September 2008


After four marathonic sessions in parliament, the Electoral Law has been approved… without introducing much new. This, despite in-depth studies and recommendations by the Electoral Committee (for more, see previous posts from May).

Here is a sample of approved reforms (details here, in Arabic): reinforcing a culture of election and reinforcing democracy (whatever that means); submitting a report after the elections including suggestions for improvement (again!?); holding elections in one day (one positive thing) or maybe two should security dictate it (oh…); overseeing campaign spending; forbidding campaigning and distribution of electoral lists in front of polling stations on election day; etc.

There is more but there is a unifying theme for all of these “reforms”: make-up. Even the articles that could potentially be other than makeup (eg. limiting campaign spending, forbidding distribution of lists) have been approved only because they can be easily circumvented. Seriously, who is going to hold violators accountable?

On the other hand, simple reforms that would have made a world of difference were not introduced. Here is an emblematic one: On election day, pre-prepared and custom-tailored lists are habitually handed out at polling stations. Those handed a list upon entry are expected to drop it in the ballot box… as is. Combined with a stick-and-carrot approach, these lists effectively annul the right to a secret ballot. The Minister of Interior, Ziad Baroud, proposed today to introduce a printed-out, official and unified list of candidates for each electoral district that voters can tick off behind a curtain. A basic and, according to Baroud, doable solution. The proposal was defeated when put to vote: 50-70. No justification was offered. In addition, the voting pattern did not fall along loyalists-opposition lines (as if this division means anything!). Amal, Hizballah, Lebanese Forces, and Future Movement all voted against it (to their credit, FPM voted for the proposal).

Over the past four long years, resistance and dignity (Hizballah & Co.) and liberty and sovereignty (Hariri & Co.) took the front seat. This week the very same people who use this wooden language voted down reforms that could potentially turn these empty concepts into reality. Between the two possibilities of war without end and greed without limits, yet another election will be held under a semi-fabricated perpetual state of emergency.

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To those unwilling or unable to follow news in Arabic, the Lebanese daily, al-Akhbar, dropped a journalistic bombshell Thursday. Three journalists from the newspaper had an off the record chat with Walid Junblat. Only al-Akhbar published what Junblat said (the LA Times picked up on this).

Off the record, Junblat said many things. He said he realized what it meant when Rice said that it is the Syrian regime’s behavior they want to change, not the regime itself. But that nevertheless he kept up the provocation because “politics demands it.”

He also said that they have to live with Hizballah’s weapons until regional or international changes allow for Hizballah’s gradual integration into the state and that Ahmadinajad will not give up those weapons until Iran feels secure in its position.

al-Mustaqbal party received the brunt of Junblat’s criticism. He said Hariri Jr. has evolved over the past three years, but those around him have not. He also criticized Hariri Jr. for playing a dangerous game with the Salafis saying it was well that he ended it in good time. Of al-Mustaqbal parliamentarians, he said they are Sunni fanatics even when there are no elections, especially Fatfat and his likes. He also criticized Hariri’s advisors, especially Maher Hammoud and `Uqab Saqr (the latter also behind savior of the Shia, emancipator of the muhajjabat: Meouw Lebanon).

Of the Christian allies, he said they have become a burden. He spoke about the conflicts between the March 14 Christians and the narrow party fanaticism that prevented Nayla Mouawwad and Butrus Harb from becoming ministers, knowing that they would have improved election results. Today, on the record, he jumped ahead of the criticism in what sounds like a prelude to electoral alliances with March 8 in Ba`abda.

And much, much more. al-Akhbar have broken professional protocol and they know it. They said enough to elicit a swift reaction from Junblat and an affirmation of the “deep and historical ties” that bind him with al-Mustaqbal, saying that al-Akhbar has taken things out of context and distorted meanings. al-Akhbar yesterday clarified that it had printed exactly what Junblat said, explaining:

al-Akhbar has enough literary courage to apologize to its readers for being quick in affording them a view into the backstage of political life, even if it came at the expense of professional protocol.

Sensationalist? Maybe. Unprofessional? With sleazy, conniving, narrow-minded, blood-sucking, self-centered, short-sighted, back-stabbing, royalty-on-a-garbage-dump politicians like these, you cannot go wrong. There are many things al-Akhbar can be criticized for – among them their thin criticism of Hizballah and a lack of sharp political analysis, the likes of which Joseph Samahah was able to produce. But with its blend of excellent reporting and unconventional ethics, it is breaking new ground in the pitiful, stale journalistic life of Lebanon. One can only hope that, as election time miracles keep multiplying, there will be more such unethical revelations about the petty considerations that drive Lebanese politics.

