Elections & Voting
Lebanon elections: A defeat of democratic order
By Abbas J. Ali
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Jun 23, 2009, 00:20

�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 sentiments.

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 governments.�

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:

1.    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.

2.    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.

3.    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.

4.    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.�

5.    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 election violations.

6.    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 months.

7.    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.

8.    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 dictators.

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.

Copyright © 1998-2007 Online Journal
Email Online Journal Editor