�They Were Broken . . . Lebanon Wins,� was the headline of
Saudi Arabia�s influential newspaper, Asharq
Alawsat, a day after the June 7 parliamentary elections in Lebanon.
Of course, for a neutral observer, the headline gives the
impression that either the newspaper is part of a conflict or the enemies of
Lebanon were defeated. Actually, the newspaper refers to the elections results
where Lebanese patriotic forces, the March 8 Coalition (Christian Free
Patriotic Movement, Amal Party, Communist Party, Democratic Party, Hezbollah,
etc.), unexpectedly lost to the March 14 Coalition led by the Saudi-Lebanese
millionaire Saad Hariri.
The March 14 Coalition includes diverse groups who commonly
share anti-Syria and pro-Arab dictator sentiments and who are unapologetic in
their support for Washington pro-Israeli policies. This reason may explain the
enthusiastic reaction in Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the U.S. to the
results of the Lebanese elections. Since 2005, the year the March 14 Coalition
was established, it has been heavily financed by Saudi Arabia and during the
Bush administration it was carefully cultivated by Dick Cheney.
Though Lebanon is a small country, the election was critical
for giving competing regional and global powers jockeying for influence in the
Middle East a place to project their power and shape their relationship with
Israel. Saudi Arabia and Egypt, in particular, have sought to demonstrate to
Washington that they are its trusted allies in protecting Israeli interests and
in limiting Iranian influence in the region.
The democratic exercise and the rights of people to choose
their representatives are a healthy trend in a region which has experienced
turmoil and catastrophic wars and invasions. But the recent elections in
Lebanon have been anything but a free exercise of political rights. Newsweek (June 9, 2009), quoting a Saudi
Arabia official, reported that the Kingdom spent more in Lebanon, a nation of 4
million, than the record-breaking $715 million Barack Obama�s campaign spent in
the United States, in order to defeat the March 8 Coalition.
The Arab authoritarian regimes and Washington made
concentrated efforts to ensure the wining of Saad Hariri and his coalition. In
the process, as Newsweek reported,
�Beirut had become a kind of electoral e-Bay for vote buyers.� Arab
authoritarian regimes fear that any genuine democratic transformation in the
region is a threat to their existence. The experimentation of Iran with general
and direct elections after the 1979 revolution has profoundly shaken the power
foundations of Arab regimes. Thus, these regimes, determined to derail any open
elections in the region, rely heavily on the U.S. for their security and have
concluded that a strong Israel ultimately prolongs their existence.
The powerful Arab regimes, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have long
realized that a victory in Lebanon for the opposition group, March 8, would
weaken them and Israel and strengthen the Arab patriotic and progressive forces
while easing Iranian influence in the region. Both countries therefore, have
utilized their resources to derail elections and defeat any popular Arab
The New York Times
(April 23, 2009) quoted a Saudi government adviser stating, �We are putting a
lot into this. . . . We�re supporting candidates running against Hezbollah, and
we�re going to make Iran feel the pressure.� The Jewish Telegraph Agency (April 13) reported that Egypt warned
President Obama that in his quest to have a dialogue with Iran he must remember
that the latter continues to threaten regional stability and �pro-American
Israeli newspaper Haaretz
(June 7) indicated that Egypt and Saudi Arabia share Israel�s concerns
about the Lebanon�s elections and have taken pains to help Hariri�s group. In
particular, the following were undertaken:
Saudi Arabia set aside hundreds of millions of
dollars to finance the campaign to fly home thousands of expatriate Lebanese
from around the world just to vote especially for those districts which are
highly contested like Sayda, Zahla, and Beirut.
Saudi Arabia used its powerful media machines to
stir sectarian sentiments. Its various satellite TVs, newspapers, and Saudi
financed TV stations in Beirut depicted the victory of the opposition as a
victory for Iran.
Major European intelligences, in cooperating
with Arab authoritarian regimes, leaked just before the election to the German
magazine, Der Spiegel, information
claiming that the main opposition group, Hezbollah, was involved in the
assassination of former Prime Minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri.
Vice President Biden and Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton flew separately, just before the election, to Lebanon and
warned that Washington would not cooperate with Lebanon if the opposition won.
Biden clearly stated that Washington �will evaluate the shape of our assistance
programs based on the composition of the new government.�
The Saudi backed March 14 Coalition used
sectarian language aggressively and utilized propaganda to deepen fears. In
fact, it circulated information in some parts of Lebanon stating that if
Hezbollah won, its supporters would slaughter people in various villages and cities.
The Lebanese newspaper, al-akhbor
(June 6) reported that the Saudi backed groups committed more than 3000
Egypt used its intelligence and media capability
to blacken the reputation of the opposition group in Lebanon. President Mubarak
of Egypt accused Hezbollah of spying in Egypt and supporting Palestinian
radical groups. This was run constantly on TV and in newspapers for about two
The neoconservative backed Cardinal Nasralla
Sfeir, the head of the Maronite Catholic Church, just one day before the
election, declared that Arab identity and Lebanon entity was threatened; a
veiled reference to the possibility of the opposition winning the election.
Over the years, Cardinal Sfeir has cultivated friendly relationships with former
Vice President Dick Cheney and was instrumental during the Lebanese civil war
in supporting the radical Christian Phalangist Party.
The March 14 Coalition relied heavily on the
capability of the Muslim extremist groups to ensure victory in the North and
part of Beirut.
It was hoped that the election in Lebanon would be an
inauguration of a new tradition of democratic process where reason and civility
take root. Unfortunately, the election was mired in deception, vote-buying,
poisonous rhetoric, and foreign interference. This makes the prospect for a
democratic transformation in the region a remote possibility.
Regrettably, certain forces in Washington appear to prefer
the old Arab authoritarian order to democratic order and respect for the wishes
of the people. It is these same forces which will make positive and tangible
changes in the Arab political landscape an impossible task. These forces ally
U.S. interests with corrupt local politicians and the continuity of Arab
In particular, the elections in Lebanon demonstrate that
Washington is primarily interested in the impression of democracy but not in
the people�s right to exercise their political will free of fear and without
foreign intervention. This constitutes a setback for those in the Arab world
who seek a better future for their children; a future where human dignity and
economic and political justice are guaranteed.
Abbas J. Ali is professor and director of the
School of International Management, Indiana University of Pennsylvania.