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World Council for the Cedars Revolution

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Stratfor: Lebanese Elections PDF Print E-mail
Written by STRATFOR   
Friday, 05 June 2009

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Part 1: Understanding the Politics, The Hezbollah Agenda, A Perfect Proxy Battleground

Lebanese Elections Part 1: Understanding the Politics

Summary

Lebanon will hold parliamentary elections June 7. In a country which is an artificial entity in geopolitical terms and rife with sectarian divisions, the atmosphere leading up to elections is often volatile. To survive in such a system, Lebanese politicians must constantly watch their backs, try to choose the winning side and be prepared to frequently change sides within a fractious web of alliances.

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a three-part series on Lebanon’s upcoming parliamentary elections.

Analysis

Lebanese citizens will go to the polls June 7 to vote in long-anticipated parliamentary elections. Lebanese elections tend to reveal the country’s true nature as a place where guns intimidate, religion dominates and money speaks volumes. The results of these elections will also be felt well beyond Lebanon’s borders, as Syria, Iran, the United States, France and Saudi Arabia battle for influence among the country’s sundry factions.

The Geopolitics of Lebanon

Any analysis of Lebanese elections must begin with the understanding that Lebanon, in geopolitical terms, is an artificial entity. The country was carved out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire by the French in the 1916 Anglo-French Sykes-Picot Agreement that, in 1920, gave Paris a mandate over Greater Syria — a region that at the time was roughly bounded by the Taurus Mountains in the north, the Mediterranean coastline to the west, the Golan Heights to the south and the Syro-Arabian desert belt to the east.

Modern-day Syria and Lebanon emerged in 1943 upon the demise of the French mandate, but the Syria-Lebanon border that splits the two countries along the Anti-Lebanon mountain range is more or less invisible to the Syrian eye. The notion of a Greater Syria never died in Damascus. As far as the Syrian political elite is concerned, Lebanon is Syria’s vital economic outlet to the Mediterranean basin and the Syrian writ of state naturally extends into Lebanese territory. When viewed in this light, any U.S., French or Saudi calls for an end to Syrian meddling in Lebanon defy the geopolitical realities of the region.

Internally, Lebanon became a hodgepodge of factions whose religious and ethnic fault lines overshadowed any sense of loyalty to the nation-state. The French had put their stock in Lebanon’s Maronite Christian population concentrated in Mount Lebanon, but needed the predominantly Sunni and Shiite coastal cities and Bekaa Valley to make the country economically viable. Without a dominant group to impose its will over the other factions, Lebanon was a country destined to be engulfed in civil war, politically paralyzed and preyed on by outside powers.

Sectarian Politics

Lebanon’s sectarian-based political structure clearly illustrates the fractious nature of Lebanese geopolitics. The Lebanese government has deliberately avoided conducting a census in 77 years (mostly due to Maronite Christians’ fears that their votes will be outstripped by the majority Muslim population), so estimates on the ethnic and religious makeup of the country are extremely hard to come by.

The country officially recognizes 17 religious sects, and the CIA estimated in 1986 that 41 percent of the country is Shiite, 27 percent Sunni, 16 percent Maronite, 7 percent Druze, 5 percent Greek Orthodox and 3 percent Greek Catholic.

On the other hand, a voting list from the Lebanese interior ministry shows the number of registered voters for these elections pretty evenly split among Sunnis with 27.2 percent, Shia with 26.7 percent and Maronite Christians with 20.9 percent.

As part of the Lebanese confessional system, the parliament must be divided equally between Christians and Muslims. Once the parliament is formed, the ruling triumvirate is split by law among a Maronite president, a Sunni prime minister and a Shiite speaker of the parliament, while the other main Cabinet positions — the interior, defense, finance and foreign ministries — are divided among a Maronite Christian, a Greek Orthodox, a Shi’i and a Sunni.

Lebanese electoral law also stipulates that voters must return to their ancestral hometowns to vote, so Sunnis, Shia and Christians are forced to vote in areas where their sect forms a majority.

A great deal of political horse-trading, bribery and intimidation is required to sustain such a fractious and sectarian style of governance. To survive in such a system, any one faction must always watch its back, do its best to pick the winning side and be prepared to flip rampantly between alliances.

The Coming Elections

The June 9 elections will pit the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance against the Western-backed March 14 alliance led by Saad al-Hariri, son of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri whose assassination in 2005 drove Syrian troops out of Lebanon. The media often describes these two coalitions as pro-Western and anti-Syrian factions, but like most things Lebanese the situation is much more complex than that.

