Election fever – 7th June in Lebanon
The UK has breathed a giggling goodbye to the latest round of council and European elections, with satirists and columnists having a fine old time laughing along with the media at the tarnished and tacky British politicians. Switching from the ridiculous to the downright dangerous, we in the West need to take notice of the Lebanese elections happening tomorrow (Sunday 7th June). The laughter dies down quickly when one realises the significance of the possible outcomes in this troubled Middle Eastern state.
Lebanon has had a slow, painful recovery from the destruction caused by its 15 year civil war and Israeli invasion. Long coveted by the greedy eyes of Syria, Lebanon must also contend with Israel watching to make sure the security of the Jewish homeland can no longer be threatened by terrorist groups harboured in the Cedar state. The 50/50 split between the Muslim and Christian population has shifted slightly in recent years towards a 60%+ Muslim majority. That said, it is not religious divides which generate internal strife but more the competition between opposition Hezbollah with Shia and Christian chums (the “8th March” coalition) which has considerable backing from Syria and Iran – and the anti-Syria (and currently ruling) combination of Christian, Druze and Sunni Muslim factions (the “14th March” Coalition), backed by Saudi Arabia. These two main blocs are led on one hand by Hassan Nasrallah and the other by Sa’ad Hariri, son of assassinated PM Rafik Hariri.
It is likely to be a close run thing with the BBC reporting a recent poll in the al-Akhbar newspaper as showing 48 seats safe for Hezbollah and 40 for the currently ruling clique. This leaves a further 70 seats as up for grabs in tomorrow’s poll, the most contested being in the central Christian areas around Beirut and the Bekaa. A major win by Hezbollah could see twitchy regional neighbours giving up on rhetoric and involving themselves actively – once again – in Lebanese affairs. As the Party of God has a substantial and well-armed private militia at its disposal, it is difficult not to be concerned at this outcome.
In a recent trip to Lebanon – including a moving visit to the Hariri memorial shrine attached to the Central Mosque in Beirut – it was fascinating to talk with locals. The Lebanese from each side are passionate about their politics, and with good reason. Their past troubles destroyed what was once the jewel of the Eastern Mediterranean. Both sides view their opponents with deep suspicion and even some allies such as the comically corrupt and – some say – cowardly former General, Michel Aoun, the Christian Free Patriotic leader with close Syrian ties.
Whichever way it goes, this beautiful country deserves a peaceful future. A clear sign of stability could see much more foreign investment heading into Lebanon with the already-advanced reconstruction being extended both North and South to revitalise what could be, once again, a fantastic tourist trap.
A tempting holiday destination is one thing; this frequent Middle Eastern political hotspot is facing the most significant democratic elections in the region for the past few years. It may surprise many that this is in no way a choice between two religiously-motivated power bases – it is not Muslim-versus-Christian. Far from it; the elections are a battle between two complex coalitions, backed by (amongst others) widely opposed Muslim sponsor-states. The hopes of 5m locals and her immediate neighbours, and maybe the wider world, rest on this 2-horse Lebanese political race.
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