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    An Analysis of Possibilities

    Sciences-Po researcher and Democratic Left Movement founder Ziad Majed was interviewed by Middle East Bulletin, published by Middle East Progress. Middle East Progress is a project of the Center for American Progress, one of the leading Washington DC-based think tanks, close to the Democratic Party.

    Can you give our readers a sense of the main parties and blocs running in the election and how they may be different from those in the 2005 election?

    The first thing to know is that this will be the first election, probably in modern Lebanese modern history, that is between two blocs, two alliances. These alliances will be present in all electoral districts in Lebanon. One alliance is called the March 8 alliance; it includes the Hezbollah and Amal movements, which are two parties representing a certain majority of the Shiite community. They are also allied to General Aoun’s political movement. General Aoun represents a large section of the Christians in Lebanon. They are allied as well to smaller parties and individuals in Lebanon who are all very close to the Syrian regime, and were part, in fact, of the government in Lebanon during at least the last 16 or 17 years, which were mainly under the Syrian hegemony after the end of the war. So this is one alliance.

    On the other side there is the March 14 alliance, and of course March 8 and March 14 are the two days of the two demonstrations: one that was in favor of the Syrian presence in Lebanon and the second was opposed to that presence and hegemony after the assassination of Rafik Hariri. The March 14 alliance includes the current Future Movement of Hariri, that represents the majority of the Sunnis. It includes as well the Socialist Party of Walid Jumblatt, representing the majority of the Druze and different Christian groups, Lebanese forces, Kataeb, the Liberal Party, the National Bloc Party, and many individuals that are independent or representing different tendencies within Christian society. In addition, there are two smaller groups: the Democratic Renewal Movement, represented by Mr. Nassib Lahoud, and the Democratic Left Movement.

    The differences are mainly about whether Hezbollah should keep its arms outside the sovereignty of the state. It’s also about the regional alliances-whether Lebanon should maintain a certain military neutrality in the conflicts and between the actors in the region or whether it should be allied to the Syrian and Iranian axis. So March 14, of course, is trying to promote the idea of neutrality, the idea of being in a situation that will protect Lebanon from the consequences of the conflict. They believe in the monopoly over weapons and in the sovereignty of the state itself. While March 8 alliance thinks that Hezbollah should keep its weapons for different reasons including the Arab-Israeli conflict, and they want to continue the alliance with Syria and Iran. So, these two contradictory perspectives on Lebanon are going to face each other on June 7. Unfortunately, the electoral law is not one which would allow better representation and dynamics to emerge. But I still think the Lebanese will have two radically different choices about the future of their country.

    Have there been shifts in the coalitions, in term of who is with whom, or is it somewhat static?

    Since 2005, the March 14 alliance has been stable. All these forces gathered in a big demonstration following the assassination of Hariri. They were also together on many other occasions, and all the people assassinated during the last four years belonged to these parties and to that alliance.

    There is one major change that happened in Lebanon during the last three years, General Aoun’s shift from his earlier position against Syrian hegemony to allying himself and what he represents among the Christians to Hezbollah and undoubtedly to the Syrian regime. This big shift can be understood differently. It may be related to the sociology in Lebanon. It could be related to the fact that in an earlier time he probably thought about his chances of becoming president. Many factors were behind his shift. But it created an internal conflict within the Christian community, especially since historically the Christians were the fathers of the idea of Lebanon being neutral and being away from the regional actors and being a democratic state in the region. With General Aoun’s shift I think there is something in Lebanese sociology that has changed. Many people believe, however, that he lost some of his popularity because of that shift, and I think June 7 will show whether this is right or wrong.

    Can you explain the change in the election law and how it might affect the election?

    This law that is going to be adopted now is the 1960 law. It was adopted in 1960 and similar laws were also adopted in ’64, ’68 and ’72. However, after the end of the war and as of 1992 when elections started to take place again in Lebanon, there were large districts with simple majority representation. Any list that could get, let’s say 30 percent, of the vote could win 100 percent of the seats in these large districts, because another list could get 25 percent of the vote, a third one 20 percent of the vote, and since there is no proportional representation, any list that would get more votes than other lists, though not necessarily a majority in absolute terms, would monopolize the whole representation.

    The 1960 law brings us back to smaller districts, a district where two, three, four and rarely eight deputies will be elected. And also, when we are talking about large districts, the larger districts will put different communities together with one electoral choice. While in the 1960 law we will have a kind of, I don’t want to say gerrymandering, but there is a division of the districts that corresponds to historical kada’a in Lebanon, the smallest administrative district, which means that the Christians will be the overwhelming majorities in the Christian districts. In Shia areas it will be the same. In some areas there will be a Sunni majority, in others a Druze majority, and there will be less mixed voters in terms of religious backgrounds in each district. Some people believe that this is better in order to give better representation for what the choices are in each community; some others believe that this will disintegrate even more the already fragmented Lebanese society.