The March 8 coalition, named after a rally held March 8, 2005, to demonstrate support for Syria after the al-Hariri assassination, is led by Hezbollah (Shiite), Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri’s Amal movement (Shiite), Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (Maronite Christian) and Suleiman Franjieh’s Marada Movement (Maronite Christian).

The March 14 coalition, named after a massive rally held March 14, 2005, following the al-Hariri assassination, currently forms the majority in the Lebanese government. The coalition is led by Saad al-Hariri’s Future Movement (Sunni), Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party (Druze), Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces (Maronite Christian) and Amin Gemayel’s Phalange Party (Maronite Christian).

The breakdown of the coalitions illustrates just how fractured Lebanon’s political parties are, with divisions digging deep into each of the various sects.

The Maronites are split between the March 8 and March 14 coalitions, largely due to years of Syrian pressure and Aoun’s contentious decision to enter into a political alliance of convenience with Hezbollah upon his return from exile in 2005. Aoun has only one aim: to return to the presidency. The Christian firebrand leader risked alienating a large portion of his support base and reigniting intra-Christian rivalries when he joined up with Hezbollah, but he saw that the best way to get back into the game was to befriend the Syrians and use Hezbollah’s clout to raise his political stature.

The Aoun-Hezbollah alliance is a bitter and trying one, with each side constantly threatening to abandon the other. But for now, they need each other and have reached a deal to help advance each other’s political agendas. The deal, which operates under the assumption that Hezbollah will make considerable parliamentary gains in these elections, calls for Hezbollah to use its voting power to help push Aoun to the forefront of the Lebanese political system. Part of the plan to help carve out a political space for Aoun involves a Hezbollah plot to discredit Lebanon’s current president, Michel Suleiman, who has attempted to strike a careful balance between the Syrians, Saudis, French and Americans. Hezbollah is extremely wary of Suleiman’s long-term intentions, particularly on the issue of disarming Lebanese militia groups, and is happy to work with Aoun (at least for now) on uprooting Suleiman.

In return, Aoun has pledged to do his part to help Hezbollah defeat its long-term Shiite rival, Amal movement leader Berri. Amal was the preponderant Shiite force in Lebanon until the rise of Hezbollah in the early 1980s. Since then, Hezbollah, with the help of its regional proxies, has worked to undermine Berri’s movement among Lebanese Shia. Hezbollah now feels confident that its political wing will be able to wrest the parliamentary speaker position from Berri in these upcoming elections. The most likely Hezbollah candidate for speaker of the house is Mohammed Raad, current head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc.

The Sunnis in the March 14 camp are also undergoing a significant split ahead of the elections. Since Rafik al-Hariri’s assassination, Saad al-Hariri and Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, both of whom are closely tied to the Saudi royal family, worked together in resisting Syrian influence in Beirut. But al-Hariri’s relationship with Suleiman has deteriorated in recent months, as al-Hariri has begun viewing Suleiman as a threat to his leadership. While tensions are growing between al-Hariri and Suleiman, al-Hariri is also struggling in balancing between the more secularist Sunni Beirutis and the Salafist movements that have given him considerable support over the past four years.

Jumblatt’s Druze movement, meanwhile, is unsurprisingly bouncing back and forth between the coalitions in search of the best deal. Following the al-Hariri assassination, Jumblatt was the most vociferous member of the March 14 coalition in condemning Syrian meddling in Lebanon. When the tide started shifting in Syria’s favor again, Jumblatt began making conciliatory statements toward Hezbollah. Fearing that Jumblatt would switch sides yet again, Saudi King Abdullah personally invited Jumblatt and Druze Cabinet member Ghazi Aridi to Saudi Arabia, where Jumblatt is believed to have received a generous financial sum to stick with the March 8 coalition. Needless to say, Jumblatt is quiet for now.

Lebanon’s byzantine maze of political alliances will come to light June 9 as each faction attempts to weave its way to the finish line. This is an election with high stakes not only for the Lebanese political powers that be, but also for the number of regional players that have staked a claim in this explosive region.

Lebanese Elections Part Two: The Hezbollah Agenda

Summary

In the run-up to the June 7 parliamentary elections in Lebanon, there is speculation that Hezbollah could end up with enough seats to take the lead in forming the next Lebanese cabinet, but that is not the group’s intent. Hezbollah sources privately claim they would prefer to remain in the opposition — as long as they retain veto power in the Cabinet and thereby protect their militant wing. To that end, Hezbollah is looking for a political compromise that will include Lebanon’s broad political spectrum, but it is holding onto an insurance policy that threatens to plunge the country back into chaos.

