Lebanon’s elections could be Obama’s first post-speech victory
By Ray Hanania
As the smoke clears in Lebanon’s sectarian elections, and the two major factions appear to be where they began, the real winner may in fact be President Barack Obama. Did his speech last week to the Arab World impact Lebanon’s election results? In fact, only one seat changed hands between the Hezbollah-Aoun coalition and the Western-back coalition of Saad Hariri, the son of the assasinated former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Hariri’s coalition called March 14 won 71 seats, one more than it had, and Hezbollah’s coalition called March 8 won 57 in the 128-seat Lebanese legislature, one less.
That’s not much of a substantive victory, but it is a major symbolic victory. Observers from throughout the Arab World and Israel had expected and predicted Hezbollah and its coalition partners including popular Christian leader Michel Aoun to increase their seats in the Lebanese parliament to give them control.
Hezbollah’s defeat reflect’s the loss in expectations and a rebuff of its armed power bid, but not really in size. Lebanon is technically in the same position that it has been since Hariri’s assassination in February 2005. The spin, however, comes from Obama’s speech which may have undermined the edge that Aoun had hoped to bring to the partnership with Hezbollah.
Obama’s speech to the Arab and Muslim World the week before at Cairo University may have impacted the results, muting the anticipated advances Hazbollah and its Christian allies had hoped to achieve. Obama’s speech touched many in the Middle East, including Christian Arabs longing for a resolution of the Ara-Israeli conflict, but also signalling a future where arm militants might play a less impactful role.
Obama reiterated the cornerstones of America’s longstanding and often one-sided relationship with Israel, but added a new perspective of “balance” that recognized in broader terms the rights of Palestinians and their suffering.
At issue in Lebanon were key issues addressed in Obama’s speech including Syria, Iran and turning away from armed violence as a solution to unresolved conflicts. Syria backed the Hezbollah coalition while Saudi Arabia, a key American ally, backed the Hariri coalition.
In the minds of the Arab World, balance foreign policy is the counterweight to violence, armed resistance and conflict, all that Hezbollah has come to represent since it was first founded with the backing of Iran during the Israeli invasion fo Lebanon a quartter century ago.
Although insiders report that while Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement political party remained the single largest Christian group in the religiously and politically diced up country with 24 seats, those seats were won with significantly far less Christian voter support than in 2005. Aoun support weakened in key Christian enclaves including in Ashrafiya. Hezbollah only has 11 seats in the coalition, what it started with.
Lebanon is a “confessional” religious parliamentary system. It has a parliament of 128 members with 64 seats set aside for Christians and 64 seats set aside for Muslims. Muslims are divided into two groups, Shi’ite led by Hezbollah and Sunni led by Hariri. The Christians are mainly Maronite but divided politically, too.
Hezbollah’s failure to gain more support may be reflected in the high price the Lebanese people paid in the summer of 2006 when a Hezbollah military action along the border with Israel provoked Israel into a massive air strike. Hezbollah responded with a powerful missile campaign and Israel retaliated with widespread destruction that not only targeted Hezbollah strongholds but devastated Lebanon’s civilian and business areas around Beirut.
A win by Hezbollah was much feared in Israel and by the United States, which has declared the group a “terrorist” organization, a designation with little real meaning except that it becomes a mandate to justify any Israeli military actions in Lebanon. Hezbollah was founded in 1982 with the backing of Iran in response to Israel’s military invasion of Lebanon which most Lebanese viewed as a terrorist act, too.
How will Lebanon’s tenuous politics shift is to be debated. But clearly, int he first major event since Obama’s Cairo speech, the balance tipped slightly away from conflict in one country where conflict has been an everyday apsect of life.
Directly or indirectly, Obama’s speech to the Arab and Muslim World is creating a new context in which the people of the Middle East can more clearly see justice without the need for more violence.
(Ray Hanania is an award winning columnist, American Palestinian comedian and morning Chicago radio talk show host.)