    However, with the two choices that we have-in both alliances we have different confessional groups, whether majorities or minorities in each community-this factor of division is a little bit marginalized. So the two choices about the regional position of Lebanon, about the sovereignty of the state, about Hezbollah’s weapons, remain at the heart of the electoral debate in each of the regions.

    However, people who were for reform could have thought about proportional representation in large districts that would allow minorities and majorities within each community to emerge. Because today, under the consensual democracy that we use, there is a big problem with an electoral system that is based on majoritian representation. Each community when electing its representatives, will have a certain possibility of blocking the political process, as happened with Hezbollah and Amal recently when they decided to withdraw their ministers from the government, and then the government did not have any more Shiite ministers. This is because Amal and Hezbollah are monopolizing the Shiite representation. It is the same for the Sunnis and the Druze, less in the case of the Christians because of the larger divisions within that community.

    However, if there were proportional representation in the elections this monopoly could not take place, so no single party, or no single force, even if it has legitimacy and is a certain majority within each community, would monopolize the community. So this will allow for new dynamics probably to emerge, will allow for a new political pact to emerge, and consensual democracy will be applied differently. But this, of course, is another debate that people are probably preparing to get into for the 2013 elections. And the president of the republic is promising that he will allow this debate to happen after the end of the June 7, 2009 elections.

    Can you talk a little bit about the role President Michel Suleiman has taken on in the past few months and whether that impacts the situation within the Christian community?

    I think the president was in a difficult position from the beginning. He came in after an agreement that took place in Doha in June 2008, which followed the May 7 events in Beirut during which Hezbollah militarily invaded Beirut and imposed certain conditions on the government of Prime Minister Siniora and the majority in the parliament. The parliament was blocked before that for two years; the speaker of the parliament closed it, and there were sit-ins and attempts to delegitimize the government and force them to withdraw. Hezbollah’s operation, in which the party used its weapons against other Lebanese, contradicted the party’s propaganda that the weapons are only to protect Lebanon from Israeli attacks.

    After that event, the Doha Agreement was a compromise. The idea was to elect a president after months and months of vacuum in the position of president and that this president should try to be a referee between the two blocs and should try to launch the political process through these elections and beyond. President Suleiman, taking into consideration that this internal compromise means that the president should be on good terms with the different allies in the region and on the international scene, not only within Lebanon, but with the Syrians, Iranians, Saudis, Egyptians, Americans and French, he’s trying internally and externally to respect that agreement and to be a referee.

    I don’t know how much he will be able to continue to play that role after the elections. Some people are saying already that some candidates who are close to him or pretending to be close to him will participate in these coming elections in order to create a certain bloc in the parliament that would be neither with March 8 or with March 14. However, on the ground it’s believed that these people are closer to March 14. And some of the president’s positions in the recent weeks, when talking about the necessity of having only the state possess weapons and defend Lebanon from any threat, that we should reform the state and make sure that stability is our priority, that we should be in good contact with all our neighbors and with the international community-all these are probably hints about what he would try to do later, which is bringing back to the position of president a certain role of arbitrator in the Lebanese system. Of course, this is questionable, due also to what might happen on the regional level. Because the rules of the game are not only within Lebanon, they are also very much regional.

    Based on current polling, what does it look like the results in the election might be?

    There is already some work that’s being done on the ground, some polls, some indicators in different areas. Let’s start with what is most probably confirmed in many areas. In South Lebanon, the Hezbollah and Amal alliance will win all seats or at least the overwhelming majority of seats. In the second and third districts of Beirut, which are Sunni majority, Hariri and March 14 will probably win all the seats. In the Chouf and the Aley area, where Walid Jumblatt and his supporters are the majority they will win also, so March 14 will win. In the Northern Bekaa and Baalbek and Hermel, Hezbollah and its allies will probably win. In the north there will be an overwhelming majority for March 14 as well.

    So the battle that will really determine which camp will be the majority in the next parliament will happen in four or five districts: Jbeil/Byblos, Kesrwan, Metn, Baabda, Zahle, and the first district of Beirut, Achrafieh. All of these districts have either ninety percent Christian voters or an overwhelming majority of Christians. The battleground of the elections will happen in these districts. The camp that will win a majority of seats in these districts will be the majority in the country, because if we add what is probably already confirmed for each camp in the other areas, whoever gets the majority in these districts will win the elections.