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a three-part series on Lebanon’s upcoming parliamentary elections.

Analysis

When the votes are tallied from the June 7 Lebanese parliamentary elections, all eyes will be on the Shiite Islamist party Hezbollah. The Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition has retained a slight lead in opinion polls, leading to speculation that Hezbollah could end up with enough seats to take the lead in forming the next Lebanese cabinet. Should such a scenario occur, there is a good chance that the Western-backed March 14 coalition, as well a number of countries in the West that want to stay on Israel’s good side, would boycott the government, thereby plunging Lebanon into a severe — albeit familiar — state of chaos.

Contrary to popular perception, Hezbollah is not intent on controlling the next Lebanese government. The organization’s political leaders have already carefully considered the drawbacks to winning a hollow election victory that would end up further complicating their agenda to retain a strong militant arm. Discussions among senior Hezbollah leaders have centered on the fate of Hamas, which swept Palestinian legislative elections in early 2006 and then promptly found itself in nearly complete political and economic isolation. Hezbollah understands that its political evolution must occur gradually so as not to put the group’s long-standing militant wing in danger.

In his speech at Cairo University, U.S. President Barack Obama made an indirect reference to Hezbollah’s election prospects and widespread fears that an Islamist militant group could become the controlling force in the Lebanese government through legitimate and democratic means. Obama expressed some humility about the U.S. position on democracy, professing that the United States “doesn’t presume to know what’s best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election.” Although Obama was trying to dispel the notion that Washington’s promotion of democracy in the region is hypocritically selective, Hezbollah is also well aware that the existence and prowess of its military wing greatly complicates the group’s political agenda and is an issue that must be handled with utmost care.

To protect its militant wing, Hezbollah must, at the very least, retain veto power in the Lebanese government. Despite having only 14 seats in parliament, Hezbollah forcefully acquired veto power in the May 2008 Doha accord, which gave Hezbollah and its allies 11 seats in the 30-seat “national unity” government, thereby granting Hezbollah at least one third of the Cabinet.

With a minimum of 11 seats in the Cabinet, Hezbollah can shoot down any legislative moves to disarm the movement, and the group is already deeply suspicious of Lebanese President Michel Suleiman’s intentions on this matter. Hezbollah sources privately claim they would prefer to remain in the opposition — as long as they retain veto power in the Cabinet — and are not operating under the assumption that they will be in a position to form the next Lebanese cabinet.

In fact, Hezbollah representatives have been busy in the run-up to the elections dealing behind the scenes with Saad al Hariri’s Future Trend party and other members of the Western-backed March 14 coalition to come to some sort of a political compromise that will respect both sides’ interests. This type of politics of accommodation is all too common for a country as fractious as Lebanon, where parliament seats are swapped like baseball cards.

Though Hezbollah is looking for a political compromise that will include Lebanon’s broad political spectrum, the group also has specific points on its agenda that it intends to fulfill. For example, Hezbollah feels confident enough now in its political movement to raise its profile and try and wrest control of the parliament speaker position from the group’s long-standing Shiite rival, Nabih Berri’s Amal movement. Hezbollah already has a strategy in play with its contentious Maronite Christian ally Michel Aoun to degrade Berri’s position and use Aoun’s political support to put Mohammed Raad, the chief of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc, in Berri’s current position.

Hezbollah also intends to use its political prowess after the elections to push a plan to include the southern suburbs of Beirut — a Shiite-concentrated Hezbollah stronghold — in municipal Beirut. Currently, the southern suburbs are considered part of “greater Beirut.” If this structural change is made, Beirut would be politically transformed from a predominantly Sunni city into one that gives Shiites, and therefore Hezbollah, equal representation. And Hezbollah would thus be better equipped for the 2013 parliamentary vote.

In case Hezbollah ends up facing stiff resistance from the March 14 coalition in forming the next government, the group also has a relatively sound insurance policy. This backup plan came to light on May 5, 2008, when the March 14-led government voted to fire a pro-Hezbollah airport security official and to disband the Hezbollah land communications network. Two days later, Hezbollah activists stormed Beirut, threw up burning-tire blockades and effectively paralyzed the city, eventually forcing the government to reverse these two fateful decisions. The standoff has not been forgotten among March 14 members in Beirut, and Hezbollah has every intention of reminding its political rivals of the consequences of trying to clip Hezbollah’s wings.

