenian Tashnag-politburo with strong ties to the country's pro-Syrian President.

Whatever message those Tashnag voters had intended to send to the rest of their compatriots through this highly risky vote, however, it is clear that it was not worth the cost. I leave you with more from Michael Young:
Now Tashnag finds itself on the side of the Syrian-backed opposition, propping up a man who will surely never be president, and doing so against the current of Christian public opinion in the Metn. On top of that, the party has turned Amin Gemayel into an angry enemy. All for what? To get the unknown Camille Khoury into Parliament, in an election process whose legitimacy Aoun didn't even recognize?

8 comments:

  1. welcome back BJ and once again a great commentary/analysis.

    from my perspective the result of this by-election has only made the race for Presidency even more blurred. i honestly believe that electing a technocrat as head of state is the only way forward because God knows that both camps will not agree on anybody who has a following.

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  2. Arabic Coffee Pot7:40 PM

    Murr and Gemayel cooperated before in the election of Pierre (RIP).

    Murr and Aoun cooperated before as Aoun asked Murr to talk to the Syrians about making him President...

    ...that was back in 1989...

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  3. Welcome back BJ!
    Indeed a great analysis. And a thorough thrashing of that Toronto Globe and Mail article.

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  4. Anonymous9:28 PM

    First, the Globe & Mail is a Toronto newspaper which styles itself "Canada's National Newspaper".

    Second, the Tashnag party has a history of miscalculations. In Armenia, where it is marginal, the party was banned for a time in the mid-nineties, after an assassination attempt on the mayor of Yerevan.

    Third, this demonstrates the absurdity of the Lebanese sectarian system in the 21st century. Time to move to a one person vote regardless of background.

    Finally, the reaction against the Tashnags and the Armenians in general by some politicians and commentators was explicitly or implicitly racist. One cannot blame a political party or a sectarian group for voting in whatever way it chooses, however wrong-headed, in a system which is fundamentally sectarian.

    Ironically the Armenian community has become increasingly well-integrated in Lebanon. This kind of reaction can only serve to make the community feel that they are not accepted and to encourage emigration. Surely this will not be good for Lebanon and specifically the Christian community.


    R.

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  5. What bothers me even worse is the ignorance of Time magazine. Not since the Nahr-Elbared conflict started have they published one article about Lebanon and its many crises. Come to think about it since the smoke cleared after the Hariri assassination I can't for the life of me remember a single article about Lebanon published by Time magazine.

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  6. ...I think Nicholas Blanford is writing at Time no? What really irks me is the NYTimes!

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  7. R,

    Well said, on all counts!

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  8. Thanks Tony,

    I would say what is needed is a political technocrat, someone who is capable of cutting through the BS being pushed on the country from all factions and address the issues (problems and benefits) each side brings to the table in a clear way, beneficial to advancing the country along very clear and fixed lines towards an objective agreed on by all.

    Most importantly, this political technocrat needs to be able to allow each side to play to its populations while forcing them to abandon methods or objectives detrimental to the state's institutions.

    Because above all else, the President must act as a defender of those institutions of the state. One who will, it is hoped, act with some firmity when they are threatened.

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