May 2008


The prices of weapons are down on the Lebanese market, no doubt influenced by the Doha agreement. There is another reason, though, diametrically opposed to the first as far as the country’s chances for peace are concerned. Apparently, the weapons confiscated from pro-March 14 armed men (and women?) by the Opposition during the recent clashes in Lebanon are flooding the market. Read more on BBC and al-Akhbar (Arabic links).

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The Doha meetings were less of a “shock treatment,” as they have been called, and more of a placebo – no doubt brought about by regional occurrences whose contours are yet to emerge. If I have been harping on obsessively about the electoral law, it is because if the other aspects of the agreement have momentarily brought us back from the brink, it is the electoral law that will serve to reproduce the political class that will take us back to the brink.

Notwithstanding, al-Akhbar alone has picked up on this issue. One article cites an unnamed Beiruti parliamentarian who believes that the electoral law is the only real event in Doha, since the unity government will only be able to fulfill a caretaker role in preparation for the parliamentary elections next summer.

In addition to the farce of pre-allocating seats to be “elected” (see my previous post), the parliamentarian adds that the law presupposes the sectarian division of the districts. Therefore, its success, as far as the political elite is concerned, depends on keeping the high degree of sectarianism ongoing for the next year. The media, as usual, is playing and will continue to play its dutiful role.

According to another al-Akhbar article, the two main accomplishments of the new electoral law are (1) Future Movement does not feel defeated in Beirut and (2) the Christian voice has been reinstated. Abdo Sa`d, director of the Beirut Center for Research and Information, criticizes the law for not following proportional representation. This, again according to Sa`d, blocks the emergence of a new Sunni political elite, leaving hegemony to the Future Movement. Given Abdo Sa`d’s political inclinations, it should come as no surprise that he fails to mention that the relative majority system (a.k.a. first-past-the-post) blocks the emergence of any alternative, Sunni or otherwise.

All this is truly heartbreaking. It is all the more heartbreaking because all the work has been done. A guide to the proposed draft law can be read here (pdf). The suggested reforms are summarized here by Paul Salem. (both in English)

If I were into conspiracy theories, I would say the political elite engineered the whole crisis to reproduce themselves the way they did in Doha. But this is not a conspiracy. It is a farce. If it is making many Lebanese happy, it is because the only alternative they are being offered by their leadership is even worse.

The Doha debates have reached an agreement on electing General Michel Sulayman as president, to be followed by the formation of a national unity government giving the Opposition veto power. Given that these were foregone conclusions in case of an agreement, it was the electoral law which constituted the final bargaining chip. Initially, the Opposition had suggested using the 1960 law, but the ruling coalition wanted a change in districts to reflect changing demographics. Hizballah categorically refused any changes in the south, leaving Beirut as the gordian knot in the negotiations.

According to the 1960 law, the Christians would compete over 8 seats in district 1 (Ashrafiyah, Rmayl, Mdawwar, Sayfi, Marfa’, and Mina al-Husn); 3 seats would be open to contestation in district 2 (Zqaq al-Blat, Bashurah, `Ayn al-Mraysah); and the Sunnis would get 5 seats in district 3 (Ras Beirut, Mazra`ah, and Msaytbah).

The ruling coalition’s proposal was to include Mdawwar and a majority Sunni area in district 2 and change the seat allocations to 5 (district 1), 8 (district 2), and 6 (district 3). This would have meant effectively that 14 seats, including 2 of 4 Armenian seats, would have been “elected” by a majority Sunni electorate in districts 2 & 3. This would have forced the Tashnag to broker a deal with the Hariris in order to save their hide in Mdawwar, which, in turn, would have constituted a blow to Aoun by depriving him of the Armenian vote. District 2, thus, became the bone of contention.

The compromise reached gives Hariri 10 seats, leaving the other 9 open to competition:

  • District 1 (Ashrafiyah, Rmayl, and Sayfi), 5 seats: majority Chrisitian voters.
  • District 2 (Bashurah, Mdawwar, and Marfa’), 4 seats: majority Christian, mostly Armenian voters, with a balance of Sunni/Shiite backup.
  • District 3 (Mazra`ah, Msaytbah, Ras Beirut, Minah al-Husn, Dar al-Mraysah, Marfa’), 10 seats: majority Sunni voters.

Hariri insisted on that last, face-saving 10th seat in district 3, which gives his list a majority of Beirut’s seats regardless of the results of his Christian allies. “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” he cried.

In other words, Hizballah has translated its military action into a political victory (they got their third in cabinet and a new electoral law) in return for pandering to Hariri’s injured pride and sense of ownership over Beirut. al-Akhbar reports that Hizballah convinced Aoun to drop his demand for 8 seats in district 1 by proposing forming a coalition list, bringing together pro-government and opposition candidates, to run in district 2!

That would leave 5 out of 19 seats to be acutally elected in Beirut and we still have a year to go. Given this riveting start, I cannot wait to see their electoral programs!

Today, Radwan al-Sayyid has disgraced himself and his party with the things he said on air (Sound of Lebanon radio station).

In his attempt to bridge together a sectarian vision of Beirut, which delimits his world, and a national role, which he is supposed to fill as advisor to the Prime Minister, what he said was so riddled with contradictions that it would only make sense if you replace “Beirut” and “Lebanon” with “Sunni.”

