Revolutions can play roulette with internal politics, as Lebanon is discovering on its way to nationwide elections on May 29. Three months after a street-launched Cedar Revolution against Syrian occupation, and one month after ejecting Syria's army, voters suddenly find themselves faced with startling new political alliances.
Former civil war foes are now cohabitating-Sunni and Druze Muslims with Christians; Christians with political representatives from terrorist group Hezbollah. The alliances grow out of post-revolution fractures among the democratic opposition. Lacking Syrian occupation as a rallying cry, which had earlier united them against the pro-Syrian regime, the groups are scrambling for ways to connect with voters.
Parliamentary elections are scheduled to run three weeks, as the Lebanese elect 128 members to the Chamber of Deputies. The elected members will then have the responsibility of choosing the president and prime minister. According to the 1989 Taif Agreement, which ended the civil war, the country's complex power-sharing formula will remain intact: 64 of the elected deputies must be Muslim, 64 Christian.
The division is split even further according to sects. Muslims must have 27 Sunnis, 27 Shiites, eight Druze, and two Alawites. Christians must have 34 Maronites, 14 Greek Orthodox, eight Greek Catholics, five Armenian Orthodox, one evangelical, one Armenian Catholic, and one catch-all candidate for religious minorities. The question now is how pro-Syrian the newly elected deputies will be.
While Syria's role in Lebanon may be less a key issue than it was three months ago, a Syrian-era electoral law is sidelining Lebanese Christians. The
law -divided the country into 14 electoral districts. Under Syria's post-civil war influence, it ensured that the candidates favored by Syrian security forces would be elected.
Today, however, the law forces Christian candidates to canvass Muslim support because they cannot run for office only in Christian-dominated areas. Christians worry that once elected, their candidates will be consigned to supporting Muslim causes. Such a prospect so alarmed the influential Maronite Church that its bishops held an unusual session early this month to condemn the 2000 law. Headed by Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, the prelates said the law would have "disastrous consequences."
They also said that Christians in reality have only 15 MPs truly elected for Christian seats. The others go into the assembly thanks to the votes of Muslims. "Christian MPs have to go hat in hand to request their seats and to be aligned with other candidates on those tickets who are of different religions," the prelates said.
The result is a "Catch-22" for Christians, explained Robert Rabil, an assistant professor at Florida Atlantic University. Although politicians toyed with holding a boycott, Mr. Rabil said "they are not going to call off the elections. If they call off elections, it's going to extend the current pro-Syrian parliament."
In some ways, the Christian leadership has only itself to blame for the dilemma it now faces. Walid Phares, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said anti-Syrian politicians quit too early in the Cedar Revolution. While they succeeded in ousting the 15,000-strong Syrian army, the revolution's leaders stopped short of removing Lebanon's pro-Syrian regime and president, Emile Lahoud.
The Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri sparked the anti-Syrian protests, which garnered 1.5 million supporters. The demonstrations were a first in Lebanese history and the only time citizens have overcome their fear of challenging Syria's grip. But, "the traditional leaders failed," Mr. Phares said. They reasoned that "if you allow demonstrations to bring down the president, you're bringing down a Christian president . . . they worked against the feelings of the masses and the international community. They thought they were already winning."
As a result, one of the first actions the remaining pro-Syrian government took was to, in effect, shrink Christian power by its enforcement of the 2000 electoral law.
In Lebanon, the mood among Christians and some supporters of the democratic opposition over the disunity of political leaders can best be described as depressed. "They sensed some main figures in the opposition that were leading people in a united goal were drifting away," said Said Mallouh, an evangelical pastor in Beirut. "That's when people lost faith in their leaders."
Now politicians from all sects are cobbling together tickets with any willing allies. In Beirut, Mr. Hariri's son Saad has included the widow of Christian warlord Bashir Gemayel on his list for the city's sole Maronite seat. A Hezbollah candidate is also on his ticket for a Shiite seat. Meanwhile, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, once pro-Syrian but now siding with the broader democratic opposition, has concocted a similar alliance with rightist Christians and Hezbollah.
But not all Christian leaders are happy to throw in their lot with Hezbollah, an Iranian-funded Shiite terrorist group whose stated raison d'etre has been to fight Israeli occupation in southern Lebanon. Former general Michel Aoun, who returned to Lebanon after 14 years in exile, called the Jumblatt and Hariri alliances a "subversive tsunami." That statement meant Mr. Aoun was largely left out of alliances other political leaders were forming.
Hezbollah, meanwhile, has campaigned vigorously for this election. The group has woven itself into Lebanese society, offering social services, running an Islamist satellite TV station with broad-based programming, and enjoying parliamentary representation since 1992. But Syria's dwindling presence in the country has put its leaders in a precarious position.
Hezbollah is now one of the targets of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, passed last year, which calls for the withdrawal of all foreign troops in Lebanon. The first part of the resolution was accomplished following Syria's withdrawal. But the resolution also demands the disarmament of militias-a direct swipe at Hezbollah.
For now, Lebanese politicians seem content to handle that demand internally, without the international support that spawned the Cedar Revolution. Whether they succeed is one of the largest "intangibles" of this election, Mr. Rabil said: "Hezbollah might keep their arms by striking a deal with Jumblatt and Hariri."
In the meantime, Hezbollah is hoping to win solid representation for the next four years, which could outlive the Bush administration's agenda for reform in the Middle East, Mr. Phares said. A burgeoning trend, however, could further threaten the group: Lebanese Shiites are beginning to find alternatives to Hezbollah, drawn by the influence of Iraq's supreme Shiite leader, Ali Sistani. "The traditional Shiites, the left wing, and Sistani are coming together," Mr. Phares said.
Other factors could also swing the election. Lebanon's worldwide diaspora stands at about 12 million-four times the number of citizens who actually live in the country. The diaspora has requested that Lebanese citizens outside the country be allowed to vote in the election-a request unlikely to be granted by the pro-Syrian regime, which is afraid such a move would ensure its defeat. Nevertheless, Lebanese abroad were crucial players in lobbying the U.S. and French governments to pressure Syria and could remain a political force for Lebanese locals.
Mr. Phares believes the Lebanese army could also play an important role. The army contains a cross-section of society and should be deployed to protect polling stations, he said. "They may have the role of containing Hezbollah," he said. "They're the only army that's pro-Western but they're under the control of the Syrian government."
Mr. Rabil said he is "cautiously optimistic" about the elections. The Hariri and Jumblatt alliances may be enough to counter the pro-Syrians, including Hezbollah. "Overall, the number of elected deputies are not going to be pro-Syrian," he said. "It's much better than before where many times in history [these sects] have not worked together."
If it's hard to make solid predictions in Lebanon's current political eddies, one theme has emerged: Lebanese democrats are no longer afraid to flex their muscles, no matter how long democracy may take.