Hezbollah is doing its best to protect itself at home, but as Part III of STRATFOR’s Lebanese elections series will soon reveal, the Shiite group’s fate will more likely be determined outside the borders of Lebanon

Lebanese Elections Part 3: A Perfect Proxy Battleground

Summary

Syria and Iran have prepared the ground for a strong performance by Hezbollah in Lebanon’s June 7 parliamentary elections. Still, Syria regards Hezbollah as a tool in gaining a more prominent role in the region and Hezbollah is watching and waiting for a time when it finds itself cornered by an opportunistic Syrian regime. And while Iran’s relationship with Hezbollah has never been tighter, the Iranians have a lot on their plate right now. The battle for Beirut is far from over.

Editor’s Note: This is the third of a three-part series on Lebanon’s upcoming parliamentary elections.

Analysis

The electoral battle that will take place in Lebanon June 7 will not be limited to the country’s warring political factions. Lebanon’s fractured political landscape makes the country an ideal proxy battleground for regional players, evidenced by the country’s reputation as a den of spies and the rampant vote-buying that defines Lebanese democracy.

The United States, Israel, France, Saudi Arabia and Egypt (among others) are all united in their desire to prevent Hezbollah from sweeping the elections. These countries have worked through their various intelligence arms to beef up the fractured March 14 opposition led by Saad al-Hariri, but they are also preparing for the worst. Meanwhile, Syria and Iran are laying the groundwork for Hezbollah and its allies to give a strong performance in the elections, though the interests of Hezbollah’s patrons are bound to clash down the road.

The French may have put Lebanon on the map, but in the eyes of Damascus, the territory encompassed by Lebanon is for all intents and purposes a natural extension of Syrian territory. Incapable of giving up Syria’s primary economic outlet to the Mediterranean Sea, the Syrian political elite will continue to subscribe to the historical notion of a Greater Syria and can always be expected to play a preponderant role in Lebanon.

The Feb. 14, 2005, assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri that drove Syrian troops out of Lebanon after 30 years of occupation was a setback for the Syrian regime, but only a temporary one. Syria’s robust intelligence network in the country remains intact, and after a few years of political intimidation, bribing and diplomatic maneuvering, the groundwork is laid for Syria to reclaim its kingmaker status in Lebanon and reconstitute itself politically in the upcoming elections.

But while the Syrians are on the rise once again in Lebanon, they are not entirely satisfied with their position in the region. Syrian President Bashar al Assad thought he would be able to skillfully maneuver his way into a peace deal with Israel that would guarantee official recognition of Syrian hegemony in Lebanon and break U.S. isolationist policy toward Syria, thereby giving Damascus room to play a more prominent role in the region. Not surprisingly, the Syrians and the Americans were never able to see eye to eye. Washington expected Syria to sever ties with Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and its other militant proxies, while Syria thought it could get away with its traditional mercantilist negotiating strategy of offering much and delivering little in the end.

Al Assad was told by his foreign policy advisers (Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, Syrian Ambassador to the United States Imad Moustapha and political and media affairs consultant Bouthaina Shaaban) that the Obama administration would show more flexibility in dealing with Syria and apply pressure on Israel to resume bilateral talks with Syria under the auspices of Turkey. Those hopes were quickly dashed, however, when the U.S. administration announced in early May that it would renew sanctions on Syria. Al Assad has already reprimanded his foreign policy advisers, some of whom could be caught in upcoming government reshuffles.

The Syrian-Israeli negotiating track has not been completely derailed, however. The United States will be relying more on Turkey to breathe life back into the talks when the time is right. Still, Syria’s relationship with the West will continue to be strained, as Damascus has no intention of sacrificing its relationship with Hezbollah. Relations between Syria and Hezbollah have been on the rocks, particularly since the 2008 assassination of Hezbollah senior commander Imad Mughniyah . Nonetheless, Syria wants to maintain this relationship and convince the Americans, the Israelis, the French, the Saudis and others that only Syria is capable of containing Hezbollah, which Damascus claims can be accomplished only if Syria is given the room to rebuild its influence in Lebanon.

Syria has long been preparing for the upcoming elections to ensure victory for its allies. According to STRATFOR sources, Syrian intelligence officers in the Rif Dimashq Governorate in rural Syria intimidate Syrian citizens who hold dual citizenship in Lebanon (at least 10,000 Syrian-Lebanese dual citizens are eligible to vote). STRATFOR sources say intelligence officers have threatened to cut off water and electricity and imprison and torture villagers if they vote “for the enemies of Syria” in the March 14 coalition. Villagers also have been informed that Syria’s intelligence apparatus has the ability to know exactly how they vote. Lebanese villagers in the west Bekaa Valley bordering Syria have also reportedly been ordered to travel to Damascus to receive their orders on which Syrian allies — Abdul Rahim Mourad (Sunni), Eli Firzli (Greek Orthodox) and Faysal Daoud (Druze) — to vote for. The Syrian National Social Party is the primary political vehicle that Syrian intelligence agents use to implement the Syrian election strategy for Lebanon.