Radwan blatantly rejects any calls for sharing the foregone votes in Beirut saying:

They said to us (…) ‘we the Shia and the Aounis have had our sectarian rights in purely Shiite and purely Christian areas and, you Sunnis, we want to share your areas, particularly Beirut.’ They say Beirut is for everyone, Beirut is for everyone, but not for its inhabitants [ie. Sunnis]. When they say it is for everyone, this means it is not for its inhabitants [i.e. Sunnis] (…) We will not allow them to divide Beirut in three. Beirut will remain a city for all Lebanese [i.e. Sunnis] and will remain unified [i.e. for the Sunnis].

But here comes the most disgraceful part:

The first Municipal elections in the East took place in Beirut in 1875. Now the Armenian who has nothing in Armenia wants a third of Beirut? How? I don’t understand anything of what is being said and I do not believe Hizballah wants to become a protector of ethnic and religious minorities.

Eh, 3ala mahlak la tifham, ya Dr. Radwan.

One, there were Armenians in Beirut before the first municipal elections – which, by the way, took place in 1878, not 1875. But it is understandable that a round number falls on the lighter side of a mind narrowed to the point of oblivion by sectarian and chauvinistic thought. In addition, most of the Armenians who came to Lebanon had never seen Armenia in their life. They escaped the massacres in present day Turkey, see, otherwise they would not be here. To most, if not all Armenians in Beirut today, Beirut is the only home they have ever known and their belonging to the city should not even be a subject of discussion by anyone, let alone by the Prime Minister’s advisor!

Two, what about your allies, Dr. Radwan? Your Christian and Druze allies. Do they figure anywhere in this vision of Beirut you like to dream about?

Three, Beirut is the capital of Lebanon. Before that, and since 1888, it was the capital of the Vilayet of Beirut. By definition, a capital of a country belongs to the entire population. But if you are so concerned about representing the inhabitants of Beirut, why did your party reject having Beirut as one electoral district with proportional representation, as has been suggested in Doha? And let us not open the can of worms, shall we, and discuss how the inhabitants of a city, born and raised in it, need to travel places to vote in parliamentary elections.

Four, since he has brought this upon himself, someone should tell Dr. Radwan that at the time of the first municipal elections in 1878, only 263 Sunnis were eligible to stand for elections compared to 461 Christians (see Jens Hanssen’s Fin de Siècle Beirut). How would you like it if someone used this against you and your sect, Dr. Radwan?

So, what is it, Radwan: you want to pack up and move into the present and keep whatever little integrity you have left, or do you want to travel down history lane and face the unpleasant facts?

M. at Nihil Declaro has posted a scan of the cover of Time Magazine. It pits an image of conflict-torn Lebanon against one of the (economically) booming Gulf. The aim: making a sensational contrast between a conflict-ridden Middle East and a successful one. But really, aren’t those different facets two sides of the same oily coin?

To follow up on yesterday’s post, the Doha debates on electoral districts see some light of day. Notwithstanding Atef Majdalani’s confidence that al-Mustaqbal would win Beirut regardless of the electoral divisions, the Hariri team proposed a division that provoked the ire of many  – whose exactly depends on your news source.

The central issue has been dividing Beirut. According to al-Safir, the Opposition suggested a tripartite division of a Sunni, Christian, and mixed/Shiite area which includes minorities and Armenians. The Hariri group insisted on including Mazra`ah, Musaytbah, or Ras Beirut in the last district, which would have the effect of adding more Sunni supported seats to their foregone gains in the Sunni district. al-Akhbar has more details, adding that Christians in the Opposition also objected to the Hariri suggestion. al-Nahar, quoting Akram Shuhayyib, says the Opposition rejected the ruling coalition’s division, but does not explain why.

Not to go into too many details, this conflict shows how war and peace in Lebanon complement and complete each other. As the front lines in Beirut take form in electoral pie-sharing, it becomes yet another reinforcement of the divisions that would become a reality on the ground should a party decide to use military means for political gains, as Hizballah did just recently. The illusion that things get better when there are no clashes is just that: an illusion. As long as the political system serves to reproduce the same politics and political class, the transformation of peace time politics into war time conflict is just a matter of time and setting.

A little snippet from last week’s news: the USS Mount Whitney is on its way to Lebanon for “an unscheduled deployment.”

This comes after the USS Cole entered the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal a week ago. But the USS Mount Whitney is different. It is the flagship of the US Navy’s 6th fleet and has a very “democratic” history, with such interventions on its CV as Operation Uphold Democracy and Operation Enduring Freedom. It has also served less war-like purposes, such as assisting in the 2006 evacuation from Lebanon.

The Americans have been visiting our waters even before the days of oil. In 1903, when the inhabitants of Beirut were at it again with Muslim/Christian clashes, two American men-of-war arrived in the neighborhood, prompting the British consul to hope that they “would have a salutory effect on the Vali and other officials responsible for safeguarding the public peace” (Foreign Office Records 195/2140, September 5, 1903).

The British and French also engaged in some gunship diplomacy of their own, all under the pretense of maintaining peace and order:

The frequent visits of warships during the autumn of 1896 and the early part of this year were undoubtedly conducive to the maintenance of order both on the coast and in the interior, where many British missions are established.

(Foreign Office Records 195/1980, October 28, 1897)

These visitations at this sensitive juncture when the Lebanese leaders are trying to reach some sort of agreement in Doha is no coincidence. It constitutes part of a long-standing historical practice rooted in tradition and nurtured by more than a century of love for the other and subtle diplomacy.

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