So, what the hell just happened in the North? First, an overblown, negative reaction to a memorandum of understanding between Hizballah and (some) Salafis. Then, the Saudi ambassador makes a surprise visit to Tripoli, eliciting in his wake a delirious torrent about Tripoli being the be-all end-all of all Sunnis. And now, the reconciliation in Tripoli strikes, like a bolt of lightning from a clear sky.

Both the delirium and the reconciliation have been interpreted in the Lebanese press (some of it, as the case always is) as repercussions of the Saudi visit to Tripoli (and international pressure on Saudi). Muhammad al-Safadi, a billionaire politician with excellent connections in Saudi Arabia and some following in the north (he also happens to be Minister of Economy & Trade), made some statements last week confirming suspicions that Hariri Jr. is changing his policy and opening up to other Sunni parties.

Saudis, the story goes, have given up on the untalented Sa`d and are investing in a wider Sunni base under the banner of “unifying the Sunnis”. This, however, does not explain the portrayal of the Tripoli reconciliation as a Sa`d Hariri accomplishment, this despite the presence of Sanioura, Karami, and Safadi. Not to mention that Miqati decided not to join, sending a representative in his stead, and al-Ahdab, the harbinger of doom, did not show up in any incarnation. Disgruntlement, to say the least.

In light of this, there is another reading to these developments. The memorandum signed in the Mufti’s residence could be more of a move to shore up rather than undermine Hariri Jr. It is no secret that Hariri’s popularity took a dunk after last May and this has had its severest impact in the North. Although he does not face much competition in Beirut, with the presence of smaller players such as Karami, Miqati, and Safadi and with recent talk about a Safadi-Karami coalition for the next elections, Hariri might very well perform poorly in the North. This Sunni-Sunni reconciliation (no, not Alawi-Sunni, I am afraid), will work in Hariri’s favor.

Whichever the case may be, Saudi Arabia has used the influence it has on its Sunni friends and allies, to “facilitate” coalitions and perhaps even broaden Hariri’s electoral base. Election year in Lebanon is full of surprises and miracles. The blind see, the paralyzed move, and the dead are brought back to life. Considering that a Sunni-Sunni alliance of “moderates” will leave many in Tripoli disgruntled, it remains to be seen whether this miracle will have any impact on Jabal Muhsin and Tabbaneh.

A musalahah (reconciliation) has been concluded in Tripoli, similar to the musalahah in Taalbaya and Saadnayil earlier this summer, only this one involved bigger fish. To those less familiar with Lebanese political jargon, musalahah is the younger sister of the “no winners, no losers” (لا غالب ولا مغلوب) formula. Both are invitations to pretending that nothing happened. It is very telling that although they were invited to the musalahah, the fighters on the Tibbaneh side were not responsive.

But something else caught my eye. Something that would have been so funny had it not been equally tragic:

وسجل على هامش توقيع الوثيقة تحفظ النائب السابق علي عيد على توقيع الوثيقة لسبيين: الأول ورود اسم النائب بدر ونوس قبله، ما عدّه عدم حفظ اللياقات والمواقع، والثاني طلبه إيراد عبارة ممثل الطائفة العلوية مقابل اسمه، ما استدعى تدخلاً من الحريري ومن النائب السابق أحمد حبوس، وتأكيد الحريري لعيد أنه مستعد لتدوين العبارة بخط يده إذا كان الأمر يحل المشكلة، وقد أدى ذلك إلى تجاوز أزمة عدّها البعض شكلية وكادت تنسف الجهود دفعة واحدة

Ex-member of Parliament Ali Eid Ali’s two reservations were noted in the margins of the document [of reconciliation]: First, that the name of parliamentarian Badr Wannus comes before his own, which he considered a breach of etiquette and ranking, and, second, his request to add “representative of the Allawi sect” before his name. This necessitated an intervention from Hariri and ex-member of parliament Ahmad Habus and Hariri stressed that he is ready to write the phrase in his own handwriting if it solves the problem. The crisis, which some considered formal, passed after it almost sabotaged the efforts [at reconciliation] altogether.

The inferiority complex of this petty za`im of a minor minority is only the mirror image of the overblown self-confidence of the other za`im of a larger minority. This specific mix of pathos, machos, and wackos is just too much.