Syria may be aiding Hezbollah’s election campaign, but the Syrian regime still regards the Shiite militant group as a tool in its negotiations with the United States, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey and France. Hezbollah will take the Syrian aid, but it is also watching and waiting for a time when it finds itself cornered by an opportunistic Syrian regime.

Meanwhile, Iran’s relationship with Hezbollah has never been tighter, but the Iranians have a lot on their plate right now. In addition to staking their claim in the Lebanese elections, the Iranians are trying to diplomatically maneuver around the Americans, the Israelis and the Europeans; maintain their nuclear program; prepare their Shiite allies for elections in Iraq; and get through their own presidential elections on June 12.

Tehran is counting on its most powerful and sophisticated militant proxy in Lebanon to help discourage military action by the Israelis and Americans. At the same time, the Iranians are extremely wary of Syria’s long-term intentions for Hezbollah, a concern ever since Mughniyah was assassinated on Syrian soil and Syria decided to go public with its now-stagnant peace negotiations with Israel. Iran and Hezbollah are also eyeing Israel carefully. The United States is not interested in approving any military action against Iran for the time being, and Israel does not have the luxury of carrying out an attack on its own. Washington could, however, acquiesce to an Israeli plan to attack Hezbollah in Lebanon to dilute Iran’s militant insurance policy. Both Iran and Hezbollah are preparing for such a scenario.

The Iranians have many reasons to protect a militant asset like Hezbollah and have spent a great deal of time lately tightening their leash on the group, beginning with restructuring Hezbollah’s leadership. Hezbollah sources claim that significant changes in the group’s top tier can be expected after the June 7 elections.

Iran wants Hezbollah to broaden its aims and serve as a link between the Islamic Republic and Arabs. When Hezbollah’s limited network in Egypt was exposed in early April, the Egyptian government seized the opportunity to besmirch Hezbollah’s reputation by grossly exaggerating the group’s activities in Egypt (the Hezbollah network there is primarily designed to provide logistical support to Hamas in Gaza). The Egyptians have known about this network for a while but decided to time its exposure ahead of the Lebanese elections, causing Hezbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah’s popularity to decline among the region’s Sunni Arabs, who have respected him as a resistance leader against Israel.

Though Nasrallah is a charismatic leader and continues to carry significant symbolic weight among Shiites, Iran has increasingly viewed him as a liability. As STRATFOR reported in December 2007, Iran decided to exclude Nasrallah from Hezbollah’s decision-making process and has bolstered the positions of more hard-line Hezbollah members, including Hezbollah deputy chief Sheikh Naim Qasim and security chief Wafiq Safa.

As part of Iran’s bid to reach out more to Sunni Arabs and attempt to bridge the sectarian divide, the Iranian regime is seriously considering whether Nasrallah should be replaced as the official head of Hezbollah. Qasim has already served as the de facto leader of the organization, and has expressed his willingness to take Nasrallah’s place, though it remains unclear if and when such a shift would take place.

The Iranians also have tightened their control over Hezbollah’s military operations. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps directly runs Hezbollah operations from the Iranian embassy compound in Bir Hassan, Hezbollah’s stronghold in Beirut’s southern suburbs. This allows Iran to ensure that any Hezbollah action against Israel is done in strict accordance with an Iranian agenda.

Iran naturally wants Hezbollah to gain a symbolic victory in the upcoming Lebanese elections and had pledged to spend millions on Hezbollah’s election campaign. But with oil prices sinking and Iran’s economy in dire straits, the Iranians had to go on a bit of a spending diet. Instead, Qatar, which enjoys being the political maverick of the Persian Gulf and has extensive intelligence links in Lebanon, has picked up the slack for Iran and deposited funds in Lebanon’s central bank for Hezbollah and its allies.

In spite of American, French and Saudi efforts to bolster the March 14 coalition, Syria and Iran have done their work to provide Hezbollah with a significant political victory on June 7. This next round in the ongoing Iran-West standoff may go to Tehran, but the diplomatic plates are still shifting in the region as Syria seeks out a more prominent role and recognition by the West. The battle over Beirut is far from over.



 
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