    Personally, I think March 14 will have a majority. Probably a few – six or seven – more deputies than March 8, not more, unless there’s something that no one was expecting in the Christian areas that will create a surprise. I think if elections were to happen now this could be the result. Still, we have three months and as I said, it will depend on different regional events and the context in general.

    Right now there’s an Arab League summit going on in Doha. Last year the summit was focused on Lebanon and Syria and this year it’s focused on Arab unity. What do you think have been the changes between Lebanon and Syria and within the region over the past year and how has that impacted Lebanon?

    First, on the Lebanese-Syrian level, the major problem is that the Syrian regime did not swallow, or did not realize, until now that it should not continue ruling or managing Lebanon. There is still a certain approach in Syrian foreign policy about Lebanon, considering it as a series of cards that can be bargained with in different negotiations, mainly with the United States, but also within the regional context, with Israel and with some Arab countries. I’m talking here about the Palestinian card, the camps and the weapons also outside the camps and some military bases in Lebanon that are managed by Palestinian groups very close to Damascus directly and not the PLO.

    I’m talking also about the security of Lebanon itself-whether in Tripoli, or through the continuing assassinations targeting mainly intellectuals, journalists and politicians opposed to the Syrian regime, and also Hezbollah, over which Syria in its alliance with Iran is very influential. So the Syrians consider that in Lebanon they have two or three cards that they can always play, either to raise the stakes when dealing with any American administration, and this one in particular, in order to get some gifts in return. And, at the same time, if there are clashes and conflicts, they believe that they could destabilize Lebanon and send regional messages through Lebanon to get some of what they want from the Saudis, Egyptians and others.

    What happened in 2005 after the assassination of Hariri and after Resolution 1559 was the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, which I think the Syrian regime considered to be a humiliation. So after that withdrawal there was a serious counterattack on Lebanon again through what I believe were assassinations, threats, through the destabilization of the political system by Amal and Hezbollah’s efforts to push Siniora to resign or to create a certain political vacuum in the presidency. The Saudis and Egyptians tried to negotiate a certain deal. They did not succeed for a while. Then the French also tried. They got some promises that Syria would stop interfering, that there will be diplomatic relations between both countries. There was always a question mark about the international tribunal: whether it would happen or not. Whether there would be a deal over it, similar to the deal that happened with Qaddafi over Lockerbie, there were lots of scenarios always that the Syrians and the pro-Syrians in Lebanon were evoking when talking about Lebanon and Syria.

    What is needed today and what should be the priority is to preserve Lebanon’s independence and to make the Syrian regime understand that Lebanon is not just a space for compromises, for bargaining, for playing the cards in the region anymore. And this, I think, the Syrians would understand mainly when they hear it from the Americans. And second, is to see also with Syria how the UN resolutions, especially 1701, can be respected, because that would affect the issues of Hezbollah’s weapons and the borders between Lebanon and Syria. It would force the Israelis, as well, to respect and to obey these UN resolutions, whether on the Ghajar area, whether on Shebaa Farms, whether on the maps of the landmines, which will disarm Hezbollah of different arguments that it keeps using in defending its possession of weapons in Lebanon.

    The Arabs, especially after the war in Gaza and after they felt the emotions in the Arab street following the war and the absence of American pressure on the peace process-which many believe will change now with the Obama administration and George Mitchell-felt that Syria and Iran made some gains on the ground during that war. So there is an attempt, especially by the Saudis, to say to the Syrians: if you move away from Iran, maybe we could have better Arab-Arab relations, we could discuss different issues. And they are trying as well to tell the Iranians, we don’t want confrontation, but we need to set rules of the game and Palestine should remain a cause managed by its people, by the PLO, not by Iran or Syria. Maybe the Americans are trying a similar thing now, to bring Syria a little bit away from Iran. The French tried that before. I’m not sure whether this will succeed or not, maybe the attempt is worth it. But, the Syrians misunderstood any contacts with them in the past, believing that they were being sent encouraging messages about their policies in Lebanon, about the possibilities of compromising over Lebanon in order to bring them to normalization and to good relations with the Arab and international communities. This is a very complicated issue and again, I think it is mainly international pressure and Arab initiatives that could play an important role in resolving it.

    The peace process is crucial as well, because many regimes and many movements in the region try to justify despotism or violence, or a culture of refusing the other, by talking about Palestine and talking about the injustice in Palestine. So they have this argument that they use all the time, regardless of what their objectives and aims are. So, if we can also think of a peace process, a creative peace process that would bring some justice to this conflict and to the Palestinian people, that would help a lot in lowering tensions and managing many crises that we are living through and would allow also moderate and progressive people to have more ground when facing the other camp, not only in Lebanon, but in the whole region. So I think the peace process and the pressure on Israel to respect Palestinian rights would also bring positive dynamics to the whole region.

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