JERUSALEM: The final results of the Lebanese elections last Sunday clearly indicate a continuation of the political status-quo. The distribution of parliamentary seats between the two rival blocks has hardly changed. The majority coalition (“March 14 ) of the Sunni, Druze and a large section of the Maronites led by Sa ad Hariri, son of the assassinated Lebanese leader Rafiq Hariri, scored 68 (that is, a loss of one seat). At the same time, the opposition (“March 8 ), comprised of the Shia parties – Amal and Hezbollah (with the latter retaining its 11 seats) – and the Free Patriotic Movement led by the Maronite former general Michel Aoun, preserved its parliamentary power. The rest of the seats were taken by independents (with one more compared to the previous elections of 2005).
In retrospect, one wonders why the last few weeks leading up to the elections were marked by so much tension and concern that Hezbollah was about to take over and turn Lebanon into another revolutionary Shia state a-la-Iran, with far-reaching implications for Lebanon and the region as a whole. Indeed, the preservation of the status quo is what prompted many statements of satisfaction by March 14 coalition leaders as well as by Israeli and Western officials and commentators.
It may remain a question whether early concerns about Hezbollah s envisioned victory were merely based on speculation, or whether the visits prior to the elections by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden tilted the scale to the moderates side. Or could it have been the Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir s last minute call to his followers to vote for preserving Lebanon s identity – that is a pluralist, multi-religious Lebanon as opposed to a narrowly Shia-dominated Lebanon – that decided the final results? But euphoria aside, the election s results indicate little change in the politics of Lebanon, both domestic and regional.
The elections came after four volatile years during which the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah movement demonstrated once and again that it was in fact the dominant political power in Lebanon regardless of the number of its parliament members.
Hezbollah s capabilities stem from the fact that it has, since 1991, been the only legitimate militia in the country, ostensibly justified by its armed resistance against Israel, while at the same time playing a growing role in the Lebanese political system. With Israel s unilateral withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah came under pressure to dismantle its militia and become a purely political party. This the movement soundly rejected, with full support from Amal, the other Shia movement, as well as Syria and Iran.
Indeed, it was Hezbollah s independent decision to kidnap Israeli soldiers along the border in July 2006 that entangled Lebanon in a long and costly war. Last summer, Hezbollah once again showed its de facto hegemony in Lebanon when it demonstrated its military power in the capital, Beirut, and practically paralyzed the government s ability to act. The Doha agreement, which ended the crisis, gave Hezbollah a “third plus one of the seats in the government, which in Lebanese constitutional terms means veto power over any government decision. Just how important it is for Hezbollah to continue upholding the banner of “resistance to Israel was clearly expressed by its leaders who insisted that the elections were in fact a “referendum on the resistance .
Perceived as “pro-Western and allied with the moderate Arab regimes of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, the victory of the March 14 coalition may be a sign that the Obama administration succeeded in its efforts to secure victory for its Lebanese protégées over the Syria-Iran- Hezbollah axis. This would definitely justify continued American financial support for Lebanon and its army. Practically, however, and despite the fact that the March 14 coalition won 68 seats (a majority in the 128-size parliament), it is doubtful whether they will be able to translate this majority into an ability to bring about significant changes in Lebanon s domestic and foreign policies.
In fact, there are good reasons to believe the Sunni and Druze winning coalition leaders, Hariri and Walid Junblat, respectively, who have already expressed their wish to continue the “national dialogue and cooperate with the opposition within a unity government. Obviously, they have no disillusions as to their ability to disarm the Hezbollah. Such an attempt would be a sure recipe for a renewed civil war in this multi-religious and ethnically divided country. This sense of having little room for maneuver – and perhaps the need to mitigate concerns of the Shia factions and their regional allies – was clearly apparent in Hariri s clarification, made on the day after the elections, that Lebanon would be the last Arab state to make peace with Israel.
Moreover, the hand extended by the March 14 forces to the opposition cannot in itself ensure smooth or speedy negotiations over the composition of a unity government. Much depends on coordination between the regional patrons of the rival Lebanese forces, primarily Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia. The March 14 coalition might insist that the Doha agreement is not valid for the future government, which could stalemate the negotiations and trigger domestic disorder. However, as the country is still haunted by fresh memories of civil war and the destruction it experienced just three years ago at Israel s hands, it would not be surprising if all the major factions will behave calculably and reasonably.
This assessment is supported by the fact that the election campaign went smoothly and the voting lasted for one day only – a first in this country s history. Indeed, despite sporadic incidents of violation of the election law, Lebanon has scored an impressive achievement in practicing the democratic process.
It should be remembered, however, that democracy is not just formal elections. Indeed, despite Hezbollah s frustrated expectations, its leader Hassan Nasrallah “graciously acknowledged the results of the elections. It is within this context that the leading figures of both the majority and minority groups could be expected-despite the broadly expressed need for political reforms – to prioritize safeguarding the confessional system of power-sharing which is based on religious identity (roughly dividing power equally between Christians and Muslims and among sub-groups within these main denominations). It is also likely that they will continue to keep the state’s institutions weak, a sine-qua-non for maintaining established factional and local interests and power, which have been key elements is the politics of modern Lebanon.
In a country practically dominated by a factional militia with a strong allegiance to Iran and Syria, and based on a fragile power-sharing system, Lebanon remains as volatile as ever, weak and vulnerable to external interference and regional fluctuations.
Avraham Selais Professor of Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem with a special emphasis on inter-Arab and Arab-Israeli relations in regional and historical perspectives, and in contemporary Palestinian politics and society. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).